Written by Dr Gareth Breen
Image credit: Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas
I spent 2015 and 2016 living in Taipei and researching Christianity there for my PhD in anthropology. I’d swim at the university pool on Shida road on humid afternoons. An hour of refreshing freedom from the hassles and anxieties of urban fieldwork. The tiles beneath the cool water were yellow, making it feel more womb-like than the blue pool floors I am used to. After it rains, other swimmers and I dodge droplets, which sparkle in the sunlight shining through huge murky windows. They fall with a thousand ‘plips’ into the water below: a magical atmosphere as one backstroke through lanes rippling with the motions of others. As I watched my reflection towelling himself down in the mirrored changing room wall one day, a sixty-two-year-old man with thinning wet hair introduced himself, in English, as “Victory”. He asked if I believed in Jesus. When I replied in Chinese that I didn’t but was very interested in Christianity in Taiwan, he excitedly invited me- given that it was Christmas time- to a carol-singing service at his church that Saturday evening. After the church of Presbyterianism (zhanglaohui) and the Local Churches (difang jiaohui), Victory’s church, Ling Liang Tang (or “Bread of Life Church” in English), is the largest in Taiwan. Ling Liang Tang is an “independent Chinese church” (Rubinstein 1991) but one that engages in many recognisably Charismatic-evangelical practices.
That Saturday, I found Victory waiting outside his church for me. He was snappily dressed in a jacket, trainers, jeans, and an open-necked shirt. His white-grey hair was smooth against his almost-bald head. His face is friendly and chiselled, wearing a slight smirk. Ling Liang Tang has an impressive facade; it looks like a Ritz-Carlton hotel and overlooks Taipei’s, Central Park. Inside, the stage seems bigger than the seating area surrounding it. The ceiling is high, there are colourful posters and images dotted around, and the congregation is dressed smart-casual as if going to the theatre. The pastor leading the service is female, which is not uncommon in Taiwanese evangelical churches in my experience. Stagecraft is explicitly embraced in the synchronised outfits of the coir and in the decorations, which frame the performance.
Victory and I struck up a friendship, meeting several times. Then, in an intimate interview after one service, Victory demonstrated for me again the tangible atmosphere of God, which had filled him with such passion that morning. He conjured it up by singing “hallelujah” over and over, and speaking in tongues, right there and then across the lunch table we sat at outside the church. This branch was Ling Liang Tang’s original and largest building; sitting atop a steep suburban hill, it looked more like a social housing project than a hotel. During the service, I watched Victory dancing to his own rhythm in the aisles. He sang without words mostly as, his eyes being closed, he didn’t see them projected onto the screen. Instead, he was euphorically encompassed in wordless holy communion.
Outside, our dumpling soup and black bean pudding bowls cleared away; he showed me the mechanics of this atmospheric conjuration in miniature. God, as atmosphere, is a self-enclosing envelope which Victory points to: “see?” he asks. I nod, almost feeling it but too self-conscious to climb into what he is showing me. Still, it is obvious that Victory is moved by something effectively tangible, which I don’t have the tools to tune into. If this is the archetypal religious experience for Victory, the conversation that followed it demonstrated the efficacy of this atmospheric God in his life. Following on from the theme of the sermon we had just heard, in which the pastor prophesied that God would use the church to make Taiwan great again, Victory told me, switching between English and Mandarin, of his theory of the predestined role of Taiwan in God’s global plan. Displaying a classically “Chinese” attention to homophony (for example, buildings often don’t have a “4th” floor because of “4”‘s phonetic similarity to “death” in Mandarin), he said we should think of Taiwan as “Tie-won”. “We are wonners,” he said, “because being tied to God, we have already won the victory over this world.” “In fact,” he continued, “everything in this world is already ours because our God created it.” The victory was very keen for me to write a book about him and his theory so that all the world could know of it.
I’m still working on the book, but I offer a few reflections here, at least on Victory’s theory and what it might tell us about potential relations between nationalism and Christianity in Taiwan. Both religionists and secularists in Taiwan tend to see nationalism and religion as, if not incompatible, occupying different spheres of society. Taiwan’s 1947 constitution promises freedom of religion (even if the KMT has historically given much more freedom to Christianity than other religions). But like other secular constitutions, this means that the actual governance and representation of the nation should be religion-free. In contrast, Victory understood and felt the Christian God to be the foundation and medium of Taiwan’s global significance. It is precisely how nationalist and Christian passions and ideas become associated with one another that Victory’s theory points us towards.
My primary research in Taipei was not with Ling Liang Tang but with the followers of the late Chinese preacher Watchman Nee, known collectively as the Local Church. An anecdote from that research illustrates the intertwinements of Christianity and subtle forms of nationalism in Taiwan.
Brother Chu’s parents were from Guangdong. They were part of Chiang Kai-shek’s fleeing entourage in the late 1940s. He is a high-ranking army officer. His entire career has been focused on preparing for a mainland attack, strongly related to Taiwan’s majoritarian dream of being recognised as a national entity in its own right. So, he is rather incensed when, as we walk along a pebbly beach during a break in our trip around Taiwan with a couple from China and a couple from North America, he picks up a large flat stone to show one brother Huang and his wife, sister Yan, from Fuzhou. “What is it?” brother Chu asks. “I don’t know, a stone?” replies brother Huang, looking at his wife in perplexity. “Look! At the shape”, brother Wang says, getting exasperated, “what does it remind you of?”. “Err, I can’t think…” “a leaf?” sister Yan offers hopefully. We have stopped walking now, and brother Chu looks around for support. A group of young girls sits by a basketball court, watching their male friends play. “Meimei!” (an affectionate term meaning younger sister or relative) brother Chu calls to one of them, limping over with his bad leg, with determination. She walks towards him, and he offers her the stone, “what does the shape of this stone remind you of?” he asks. She cocks her head and swiftly replies, “Taiwan!.” Brother Chu throws up his hands in combined relief and annoyance.
In the controlled confines of the Local Church, Brother Huang notwithstanding, Taiwan enjoys greater recognition than it generally does on the international stage outside them. For example, thirty thousand ‘brothers and sisters’ gathered for the church’s ‘Chinese-speaking international conference’ at the Taipei arena in 2015 and again in 2018. For church members, this places Taipei, and not Beijing, at the heart of the Chinese-speaking world that really matters. In the church’s exhibition centre, on Xinyi Road, Taipei, all the key localities of the church are labelled on a huge world map. All have church “training centres”. Anaheim, California; Malabon, Philippines; Moscow, Russia; Hamilton, New Zealand; Jakarta, Indonesia; Seoul, Korea; London, England; Bangkok, Thailand; Subang Jaya, Malaysia; Mexico City, Mexico; Hong Kong; Tokyo, Japan. ‘Taipei, Taiwan’ is labelled “a nursery for the spread of the Lord’s Recovery”. In the ecclesial world, Taiwan is the origin-place of everywhere. Through the church, Taiwanese members, in a sublimated way, re-centre their nation on a world stage.
Nonetheless, in joining the ecclesial world, Taiwan is still not recognised by church members from outside it with the same feeling as it is by fellow Taiwanese. In this sense, the original geopolitical alienation many Taiwanese feel prior to joining the church is alleviated through participation in the ‘church life’ (zhaohui shenghuo) and exacerbated through entering a world that does not recognise Taiwan apart from its being in the church. A geopolitical desire for reconnection with the world becomes a concern for the Christian oneness of a (church-based) world, which in many ways further detaches one from the geopolitical world one originally sought to reconnect with. Christian nationalism in Taiwan is a way of simultaneously claiming spiritual and geopolitical significance for the nation.
Dr Gareth Breen is an anthropologist who studies global religion. For his PhD he conducted research in Taiwan with members of the worldwide following of the Chinese Christian reformers Watchman Nee and Witness Lee.
This article was published as part of a special issue on christianity in Taiwan.