Longshan Temple to ban incense burning by visitors in bid to reduce pollution

The 281-year-old Longshan Temple in Taipei City’s Wanhua District will ban visitors from burning incense at the temple in a bid to reduce pollution generated by the thousands of pilgrims and tourist who visit the site daily.

Temple authorities will cease providing incense to visitors and will forbid people from bringing incense sticks from outside starting March 13.

While reducing, and eventually eliminating the burning of incense has been a long-term goal of temple authorities, the decision to implement the ban now seems to have been spurred by the current fear of a novel flu epidemic.

Temple Chairman Huang Shuwei was quoted in China Times as saying that the temple considered the relationship between the current epidemic situation and that fact that burning incense generates PM 2.5 pollutants, causing harm to the human body and the environment.

Temples in Taiwan are under pressure to reduce pollution generated by traditional folk religious practices such as burning gold paper, incense, and using firecrackers.

While the government has been active in encouraging reforms of such practices, the issue is a sensitive topic as nobody wants to be seen to be infringing on the rights of religious freedom, or suffer a popular backlash by outright forbidding such long-term historical traditions.

But gradual changes are being made. In recent years, many temples have been reducing the use of firecrackers during religious processions by using machines that simulate the sound, designed to drive bad luck and evil spirits away, without generating smoke as a polluting by-product.

Longshan Temple stopped burning gold paper (Joss paper) as long as twenty years ago.

Reducing pollution from temples has been one of the policy platforms of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government since coming to power in 2016. In December of that year, temple authorities from around the country signed an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), promising to reduce pollution.

At that time, Longshan Temple announced that it would reduce the number of incense burners from three to one, with the goal of eventually having a completely sealed burner. Chairman Huang told Apple Daily that “in order to maintain traditional culture, a gradual approach would be adopted.”

The timing of this gradual reform seems to be tied to community perceptions including those generated by global news events, such as the current fear of a novel coronavirus epidemic.

In May 2019, Longshan Temple banned the burning of candles in the temple, citing that the decision was made to improve air quality, but also in light of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire.

Longshan Temple is registered as a level-2 cultural heritage monument, with a history of 281 years. However, while the temple was established in 1738, the current building dates back to 1945, when it was rebuilt after being destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War. Previously the temple had been rebuilt after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1815, and fire in 1867.

While next month’s ban on the burning of incense by temple visitors will significantly reduce the amount of smoke generated, temple authorities said that temple workers will still light some incense every day to maintain traditional worship traditions.

Cover picture: Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

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