If someone tells you there’s a temple on every street corner in Taiwan, they’re not far wrong. The country has over 12,000 registered temples, more than the number of convenience stores, and one of the highest house of worship per capita ratios in the world. Of these, nearly 80 percent are Taoist and 20 percent Buddhist. Temples dedicated to Confucius, lesser-known deities, and nature worship (like Tainan’s precious Wind God Temple) make up a fraction. Whatever the faith, Taiwan’s temples are a delight to look at, and offer opportunities to learn about rituals and temple art as well as a culture’s desires and taboos.
Taiwan’s earliest temples were built by settlers from China (mostly southern Fujian) in the 7th and 8th century. These were usually branch temples or shrines to gods the immigrants had worshiped back home. In the subsequent centuries, the simple structures were replaced by sturdier and fancier buildings. Building materials and decorative talent were often imported from southern China. It was during Japanese colonization (1895 to 1945) that Taiwanese craftspeople came into their own. Some of the sublime examples of temple art you see today were created by them. Also during this time, temples in a fusion style appeared. Changhua’s Nanyao Temple sees Doric columns, Chinese eaves, and Japanese shrines coexisting in harmony.
Despite their Chinese roots, the deities and temples assumed Taiwanese traits over the centuries. The worship of Mazu was limited to the fishing communities in the early days; now the goddess is Taiwan’s patron deity, worshiped at hundreds of temples and yearly at the Mazu pilgrimage. Early settlers prayed (and today’s residents still pray) to the god of medicine for protection against illness. Now despite excellent hygiene conditions and medical facilities, plague-god (Wangye) worship is still prevalent. In fact, the Burning of the Wangye Boats is one of the country’s most spectacular festivals.