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Religion cuts into Taiwan presidential campaign

by Benjamin Yeh*

In the heat of Taiwan's race for the presidency, the ruling party's candidate Frank Hsieh is calling on Taoist gods to deliver him an upset victory tomorrow.
In a nation with more than 8,600 Taoist temples for 4.5 million believers, according to official data, the religion's influence is important even if it trails slightly behind Buddhism.
Accordingly, Hsieh and his opposition Kuomintang (KMT) rival, Ma Ying-jeou, have visited Taoist and Buddhist temples nearly every day as they criss-cross the country ahead of the vote.
But while the pro-independence government has been trying to downplay the island's Chinese roots in order to stress Taiwan's sovereignty, Hsieh — a Taoist himself — has been quick to capitalise on a religion born in China.
Taoist imagery has also been used at Hsieh rallies.
"We're trying to tell voters that, look, now that all the Taoist gods have stood up to safeguard Taiwan, you should follow suit and must not vote for the KMT candidate," said Tsao Lai-wang, a Hsieh campaign official responsible for religious affairs.
He was referring to safeguarding Taiwan from China, which views the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification. The two sides split in 1949 after a civil war.
Last year the education ministry sparked controversy with plans to revise about 5,000 terms in school textbooks — replacing "Chinese ink painting" with "national painting," for instance — in what critics said was another way of trying to eliminate Chinese influence.
But "while there may be ways to cut off links with China politically, this can hardly be done culturally and religiously," noted Lee Chen-hui, a female Taoist abbot.
Nowhere are those links more evident than at the half-completed temple she runs in the middle of a rice paddy field in the suburbs of Pingchen, northern Taiwan.
Its four huge stone pillars, each weighing five tonnes, were imported from China's Fujian province, where 10 sculptors had worked half a year on each to carve seven Taoist star gods into the stonework.
Almost as impressive are the three life-size wooden images of black-faced Taoist deities, and several mammoth stone slabs featuring stories of how the gods helped the people.
"They are based on a set of paintings of China's early Ming Dynasty which were shown to the public for the first time at an auction in Beijing about 10 years ago," Lee explained.
Lai Yi-chung, a senior official with Hsieh's ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said local language and culture had been discriminated against when the island was governed by the KMT for half a century until 2000.
"We hope that Taiwan's history can be re-examined from a proper — not from a distorted Chinese — angle," he said.