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Public Culture 12.2 (2000) 477-498

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Living at the Edge:
Religion, Capitalism, and the End of the Nation-State in Taiwan

Robert P. Weller

Taiwan lies at the boundaries of the world. Economically it has flourished, but with hardly a company or brand name that would be recognized anywhere else. A late entry to world capitalism, it skipped much of capitalism's high modernity of assembly lines and monopolies and thrives instead as a welter of networked little firms and subcontractors, both the site of global investment and a major global investor. Politically it has spent the last four hundred years as a backwater frontier of the Dutch, Chinese, and Japanese empires, until the cataclysm of 1949 cast it adrift. Culturally, its people wonder whether they are part of China or perhaps someplace else altogether. The island floats in limbo, not quite a nation and not quite a state, with no change in sight, but vibrant all the same with its economic success, its politics, and its people's arguments about who they really are.

This essay examines the religious side of how people live at these edges, shaping and making sensible their experience in distinct ways. Religious practices have developed in Taiwan that vary greatly in, among other things, the ambition of their social organization, their claims to universalizing moralities, and their conception of the relationship between self and society. At one extreme lies fee-for-service religion that caters to asocial individuals, grants any request without regard to morality, and celebrates shady deities through carnivalesque reversals and excesses. Its temples are postmodern celebrations of disorder and localization, a kind of feral religion. At the same time, temples to community gods that had long been the heart of Taiwanese religion beyond the household have grown [End Page 477] in number and in scale, with new temples built and old temples reconstructed. These temples address individuals as embedded members of social networks. Although their orientation and organization is still primarily local, they also trace out new and old lines of migration and trade. At the other extreme are new pietistic Buddhist movements that proselytize for new social values and create new kinds of community--globalizing, encompassing, structuring, modern. Nearly all the new religious practices rework and transform cultural and social resources that were available to Taiwanese for centuries. The newness arises because of the complexities of Taiwan's place in the current world economic and political system.

On the Edge

Taiwan's place at the literal edge of Asia--the island link between Japan, China, and southeast Asia--has shaped its political history. Most of its inhabitants before the seventeenth century were Austronesian speakers; the island was visited sometimes by Chinese or Japanese traders and occasionally used as a base by pirates. The Dutch took a kind of entrep^ot-based control in the seventeenth century, only to be forcibly removed in 1661 by a Ming Dynasty loyalist using Taiwan as a last bastion against the new Qing government (a role Taiwan would later repeat). Chinese settlement increased drastically during this period, turning the island into the newest Chinese frontier and ultimately forcing the aboriginal population to sinicize or flee into the deep mountains.

The Qing Dynasty took over in 1683, but Taiwan was still very much a frontier, known for producing chronic rebellions the way other areas were known for producing scholars or silks. The Qing government had grave doubts about whether the island was really worth the investment, and Taiwan was not elevated to provincial status until 1884. Its new recognition lasted only eleven years, however. In 1895 China ceded Taiwan to Japan in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War. Fifty years of Japanese colonialism followed, bringing with it pacification of endemic violence, rationalization of bureaucracy and taxation, improvements in infrastructure, and the spread of basic education. On the other hand, the colonized population lost all political say above the local level, higher education was strictly limited, and major business positions were controlled by the Japanese.

The island...


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pp. 477-498
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Archived 2004
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