Names have been changed upon request of anonymity.
6 months ago, I encountered ‘Yiguandao’, a Taiwanese religious sect currently boasting around eight million members across the nation. This amalgamation of Taiwan’s most prevalent religious ideas into one faith proved fascinating for a variety of reasons: its history of political suppression and secrecy, a religious practice that brings together Buddhist vegetarianism and Confucian familial ideals, and not least a penchant for proselytising that is seeing Yiguandao pop up all over the world, sometimes in the most unexpected of places.
I first became aware of Yiguandao’s international expansion at a Dharma Seminar in Taipei, where a senior member of the group detailed his extensive work in India, establishing temples more commonly known as Fotang (佛堂) in nearly fifty cities. I then learnt that while the group has branches across the world (including one ‘home temple’ in London), they have seen most significant success across Southeast Asia. The other non-Taiwanese attendees at that Dharma Seminar reflected this, coming from Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.
I was surprised to hear of these successes for a few reasons. First, Yiguandao’s religious practices and texts operate entirely in Chinese. While some sessions that I attended, put on specifically for foreigners, were held in English, this is very uncommon. Most sessions are held in Chinese, and prayer (known as bai bai) is always conducted in its original language.
Second, the cultural background of Yiguandao’s ideology is deeply rooted in Chinese thought. Yiguandao’s religious practice is formed on the back of Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian traditions, making reference to the textual sources that supply these belief systems. Yiguandao then combines these traditions with ideas from Christianity and Hinduism to construct a new syncretic faith.
This is to say, fully accessing Yiguandao’s ideology and practice requires at least a basic understanding of the Chinese language, and Chinese religious tradition. Consequently, I became fascinated by how Yiguandao were managing to find converts to this very Taiwanese form of Daoism amongst people who could not speak Chinese, and who knew very little of Chinese religion before they ‘found Dao.’ What methods were being used to spread this religious doctrine, and who was amongst the converts?
I found some answers when I visited Zhi De Fotang 志德佛堂 in Bali, Indonesia. I had expected to find a group of Taiwanese expats seeking a community outside of their home country, yet the group I found consisted entirely of Balinese converts. The group was small, with around fifty members. Apart from the group leader, no-one present spoke Mandarin. None-the-less, prayer was held in Chinese, with passages chanted according to an Indonesian version of pinyin. In reality, this bore little resemblance to Chinese or Taiwanese pronunciation when spoken aloud. Speaking to members, it was clear that the majority had received some Indonesian language-based education on Yiguandao’s main ideas, but most had no idea what was being uttered during prayers.
W, an English teacher who had been a member for 15 years, had learnt about Yiguandao from her grandmother, who was a member before her. “My grandmother was a good person, and she left me a book about Chongde before she died,” said W. “I read the book and I liked its messages, so I came along and found Dao.” Continuing, W revealed that she was “a Hindu first,” still attending traditional Balinese ceremonies, but that her life had been improved by “the wisdom of the Taiwanese masters.”
Through Yiguandao, W had been able to visit Taiwan, and had been given access to basic Mandarin training. She had already converted her husband and children and would regularly encourage her English students to attend the Fotang too. Yiguandao seemed to form a religious supplement in her life, offering easy access to this fountain of supposed ancient Chinese ‘wisdom’ and opportunities to gain entry to the Chinese cultural sphere.
Scholars studying Yiguandao have engaged with the notion that the group’s world-wide temples enable members to gain access to the Chinese cultural sphere. Nikolas Broy (2022) argues that Yiguandao’s temples act as ‘Portals of Globalisation,’ a framework initially used by global studies’ scholars to describe “places that have been centres of world trade or global communication, have served as entrance points for cultural transfer, and where institutions and practices for dealing with global connectedness have been developed.” (Middell and Naumann, 2010). Applying this framework, Broy argues that Yiguandao temples enable members from different cultural backgrounds to exchange ideas and practices. Each temple thus concocts its own unique flavour of Yiguandao, cooked up using the unique cultural and linguistic elements of that temple’s local population.
Broy details the access to ‘Chinese-ness’ that Yiguandao offers to members of its Fotang in Los Angeles, which he describes as a ‘a gateway for non-Chinese Americans to engage more thoroughly with what they conceive of as “Asian philosophies” or “Eastern wisdom” (Broy, 2022). These American Sinophiles consider Yiguandao to be a more ‘authentic’ version of Daoism, and as such are drawn into the group. Listening to W speak of Taiwanese “wisdom,” it was evident to me that Balinese converts are equally drawn in by this desire to engage with the Chinese religious sphere, and receive whatever ancient wisdom is deemed to exist there.
An additional factor, that draws in Southeast Asian converts in particular is not considered within Broy’s ‘Portals of Globalisation’ model. This is the power imbalance that exists between branches that are set up in nations with drastically different economic environments. Taiwan’s economic prosperity, in comparison with Indonesia, undoubtedly changes how the nation’s identity is perceived by other nations. This has a ripple effect, influencing how Yiguandao, generally viewed as a ‘Taiwanese’ religion, is also viewed on the global scale.
While Taiwan is by no means among the biggest investors into Indonesia, since 2016 the nation has drastically reduced its investment into China, and much of this funding has been redirected into ASEAN countries. In 2019, 47% of Taiwanese investment was flowing into South-East Asia, including Indonesia (Fajria, 2021). Moreover, Taiwan has been one of the primary destinations for Indonesian migrant workers since 2011 (Herlijanto, 2016).
The direction of Yiguandao’s own investments reflect this national economic story. Indeed, during my visit in Bali I noted their particularly beautiful temple and was informed that Taiwanese leadership had funded this brand-new building only a few years prior. Following this, at the end of my visit, the temple leader Q gifted each member with a large container of cooking oil and a bag of noodles. He told me that gifts of this nature were not uncommon.
Broy argues that when converts join Yiguandao, they also join a global economic network, where funds are raised by each branch to be directed where it is deemed most important (Broy, 2022). It was clear during my visit that funds are naturally directed towards branches situated in poorer regions. As such, becoming a 道親 (Dao qin - member of the ‘Dao’ family) in Indonesia is almost tantamount to joining a financial support system.
This is not to say that Balinese members of Yiguandao only join the group in the hope of gaining economic advantages. The Balinese converts I met were passionate believers in the religion, who felt that Yiguandao’s spiritual input had added value to their lives. However, when converts make the choice to join Yiguandao, they do so with pre-set notions of Taiwanese identity – an identity that is associated with wealth, opportunity and wisdom. These presumptions trickle down into how Yiguandao, as a faith, is perceived.
It is this perceived identity that is leading Balinese, and others across Indonesians, into the arms of Yiguandao.
Broy, Nikolas (2022) Nodes and Hubs: An Exploration of Yiguandao Temples as ‘Portals of Globalization’. Religions 13(36).
Herlijanto, Johanes (2016) ‘Economic Diplomacy, Soft Power, and Taiwan's Relations with Indonesia.’ Contemporary Chinese Political Economy and Strategic Relations 2, 3 (1173-1194).
Middell, Matthias, and Naumann, Katja (2010) Global History and the Spatial Turn: From the Impact of Area Studies to the Study of Critical Junctures of Globalization. Journal of Global History 5(149–70).
This article represent the views of contributors to STEAR's online blog, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.