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Syncretism & Sectarian Behavior in Taiwan


This paper was prepared for the 40th Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies,San Francisco, March 25-27, 1988 (Session 85: Rethinking Syncretism). It is here reproduced unrevised except for the reformatting necessary for presentationon a web page. The use of diacritical marks on this page requires the availability of an extended character set on your browser for proper display. Click here if you have trouble displaying charcacters with diacritics.


  1. The Term Syncretism
    1. Syncretism in the History of Religion
    2. Syncretism in Anthropology
  2. Four Facets of Syncretism
    1. Facet One: Syncretism as Mere Historical Fact
    2. Facet Two: Syncretism as Conscious Innovation
    3. Facet Three: Syncretism as Rhetorical Strategy
    4. Facet Four: Negative Syncretism
  3. Taiwan: The General Case
    1. The Deprivation Hypothesis Again
  4. Bibliography

Syncretism & Sectarian Behavior in Taiwan

David K. Jordan note 1

"Mi atendas de vi kreon de granda dio, kiu
kunigos en si la trajtojn grekajn kaj egiptajn, tian
dion, kiu estos reganto super la popoloj kune
kun mi, en nevidebla kaj videbla mondoj."
(Ptolemy I, in Pióro 1979)

I. The Term "Syncretism"

As part of an overall administrative policy designed to meld Egyptians and Egyptian Greeks into a single, more governable ethnic entity, Ptolemy I, or Soter, (305-282 BC) is said to have elevated the cult of Serapis to the status of chief state cult of Alexandria. note 2 Serapis was to be iconographically represented in Egyptian fashion but with the face of Zeus and a grain bushel on his head or like a Greek Zeus with Egyptian attributes borrowed from Osiris. note 3 In their description of the religious cults of the Graeco-Roman world, ancient writers used the expression "syncretism" (συγκρητισμός) to describe this event, and the general phenomenon of the "new religions" of the time incorporating beliefs and customs of diverse origins, whether by official policy, as in the case of Ptolemy's reform, or more or less spontaneously, as with the incorporation of various traditions into early Christianity. The word "syncretism" still smacks of the classical world in philosophical circles, even though it has been far more broadly applied in other disciplines. note 4

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I.A. Syncretism in the History of Religion

For historians of religion, "classic" cases of syncretism include not only Serapis, but also (perhaps especially) the transformation of Christianity as it left its Judaic base in the Near East and spread throughout the pagan Roman world, bringing dependably with it only those practices actually mentioned in its texts and absorbing much else locally. note 5 Another "classic" case is the emergence of Sikhism from Islamic and Hindu roots, or the rise of Vishnuism and Shaivism in post-Vedic Hinduism. In China, historians of religion often note great and small transformations of Buddhism as it moved to Chinese soil. Historians also note the tendency in Chinese Buddhism to unite Buddhist sects by seeking to incorporate doctrinal or liturgical elements of all of them into unified sects, or even to unite them with Taoism and Confucianism under such slogans as "three religions harmonized as one" (sān jiào héyī). Similarly some authors discuss Taoist and Buddhist (especially Chán) syncretism with each other, beginning particularly in Sòng dynasty times and continuing to the present. Finally, in the specific context of European religion, the OED reminds us that "syncretism" is sometimes associated specifically with the XVIIth century school of "George Calixtus, who aimed at harmonizing the sects of Protestants and ultimately all Christian bodies" (SOED). note 6

In recent years attention has been given to the conditions under which syncretism is more or less likely to occur. For example, S. Singaravelu argues (1986) that syncretism of the god Śiva with Bataru Guru in Malay belief depended upon the patterning of traditions defining both deities as gods of the elements.

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I.B. Syncretism in Anthropology

Diversity of Cases. In anthropology, although the cases are usually more or less contemporary ones, the phenomena are the same. The selective incorporation of very diverse North American culture traits in the Native American Church is one anthropologically studied example. The Western Australian "Jigalong Mob" or New South Wales "Bandjalang Pentecostals" or the "neo-traditional" "Churches" of African Christianity are also examples. (The Maria Legio church of Kenya is said to be less Roman Catholic than it is linked to Luo juogi beliefs, for example. Also in Africa the cult of Muslim saints and jinn appears to veneer pagan religious forms in many cases, as among the Hausa (Herskovits 1955: 492), and the phenomenon of continued practice of pre-conversion religious rites alongside of Christian or Muslim ones among converts is quite usual in Africa, even when the syncretism seems to reside in the heads of individual believers rather than in the institutionalized religious organizations themselves. (Ejizu 1984). And perhaps the most famous ethnographic case of all, the transformations of Catholicism in Latin America and the Caribbean are an unending source of delight to teachers of elementary classes in anthropology, where Maya talking crosses make their appearance even more frequently than they do in Mayaland itself.

I.B.1. Syncretism & Modernization. Some anthropologists have taken an interest in the differences in implications for modernization between syncretic beliefs and beliefs more coherently part of a single tradition. For example, in a recent article James Peacock (1986) considers this question for Indonesia, distinguishing a "purist" or "quasi-Protestant" stream from a "syncretist" one that "displays a more organic and diffuse pattern that would seem, in terms of the conventional, social science model, to be the most traditionalistic; it would, therefore, presumably be less rationalistic and less able to engender change." Peacock finds, however, that it is exactly the syncretistic stream that proves most flexible and thus most pre-adaptive to the changes that Indonesian society is experiencing.

I.B.2. Syncretism, Sectarianism, and the Deprivation Hypothesis. In many, probably most, cases, syncretism is associated with sectarian or "cultic" activity, and in view of this association it is well to turn our attention for a moment to the principal logic by which sectarianism has been treated in the social science literature before we continue with syncretism as such.

The attention of anthropologists, as of other social scientists, has tended to focus on explaining sects in general and syncretic sects in particular as the dependent variable rather than the independent one, and this has usually been done in relation to modernization. note 7 The explanation normally provided for the motivation of believers in syncretic religions is one form or another of "deprivation hypothesis." note 8 Perhaps the best known of these deprivation hypotheses is encapsulated in the expression "religions of the oppressed," a term popularized by Vittorio Lanternari in his book of the same name. Lanternari uses as specific examples the early history of the Christian church, peyotism, Vietnamese Cao Dai, and an Australian aboriginal movement that teaches believers to reject "white" culture while teaching them also to use a "white" writing system to attain literacy in their own language. (1960: 181). However deprivation hypotheses are a normal (and compelling) part of the interpretation of "new religions" in most modernizing contexts, particularly since such groups tend to recruit their membership from lower-class people, who are comparatively less advantaged by expansion of some economies. (E.g., cf. Piryns 1985 on Japan.)

Deprivation hypotheses argue that an individual joins a sect because he feels "deprived" of something, in most cases prestige or material wealth. If he is patently poor or the victim of social stigma or discrimination, the analyst normally considers the case well demonstrated. If he is not obviously "deprived" in the eyes of the analyst, then "relative deprivation" is hypothesized, which means that the believer feels the sting of deprivation relative to someone else, real or imagined. Such hypotheses have the strength of predicting that relatively more deprived categories of people will in general be more likely to join groups purporting to address their deprivations.

But this logic, in common with neo-Durkheimian method in general, has the weakness of attributing motivation to groups of individuals without close attention to the actual psychodynamics of individual decision making. A generally useful prediction can be made about the segment of society likely to find a sect attractive, but little can be accurately attributed to a given believer about his motivation for being or becoming a sectarian. And of course, the sects about which membership predictions can accurately be made by this logic are only those actually claiming (explicitly or implicitly) to reduce the relevant kind of deprivation. To extend deprivation hypotheses to cover sects that differ from the mainstream (or from each other) in other ways, it is necessary to hypothesize other kinds of deprivation, some of which begin to fall beyond the range of convenience of the concept. note 9

For example, one might extend "deprivation to cover the psychological pain of not having full access to the means of salvation in mainstream religions without assuming clerical or hermit status (as in religious Taoism). Or one might extend it to include the cognitive dissonance between mainstream teachings and the individual believer's situation, beliefs, or emotions. (Thus the "deprivation" which stimulates the growth of the gay church movement, say, is the inhospitality of major denominations to assertions of homosexuality.) "Deprivation" in this case must be redefined to mean something like "dissonance" or "alienation" rather than simply lack of access to wealth or symbols of social status.

Further, while sectarian membership may relieve some aspects of a believer's former "deprivation," it may also bring with it new "deprivations," such as heavy financial contributions or charges of crackpotism. The costs of membership in a minority group subjected to environmental stress of this kind have been explored by Bernard J. Siegel, who argues that it often leads to what he calls "defensive structuring" in such groups (Siegel 1970), a phenomenon which can arguably result, among other things, in new feelings of "deprivation," potentially relieved by leaving rather than joining the group! Although defensively structured groups are not limited to religious sects, the existence of sectarian variants of the syndrome underlines the inadequacy of any simple deprivation hypothesis as a complete explanation for the appeal of sectarian societies.

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II. Four Facets of Syncretism

I do not mean to confound syncretism with sectarianism, but I am concerned to clarify the concepts that we need to discuss syncretic sects. note 10 In that context, the deprivation hypothesis applied to sectarian membership is importantly involved with our views about syncretism, for syncretism seems to me to be, in part, a major rhetorical strategy that addresses the problem of social deprivation. Accordingly the two phenomena are linked, even though they are analytically separable.

It seems to me that the word "syncretism" has been used in several different ways. Differentiating them will allow us to see it as a cluster of phenomena that are not necessarily identically distributed, and may contribute to more satisfying explanations of syncretic sectarianism.

Religion is not the only sphere where diverse elements achieve new cultural integration. In anthropological theorizing, "syncretism" is associated especially with the work of Melville S. Herskovits, for whom it is simply one kind of cultural adaptation in response to culture contact, a counterpart to non-religious "reinterpretation," an opposite number to "nativism." While "nativism" for an anthropologist is a conscious reaction against outside influences, syncretism is a more or less unconscious assimilation of them and combination of them with established beliefs and traditions. Although it is useful to confine the word "syncretism" to the religious sphere, it is also useful to consider that it can be conscious or unconscious, deliberate or accidental, evaluated as desirable or undesirable, and so on, just as can its non-religious analogs. Accordingly let us turn to the project of refining the concept through further differentiation.

Briefly, syncretism can be mere historical fact: the early Christian church did assimilate important influences from surrounding milieux, for example. Secondly, syncretism can have a conscious and deliberate act at the basis of it, as did Ptolemy's attempt to create a cult of Serapis that would be "designed" to appeal both to Greeks and to Egyptians because of its incorporation of ideas common to both traditions. Thirdly, syncretism can be a rhetorical strategy. Something which purports to incorporate significant elements of other traditions has a potential claim to superceding them (normally with charges of heresy by proponents of the traditions "superceded"). And finally it is necessary to say something about what I shall call "negative syncretism," that is, the explicit rejection of some aspects of a significant core tradition in order to differentiate a new sect from it.

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II.A. Facet One: Syncretism as Mere Historical Fact

Since virtually all human behavior incorporates a diversity of elements of human experience, all religion is to some degree syncretic in this sense. There may be more or less consciousness of this debt on the part of the believers of a tradition. Sometimes they may deny it (as Chinese Catholics seek an accommodation with Marxism that excludes explicit syncretism with it), but just as often it is not a matter of more than antiquarian interest to them. Thus when I lived in a Buddhist monastery in Táinán for a year, monks and nuns would often explain that one or another practice of the monastery was "not really Buddhist," but had leaked in from popular practice and was tolerated. Such practices included burning paper mock-money, for example, or burying the dead. They were considered harmless customs popular with people little schooled in Buddhism, and worth tolerating in the interest of keeping believers involved with Buddhism and hence on the road to enlightenment. (In addition, refusal to officiate at burials would have cost the monastery a considerable part of its income.) Other elements were known to be Chinese additions to primitive Buddhism, such as the cult of Chinese arhats among the Indian ones or the Chanting of scriptures originally written in Chinese, but they were regarded as a legitimate enrichment of Buddhism by its incorporation of Chinese elements. It was a fine line between what was "Chinese Buddhism" and what was "not really Buddhism," and not all of my clerical informants drew it in quite the same place.

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II.B. Facet Two: Syncretism as Conscious Innovation

A second sense of syncretism is the conscious copying of religious elements of a font tradition to fill out a new religious scheme. My paradigmatic example is the claim once stated by a Baha'i fellow-student of mine that "all the great religions have their own calendars, and therefore Baha'i has one too." A calendar was an assertion of "great religion" status, and it was important to him to have one, regardless of its source or use. In a similar vein, one of the charges that opponents frequently level against new religions in Taiwan is that they lack "original scriptures" and instead ride parasitic on other traditions by using Buddhist sutras and the like. (This claim was a common argument against the legal recognition of the Unity Sect a few years back.)

Original scriptures, then, whatever their content, are regarded as something that a legitimate religion ought to have. There are also certain organizational forms that are normally borrowed in the creation of a new Chinese sect. Members may have a "religious name," may wear long robes, and virtually always make offerings of incense, candles, and food (especially fruit). Some sectarian societies make use of one or another kind of oracle (throwing-blocks, a spirit medium, planchette writing, glyphomancy, or whatever). What is important about borrowing such forms is sometimes merely that they are associated with religion generically or a particular religious tradition broadly, and their practice is therefore a sign that one is "doing religion."

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II.C. Facet Three: Syncretism as Rhetorical Strategy

Perhaps the most significant feature of Chinese sectarian syncretism, however, is its potential as a resource in the rhetoric by which sectarian societies assert their superiority over competing, mainstream religious traditions. Over and over I have been told by sectarians that their sects are superior to any of the "five religions" (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity) because the sects "incorporate all five of them." This is not the only basis for a claim of superiority. Others include (1) historical priority (the sect was founded in the mists of time and propagated underground until the present), (2) high morality (the sect prohibits meat, wine, sex, gambling, gossip, or whatever), or (3) unique means of salvation or revelation. Some sects demonstrate their superiority with miracles (Jordan 1990). However the claim that the sect somehow incorporates all that is worthy in the constituent traditions is a pervasive and apparently persuasive one. (The Unity Sect, for example, argues that it is the fulfillment of Buddhism, since the third kalpa has arrived with its message of hope for all of us, but that institutional Buddhist monks are too blinded by their own selfishness to see the change.)

In Taiwan one of the clearest examples of syncretism as a rhetorical strategy is found in the pedigree of the Unity Sect (Yíguàn Dào) patriarchate. The sect traces its founding back to the great Chinese culture heroes who founded the nation, invented agriculture, tamed the rivers, and so on. It proceeds on through the founders of the Shāng and Zhōu dynasties, incorporating Wén Wáng (the putative author of the Yì Jīng), and including Confucius and important members of his school (such as Mencius and Zēngzĭ) and incorporating including Lăozĭ, the founder of Taoism. It moves then to India to take in the Buddha and the "twenty-eight patriarchs" of Chán Buddhism. Then it shifts back to China to incorporate the six Chinese Chán patriarchs before taking on a purely sectarian character. Thus the founders themselves of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism are all viewed as sectarian members, whose "inner teachings" were transmitted to fellow sectarians, leaving only their "outer teachings" for the unwashed masses of their orthodox followings. (Cf. the Western occult traditions of the "secret teachings of Jesus.")

This pedigree is much discussed in sectarian sources (although with small variations) and is the basis of the claim (a) that the Unity Sect is older than Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism (and thus has greater historical legitimacy), and (b) that it includes them, rendering their independent institutional forms unnecessary. Accompanying this concern with pedigree is the frequently cited myth in which the buddhas of the three kalpas have been sent by the Unborn Mother (the primordial object of sect veneration), who is thus also in a position of superiority to the buddhas. The clearly and frequently (and tediously) explored implication is that followers of the Unborn Mother are therefore better placed for salvation than the benighted followers of the mere second-kalpa Śākyamuni buddha, however grand he may be, than the Taoist priests and mystics, and than those schooled in the traditions of Confucianism.

Reveling in one's incorporation of separate respectable traditions and thus being superior to them, is not confined to China of course. One can find very similar claims among, for example, members of the Baha'i World Faith, with its incorporation of great religious leaders of the past as, in Chinese terms, subsequent holders of the "celestial mandate" of a religious tradition that was not properly understood by the members of the earlier traditions. When I returned from my first fieldwork on sectarianism in 1976 I was struck by the similarity between the Unity Sect in particular and the American Rosicrucians (the people who keep wanting you to answer an ad and get their "free book, The Mastery of Life"). note 11 Like the Unity Sect, each American Rosicrucian sect claims to be the most recent (and sole legitimate) institutional manifestation of a tradition that goes back well before the time of Christ and incorporates major figures of world religions and philosophies. note 12 The power of syncretism as a resource in the rhetoric of superiority is probably to be found the world around.

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II.D. Facet Four: Negative Syncretism

We may use the expression "negative syncretism" to refer to the process of defining oneself against a tradition, arguing that one has successfully rejected objectionable elements of tradition (sometimes by "purifying" it of "later" overlay to produce an "original" form). The expression "negative syncretism" joins such familiar anthropological concepts as "negative legitimacy" (rule by coercion) and "negative ethnocentrism" (praising "every country but his own") as a refining operator for our thinking. Thus Jesus provided his disciples a "new covenant" by which the nascent Christian Church, could have a covenant, just as Judaic tradition had, while rejecting the confining restrictions of the old one. The idea of covenant was based on a Jewish original; the new covenant at the same time explicitly rejected its prototype. The expression "negative syncretism" would perhaps apply appropriately to many "native churches" in various parts of the world that combine Christian and non-Christian traits, but also specifically reject features of Christianity as objectionable or inappropriate, and thus define themselves in part by contrast to mainstream churches.

In Taiwan, sectarians are inclined to stress their incorporation of what is positive in their font traditions, but they do not hesitate to elaborate upon their rejection of "superstitious" elements that they do not borrow. One of these is the "degenerate" established practice or established priesthood. In some sects, vegetarianism is borrowed but is modified, and then compared favorably with the font tradition. Thus the voluntary "third kalpa" egg-eating vegetarianism of the Unity and Compassion sects in Taiwan is contrasted with the obsolete "second kalpa" vegetarianism of orthodox Buddhism; most Chinese sectarians comment unfavorably on the wine-drinking Catholic clergy as a sign of the degenerate aspects of Christianity that they supersede. Celibacy may be touted as more complete than in contributing traditions (as in the Zhāi Sect vegetarian monasteries), or it may be denigrated as an unnatural condition which fails to make a full contribution to society. (One Unity believer told me that he never trusted a Buddhist priest who had joined the orders without first fathering children.) Some sectarians are inclined to dismiss popular mediumship as "superstition" even while incorporating slightly different mediumistic elements of their own. It is probably fair to say that high-prestige, high-profile features of font traditions (such as formal rites with offerings) are declared to be incorporated, while low-prestige aspects of these traditions (such as temples dirtied by incense, celibacy, or ecstatic trance) are more often denounced,. Thus negative syncretism contributes to boundary clarification between a sect and its sources, as well as playing a role in the rhetoric of asserting superiority.

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III. Taiwan: The General Case

All four kinds of syncretism are found in Taiwanese sectarianism: (1) neutral historical fact, acknowledged or not, (2) syncretism as the source of conscious innovation, (3) syncretism as a rhetorical strategy for asserting one's superiority over the font traditions, and (4) negative syncretism, by which the incorporation of some features of a tradition entails the explicit rejection of others as part of the claim of superiority. It seems to me that the separate consideration of all of these helps to clarify some aspects of the situation of Taiwan sects.

III.A. The Deprivation Hypothesis Again.

But what about the deprivation hypothesis, the argument that people generally participate in syncretic sects because they are deprived? Can it account for the recent increase in sectarian activity in Taiwan? And can all this discussion of kinds of syncretism help it do so, or at least help clarify why it cannot?

As I indicated at the beginning, it is unclear to me that this hypothesis, venerable though it be, is at all obvious when it is extended to people whose "deprivation" is not easily seen or measured. Although it is sometimes argued that Taiwan sects tend to pick up much of their membership among the down and out, that is not really the whole story. The slightly higher proportion of poorly educated or poor people in sects may equally well be explained by the lower susceptibility of such people to educated or modernist arguments against religion in general or against sectarian claims in particular. That is not the same thing as deprivation.

Further, most sectarians, like most other people in Taiwan, have enjoyed startling increases in their standards of living over the past three decades, so that claims of even relative deprivation do not seem a compelling explanation for the increase in sectarian activity. Nor does it seem compelling to argue that political instability and an uncertain future are fueling new religious enthusiasms, since Taiwan has suffered a clouded political future since well before the birth of anyone now alive on the island.

The logic is sometimes heard that increases in sectarian membership are a function of political disenfranchisement of native Taiwanese elements of the population and the political domination of the island by post-war mainland immigrants. However both groups contribute to sectarian membership, often in the same sects, and the cultural differentiation of the groups has diminished even while sectarian interest and membership have grown.

The one kind of deprivation hypothesis that seems compelling to me (although demonstration of any such hypothesis would depend upon sectarian census material that has never been collected) is one that argues that it is differential access to modernity that stimulates sectarian activity, which in turn is describable as, in effect, the democratization of tradition. Much in Chinese tradition has great prestige in Taiwan, a prestige augmented by pro-tradition government rhetoric associated with anti-communism (and occasionally xenophobia), and by a related rhetorical stance in the schools. Traditional moral values (particularly filiality and loyalty) are strongly stressed. At the same time education in Taiwan is entirely modern, and specifically religious aspects of traditional life are disparaged in the schools; Classical Chinese is not taught until late in the school curriculum; and the Republican state has waged anti-superstition campaigns against targets associated with religion (such as meat sacrifices and mock-money). The message is that tradition in general is good, but specific manifestations of it are suspect.

One can reasonably argue that in contemporary Taiwan, there is a very special kind of deprivation that may account for some of the impulse toward syncretic sectarianism. Prestige positions today are associated with success in an educational system that is marked by competitive examinations, and to which some people have been denied access by poverty or by an older generation with dim views about excessive education, especially for women. Sectarian life includes activities that are associated with traditional education in Classical Chinese, not with the modern schools. For the refugee from the public education system, it appears, sectarianism (and a selected number of other traditionalistic activities, such as martial arts, herbal medicine, and geomancy) can be a satisfactory "second-rater's" road to self-respect. I will spare you specific case histories; I have enough to convince me that this is possible, but not enough to convince me that I have it quite right just yet.

For such individuals, (1) syncretism as an historical accident is beside the point. (2) Syncretism as an inspiration in creating new groups in a recognizably "traditional" mode is usual, and one finds the cultivation of self-consciously "traditional" activities. (3) Syncretism as a rhetoric defending membership is compelling because it claims to incorporate what is already cathected as prestigious. And (4) negative sectarianism is a fundamental device for keeping new sects in accord with an evolving view of religious life, constantly being influenced (by historical syncretism) by the modern and modernist forces that are so dominant in contemporary Taiwanese life.

In other words, I strongly suspect that a more multifaceted view of syncretism, one capable of calling our attention to its rhetorical possibilities and to its ability to deny tradition as well as to affirm it, helps us to appreciate the complexity of what is going on, and generates more productive variants of the venerable deprivation hypothesis, leading to more convincing hypotheses.

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