Taiwan: Four Decades of Faith
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“Taiwan: Four Decades of Faith,” Ensign, Sept. 1998, 39

Taiwan:

Four Decades of Faith

The roots of faith are spreading on the beautiful island of Taiwan.

A large, framed picture of the Taipei Taiwan Temple hangs on an alcove wall inside Taiwanese Church member Chang Chih Hsun’s hydraulic-machine business. Symbolizing his new faith, the temple’s spires point heavenward. The picture replaces a shrine where employees once burned incense.

“Most business places in Taiwan have a shrine where employees worship a god of prosperity,” explains Brother Chang. “After I joined the Church, I hung a picture of the temple where the shrine used to be.”

His example is emblematic of the faith and courage Church members in Taiwan demonstrate as they strive to live the gospel. Brother Chang, who serves as stake mission president in the Taichung Taiwan Stake, recently offered a cash bonus to any of his employees who would give up smoking as he did before his baptism in 1995. So far, no one has taken him up on the offer.

“Before my husband joined the Church, he did not know what love was,” says Brother Chang’s wife, Chang Wu Lan Hua, who joined the Church 10 years before her husband. “Now he knows how to love me and the family.” The Changs were sealed in the Taipei Taiwan Temple in 1996.

“Beautiful Island”

Located about 90 miles off the Chinese coast, Taiwan was named Ilha Formosa—meaning “beautiful island”—by Portuguese explorers in 1590. The island continued to be known to the Western world as Formosa until the mid-20th century. People originally from southern China have been living in Taiwan for centuries. Before the Chinese, people of Indonesian and Filipino descent made the island their home; many of their descendants still live in the island’s mountainous parts.

Map of Taiwan

Leadership of the island has changed hands often. Dutch traders dominated Taiwan from 1624 until 1661, when a Chinese dynasty took over. The Japanese controlled Taiwan from 1895 until 1945. In 1949 Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek led nearly two million military, government, and business people to Taiwan after the Communists assumed leadership on the mainland. The situation between mainland China and Taiwan is steadily improving. Mainland China is known as the People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan is known as the Republic of China. Mandarin Chinese is Taiwan’s official language, although a Taiwanese dialect is widely spoken. The Chinese word Taiwan means “terraced bay.”

During the past 50 years, Taiwan has undergone a dramatic transformation from an obscure agricultural outpost to an economic powerhouse where citizens enjoy a standard of living second in Asia perhaps only to the Japanese. Labor-intensive manufacturing continues to play a large role in Taiwan’s economy, but the wealthy nation is increasingly involved in technology development and overseas investments. However, with Taiwan’s average wage lower than that of many Western countries and with average food, housing, and automobile costs higher, many Church members must work unusually hard to support their families. The nation’s standard workweek of five and a half days often stretches into six or even seven full days.

“It is an economic reality that more time and energy goes into the work of Taiwanese people to sustain their families than in many places,” says Elder John H. Groberg of the Seventy, President of the Church’s Asia Area. “Faithful members keep spiritually focused and make the necessary sacrifices to keep a healthy balance between family, church, and work the best they can. Keeping materialism at bay is a challenge all of us meet through the decisions and choices we make.”

In Taitung, a smaller city on Taiwan’s scenic, mountainous eastern coast, work challenges are especially difficult. Local member Chen Shun Chun reports that many people must work on Sundays to keep their jobs. “Whenever new work comes into the area that allows people to work only five or six days a week, baptisms increase and more less-active members come to church,” he says.

Hsiung Kuan Ping, bishop of the Taipei Third Ward, remembers his father’s example of dedicating time and energy to the Church. “My father served as a bishop for many years,” Bishop Hsiung says. “The church was like our home. My father loved it. Every day he made sure the doors and windows were closed. I helped clean the meetinghouse and at age 14 began assisting the clerk. Now I’m very busy with work and family, but because of my father’s influence I make time for Church service. If I put the Church first, I find I have easier success in my work and family.” Bishop Hsiung sells cosmetics for a living.

“Other than family time on Monday night and some Saturdays, I am always either working or at the church,” says Ma Ju Min, bishop of the Taichung First Ward. “Saturday night is to go out on dates with my wife—that’s very important. Whenever I make a decision about choosing work, I ask for Heavenly Father’s help. I have been blessed with good jobs that allow me to support my family and serve in the Church. For me to be able to do all these things is a real blessing because my body isn’t all that healthy.” He works for the Taiwanese air force.

Just weeks after his baptism at age 15, Chen Hsin Shun helped members from all over the island find overnight accommodations during Taiwan’s first regional conference, when President Spencer W. Kimball addressed more than 2,500 listeners in Taipei on 14 August 1975. Brother Chen learned early to exercise his faith about economic challenges and make sacrifices for the Church. While he was preparing for his mission, his family’s business failed and he was asked to help support the family. He told his father, “Trust my God for three months, and see if he doesn’t bless the family while I’m on a mission.” His father agreed to the experiment, and Brother Chen prayed hard for blessings. About a month and a half into his mission, he received a letter from his father saying he wouldn’t need to come back early because the family’s business had signed a lucrative 10-year contract. Today Brother Chen serves as a high councilor in the Kaohsiung stake.

Because of the high potential for burnout from too much job-related work and Church service, leaders in Taiwan try to be sensitive when extending Church callings. “In the bishopric we really think carefully before giving members callings,” says Yang Shi Ling, second counselor in the Kaohsiung Fifth Ward. “We talk to them and make sure they feel comfortable. We really keep our eyes on them to make sure they don’t get too tired. If they get frustrated, we try to help them with their problems. Even when we feel right about a member, we still think about a lot of things and make sure they can do it.”

Pressure on Youth

For youth, the economic competitiveness of Taiwan begins to affect them at about age 12, when they enter the final three years of the nation’s compulsory national education, the equivalent of junior high or middle school in many Western societies. “Students have to pass a very tough exam to go to high school,” explains Elder Liang Shih An, an Area Authority Seventy who works as a professor in Taipei. Juan Jiu Chang, first counselor in the Taichung stake presidency and a self-employed English teacher, estimates that because of the high requirements only 30 to 40 percent of Taiwanese students make it to a college-preparation high school. “Some Church members have a harder time supporting youth programs because they don’t want to see their children fall behind,” he says. The pressure continues through high school because difficult exams must again be passed in order to enter a university.

During the entire year before a high school or university exam, it is not uncommon for a student to spend all day in school and all evening at an independent cram school and then to study at home until midnight. Strolling through downtown Taipei on a Friday night, one notices hundreds of motorized scooters parked in orderly rows not only at nightclubs and movie theaters but also at cram schools. Some schools require studies on Sunday, which is not commonly observed as a day of rest in Taiwan. One newspaper recently reported that “Taiwanese students spend eight times the hours on homework that American students do—and twice as much time as youngsters in Japan.”1

“Good Taiwanese guardians for the most part do not let children make the choice of whether or not to study,” says Elder Groberg. “Church leaders are sensitive to this issue, and consequently at examination time youth activities are definitely curtailed. One stake president recently noticed that a stake conference was scheduled at an annual examination time and suggested to the Area Presidency that an alternative date be considered. As a Church we recognize that the Taiwanese youth need to have all the support they can get to meet the real educational challenges they face.”

For obvious reasons, seminary in Taiwan is still in the home-study phase, with only about a third of eligible youth enrolled. However, institute is much more successful, with more than 90 percent of eligible students enrolled as well as many nonstudent young adults. “Teaching institute is my favorite calling,” says Taipei West stake president Yang Tsung Ting, who was in Taiwan’s first institute graduating class in 1977.

“Most Church families emphasize that the many hours of study need to be tempered with periods of time where other important aspects of life receive emphasis,” says Elder Groberg. “Greater challenges come in the life of the student who is the only Church member in the family. Obedience to parents is very important not only in the Taiwanese culture but also in the Church. A mature effort is required to maintain balance in the lives of these young people. They will survive and will be stronger and happier for their prayerful choices.”

One side effect of Taiwan’s challenging education situation is the loss of Church members through emigration. “Many strong members move to Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, or elsewhere because of Taiwan’s limited educational opportunities,” explains Elder Liang. “These members care about their children, and children face a very big study pressure in Taiwan, so they go elsewhere. Many would otherwise prefer to stay in Taiwan, but circumstances don’t allow it.”

Religious and Family Challenges

As elsewhere in the world, the restored gospel in Taiwan often generates cultural friction with deeply ingrained religious and family traditions. About 93 percent of the citizenry practices some combination of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, with a heavy emphasis on ancestor worship. However, Taiwan has complete religious freedom, and about a million people adhere to various Christian sects and denominations.

Doctrinal issues aside, basic patterns of religious life in Taiwan are often quite foreign to Christian ways—Latter-day Saint ways included. “Typically, Chinese are not very religious in the Western sense of being conscious of membership in a particular church or a specific congregation,” writes Latter-day Saint author R. Lanier Britsch. “Nor are they accustomed to attending weekly worship services. Chinese religion is family-oriented and often home-centered. Local gods and spirits play major roles in most lives, as do fortune-telling, tea leaf reading, and reverence for the spirits of dead ancestors. Respect for dead ancestors and the rituals involved in paying honor to them are important to almost all Chinese.”2

With traditional Chinese religion tied so closely to respect for ancestors, including living parents, younger converts in Taiwan often face immense struggles in embracing the gospel. Compared with Western societies, parental control in Taiwan continues much later in life, gradually loosening but often still quite strong by age 30, especially if a son or daughter isn’t married yet—and Taiwanese people tend to marry later in life than Westerners.

The challenge is illustrated by the experience of Sister Lin Ya Ling, a full-time missionary from Chia-i, presently serving in the Taichung mission. Sister Lin met missionaries at age 20 through an English class, a common missionary tool in Taiwan. She first consciously felt the Spirit when she stayed after class one evening to watch the Church video Together Forever. After she was taught the gospel, she felt relieved when her parents didn’t offer as much resistance to her baptism as she expected. Upon completing her bachelor’s degree, she announced her desires to serve a full-time mission—and that was when her parents strongly objected. Among their concerns was that they had paid a lot of money for her education and that they wanted her to get a job. After a time of fasting, prayer, and faith, Sister Lin submitted her mission papers, and her parents decided to cut off their relationship.

“I love my parents,” says Sister Lin, “so I was very concerned.” One day she realized a powerful lesson while riding her motorcycle. One of her contact lenses started hurting, and she stopped to buy some solution to clean it. But when she put the lens back in, it still hurt. As she went through this seemingly mundane experience, she realized that her parents were also feeling a pain that was beyond their control, a pain that required patience and endurance.

Finally Sister Lin was able to replace her contact lens, and she felt impressed that in time her relationship with her parents would again be comfortable and joyful. On her last visit home before departing on her mission, she prayed hard to avoid contention, and her parents did not argue about the mission. Months later, she learned that her parents had met the local bishop and that missionaries had been in their home for lunch.

“My parents needed time to renew their hearts,” Sister Lin says. “If you obey the commandments and work hard, the Lord will bless you. On my mission I’ve seen a lot of people change, and I’ve felt God’s power and love.”

Because many Taiwanese converts are younger adults, Church leaders are particularly sensitive to parental issues. “We encourage people investigating the Church to talk to their parents and tell them what they are learning about,” says Yeh Chen Meng, president of the Kaohsiung stake. “It’s important that parents see the difference the gospel makes in their children’s lives.”

Karl Robert Koerner, who served a mission to Taiwan more than 30 years ago and recently served as president of the Taichung mission, has given much thought to the practice of ancestor worship. “When Taiwanese people join the Church, they stop worshiping other gods, but there may be some practices that are hard to stop. This is because of family expectations and pressure and a desire on the member’s part to obey another commandment, that of honoring your father and mother,” President Koerner says.

Yang Tsung Ting, president of the Taipei West stake, explains, “Most Taiwanese parents expect that when they die, their children will burn paper money and incense for them and offer food. Otherwise they fear they will be hungry and poor in the next life. That is why older people sometimes panic when they see their young people join the Church.”

For President Koerner, the crucial difference lies in a person’s inner purpose and intent rather than in his or her outward performance. “Showing respect for and honoring our deceased loved ones is in complete harmony with gospel principles, but what to one person is a religious and spiritual ritual to another is simply a way of showing respect to deceased ancestors, no more a religious ritual than the custom of placing flowers on a grave. For example, two people could be performing what appears to be the same rite of ancestor worship, each bowing reverently several times before a wooden tablet listing the names of deceased relatives. The one could easily be in harmony with the precepts of the gospel, while the other is in opposition to what the Lord has commanded.”

In a letter to Asian Church leaders dated 8 April 1975, President Ezra Taft Benson wrote: “The important thing is that the person be taught, as part of his conversion to the gospel, that he no longer worships shrines and altars and ancestors, but he pays his devotions and offers his prayers to God, our Eternal Father, in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ.”3

Emphasis on the Temple

“Church members emphasize ancestors but in a different way,” says President Yang Tsung Ting. “We do family history work, submit names to the temple, and perform ordinances for their eternal benefit.” The tablets listing deceased relatives are a good source for genealogical research.

Juan Jui Chang, first counselor in the Taichung stake presidency, enjoyed a powerful experience performing temple ordinances for his deceased parents. “Though I had been attending the temple for more than 13 years at that point,” President Juan says, “I felt the Spirit more strongly than ever while performing the work for my parents. In the sealing room, I represented my father and my wife represented my mother, and we knelt together at the altar. We felt it was the greatest thing we could do for our parents.”

In an address delivered during the dedication of the Taipei Taiwan Temple in November 1984, President Gordon B. Hinckley noted that the temple was built on land previously occupied by a prison. “This house,” he said, “built on what was once prison property, will open the doors of the veil of death.”4

“Some of us see a connection between ways of Chinese worshiping and the ceremonies done in the Old Testament,” says President Juan Jui Chang. “One example is the traditional Chinese doorway, which has red posts along the sides and top, similar to what the Jews did at Passover so the angel would fly over them. The Chinese character for boat shows an arklike vessel and eight people, perhaps some connection to the flood story. Chinese shrines and temples have an inner court and an outer court, and offerings are made similar to ancient Israel’s practices. We need to help people see that the gospel is not something foreign to Taiwanese culture but something we already know pieces of.”

President Groberg says, “The Chinese culture has many similarities to the gospel in that the general emphasis is on truth, beauty, kindness, family, and other positive attributes. The opportunities this presents to the Church are apparent in that we are dealing with people whose mind-set is not that much different than our own when it comes to cultural values. The problem is that they generally feel they don’t need the gospel because they already have the same value system in place. At times they feel that Westerners are trying to invade their culture with something that isn’t too different from what they have already had in place for centuries. The Church has the opportunity to help them learn about every mortal’s need for the Savior and his plan of salvation.”

Although the work of spreading the gospel sometimes seems slow in certain Asian countries, the Church has reached a strong and mature stage in Taiwan. From the time when preaching of the restored gospel began in Taiwan in 1956, it was a relatively short 20 years before the first stake was created, and growth is continuing at a steady pace. Many native Taiwanese are serving full-time missions and returning to their local wards and branches as seasoned servants of the Lord to lead the Church into the future.

Chen Shun Chun, former president of the Hua Lien district, recently drew a diagram to illustrate the far-reaching results of his baptism in 1973, which took place not long after missionaries knocked on his door. Starting with his name and his wife’s name in the center, he wrote down dozens of interconnected family members and others who have joined the Church, received the priesthood, received temple endowments, served missions and converted others, and been sealed in the temple. One special area of the diagram lists deceased people whose ordinance work has been done for them vicariously. President Chen estimates that a whole ward has resulted from his single baptism 25 years ago. With countless other gospel seeds being planted and coming into fruition, the physically “beautiful island” of Taiwan will grow more spiritually beautiful as the years go by.

Taiwan Today

Population—22 million

Size—Approximately 13,800 square miles (about size of Netherlands)

Church membership—24,000 (about 0.1 percent of population)

Temple—Taipei

Missions—3 (Kaohsiung, Taichung, Taipei)

Stakes—5 (Kaohsiung, Taichung, Tainan, Taipei East, Taipei West)

Districts—4 (Hsin Chu, Hua Lien, Pingtung, Tao Yuan)

Wards—31

Branches—31

Church-owned meetinghouses—22

Leased meetinghouses—17

Church History in Taiwan

1921—Elder David O. McKay dedicates Chinese realm

1956—Missionaries arrive in Taiwan from Hong Kong

1959—Elder Mark E. Petersen rededicates Taiwan

1965—Book of Mormon published in Chinese

1966—First meetinghouse dedicated in Taipei

1971—Taiwan mission created

1973—Church Educational System begins programs

1975—Membership reaches 7,000

1975—Doctrine and Covenants published in Chinese

1976—Kaohsiung mission created

1976—First stake organized in Taipei

1976—Pearl of Great Price published in Chinese

1979—Taichung mission created

1981—Kaohsiung stake organized

1982—Taichung mission dissolved

1982—Taipei stake divided

1983—Taipei Service Center opens (Church offices and apartments)

1983—Kaohsiung mission moved to Taichung mission

1984—Membership reaches 13,000

1984—Taipei temple dedicated

1990—Membership reaches 18,000

1994—Taichung stake organized

1997—Tainan stake organized

1998—Kaohsiung mission re-created

Sailor in the Storm

Wade Lin joined the Church in 1993 after meeting missionaries in a library. He served as a full-time missionary for several months before unusual circumstances forced him to leave his mission early to perform Taiwan’s mandatory two years of military service. Despite his full-time duties in the navy, Wade’s missionary work has continued.

At a dinner for sailors, the commanding officer gave everyone a bottle of beer for a toast. When Wade declined for religious reasons, the officer told him he had two choices: drink the beer or drink two large bottles of soda. Wade drank soda until he felt sick. The officer continued to be hard on him after that, but Wade stood his ground. In time others came to respect him more. Now he is often trusted with finances and other important duties, such as negotiating with military headquarters.

From the island in the Taiwan Strait where Wade is stationed, he can see mainland China. “Not too many years ago,” he says, “parents were worried to have their children stationed here because of political tensions. But now we can see Taiwanese tourists on the mainland.”

The Widow’s Might

After her husband died of liver cancer, Sun Huei Lia had to start working to support her three daughters. She cleans the Taichung stake center and does paperwork at a karate club, but the family still struggles economically. “This life is a time of learning and trials,” she says. “But God lives, and He will not give us greater trials than we can bear.”

One of her husband’s colleagues offered to regularly baby-sit Sister Sun’s youngest daughter. “I wanted to share the gospel in return,” she says. So she gave them a subscription to the Chinese Church magazine, prayed for them, and put their names on the temple prayer roll. One of the colleague’s children joined the Church, and he remains active in the Aaronic Priesthood Young Men program. “The gospel has a foothold in that family now,” she says.

When Sister Sun was sealed to her husband before his death, she felt that God was watching the ceremony. “I know that marriage is forever and I am only temporarily separated from my husband,” she says. A member for seven years, she serves in her ward Relief Society presidency.

Leading with Love

Since 1994 Chen Jien Nien has served in Taitung as Taiwan’s equivalent of a county commissioner. A pharmacist by profession and a former branch president, he is thought to be the first Latter-day Saint elected to public office in Taiwan.

“Politics are full of difficulties and complications, so I really need the Lord to help me,” Brother Chen says. “Sometimes politicians are tempted to do unethical things, but the gospel helps me figure out the right track. I pray and get inspiration so I can hold on to my principles.”

Friends, work associates, and newspaper reporters have come to know of Brother Chen’s Church membership because of his abstinence from alcoholic beverages. In Taiwan much government business is conducted while the participants eat and drink in bars, clubs, and restaurants.

On the wall behind Brother Chen’s desk hangs a large print of the Chinese character for love. “I am motivated by love,” says Brother Chen. “I try to influence other people to treat each other with love.”

Photography by Christopher K. Bigelow

Right: The Church in Taiwan rises from the foundation laid by pioneers such as these three Taipei couples. Backgroud: A view of Taiwan’s scenic eastern coast. Title design: A traditional Chinese sculpture depicts yin-yang in Chinese culture.

Right: Standing in a public garden in Taipei, stake president Yang Tsung Ting holds a book published in 1996 to mark the Church’s 40th anniversary in Taiwan. Inset, upper left, top: The Taiwanese flag. Inset, above: A typical Taiwanese urban street scene. Inset, opposite page, upper right: The main spire of the Taipei temple.

Below: During a stake activity, Kaohsiung youth hold a dumpling-making contest. Top left corner: A traditional Chinese sculpture of a guardian figure.

Relief Society sisters in Taipei with one of several displays at a “Happy Kitchen” stake activity.

Left: Taichung stake presidency counselor Juan Jui Chang stands next to a shipment of Taiwan-manufactured copies of the Book of Mormon. Background: The Taipei temple has been recognized for its beautiful grounds and architecture. Above: Taitung member Chen Shun Chun and his returned-missionary daughter.

A Primary boy in Taipei holds up a CTR sign.