Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

In Taiwan but Not of Taiwan: Challenges of the LDS Church in the Wake of the Indigenous Movement

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

In Taiwan but Not of Taiwan: Challenges of the LDS Church in the Wake of the Indigenous Movement

Article excerpt

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has experienced stable growth in Taiwan since the first four missionaries arrived in 1956. Even in recent years, when the growth of the Church has slowed considerably in many countries including those in East Asia, LDS growth in Taiwan remains robust. Thus, something distinctive characterizes Mormonism in Taiwan compared to Mormonism in neighboring countries. Some scholars have used diminishing growth rates in the past decade or two to argue that Mormonism remains marginal in many countries.1

I argue, somewhat differently, that despite its stable growth, the LDS experience in Taiwan shows signs of cultural marginalization that are not much different from its marginalization elsewhere. Like Mormonism in many places outside the American continent, Taiwan's Mormons also face a double marginalization, a marginalization manifest both inside the Church and in their own country. Taiwan is at the periphery of internal LDS dialogues. The land and the people there remain unknown to most of the LDS population. Stories about Church development on the island, foreign missionaries' encounters with the local population, members' cultural conflicts and adjustments, and their gospel outlook and identity struggles await a telling. Externally, comprising a small proportion of society in Taiwan, Mormonism continues to be seen as a cult-like religion. Its foreignness, and particularly its Americanness, is positively exotic and productive of continued growth in the unique context of Taiwan, but this quality simultaneously keeps Mormonism at the margins of society.

Local members celebrated the fifty-year jubilee of Mormonism on the island in the summer of 2006. The jubilee provides a useful lens through which to reflect on the history of the Church in Taiwan and evaluate its current fortunes. This paper examines the position of Mormonism in contemporary Taiwan, where two seemingly contradictory forces-the indigenous movement and the desire for strong engagement with globalization-work together in shaping the culture of Taiwan. Through analyzing both the outsider narrative (discourse constructed by media) and the insider narrative (discourse constructed within the Church in Taiwan), this paper evaluates how the American image of the Church has both benefited and challenged the Church in Taiwan. 2 The paper first provides a brief history of Taiwan and then outlines the development of Christianity and Mormonism on the island. Next it analyzes the media image of Mormonism and ways in which local members internalize Americanness within the Church. The concluding section discusses the benefits and challenges that accompany perceptions of an American church and reflects on the conceptualization of an American church in a global setting.

The Land and the Past

Taiwan is located ninety miles off the coast of Southeast China. In a literal sense, the island has lived "at the edge" for the past four centuries. 3 It has been a backwater frontier for both Eastern and Western empires; and its political ownership has exhibited remarkable discontinuities. 4 Aborigines-Austronesian-speaking, Malay-Polynesian peoples who have inhabited the island for about eight thousand years-have not fully been agents of their own political and economic fate for the past four centuries.

Western knowledge of Taiwan began in 1544 when a Portuguese ship first passed the island and aDutch navigator on the ship, Jan Huygen van Linschoten, named it I'lha Formosa (meaning "Beautiful Island"). Taiwan soon became a frontier for Japanese, English, Chinese, Spanish, and Dutch traders for commercial gain. The Dutch eventually controlled the island between 1624 and 1662. This short-lived Western occupation ended when the late Ming general, Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), retreated to Taiwan after his defeat by Manchu armies in China. The Zheng family expelled the Dutch, ruled part of the island for about twenty years, and eventually surrendered to the Qing regime in 1683. …

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