Ringing in the Year of the Sheep

Taiwan | The traditional Chinese New Year celebrations focus heavily on Buddhism, superstition, and ancestral worship
by Angela Lu Fulton
Posted 2/19/15, 02:00 pm

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan—The whizz and pop of fireworks, booming drums, and a reverberating gong from a Taoist temple on Taiwan’s Qishan Mountain, awakened the nearby neighborhood at 6 a.m., announcing the arrival of the Year of the Sheep. After a few minutes, the morning was quiet again, until a lone rooster crowed hesitantly, unsure if his job was still necessary.

For many in Asia, Chinese New Year—also known as Spring Festival—is the biggest holiday of the year. Students get the month off, companies shut down for a week or two, and the typically crowded metropolises transform into desolate ghost towns as workers return home to spend time with family. 

In China, hundreds of millions of people cram on to trains, planes, and freeways to travel back to their hometowns. Passengers need to buy tickets months in advance to secure seats, and prices skyrocket around the popular dates. An incredible heat map created by tracking cell phones show the spiderweb-like movement of Chinese residents in the days preceding Chinese New Year. They all want to make it home in time to eat steaming hot pot and sticky nianguo (glutinous rice cake). 

A smaller scale migration took place in Taiwan’s capital. The high-speed railway station, local airports, and buses thronged with residents and their luggage, all headed for a week-long trip home. On Monday, I joined the crowd, taking my seat on a full bullet train traveling 180 mph toward my grandparent’s home in the southern city of Kaohsiung. Three days before New Year’s Day, cars and scooters already filled the streets, crawling past department stores decked-out in red and gold lanterns and blaring traditional New Year music (think lots and lots of bashing gongs). 

But most of the shopping happens at street markets dedicated to the holiday. In Kaohsiung, it’s a covered alleyway leading diagonally off the main road, with shoppers shuffling shoulder-to-shoulder past stands selling rows upon rows of gleaming hard candy, almond jello stuffed with green beans, and fruit-flavored dried pork. Hawkers press samples of seaweed and fruit into unwilling palms, and a jab in my back came from a pushy old woman wanting to make her way out.

As much as I enjoyed the holiday excitement in the air, the time spent with family, the red envelopes filled with money from relatives, and the food—fried fish, turnip cakes dipped in soy sauce paste, beef and white gourd soup, just to name a few—nearly every tradition reaches back to superstition, Buddhism, or ancestral worship. Food is first sacrificed to the ancestors’ spirits, firecrackers are lit to scare off evil spirits, and millions make the trek to the lit-up temples to have their fortunes told and burn incense for a prosperous year. Typical dishes eaten on the night before Chinese New Year represent what people want for their year: The Chinese word for fish sounds like the word for “surplus,” dumplings look like silver ingots (a type of money), and my grandmother held out a piece of spinach—including its dirty, dangling root—telling me to eat it all in one bite in order to live a long life.

Christians hold differing views on how much of the holiday to partake in. Some stay clear away from any temple-related activities, while others take a more nuanced approach, pointing to Paul’s allowance for eating food sacrificed to idols. The debate about how to deal with such Chinese traditions reaches back to 17th and 18th century Roman Catholic missionaries to China. The Jesuits argued rites honoring ancestors were not religious and therefore acceptable, while Dominicans and Franciscans disagreed. Protestant missionaries in China decided in a 1907 meeting that “while the worship of ancestors is incompatible with … the Christian faith, and so cannot be tolerated as a practice in the Christian Church, yet we should be careful to encourage in our Christian converts the feeling of reverence for the memory of the departed which this custom seeks to express.”

To this day, deep-rooted beliefs in ancestral worship and Buddhism still keep people in Taiwan from the gospel. But Christianity has spread on the island—at times even through the temples themselves. In the ’60s, as television was introduced in Taiwan, people would crowd around the TV at temples after their nightly worship. On Friday nights, the one religious show on the sole broadcasting network aired. Heavenly Melody, a gospel show started by missionary Doris Brougham, included children’s orchestras, church choirs, and a sermon by a local pastor. Brougham, who at 88 is well-known across the island for her English-teaching program Studio Classroom, laughs at the incredible opportunities God presented her then, and now. 

“How often can you preach in a Buddhist temple?” she asked. “It’s just crazy that God had a plan for that to happen.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.

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