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Samstag, 27. Januar 2024

The golden age of Taiwan's indigenous missions


Internuncio Riberi with the queen and king of the Paiwan people. The monarchs received holy baptism from the Internuncio along with a number of the members of their tribe in the mid-1950s.

(Read Part I here and Part II here)

The fall of Beijing to the Communists in 1949 and the subsequent persecution of the Church in China not only caused thousands of Catholic laypeople to leave the mainland for Taiwan, but also brought a large number of native Chinese secular priests as well as missionaries, both Chinese and foreign, from a great number of religious orders to the island, such as the Jesuits, the Society of the Divine Word, Dominicans of the Teutonia Province, the native Chinese congregation of the Disciples of the Lord (Discipuli Domini), the native Sisters of the Oblates of the Holy Family, the Vincentians, the Camillians, and the Swiss Missionary Society of Bethlehem. 

In the early 1950s, the indigenous population of Taiwan numbered between 200,000 and 300,000[1].Belief in the native religious practices had already started to wane under Japanese rule, which clamped down on ritual headhunting, an important religious custom among certain tribes. This led to a greater openess towards Christianity. The large number of new missionaries and a growing interest in Catholicism among the native tribes meant that the Church could finally establish a lasting contact with the more remote tribes in the central mountain ranges and the eastern plains. The new missionary work was often characterized by mass movements of entire villages to enter the Church, such as 800 catechumens in three villages in the southeastern county of Taitung waiting to be baptized by the missionaries of Bethlehem. Sometimes “chance” encounters with the Catholic missions or Catholics proved to be providential, such as natives experiencing Catholic Mass while visiting the city or a fervent Catholic from the mainland sharing his faith with mountain tribes while attending to them as a medic. 

Yet there were also a number of obstacles the missionaries had to grapple with. The large number of requests for missionaries meant that even the large influx of priests and religious from the mainland was not enough to satisfy the demand. A system was adopted by several missions through which a group of indigenous Formosans would be sent to spend a month at a mission station where they would learn the most important truths of the Faith, which they would then hand down to the people in their villages. This offered the benefit of alleviating the lack of missionary personnel, but at the same time posed the traditional danger of mistranslation of theological concepts. Especially in the early 1950s, very few mainland missionaries were familiar with the Formosan languages. Due to the Japanese colonial period, the natives from 20 to 50 spoke Japanese fluently and there were Japanese dictionaries for some Formosan languages. But this did not help if their foreign missionary only spoke Mandarin or another Chinese language. Even if missionaries who were new to Taiwan visited the villages and watched the native catechist deliver his lessons using the large catechism posters common in the Chinese missions, the missionaries could not know whether the terms were correct or the delivery theologically sound. In one case, Fr. Castor Osorno, O.P., a Spanish Dominican who spoke the Paiwan language, suggested using the Japanese word akuma for devil or demon, as the islanders did not seem to have an equivalent in their language. The catechists did not agree with such usage, despite children showing fear when the word was uttered. In other places, among the Tsou people for example, Japanese loanwords like Seilei (Holy Spirit) were readily accepted as their own. This is just one example for the complex theological and missiological questions the missionaries faced, not to mention the need for a deep study of the customs of each tribe. Of this time Fr. Jakob Hilber, SMB, a Swiss missionary in Taitung, wrote: “So we work here, it would seem, against all rules of missiology, solely focused on bringing in the rich harvest which the Lord gives so abundantly—the mission Hwalien, to which Taitung belongs, has over 10,000 catechumens—in time.” The missionaries not only struggled with the languages, the large workload, and missiological questions, but at times had to face Taiwanese bureaucracy as well. Although Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek favored the Catholic missions in general and even wished for more missionaries for the indigenous tribes, access to the mountain tribes was made difficult through the requirement of the so-called “mountain pass”. This document gave outsiders access to the tribal areas but had to be renewed on a regular basis with the authorities. The pass was handed out reluctantly, especially when it came to the area of the Bunun tribe. The Swiss missionaries of the SMB also faced a unique problem: the Swiss government had recognized the Communist rule over the mainland early on, so the SMB missionaries were looked upon with a certain suspicion by the authorities. Lists were required of all attendees of the Christmas Mass at the mission, just as of any other meeting held at the parishes. When given the opportunity, Fr. Hilber would confront policemen who were following him so closely despite Taiwan having religious freedom. When comparisons were drawn to mainland China, where religious freedom only existed on paper, the authorities started to back off.

Fr. Alfred Giger, SMB. blessing the boats of the Tao people. Fr. Giger of the Bethlehem missionaries pioneered the missions on Orchid Island, studying the language and customs of the people and creating a vocational school to improve the indigenous' economic and social situation in a new Taiwanese society. He died in a car crash in Taipei in 1970 after 16 years of missionary work on Orchid Island.
(Picture courtesy of Missionsgesellschaft Bethlehem)

According to Fr. Ernst Böhm, 10,000 native Formosans entered the Catholic Church in the period from 1953 to 1966. Some also converted from Protestantism, especially Presbyterianism, to the Catholic faith. Interestingly, the argument of the antiquity of the Catholic Church seems to have been one of the main factors for Protestant Formosans to convert to Catholicism. The Catholic missionaries also tried to understand the aboriginal culture more deeply. Some members of the Tsou felt drawn to the Church when the Mayavsi feast was celebrated with a Mass instead of the offering to the spirits the pagans had made in times past. The Protestants had abolished the feast altogether, apparently not making an attempt of inculturation. Similar feasts of the Ami, the Saisiyat, and the Atayal were also “baptized”, while the Protestants rejected them in their entirety.

Since the 1970s, the Church in Taiwan has dealt with similar problems as in the West, such as a rise of materialism and a decrease in missionary activity and fervor. This of course also affected the indigenous Catholic population. In additon, it has been said that not all conversions during the “golden era” of the indigenous mission were sincere or inspired by a true understand of the teachings of Catholicism. Yet there have been clear signs of the indigenous mission reaching maturity, with dozens of native priests serving the Church today, especially the Diocese of Hwalien. Some liturgical and biblical texts have been translated into Formosan languages, such as the Four Gosples in Tsou by Fr. Weber, SVD. The consecration of two native bishops, Msgr. John-Baptist Tseng of the Puyuma people in 1998, and more recently of Msgr. Norbert Pu, Bishop of Chiyai, in 2022, shows how the missions among Taiwan’s indigenous tribes has reached its final stage of development, the implantation of the Church (plantatio ecclesiae) through a native hierarchy.

The great movement of Taiwan's indigenous peoples towards the Church in the 1950s and 1960s was likened to a pentecost on a small scale. A number of factors such as a loss of belief in the ancestral religions and the great influx of missionaries from the Chinese mainland worked together providentially to create one of the most interesting times of recent missionary history. May it receive greater attention in future missiological studies.


Ernst Böhm, SVD., “Missionserfolg auf Formosa – Warum?”, Steyler Missionchronik 1967

Rudolf Frisch, SVD , “Gruß aus U-fung”, Steyler Missionschronik 1963

Several articles from “Die katholischen Missionen”, 1953–1954 and 1955–1957

UCA NEWS, Bishop praises past missioners for preserving indigenous languages

Missions Etrangères de Paris, “Dans le diocèse catholique de Hualien, dont 95 % des fidèles sont des aborigènes, le nouvel évêque reste un Chinois Han”

Anton Weber, SVD “Mission Experiences in Taiwan, with a Focus on the Indigenous Tsou People”

Missionsgesellschaft Bethlehem SMB, “Das missionarische Umfeld der ersten Jahre

[1] The statistics given in contemporary Catholic publications often diverge considerably.

Mittwoch, 24. Januar 2024

A fresh start: the Dominicans return to Taiwan's indigenous tribes


The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Wanchin (Source: Abzeronow)

(Read Part I here)

The following centuries saw few missionary contacts with the island. A few decades after the Dutch had taken control over the Spanish missions, they were themselves ousted by the Chinese. The Jesuit Fr. Mailla was based on Taiwan from 1709 to 1718 as part of a larger effort to draw maps of all parts of the Chinese Empire, but it does not appear that he engaged in missionary activity vis-à-vis the natives. The Chinese increasingly settled the western plains, which led to the assimilation of the western tribes, who became known under the names Pepo (Chinese for “flat plains”) or Pepohoan (“savages of the plains”); the modern term Pingpu also means “plains”. Initially, the Chinese favored the natives through legislation as they feared an aboriginal uprising, but as the Chinese population increased, the Pingpu’s economic situation deteriorated. They could not compete with the Chinese, who used the island’s river system to irrigate their fields, doubling their crops compared to those of the Pingpu. At the same time, a deadly conflict started between the Chinese and the headhunting tribes of the mountain interior that lasted well into the 19th century.

On the global stage, the Treaty of Whampoa of 1844 resulted in the theoretical toleration of Christianity in the Chinese Empire. Fourteen years later, the Treaty of Tianjin led to the opening of Chinese ports to foreign trade. As a result, the Congregation de Propaganda Fide asked the Dominicans to return to Taiwan. The Taiwanese mission was attached to the Apostolic Vicariate of Fujian in southern China, which was staffed by missionaries of the Province of the Holy Rosary based in Manila. The first two missionaries, again Spanish Dominicans, to set foot on Taiwan again were Fr. Fernando Sáinz, a fiery and optimistic Aragonian recently ordained, and Fr. Ángel Bofurull, a veteran of the Fujian mission. They landed in the southern port of Takau (modern-day Kaohsiung). Due to the difficulties of the trip, Fr. Bofurull decided to return to the mainland for good, while Fr. Sáinz decided to man the mission alone with the help of a group of Chinese catechists. The mission was dedicated to both the Chinese and the native populations, but it soon became evident that the islander population was more susceptible to missionary efforts. The Chinese of Taiwan, especially the subgroup of the Hakka, were very attached to the worship of local deities, an obstacle to missionary work which continued well into the 20th century.

Fr. Sáinz decided to start the new mission with two foundations. One was located in Qianjin (also known as Chenkin) near Takau, the other in the interior some 40 miles from Takau in the Makatao village of Wanchin (also called Wanjin, Bankim or Bankimcheng in older sources). The villagers embraced the foreign missionary and on Christmas of 1862, the first two catechumens received baptism in the newly built church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. The year 1862 also saw the arrival of two further missionaries, Fr. Ándres Chinchón (later Vicar Apostolic of Xiamen) and Fr. Miguel Limárquez. Chinchón established himself in Qianjin, while Fr. Limárquez joined Sáinz in Wanchin. The mission in Wanchin would thrive, but not without sufferings. The Chinese Hakkas of the place harassed the native converts, a conflict that even led to Fr. Sáinz abduction in 1867. He was released after a ransom payment had been made. Furthermore, an earthquake destroyed the church in 1865. In 1866, natives set fire to the newly built church, and more earthquakes followed. This did not dissuade the Aragonian missionary, who forged plans to build a more stately and solid church which could withstand earthquakes and attacks. Around 1865, he also endeavored to make contact with the northern natives, who, it was reported, desired to have missionaries of their own. There was some hope to discover hidden Christians, just as it had happened in Nagasaki in the same year. A catechist was sent to the north in 1866 and the first priests arrived in Jilong, the site of the first Dominican mission in the 17th century, in 1868. Although the Dominicans noted some customs that they interpreted as possibly being of Catholic origin, they were not sure about their findings. Meanwhile, Sáinz had to return to the Philippines in 1869 due to his failing health, having served the Taiwanese mission in his pioneer role for a decade. The Jilong mission was subsequently given up for the time being.

"A Christian Pepohoan"

The 1870s started with the dedication of the new church of Wanchin on 20 February 1870. The massive building was designed in the Filipino colonial style and still stands to this day, having been elevated to the rank of a basilica by Pope John Paul II in 1984. The well-established missions in the south, especially the economically successful station at Qianjin, served as bases for missionary expeditions to the mountain tribes in the center of the island. The Spanish missionaries referred to these tribes generically as igorrotes, as they shared some characteristics with the eponymous mountain people of Luzon in the Philippines, who were also quite hostile to strangers. A mission was set up in Lo-chhu-chug in 1873 and another in Tau-lak (modern-day Douliu) in 1875. Missionary work was consolidated over the next two decades. In 1886, Fr. Francisco Herce reported that the mission in Qianjin had some 250 faithful from the surrounding six villages, while the church could fit 400. Around the same time, Wanjin had 535 faithful and the more recent mission Lo-chhu-chug, 147. Although the sources do not tell us of the number of indigenous persons of each mission, they were likely to form a majority, especially in Wanjin and Lo-chhu-chug, which were indigenous villages.

A group of "Igorrotes"

The Japanese occupation of Taiwan that followed the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895 had a negative impact on the missions in the island’s center. Chinese inhabitants put up the most resistance against the invaders and at same time spread the rumor that the missionaries and their faithful were collaborators. This led to the total destruction of the mission church of Tau-lak on 4 September 1895 at the hands of the rebels, with the Christians fleeing to Lo-chhu-chug. The Japanese re-established order, but the hatred of the rebels only grew when Fr. Giner reported the suspects who had looted the church to the Japanese authorities, leading to more killings by the Chinese. During a partially successful uprising in 1896, the mission was again attacked by rebel forces. Despite these setbacks and a number of earthquakes, the missions on Taiwan developed favorably in the following years. Taiwan was finally separated from the Apostolic Vicariate of Fujian and erected as an Apostolic Prefecture in 1913, not least due to Japanese pressure, as the new rulers looked with suspicion upon the mission that was run from the Chinese mainland. Under the second Prefect Apostolic, Fr. Tomás de la Hoz, who had been Prefect Apostolic in Shikoku in Japan for ten years, there was a perceived shift of attention to the Japanese Catholics, which caused a somewhat strained relation with the Chinese Catholics. In these years, the Japanization of the education system led to Japanese being introduced as a lingua franca both among the Chinese and the indigenous peoples. This Japanization later also extended to the Church, with Archbishop Doi of Tokyo asking de la Hoz in 1940 to step down. De la Hoz agreed, and the Holy See appointed Fr. Joseph Asajiro Satowaki (later Archbishop of Nagasaki and cardinal) as Apostolic Administrator. During the Japanese years, the mission saw a steady growth and World War II only affected it mildly, but missionary contact with many of the tribes of the center and east of the island was yet to be established. Satowaki returned to Japan in 1946, being followed for a short period by Fr. Raymund Tu Minzheng, until the leadership of the prefecture was back in Dominican hands in 1948, but only for a short period. What followed next would be the most impactful development in Taiwanese missionary history since the beginning of the mission in the 17th century.


José Eugenio Borao Mateo, “Dominicos españoles en Taiwan (1859-1960): Primer siglo de historia de la Iglesia Católica en la isla”

José Eugenio Borao Mateo, “Fernando Sáinz y el inicio del catolicismo en Taiwán (1859-1869)”

Yao-Sung Hsiao, “Restauración de las misiones católicas en Taiwán”

The Takao Club, “Road to Bankimcheng”: https://www.takaoclub.com/bankim/road_to_bankimcheng.htm

Sonntag, 21. Januar 2024

The early Catholic missions among Taiwan's indigenous tribes

Members of the Bunun tribe in 1900

The island of Taiwan (traditionally referred to as Formosa, “the beautiful one” in Portuguese) and some of its outlier islands are home to 570,000 native Austronesians, who are divided into 16 tribes recognized by the Taiwanese government. Taiwan’s indigenous tribes not only predate Chinese settlement of the island by millennia, but the island is also widely recognized today as the Urheimat of the Austronesian peoples, a large family of ethnic groups found today in much of Maritime Southeast Asia, Polynesia, and Madagascar, with minorities living in other regions of the world.

Traditionally, Taiwan’s indigenous tribes speak one of the numerous Formosan languages, which are often so distinct that even dialects of the same language are hardly mutually intelligible. Before the contact with Christianity, the natives followed animist beliefs, with some tribes practicing divination through bird behavior. The Tao people of Orchid Island believed in a “master of heaven and earth” called Simo-Rapoa, who has several deities under him. Some, like the Amis, had flood myths. What appears to be a common factor in the belief system of Taiwanese indigenous groups—irrespective of the belief in a supreme being—is the belief in good and bad spirits.

Currently, most government-recognized tribes live in the central mountain rage or on the rugged east coast of the island. The tribes of the western plains had been heavily sinicized by the early 20th century and had given up their distinct lifestyle, languages, and culture in favor of Chinese customs. They currently do not receive special recognition from the Taiwanese government. In recent decades, however, there has been a movement to achieve public recognition of the Plains tribes.

The Dominican mission from 1626 to 1642

By the 16th century, Han Chinese fishermen and traders had established connections with the population of Formosa, receiving deerskin, venison, and firewood in their trades with the natives. Yet there were few Han Chinese who settled permanently on the island. This changed when the Dutch East Indies Company gained control over large parts of the southern, western, and eastern coasts of the island in 1624. Although the Spanish had considered Formosa a part of the Philippines and hence Spanish territory since the late 16th century, it was not until the siege of the port of Manila by the Dutch in the same year that the Spaniards decided to also establish themselves in the northern half of the island to prevent further Dutch attacks on the capital of the Philippines.

A Spanish expedition was sent to Formosa on 8 February 1626, accompanied by six Dominican missionaries. Among them was Fr. Bartolomé Martínez, who had made a short visit to the island in 1618 and was enthusiastic about the missionary prospects, especially since he saw Formosa as a link to the greater empires of China and Japan. As the Dutch occupied the south of Formosa, the Spaniards had to find another port in the north and decided on Jilong, naming their fort “San Salvador”. The northern natives around Jilong, the Taparri and Kimaurri, were well-connected throughout the aboriginal societies of the island due to their trade in gold and sulfur. At the same time, they seem to have offered the most resistance to the influx of Han Chinese settlers into their villages, with very few Chinese settling among them compared to other tribes. As these two tribes spoke a lingua franca that the Dominican Fr. Jacinto Esquivel called Baçay or Basay, they are sometimes referred to collectively as Basay. When the Spaniards arrived at Jilong, the Basay abandoned their villages and initially tried to prevent other tribes from trading with the newcomers. Yet after some time, they offered to form an alliance with the Spanish colonists against hostile tribes, taking advantage of the advanced weaponry of the Europeans.

A map showing the Spanish (green) and Dutch posessions (purple) in the 17th century 

The first missionary contact between the Dominicans and the indigenous was facilitated by a Japanese Catholic who lived with his native wife and children in a village near Cape Santiago. He had been to Manila before and held St. Dominic’s sons in high esteem. The man asked for his two daughters to be baptized by the missionaries, making them the first Catholic[1] Taiwanese natives. The commander of the Spanish military expedition became the girls’ godfather. The Japanese Catholic also served as an intermediary when the Dominicans offered to make restitution for the damages Spanish soldiers had caused in the natives’ village. As a consequence, hundreds of Basay returned to their villages. In 1627, Jesuits and Augustinians also tried to reach Formosa, but failed. The Dominicans remained the only missionaries on the island until the arrival of a group of Franciscans in 1633, who were destined for the Chinese missions and therefore did not undertake any apostolic work of their own.

The first missionary to live among the natives was Fr. Jacinto Esquivel, who had asked to stay with the Taparri in 1630. The tribe showed reluctance at first: the stranger who would not marry caused suspicion. But the prospect of Spanish military protection seems to have turned the Taparris’ opinion in his favor. Headhunting was widespread among Taiwan’s tribes and was considered a sign of courage, so one could never know when an attack would be launched from a neighboring village. The priest would also intervene with the Spanish authorities to have native captives freed. Upon seeing this, more villages started asking for priests. Fr. Esquivel laid a firm foundation for his mission and moved on to live with the Kimaurri, before he decided to focus on a group of tribal villages known as Senar near the Spanish fort at Danshui. 

Catholicism soon gained a foothold among more and more villages. The islanders appreciated the chant of the friars and loved the statue of the Blessed Virgin that was carried in procession into their villages. But old habits of intertribal warfare did not die immediately. Such was the case when Fr. Francisco Váez told his Senar hosts he would travel to the rival Pantaos who had desired a missionary. He took some Senarians with him in the hope they could broker a peace, but his company instead forged a plan to kill the missionary lest he benefit the enemy tribe. When they shot their arrows at him, he addressed their leader with the words “Pila, I come to teach you the law of God, and you kill me?” After this, the Senarians fled from their villages. Fr. Váez’ successor, Fr. Luis Muro, obtained a Spanish pardon for his confrere’s killer, but most of the tribe remained in hiding. Trying to contact them, Fr. Muro was also ambushed and killed with arrows. Just as had been the case with Fr. Vaez, the natives cut of his hands and head. Following these events, the firm government of governor García Romero saw great missionary successes, as missionaries could travel more safely now. Fr. Teodoro Quirós, who would become the most veteran of the Taiwanese missionaries and wrote a grammar of the language of the Tanchui people, reported how he baptized hundreds and was not bothered during his travels as the villagers feared the governor.

But doom befell the mission when the Spanish authorities decided to abandon Formosa as a colonization project. It did not proof to be a useful deterrent to Dutch blockades and failed as a transshipment point between China and the Philippines. Sebastián Hurtado de Corcuera, the governor-general of the Philippines, argued in 1636 that most Formosan natives were hostile to Christianity and that the relatively small number of Catholic islanders could be settled in the Philippines instead once Formosa had been abandoned. The governor of Formosa, subordinate to Hurtado de Corcuera, was to prepare the Spanish departure from the island. This met with the resistance of the Dominican Provincial of Holy Rosary Province in the Philippines, Fr. Diego Aduarte, and from Dominican missionaries on Formosa, who accused the governor of playing into the hands of the Protestants. In August of 1641, the Dutch together with their native allies attacked the Spaniards at Jilong. Although they later withdrew, the attack that followed exactly a year later would bring about the end of the Spanish rule over northern Formosa. The Spanish colonizers who had married Formosan women brought their wives and children to the Philippines, while the rest of the Formosan Catholics seems to have stayed behind. It is reported that the Italian Dominican Fr. Victorio Ricci visited Formosa in 1662, still finding the Catholics fervent with some going to confession, yet this report seems doubtful as he stated he went to Tainan, which is in the south of the island where no Catholic mission had been established.

(Click here for Part II)


José Eugenio Borao Mateo, “The Catholic Dominican Missionaries in Taiwan(1626-1642)”

José Eugenio Borao Mateo, “Dominicos españoles en Taiwan (1859-1960): Primer siglo de historia de la Iglesia Católica en la isla”

Tonio Andrade, “How Taiwan Became Chinese. Dutch, Spanish, and Han Colonization in the Seventeenth Century”

[1] The Protestants undertook missionary work in the Dutch possessions in the south at the same time.