Temples are Taiwan’s Castles and Palaces

Locals enjoy the surroundings of the Confucius Temple.

Five of Taipei’s biggest and best temples illustrate the importance of religion to the populace, both in the past and in the present.

Their curved roofs and overhanging eaves, gaudy dragons and almost psychedelic imagery, incense and incantations, mark out temples as one of the most distinctive features of Taiwan. For the Instagram generation, temples are a vibrant backdrop for their tropical travels and selfies, while the curious will discover they are a kind of stained-glass window into Taiwan’s soul.

A legacy of Han immigration from China beginning in the 17th century, temples were among the first structures built by the new settlers who, along with the necessities of life, brought their gods with them on the dangerous journey. Besides being places of worship for Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religion, temples were staging posts, community centers, and markets, providing education, edification, and entertainment.

In a way, little has changed. Temples are still at the center of life in Taiwan. They provide a focus for cultural events and holidays, such as Chinese New Year and the Dragon Boat Festival. Believers offer up their prayers and incense sticks to ask the gods for good health, a spouse or children, success in business, and good exam results.

Some Westerners, particularly evangelical Christians, are put off by Taiwan’s religious scene. On its website, for instance, the missionary organization OMF International mourns the fact that “traditional values and religions continue to exert a powerful hold over old and young alike.” It notes – not in a positive way – that “it has been said that Taiwan has more temples per person than any other place in the world.” To OMF, Taiwan “is an island soaking in an atmosphere of idolatry and superstition.” But then, one person’s superstition is another’s faith and devotion.

Although Tainan in the south has a strong claim to being the nation’s religious center, Taipei also has a number of well-known temples that are worth visiting. While the atmosphere nowadays is more subdued due to modernization, new environmental statutes, and voluntary curbs on burning ghost money, it is still intense. Visitors can savor all this and more by viewing five major temples, chosen for their size, importance, and history.

Baoan Temple (臺北保安宮)
61 HaMi Street, Taipei
台北市哈密街61號

Here is a prime example of how a shabby, migrant’s temple transformed itself over the centuries into a cathedral-like space that enshrines national identity, according to Wu Chao-te, a passionate and knowledgeable volunteer tour guide who has appeared on a number of TV shows and enjoys a degree of minor celebrity.

Wu tells the story of migrants from Tong-an County in China’s Fujian Province, who in 1755 brought over holy relics that were housed in a rudimentary wooden structure they called “bao-an” – meaning “protecting Tong-an people.” Baosheng Dadi is the temple’s presiding god, and his effigy is in the main hall. Also from Tong-an County, Dadi was a great doctor who was said to have worked many miracles and rode fairy cranes, eventually becoming an immortal and the God of Medicine.

Over the years the temple grew in importance and added new gods to the pantheon. As Wu explains, Taiwan’s temples tend to be polytheistic. Besides Baosheng Dadi, for example, Matsu, the Goddess of the Sea and patron saint of fishermen and sailors, also has a prominent place in Baoan and many other Taiwan temples. The early settlers of Taiwan from Fujian often carried effigies of Matsu on their dangerous journey across the Strait as a form of protection.

“Gods like Matsu are not so important in China, but here she was a vital part of a religion that developed over 300 years and has become part of the Taiwan identity,” Wu says. “Even so, to some extent we have preserved Chinese religion, which was banned on the mainland during the Cultural Revolution. Elderly Chinese visitors are amazed to see observances that they recall from their youth. Younger Chinese are not familiar at all with their religion and discover it here. They are not charged an entry fee either, which also surprises them!”

During the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), Wu continues, “the Japanese redesigned religion and this was very important. They created a ‘department store of the gods,’ a kind of one-stop shop for religion, a place where many gods could reside, such as the medicine god, sea god, fertility god, and so on.”

Wu adds that temples were frequently destroyed by earthquake, fire, or rival clans, but were regularly rebuilt with donations from prominent merchants or others in the community to assure their eternal salvation. These days the leading temples enjoy some government protection if listed as historical or cultural monuments.

At the close of his briefing, Wu mentions the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation, which was presented to the temple in 2003 after a seven-year renovation. Calling the results a “masterpiece,” Wu says it has served as a model for restoration as highly experienced traditional craftsmen, rather than simple building contractors, were chosen to work on the project.

Taipei Confucius Temple (臺北孔子廟)
275 DaLong Street, Taipei City
臺北市大龍街275號

Locals enjoy the surroundings of the Confucius Temple.

Just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Baoan, Confucius Temple has a more serene atmosphere, with sculpted gardens to walk around in and a pond to reflect on. The architecture is simple and tasteful, with unadorned beams, columns, and doors – a nod to the teachings of the great educator, who valued modesty above all.

Construction of the temple, modeled on the original Confucius Temple in China’s Shandong province where the philosopher was born, began in 1879. But building wasn’t completed until 1939 due to the Japanese occupation. The temple is now under the authority of the city government’s Department of Civil Affairs.

In the main hall is a plaque in the calligraphy of the late President Chiang Kai-shek bearing the inscription “Educate with-out discrimination.” It’s a fitting message, emphasizing the importance of education to Taiwan’s economic miracle and the Confucian tenets that underpin local life. Every September 28, on Teacher’s Day, a ritual presided over by the city mayor is held to honor the great man’s birthday, more than 2,500 years ago. To help visitors learn more about Confucius and the temple’s construction, there is a small theater showing 4D films. They might be a little cartoony for adult tastes, but have the benefit of English subtitles.

Hsing Tian Temple (行天宮)
109 MinQuan East Road, Section 2, Taipei
台北市民權東路二段109號

Temples are not all about history, and Hsing Tian is relatively modern in terms of its construction and outlook, having been built in 1967. One of the city’s most popular temples, with upwards of 10,000 visitors a day, it is nevertheless tranquil and spotlessly clean. While Confucius Temple has a well-appointed store for selling trinkets and Baoan provides a litany of festivals and tourism friendly events, Hsing Tian arguably has a more spiritual approach. This is slightly ironic, since the temple is dedicated to General Guan Yu (AD 160-220). Traditionally depicted with a beard and red face, he was a military hero and is the patron saint of businesspeople.

Yet no commercial activities are allowed on the hallowed grounds and there are no donation boxes or beggars. In the interest of discouraging waste and protecting the environment, the temple in 2014 voluntarily decided to remove offering tables for fruit, cakes, and cooked chickens. It also stopped offering incense sticks and got rid of its furnace for burning ghost money. Other temples are slowly but surely following in its footsteps.

One of the pleasures of visiting are the studious temple volunteers dressed in flowing blue robes. They will gladly explain the temple’s founding principles – “enlightening people’s hearts, enhancing spirituality and creating a harmonious society” – and list its charitable achievements. They will also likely encourage you to enjoy an exorcism, if you are plagued by malevolent spirits or nightmares. It’s free, takes five minutes, and all you have to provide is your name and possibly your address and age.

Guandu Temple (關渡宮)
360 ZhiXing Road, Beitou District, Taipei
臺北市北投區知行路360號

Detail of a carving at Guandu Temple.

A personal favorite, Guandu Temple – located near the Guandu Nature Park – has somehow been incorporated into the side of a mountain overlooking the Tamsui River. The small, brightly painted fishing vessels moored along the nearby quay, make it a picturesque destination.

Some historians date the temple’s origins back to 1661, when it was called Lingshan Temple (靈山廟). Others put the date down as 1712, when construction started on a new temple, after a monk from China brought over a golden statue of the goddess Matsu. Either way, Guandu is one of the city’s most beautiful temples, full of art, sculptures, and carvings. The painted rafters, ceilings, and beams are intensely colorful and further accentuated in places by winking LED lights.

Walking around the temple is like taking part in a religiously inspired art installation. There are caves that have been formed into hallways, with relief carvings on the walls depicting myriad mythological events. Inset into the walls are life-sized statues of the 28 Heavenly Emperors, brightly illumined and seemingly cryogenically encased in glass. At the end of one hallway, there’s a wonderful golden statue – overlooking the river and guarded by stone elephants – of Goddess of Mercy Guanyin and her many arms.

Longshan Temple (龍山寺)
211 GuangZhou Street, Taipei
台北市廣州街211號

The granddaddy of them all. Founded in 1738 and dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, the temple has been rebuilt multiple times, most recently in 1919 and again after American bombers in World War II targeted ordnance that was said to have been stockpiled there by the Japanese. The temple dominates Taipei’s oldest district of Wanhua. The surrounding area is full of markets, KTVs, a red-light district, and some of the poorest people in the city.

It’s a fascinating temple, decorated with impressive wood carvings as well as sculpted dark green granite imported from China or locally sourced volcanic andesite stone. The three-section design of the structure is made up of a front hall, rear hall, and a middle hall guarded by a pair of fierce, bronze dragons. Paper lanterns sway in the breeze, while plaques bearing poems are distributed throughout the complex. Reflecting the eclectic nature of Taiwanese religion, the rear hall is devoted to effigies of Taoist deities.

With its smoke and mirrors, Longshan can be a culture shock. Monks burn red candles placed on revolving golden candleholders, amid a scene that includes beggars, people possessed or crying for salvation, celestial messages written on tiny slips of paper, lucky amulets, and yin-yang divination. There’s nearly always a crush of passionate believers in the power of their ancient gods.

Compared to cathedrals

It’s jarring in a way. Taiwan is a progressive and highly developed nation – scientific, practical, and mercantile – yet its traditional religious base “is probably growing,” says David Blundell, a professor of anthropology at National Chengchi University. “Perhaps the younger people are not so serious about it, but they still go and when they get older they will probably have just as strong beliefs.”

“There’s money and the religion acts as a support system for people in their daily lives,” notes Blundell. “Religious sentiment is very strong. The temples are culturally effective and are imbued with the culture of the people, and that’s how the great cathedrals were built in Europe, to reach the heavens. Taiwan doesn’t have castles and palaces – it has temples.”

According to 2013 figures (the latest available) from the Ministry of the Interior’s Department of Civil Affairs, Taiwan is home to 27 religions and 12,083 registered temples. The actual number of temples is undoubtedly considerably higher, however, given that many go unregistered and there has been a growth in the number of private shrines.

One of the most prominent experts on Taiwan’s religions is Paul Katz, distinguished research fellow at the Institute of Modern History of Academia Sinica. He calls temples the “cultural nexus of power” and notes how religious life has evolved in a modern, urban setting.

He points out the nation’s leaders in recent history have generally been Christian or Buddhist technocrats who hold Western ideas of progress, which are at odds with Chinese folk religion. Superstition has therefore been frowned upon, the practice of writing out medical scripts in temples was banned in the 1980s, religious processions are reined in to avoid causing traffic problems, and “ecstatic rituals” such as self-flagellation have been largely displaced from the urban setting.

The old idea of clans and neighborhoods tied to their local temple is slowly dying out, Katz observes, since communities are now more likely to be formed on the basis of “friendship, rather than blood or native place.” Since they don’t serve the same function as in the past, the big temples have had to adapt, he says. Equally, people are looking at new ways to practice their religion. For example, “humanistic Buddhists” like the adherents of the Tzu Chi Foundation now emphasize caring for others by doing good deeds in the community, rather than praying at a temple.

In addition, the high cost of land has made it more difficult to set up large temples in urban areas. Although religion is not dying out, Katz emphasizes, the way it is being practiced has been transformed with the times. “The nature of religion has changed from being traditional or ascriptive, with a loyalty to large temples,” he notes. “Instead it is becoming decentralized, and there is a tendency to set up and join small and voluntary shrines, which are more important in the modern setting.”

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