Religious Ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asia

by Julia Huang
February 6, 2018

This brief will begin with a description of the new forms of religious ties and of the trends behind them. It then offers a case study of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation to illustrate two distinct models of forming religious ties—post-disaster construction and social capital. The brief concludes by examining the policy implications of each model. This brief is part of the series “Re-examining Critical Links between Taiwan and Southeast Asia: The New Southbound Policy in the Tsai Era.”

Almost all the large-scale religious organizations headquartered in Taiwan, such as the Tzu Chi Foundation and Fo Guang Shan, have branches in Southeast Asia and maintain regular communication and visits. These religious ties have given rise to regional and transnational networks that are part of a global network that goes beyond the countries with which Taiwan has formal diplomatic ties. Such trust networks are active in local civic engagement in the region and have even facilitated the transnational delivery of disaster relief. They thus can be a model for expanding Taiwan’s relations with Southeast Asia through people-to-people communication and cultural exchange and can help build Taiwan’s reputation in the region as a soft power. This brief will begin with a description of the new forms of religious ties and of the trends behind them. It then offers a case study of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation to illustrate two distinct models of forming religious ties—post-disaster construction and social capital. The brief concludes by examining the policy implications of each model.

New Forms of Religious Ties

Up to the 1980s, the older forms of religious ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asia mostly moved from Southeast Asia to Taiwan. For example, Dejiao Hui (Moral Uplifting Society), a lay charity group that was originally founded in China and spread to Southeast Asia, came to Taiwan from Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.[1] In addition, monks and nuns regularly traveled between Buddhist monasteries in Southeast Asia and Taiwan. In sum, the older forms of religious ties are either centered on the Chinese diaspora or focused on monastic life, relying on itinerant individuals. They have, in a nutshell, relatively limited social impact beyond the realm of religion.

By comparison, since the late 1980s, the newer forms of religious ties have tended to spread from Taiwan to Southeast Asia. They primarily involve groups of lay followers facilitated by multimedia communication and frequent organized tours. In contrast with the older forms of religious ties focused on traditional rituals and sermons, the newer forms emphasize social engagement in daily life beyond the monasteries or temples (such as through sorting garbage for recycling, regular volunteering, and working at weekend bazaars or adult-learning centers) and help create a social network embedded in both Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

These new forms of religious ties involve two overlapping approaches of Taiwan-originated groups: proselytizing and relief. Proselytizing refers to recruiting local believers and practitioners in Southeast Asia. Relief refers to the delivery of goods and services in local communities.

Trends behind Present Ties

The new forms of religious ties are a result of two ongoing trends. The first is the global expansion of religious, especially Buddhist, groups based in Taiwan. The second trend is the rise of neoliberalism in Southeast Asia—in the sense that the state is playing a smaller role in social welfare as social groups, including religious ones, becomes more active.

Regarding the first trend, Taiwan’s religious renaissance since the late 1980s features a particular form of Buddhism, one that involves a modern organization with socially engaged programs and has a propensity for transnational networks of religious philanthropy, with an overseas development that overlaps with the Chinese diaspora. Three groups are often considered the major conduits of global expansion: the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, Fo Guang Shan (Buddha Light Mountain), and Fagu Shan (Dharma Drum Mountain).

These three organizations have several characteristics in common. First, all three have charismatic leadership and are transnational organizations. Second, they all are socially engaged and exemplify humanistic Buddhism (renjian fojiao, or Buddhism for the human world) with an emphasis on humanitarianism and education. Third, the three groups are similar in the timing, scale, and ethnic constituency (namely, Han Chinese) of their global development outside Taiwan.

The second trend behind the new religious ties is neoliberalism in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, for example, since the 1980s, both old and new religious institutions have become increasingly socially engaged and expanded their role in the public sphere beyond religious services. More importantly, neoliberalism entails a new ideology of individualism that promotes greater participation in civic life. Elsewhere, I have proposed to call this new sense of selfhood “civic selving.”[2] One related trend is the growing prominence of volunteers, in lieu of worshippers, in religious groups. In consort with the work of NGOs, this civic selfhood opens up a new field for religious practice. More specifically, the neoliberalism expressed in the organized efforts of civic-minded individuals has directly influenced the new religious ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asia by extending religious practice to secular sectors and thus increasing its social impact.

Tzu Chi: Post-Disaster Construction and Social Capital

The Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, a lay organization under monastic leadership that focuses on charity, exemplifies the two new forms of religious ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asia: proselyting and relief. Founded in Taiwan in 1966, Tzu Chi is perhaps the largest Chinese Buddhist charity in the world. It claims 10 million members worldwide, with branches in over 40 countries. In Southeast Asia, Tzu Chi has branches in Borneo, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The organization has also been successful in recruiting members beyond the Taiwanese and Chinese diaspora. Its development has followed two models.

Post-disaster construction model. The development of Tzu Chi in Indonesia is primarily in the form of relief. Tzu Chi completed three housing settlements, called the Great Love Villages (Da’ai Cun) on the island of Sumatra at Panteriek (a suburb of Banda Aceh), Neuheun (on the outskirts of Banda Aceh), and Meulaboh (250 kilometers southeast of Banda Aceh).[3] Tzu Chi was one of the first organizations to respond to the earthquake and tsunami in 2004 and has maintained years of large-scale relief programs in Indonesia. In 2004 alone, it built 700 houses in Panteriek, 2,000 in Neuheun, and 1,000 in Meulaboh.[4] In each location, Tzu Chi also constructed schools, medical centers, and community buildings. With infrastructure services like water, power, and sewerage, plus roadways and drainage, these projects were significant undertakings.

The Great Love Villages project has gained local recognition in Indonesia. Most significantly, in a Muslim-majority society with a history of religious and ethnic conflict, Tzu Chi, as a Buddhist group with a high ethnic-Chinese constituency, was able to maneuver around ethnic and religious politics and deliver relief in a sustainable way. The project successfully combined Tzu Chi’s experience in international relief and local Chinese entrepreneurship. Local acceptance led to the organization’s rapid growth in Indonesia, and hence to extended social engagement from local Chinese elite.

Some critics contend that the construction process, especially the house design and the distribution of benefits, could be more inclusive for locals.[5] Nevertheless, the model has opened up a vast horizon for the expansion of religious ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Social capital model. The development of Tzu Chi in Malaysia provides a second model for new religious ties that combines both relief and proselytizing. Malaysia is home to one of Tzu Chi’s largest overseas branches in terms of the number of local chapters.[6] The majority of the group’s Malaysian members are local ethnic Han rather than Taiwanese immigrants. The local ethnic-Han followers became members through existing Buddhist networks, such as neighborhood study groups, extracurricular activities at colleges and universities, sutra or scripture chanting classes and dharma events at popular temples, and a variety of Buddhist associations, such as the politically active Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia. These sources are important to the current discussion because they are the backbones of the associative life for the local Han Chinese population. In particular, Buddhist study groups and political groups such as the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia are important incubators for Chinese elite who play a leadership role in local and national politics, the independent Chinese-language school system, and Chinese-language newspapers.

In other words, Tzu Chi in Malaysia has developed beyond local Chinese civil society by building on existing networks. It is similar to a parachurch network—a system of links and ties among churches, congregations, and religious organizations, usually of the same denomination—and functions as a virtual platform and communication system rather than as one specific church or organization. In terms of scale, endowment, and human resources, Tzu Chi is able to conduct local and international outreach at the same time by virtue of its characteristics as a parachurch network. However, the relations between Tzu Chi Malaysia and local Buddhist networks are not formal, and the organization is still vertically linked to its headquarters in Taiwan.

In addition, my fieldwork found that local followers are consistently nonpolitical or apolitical. These attributes suggest that the latent social capital manifest in Tzu Chi is more Buddhist than political from the outset. The organization’s apolitical identity and the provision of facilities to the public allow Tzu Chi Malaysia, even with a high-profile Chinese constituency, to escape the ethnic enclave and pursue multiethnic and community-based civic engagement. Such benign nonpolitical engagement, in turn, invites the disadvantaged who have shunned formal politics out of fear of ethnic conflict to take the first step into the public arena and move one step closer to participating in democracy.

Policy Implications

These two new forms of religious ties have different policy implications. Relief, especially under the post-disaster construction model, demonstrates the soft power of charity and humanitarianism beyond diplomatic ties and across religious boundaries. However, this approach needs to encourage more local involvement, especially in the procurement of materials and design of housing, and distribution of benefits. Greater local involvement could provide an advantage by helping groups enter communities and further forging ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Proselytizing has the advantage of embedding religious ties in existing local networks. The example of Tzu Chi Malaysia shows the possibility of establishing a parachurch mobilizing system with a direct link to Taiwan and of converting nonpolitical locals into civic engagement. Combining both relief and proselytizing thus creates locally embedded, and hence sustaining, religious ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

This model would provide a distinctive people-to-people platform for the New Southbound Policy. First, it would enable the policy to expand its local influence by incorporating the relationships already established through religious ties. Taiwan’s religious organizations have built solid reputations and vast networks through the delivery of disaster relief, which could help the New Southbound Policy get a foot in the door in Southeast Asia. The Tzu Chi Foundation could thus serve as a model for collaboration with local Han Chinese elite and interaction with local society and government.

Second, the social capital accumulated through the proselytizing approach is a valuable resource for the New Southbound Policy to enter directly into the everyday life of civil society. One possibility is to disseminate, and hence promote, Taiwan’s highly developed Han Chinese cultural heritage through modern and cosmopolitan cultural goods and media that strongly appeal to the local Chinese population, especially younger and well-educated people who are the current and future local leaders. By extending its influence directly to the next generation, the New Southbound Policy will improve the future outlook for Taiwan’s relations with Southeast Asia.


[1] Chee-beng Tan, The Development and Distribution of Dejiao Associations in Malaysia and Singapore: A Study on a Chinese Religious Organization (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1985); and Bernard Formoso, De Jiao: A Religious Movement in Contemporary China and Overseas: Purple Qi from the East (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2010).

[2] Robert P. Weller, C. Julia Huang, Keping Wu, and Lizhu Fan, Religion and Charity: The Social Life of Goodness in Chinese Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 10.

[3] The funding for the first phase of the Great Love Villages project is allegedly $10,000,000, with a budget of $300,000 for maintenance. “Guo Zai Yuan” [The Profile of Mr. Zaiyuan Guo], in Baidu Baike [The Encyclopedia of Baidu], October 29, 2017,

[4] David O’Brien, Catherine Elliott, and Brendon McNiven, “A Duty of Care: Disaster Recovery, Community and Social Responsibility in Indonesia,” in Community Engagement in Post-Disaster Recovery, ed. Graham Marsh et al. (London: Routledge, 2017).

[5] O’Brien et al., “A Duty of Care.”

[6] “2009 nian quanqiu Ciji fenbu quojia diqu ji fenzhihui lianluochu fenbutu” [Global Distribution of Tzu Chi in Countries and Map of Branch Offices, Year 2009] Tzu Chi Almanac (2010): 456.

C. Julia Huang was until recently Professor of Anthropology at National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan. She currently teaches at City Colleges of Chicago. Dr. Huang is the author of Charisma and Compassion: Cheng Yen and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Movement (2009) and a co-author of Religion and Charity: The Social Life of Goodness in Chinese Societies (2017).