Into The Matrix

Into the matrix
Hypnotic lights in the old Mazu temple on Qijin Island.

I’d love to see a beginner’s guide to temple culture in Taiwan, something that explains the significance the objects you’re likely to see when you step across the threshold and explore any of the thousands of temples scattered all across the land. Exploring temples is one of the best things you can do in Taiwan—and local people are generally very friendly and welcoming to outsiders. That being said, if you’re limited in your ability to speak one of the local languages—and especially if you are an outsider to East Asian cultural traditions—much of what you find inside Taiwanese temples is likely to leave you completely mystified.

Since I am intensely curious by nature and enjoy a good puzzle I did my very best to learn as much as I could about temple culture during my Taiwanese sojourn. I had a little bit of help along the way, particularly when wandering through temples with Taiwanese friends and acquaintances, but I found most Taiwanese people reluctant to explain the basics, probably because temple culture is so normal and maybe even boring to them. For a lot of stuff I was left to my own devices, to keenly observe and make inferences that occasionally led to hard-won insights. I have a scientific background so I am comfortable with competing hypotheses—and for many things I saw that’s all I had.

This particular photograph was captured on the second day of the year inside Qijin Tianhou Temple 旗津天后宮 (more info in Chinese), one of the oldest temples on the island of Taiwan. These lights can be found in temples all around the island in various forms: as a wall, a straight column, or tapered like a Dalek. Their purpose remained inscrutable to me up until I drafted up this post and started to ask around. For the longest time my working hypothesis was that these lights venerated ancestors, a common practice in Chinese folk religion, but this turns out to be dead wrong.

These objects, which are called guāngmíngdēng 光明燈 (literally “beacons of lights”), represent a modern spin on an old tradition: making an annual donation to a temple to have the monks or nuns light a candle or oil lamp for safety and good fortune throughout the year. These electrified pillars are obviously much more convenient and cost-effective for everyone involved—and I suppose it matters not what kind of light it is as long as it shines.