Bypassed by history: the lucky escape of Taiwan’s temples

By Tom Billinge on November 10, 2015
Tzushr Temple Courtyard - Taiwan. Image by Tiffany (CC BY-NC 2.0) -

In 1949, Taiwan and mainland China parted ways as the embattled nationalist Kuomintang finally lost out to the forces of the People’s Liberation Army and fled to the island. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s saw the Red Guard destroy the “Four Olds” (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas). Alongside other cultural remnants of China’s history, temples suffered greatly at the hands of overzealous student soldiers in a frenzy of destruction that lasted a decade. Already relentlessly attacked by the Japanese imperial forces though years of sustained ethnic warfare, Chinese traditional culture was on its last legs when Red Guard threw in its finishing blows.

While the People’s Republic of China was going through cultural cleansing in the mid-20th century, Taiwan (Republic of China) was undergoing a different kind of struggle. The Kuomintang, determined to stamp their authority on the island, kept the country in a state of martial law. They also promoted Chinese traditionalism, the absolute opposite of what was happening on the mainland. Taiwan has been left as a cultural time capsule in terms of its religious structures; even after the lifting of martial law and the advent of democracy in the 1980s, the island maintained its traditions. Only now is China trying to regain what it lost, and by looking at “little brother” in the south, it might be able to achieve this to some degree. Through cultural exchange and by studying Taiwanese techniques, China can continue to rebuild and restore its neglected and damaged temples. Yet under the influence of heavy state control, whether the Chinese people will embrace their religious heritage in its sanctioned form or not is less certain.

Penghu Tianhou Temple
Penghu Tianhou Temple - Taiwan. Image credits: peellden (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Historically, the most famous Chinese temple builders came from Fujian province and were renowned for their exquisite Mǐn Nán (Southern Fujian) style. The swallowtail roofs, detailed stone and brick carving and jiǎnnián porcelain mosaic sculpture. Taiwan, so close to Fujian, has been populated by the Hoklo people of Fujian since the 17th century. The Hoklo had been slowly moving toward Taiwan long before, building the Tian Hou Temple (Pénghú Tiān Hòu Gōng) on Penghu Island, off the coast of Taiwan in 1593. As the Hoklo began to outnumber the Taiwanese aborigines and form the majority of the population, Taiwan became a repository of Mǐn Nán culture.

While some temples were built in the 17th century, like the Chaotian Temple in Beigang (Běigǎng Cháotiān Gōng), most of the great temples of Taiwan were built between the 18th and early 20th century. Famous artisans were brought over for this purpose from mainland China, even in the midst of Japanese colonial rule. This crucial point in history helped preserve important structures as well as the techniques that were used to build them. It engendered a blueprint that can now be used to recreate and emulate these old temple crafts in the modern age.

Many of the grand Taiwanese temples fell into disrepair in the early days of Japanese rule, but as time passed, the Japanese began to allow the Chinese community to take back their culture and the 1920s and 30s saw a resurgence in temple reconstruction and maintenance. Manka Lungshan Temple (Měngxiá Lóngshān Sì) in Taipei, for example, was originally constructed in 1738, but rebuilt under the supervision of the renowned master builder Wang Yi-Shun in the 1920s, at the height of Japanese rule. The fabulous Tzushr Temple (Zǔshī Miào) in Sansia had to wait until after World War II to get the work it needed done. First built in 1769, Tzushr Temple was reconstructed by a wealthy family in the late 1940s. There are several cases like this, where local families of high standing funded the temple's reconstruction during the post-war period. In contrast, the same period in China saw money stripped from the local elites and the temples looted of their riches. Many of these wonderful buildings were re-purposed for secular use or simply allowed to fall into decay.

Numerous temples were neglected and fell into disrepair during martial law. This was based more on scant resources rather than a total disregard for old ways, as was the case in mainland China. Temples continued to thrive within their communities and the number of worshipers remained steady, allowing for transmission of ritual and tradition into the modern era. In the 1990s, many temples were again repaired and brought back to their full glory.

Bao'an Temple
Bao'an Temple in Taipei. Image credits: Tom Billinge

The awe inspiring Bao’an Temple (Dàlóngdòng Bǎoān Gōng) in Taipei is an excellent example of this. In 1804, the local clansmen of the Tong’an district began work on a grand temple to replace an old wooden shrine in the area from 1742. The temple, dedicated to Bǎoshēng Dàdì (Life Protection Emperor) remained popular throughout Japanese rule, having a series of extensions carried out over the period. After World War II, the temple continued to be a hive of activity, but deteriorated over the years. In 1995, renovation work began and the dazzling gilded wood and murals were returned to life. The temple is particularly known for its door gods, which are considered masterpieces.

Being the capital city, Taipei has several temples of this standard. Some of them are in surprising places, such as the Cixian Temple (Shìlín Cíxián Gōng) at the center of Shilin Night Market. Walking through the illuminated market streets in the evening hours, the dark temple with light emanating from its doorway is quite a sight. Originally built in 1796 and dedicated to Māzǔ, the goddess of the sea, it was rebuilt in 1864 following a violent clan war. Renovated in 1927, it is a mother temple, to which god images from other temples are brought in order to restore their powers. Traditional activities have been continually practiced in Taiwan, whereas they are being re-learned in China, where intergenerational transmission was interrupted. In Taiwan, the religious stability allowed for the preservation of these traditions.

Confucianism was especially singled out for a particularly venomous attack during the Cultural Revolution, as it totally embodied Mao’s reviled Four Olds. Seeing the writing on the wall long in advance of this event, the patriarch of the Kong Family (the direct descendants of Confucius) gathered his clan and fled the Kong Family Mansion in the hometown of the Great Sage, Qufu in Shandong province. Resettling in Taiwan, the family had a fortunate escape from the carnage that ensued. The mansion and adjacent Kǒng Miào, the main Chinese Confucian temple, were ransacked and the temple’s imagery burned during the Cultural Revolution. The same fate was met by all other Confucian temples in China.

Confucius Temple
Confucius Temple - Tainan. Image credits: David Mills (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

As a stark contrast to the mainland, Taiwan has two large Confucian temples. Built in the 1880s, the Taipei Confucius Temple (Táiběi Kǒngzǐ Miào) was reconstructed in the 1920s by Wang Yi-Shun, who worked on Manka Lungshan Temple where his artistic hand can be seen throughout. While maintaining a level of simplicity, the roof of the main hall is as elaborate as any of the other great Taiwanese temples. The older Tainan Confucian Temple, often called the Taiwan Confucian Temple (Táiwān Kǒng Miào) was built in 1665 and renovated a number of times. The simple design of the buildings is in keeping with Confucian doctrine, but the temple itself has had its fair share of political tension. In 2008 the deputy chairman of the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Strait, a PRC organization, was attacked by anti-mainland Democratic Progressive Party protesters when he visited the structure, an act that Confucius may not have found meritorious.

The great irony is that the government of the People’s Republic of China are now the biggest proponents of Confucianism. However, this state sanctioned form of the doctrine is not exactly what Confucian scholars would recognize as a true version of the teachings. The new State Confucianism of China emphasizes deference of power to the state, but plays down the meritocratic elements of leaders ruling due to their moral superiority. The Chinese government sees Confucianism as a way to promote Chinese culture globally and the Confucius Institute, which operates from universities around the world, has been accused of being a propaganda vehicle. Importantly, this official rehabilitation of Confucius and his doctrine has led to the restoration of many Confucian temples around China. The craftsmanship is nearly there, but the sentiment is not and even the titanic Kǒng Miào in Qufu is little more than a tourist circus.

China’s dilemma is deeply rooted: once a nation has been duped into hating something, it is hard to teach them to love it again. Taiwan, on the other hand, never lost love for its traditions: it always held on to them dearly, even during the arduous years of military dictatorship. This, fundamentally, is the difference between the two. While China struggles to get back in touch with its heritage, Taiwan never lost contact with it. Perhaps the time is right for little brother to teach big brother a lesson in history.