An Inside Look at How Taiwanese Believers Choose Their Religions

An Inside Look at How Taiwanese Believers Choose Their Religions
Credit: Aida Young / CC BY-SA 4.0
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Millions of Taiwanese are drawn to new religions. Why have so many chosen Weixinism?

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By Liu Hsiu-yi

According to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center, Taiwan ranks second-highest in religious diversity in the world. The many religious groups developing and coexisting in Taiwan, provide various teachings and practices that satisfy people with disparate religious needs. Under these circumstances, this article aims to find out the reason for people to choose Weixinism, or Weixin Shengjiao (唯心聖教).

Weixin Shengjiao is a new religious group in Taiwan, established by Grand Master Hun Yuan (who was previously named Teacher Zhang) in 1982 around the time the government was released from martial law. This religious group developed very rapidly. Indeed, they founded more than 70 rites in Taiwan for people to practice worship, learn the doctrines, perform the rituals, and so on.

Hun_Yuan_Book
Credit: Aida Young / CC BY-SA 4.0
Grand Master Hun Yuan signs a book.

The teachings of Weixinism are mainly based on Yi Ching (易經) and Feng Shui (風水), and also integrate the Three Teachings, i.e. Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The religious group so aims to revitalize traditional Chinese culture, just like other religious groups such as Yiguandao (一貫道), Tiandiism (天帝教), and many other Taiwanese folk religious groups.

However, while the teachings of Yi Ching and Feng Shui are indeed features of Weixinism, some people may think this is the only reason for individuals to join this religious group. Thus, this article demonstrates why and how people choose Weixinism from the perspective of its followers.

To believe in a new faith can be an entire commitment.

Since Chinese religion is an ethnic religion, the religion and society are inseparable. Therefore, the most common type of conversion in Taiwan is conversion to, with no lessening of previous modes of religiosity, which is very different from Pauline conversion in a Western social context.

Indeed, the characteristics of Chinese religion are polytheistic and nonexclusive, so to believe in a new faith can be both an entire commitment, as well as a taking on rather than giving up of the previous faith.

In addition, the action of believing in something could be a single act as well as a lifelong process of reformation.

Why do followers choose Weixinism?

Through in-depth interviews with 20 believers (varying from ‘ordinary believers’ to clergy), this article investigated their motivations for initially joining Weixinism. The results show the characteristics of its followers, and demonstrate the features of Taiwanese faith culture.

The definition of joining Weixinism in this article refers to those followers who, from knowing and meeting this religious group, began to learn the courses offered. This is due to all interviewees identifying themselves as a member of this religious group after they started to learn the doctrines in the course. Since there are several reasons for people to decide to join a group, I divided them into four types of major motivations including: problem-solving, learning doctrines, social networking, and personal religious experiences.

Hsien_Fo_Temple,_Taiwan
Credit: Aida Young / CC BY-SA 4.0
Hsien Fo Temple in Nantou County, originally designed by Hun Yuan.

The type of followers that were motivated by problem-solving usually have two different kinds of problems. One refers to a problem that has a negative impact on their life, in which they have tried many different ways to solve the problem, with none effectively working. Thus, they come to find an effective way of problem solving in Weixinism. The second kind of problem refers to people facing the uncertainty of future, where they seek advice to make a better decision. The decision usually would have a big impact on their future life, so they want to make a right choice.

The second kind of motivation refers to learning doctrines. Followers believe that there are similarities between Weixinism’s concepts with their original faith, so they wish to learn the doctrines from Weixinism to make progress in their overall religious faith.

The major reason for certain followers to finally join this religion is due to being convinced by the charismatic leader Grand Master Hun Yuan as possessing spiritual power.

The third type of followers’ motivation for joining is based on social network, through previous ties, from professional or family relations, that may introduce the faith to them. Indeed, around these individuals there may be an affectional bond formed with some of its followers, or there may already exist a connection with believers of Weixinism. This type of follower is willing to try something new, something which is introduced by the people who they trust. This individual may also see joining as an opportunity to make new friends, and further build up their social network.

The last type of followers’ major motivation is personal religious experience, in which they may have been through a religious experience with deities or the charismatic leader, Grand Master Hun Yuan. Thus, they believed the fatal arrangement of the deities, and that to follow the deities’ will is better for their lives.

Therefore, the major reason for certain followers to finally join this religion is due to being convinced by the charismatic leader Grand Master Hun Yuan as possessing spiritual power, who, in certain cases, is perceived as being able to exert healing powers on followers. Thus, some followers may wish to stay in this group and work for the leader, in order to repay Grand Master Hun Yuan.

United_Ancestor_Worship_Cerimony_Taipei_
Credit: Aida Young / CC BY-SA 4.0
The 2017 Weixin Shengjiao United Ancestor Worship Ceremony in Taipei.

To sum up, there are multiple motivations for an individual to convert to Weixinism, which I divided into four types by their major motivation, including problem-solving, learning doctrines, social networking, and personal religious experience. Therefore, the followers of Weixinism are motivated to join this religious group not only because of Yi Ching and Feng Shui, but because of sutra chanting, social networking, personal spiritual experience and so on.

In addition, I found that in the discourse of Weixinism’s followers’ conversion, they also mention some opportunities provided by Weixinism, such as: having access to many new courses, whether the classroom is close to their home, and whether or not the registration fee is expensive.

Therefore, without these practical reasons the conversion may not be as successful. In conclusion, this article demonstrates the nuance and complexity around the motivations for joining Weixinism, and that this motivation is more complicated than just a simple belief in Yi Ching and Feng Shui.

Liu Hsiu-yi (Zoe) was a graduate student of religious studies at National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan from 2015-2018. She is interested in the sociology of religion and new religions in Taiwan. Her thesis concerns “The Development of Indigenous New Religious Organizations in the Plural Religious Market – A study of Weixinism.” She has attended and presented her research in several international conferences organized by CESNUR. Contact: zoe.liuhy@gmail.com

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The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Program.

TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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