Imported Paranormal Beliefs in Taiwan
Despite parental worries over Buddhist brainwashings of students at a temple-sponsored camp last summer (China Post 1996d,e,f,g),1 Taiwan has so far been spared much of the cult madness that elsewhere captures headlines, from the Texas shoot out with Branch Davidians to the Aum Shinri Kyo gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system. That doesn't mean, however, that people here are immune to nutty ideas imported from other lands.
For instance, the true popularity here of UFOs may be hard to gauge, but when the China Post (1995) ran an editorial encouraging the study of UFOs in the schools, skeptical hackles were raised.2 In a letter to the editor, Tim Holmes (1995) of the Taiwan Skeptics delivered a telling riposte.
Whereas the paper printed his letter, public lectures by UFO buffs don’t usually admit any questioning. I attended one such free presentation during an island-wide blitz by believers in 1995. As a door prize they offered Streiber-alien look-alike dolls. The slide show was a “Best of National Enquirer” tour de force, at which I thought everyone would double over laughing. Seeing as how the audience seemed to be taking everything in and being taken in, I ventured to question the plausibility of a slide which allegedly showed a U.S. bomber that had been transported by aliens to the dark side of the moon. My comment was greeted with stony silence, and my escort scolded me for breaching Chinese etiquette, which does not permit the raising of “problems” for a speaker. (Wen-ti, the Chinese word for question, is also the word for problem). In short, no public questions allowed — unless requested by the speaker at the end. Catch-22, in Chinese.
Another cult practice here apparently has its fountainhead in India. The supposed medicinal benefits of drinking one’s own urine made quite a splash in the media (Graves 1996; China Post 1996a,b). A television station aired an “investigative report” in which a credulous and somewhat flushed reporter watched mainly older men and women wash, gargle, and even swallow what they said was their own urine. The practice seems to be limited to small handfuls of devotees throughout the country, though the media gave “estimates” of tens of thousands of believers — based on reports from the adherents themselves. Tim Holmes (1996) tells me he has neighbors who assure him they practice urine therapy, which is said to cure disease and lead to a longer life.
Taiwan is part of that exotic Orient which has embraced Western technology and even adopted democratic electoral procedures. Behind all the hustle and bustle of daily life is the world of commonly shared cultural beliefs, some of which extol the paranormal or perpetuate pseudoscience. While many of these strike Westerners as quite odd, others at root are similar to widely held beliefs in the Occident and elsewhere. Certainly this sketch, and the one previous, in no way exhaust the world of the weird in Taiwan.
- Two sixth-graders who attended that same camp joined my English class in the fall; they said they had not been harangued in any way.
- The same newspaper subsequently reported that a woman had “sat in a bathtub for three years” (China Post 1996c). To the paper’s credit, they decided in the end that the family making the report “might have exaggerated.”
- China Post. 1995. Study of UFOs can be helpful. April 17, p. 4.
- —. 1996a. Urine can cure mad cows, says doctor. April 14, p. 8.
- —. 1996b. Urine drinking attracts more faithful followers. May 6, p. 20.
- —. 1996c. Woman sat in bathtub for 3 years, family says. August 11, p. 16.
- —. 1996d. Temple said to be forcing campers into monasticism. September 4, p. 15.
- —. 1996e. Angry relatives try to find college students-turned-monks. September 5, p. 1.
- —. 1996f. Temple melee prompts debate on religion law. September 6, p. 1.
- —. 1996g. Buddhists pledge parental approval. September 12, p. 16.
- Graves, N. 1996. Urine advocates say drug firms should listen. China Post. March 21, p. 7.
- Holmes, T. 1995. Using jackpot lure in science is risky. China Post. May 7.
- —. 1996. Personal communications.