On Taiwan’s Mount Zion, Memories of KMT Oppression Are Essential To Religious Mythology

On Taiwan’s Mount Zion, Memories of KMT Oppression Are Essential To Religious Mythology
Photo Credit: Courtesy of New Testament Church. 

What you need to know

Mount Zion, a Protestant pilgrimage site and religious community of around 300 deep in the mountains of southern Taiwan, has an origin story deeply entangled with history and politics.

When the residents of Mount Zion welcome visitors, they first show an introductory video recounting the history of the New Testament Church (NTC), a Protestant new religious movement with churches across the globe.

After a some bucolic scenes of happy people working on Mount Zion’s farm and in fields at other “offshoots of Zion,” the NTC kibbutz-like communities across the world, the video quickly shifts to scenes of violence: 1980s footage of the group’s prophet, Elijah Hong, raising a staff and leading his adherents toward the mountain, only to be beaten and bloodied by Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers blocking their way. 

Here on Mount Zion, a Protestant pilgrimage site and religious community of around 300 deep in the mountains of southern Taiwan and thousands of miles away from Israel, is the place where adherents believe Jesus will descend after the Great Tribulation, a series of disasters that signifies the end of times. Israel’s Jerusalem has been forsaken; here, they say, is the new Jerusalem in the isle of the East, a new Eden on earth, which will ascend to heaven during the Rapture.

Florence_Hsu_telling_the_story_of_NTC_at
Photo Credit: Jordyn Haime
Florence Hsu recounting the history of the NTC.

But just as important as the coming tribulation is the NTC’s past oppression, which is likened by members to Biblical tales of Jacob, the prophet Elijah, and the Israelites who wandered for thousands of years before returning to their homeland. 

Reminders of the KMT’s attacks on NTC believers are all over Mount Zion: a sign declaring “truth triumphs over despotism” sits before a sculpture made from the recycled shrapnel of an excavator, used by the KMT to search for weapons they believed were buried under the earth. Large posters and signboards attesting to the “evil KMT regime” are everywhere. On the path toward the temple at the mountain’s peak, former NTC buses are on display, frozen in time, their cracked windows and flattened tires “proof of KMT tyranny against the people of Mount Zion,” Florence Hsu, my guide, tells me.

“The struggle with the KMT is a symbol of persecution in a similar way to how the Jews have been persecuted. They position themselves as the inheritor of Mount Zion,” says Paul Farrelly, who researches new religious movements in China and Taiwan and has written about the NTC. “It’s a way that they can put the NTC on this sort of continuum of going back to Old Testament times, that they are the legitimate inheritor of that spiritual mantle.”

Hsu, who is from Malaysia but has lived in Taiwan for 40 years, became involved with the New Testament Church in Malaysia when she was 13. The movement was founded by former Hong Kong actress turned religious leader Kong Duen-Yee in 1963, opening branches in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore before expanding to Taiwan.

IMG_8901
Photo Credit: Jordyn Haime
A damaged NTC bus on display as what Florence Hsu calls “proof of KMT tyranny against the people of Mount Zion.”

In the same year, Elijah Hong, who had just left the Christian Assembly denomination in Taiwan, was led to Mount Zion by foot. “[God] wanted me to have the faith of Abraham to walk on a completely new way, to lead a pastoral life like Isaac,” Hong recounts in a 1983 book, “A Man and a Mountain Chosen of God.” At the time, Hong was not yet a member of the New Testament Church. Hong met Kong, who had been suffering from tongue cancer, in 1965, and gained leadership of the Taiwan branch of the NTC. But thereupon Hong became involved in a decade-long power struggle to convince the branches around the world that he was the legitimate heir to Kong’s post. After consolidating his leadership role, he relocated the New Testament Church’s base to Mount Zion, where members cultivated the land, built their own facilities, and even constructed a cable car to improve access to the site.

Hsu and Aaron Kuo, who came to Mount Zion in 1998, offered to drive me from Kaohsiung city to Mount Zion, a trip that takes more than two hours by car. On the way, we passed through the village of Hsiaolin, where more than 460 people were killed by the Typhoon Morakot in 2008, including several NTC members. Hsiaolin’s riverbank also holds an important place in Mount Zion’s history.

In 1980, residents were unexpectedly evicted when KMT police challenged the NTC’s lease on the land. Not too long before, pro-democracy protests had erupted and eight activists were arrested in the Kaohsiung Incident, making the KMT suspicious of the pastoral community in the mountains two hours away. “They thought we were communists,” Hsu explains. 

Members also say then-President Chiang Ching-Kuo wanted to claim the mountain as his burial place, with its particularly good feng shui. Facing a police checkpoint at the mountain’s base, NTC members set up camp on Xiaolin’s riverbed. Hong’s book, published in 1983 while adherents were still in exile, details the conditions there.

“The sandbar is unfit for habitation, even animals will not live here. In the day there is the scorching heat of the sun, and by night the cold winds rave about the place...nevertheless, for the sake of returning home (Zion), the companions of the Lamb utterly despise these adverse environments,” he wrote.

It was after the community’s first full year of living in Hsiaolin that Hsu and her husband, who she had met in the church, decided to live with Hong’s group and fight for their return to Mount Zion.

“The police officer told us to go to the riverbed and wait for the final decision. But actually, we already had the final from the court, and it was in our favor,” Hsu recalls.

They remained at the Hsiaolin riverbed for six years, with fighting occasionally breaking out between NTC members and KMT officers. Some were arrested, including Hsu’s husband, who was detained for three days. Meanwhile, members staged protests across Taiwan, and even in Washington, D.C. NTC churches in other countries wrote editorials to draw international attention to the situation and once took out a full page ad in the New York Times

“We had banners that said, ‘Chiang Ching-kuo is a tyrant. KMT is a tyrant, tyranny will fall.’ The reporters didn’t even dare to look at us because of the White Terror,” Hsu says of a protest the church staged outside the President's office in Taipei. Members say the government eventually caved due to international attention, while researcher Murray A. Rubenstein credits the NTC’s return to Zion to “only the voice of an unbiased and recognized expert,” the Taiwanese academic Chu Haiyuan, who stepped in to negotiate between the church and the government. When church members returned in 1986, just a year before martial law was lifted in Taiwan, they found that books and buildings were destroyed and farmland had been pillaged.

In a pamphlet, NTC members say they were surveilled and harassed by the KMT for “three generations,” as early as the church’s founding in 1963, which they liken to Herod’s persecution of Jesus and his church.

_DSC0558
Photo Credit: Jordyn Haime

Today, 300 adherents live on Mount Zion, from toddlers at the youngest to people aged 100 at the oldest including Hong, who is now 95. Some were born here and have remained their entire lives. The community is almost entirely self-sustaining: they built everything from the temple at the mountain’s peak to the road that leads to it. In line with Hong’s order to “live a pastoral life like Isaac,” a large organic farm with ostriches, goats and chickens, as well as guava and passionfruit trees and countless other crops, serves as its primary food source. Offshoots of Zion around the world share resources with one another: soy and wheat from South Africa’s Mount Hermon, award-winning olive oil from California’s Mount Olive, tea tree products from Mount Ararat in Australia. These products also serve as the communities’ primary source of income. 

“The NTC is a top shelf example of the creativity that Taiwanese people demonstrate toward new modes of spirituality and religion, and the way they combine religious influences across the world with local religious practices or Chinese thought to develop new hybrid practices, which they then in turn export around the world,” Farrelly says.

One of the last stops on our tour was the location of a former church that had been destroyed by the KMT. NTC members rebuilt it and turned it into a history museum. “This is like our Holocaust museum,” Hsu tells me. Inside, she directs my attention to a large replica of the camp set up on the Xiaolin riverbed and recounts the story of the NTC’s descent from Mount Zion and struggle with police with the passion and fervor of a missionary. 

She assures me, though, that the NTC is not political.

“We are not involved in the political system of the human kingdom, because they choose to go against God,” she says. “Whichever king that goes against God's will, that oppresses people, He will not spare them. But is God political? He is not political.”


READ NEXT: The Origins of Taiwan’s Jewish Community

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.