Religion in Taiwan is a rather curious blend of Taoism and Buddhism, with a few elements of folk religion mixed in. Because Taoism has gods for many different aspects of life, the Taiwanese often have religious elements in their everyday behavior. Things that may seem illogical to an outsider may actually be based in religion and superstition. Here are some ways religion influences everyday life in Taiwan.
1) Unlucky number 4: This is one of the most common and obvious superstitions in Taiwan. Just as some buildings in the west have no 13th floor, many buildings, especially hospitals, have no 4th floor in Taiwan. The explanation for why 4 is an unlucky number is much simpler than that for 13, though. In both Mandarin and Taiwanese, the pronunciation for “4” is a homophone for the word “death.”
2) Mirror, mirror: Step into just about any government building and you’ll be confronted with a huge full-length mirror in the doorway. Nearly any elevator you walk into will have mirrors as well. I was told that this is to keep out ghosts. Namely, it’s to alert ghosts to the fact that they’re dead. Apparently, not everyone moves on to the afterlife when they’re dead, and many go about their everyday lives without realizing their bodies have passed. Encountering a mirror, but not seeing your reflection in it, is supposed to let you know it’s time to move on.
3) Burn, baby, burn: Speaking of the afterlife, people in Taiwan are very interactive with their ghosts. One way you see this manifested is with the burning of “ghost money.” These yellow sheets of paper are burned as offerings to the deceased, usually on special occasions, but also as a regular business practice. Quite often, usually on Mondays and Thursdays, you’ll see many people outside their businesses burning ghost money in special metal buckets. Usually there will also be a table laid out with various snacks and food items. These are all to ensure that the ghosts are happy and appeased in the afterlife.
4) Beefing up on your studies: Unlike the previous practices, this one isn’t as noticeable to the public eye. That’s because of what isn’t done, rather than what is done. Some students will forgo eating beef the week before a major exam. This is done out of respect to Wenchang Dijun, the Taoist god associated with studying and exams. He is said to have preached against the slaughter of cows, so students wishing to receive his favor before a big test will avoid offending him by eating beef.
Even explained, some of these rituals may seem a bit strange. But so do many Western traditions when seen from a non-Western standpoint!