Wednesday, 7 January 2015

"Life In The Loony Bin"

On Monday, I was told a story about a New Year's Day activity in Taiwan which I had formerly been unaware of. I have not checked up to verify the story, but the other people present when I was being told the story all nodded in confirmation from their separate experiences. Apparently there is a temple somewhere in Nantou county at which two curious practices occur, the first of which is the issuing of commemorative NT$5 dollar coins (about GB 10 pence) housed within a small card to celebrate the new year and to confer good luck. Waiting to receive these coins was a queue of people... eight kilometers long.

The second practice which I heard occurs at this temple is the issuing of "divine loans", whereby visitors throw a religious version of a die in order to receive small sums of money between NT$600 and NT$100 which must be returned at some point later in the year. The ostensible purpose of this is that the loaned cash will bring good fortune to those borrowing it. I was told that some of those who take the "divine money" and subsequently do well during the course of the year then return much more to the temple than the small sum they originally borrowed; in one case, a man returned more than NT$3 million in addition to the NT$600 (or less) he borrowed. I asked whether the temple authorities were turning a profit by this practice, to which I was told yes... something of the order of NT$200 million a year. 

The story is noteworthy to me for two reasons.

The first reason is that an eight kilometer queue for a NT$5 dollar coin is a long line of lunatics. These are putative adults, presumably people in positions of varying responsibility who have voluntarily surrendered their rationality. It is as funny as it is disturbing. If I didn't laugh at it, I would have to turn my face to the wall in despair.

The second reason it is noteworthy is the question of whether the "divine loan" practice should be regarded as a scam or not. What would happen in court if somebody who had taken the money and then returned it without luck then decided to sue the temple for fraud? They are clearly advertising their "service" as access to luck, and there are clearly people who believe this, and yet it is clearly all a load of nonsense. Yet if both the temple authorities and the supplicants sincerely believe in the practice, then where is the dishonesty necessary to classify this as fraud?

There should be no prohibition of such superstitious practices, as they are clearly performed on the basis of voluntary mutual agreements. Yet the existence of blatant and exotic forms of superstition like this gives me an uneasy feeling about the society I am living in - not unlike a suppressed fear whilst swimming in the ocean at night. There be crazies beneath the waves...

Today is my birthday.

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