It is beyond the bounds of possibility that one could wander the streets of Taipei and avoid a run in with a temple or a shrine of some sort, and I just love love love that about this place. The thrill of turning a corner down some unassuming back alley only to discover a new (to me) urban sanctuary has me, well, wandering down unassuming back alleys. My personal quest is to visit as many temples as is possible during my stay in Taiwan.
While certainly ubiquitous, Taiwanese temples are anything but mundane. They appeal to me for many reasons, diluted down to these main ideas:
1. Visually, temples are stunning.
2. Physiologically, they make me feel good.
3. Temples in Taiwan are multifunctional – they are houses of worship, art museums, community centers, marketplaces, business halls, and I have even heard that some shady business goes down in these places. Hence, every temple is a new adventure.
4. Many temples serve tea. I happen to love tea and will go most anywhere that delivers me a hot cup.
I thought an elementary introduction (which is all that I can personally offer) into Taiwan’s temple culture might be nice. Here is what I know.
Temples in Taiwan might be Buddhist, Taoist, Confucius, or a fragrant potpourri of the three. The amalgam of various icons, deities, and folk gods under one temple roof breathes an acceptance that resonates in my life. That being said, I still like to know what is what and so I am sure to raise my head up as I prepare to step over the curb (intended to keep out ghosts) at the entryway to any temple I visit. Above is a sign with the name of the temple. Buddhist temples end in the character sì 寺. Taoist temples end with the character gōng 宮 or miào 廟. Confucian temples are called Kŏng Miào 孔廟.
As someone who is easily over stimulated in hectic, colorful and shiny situations, I welcome the Buddhist and Confucian temples of Taiwan. Typically, these temples have a subdued elegance and lack some of the more elaborate imagery found in their extravagant Taoist neighbors. But if you came for a festive experience, the Taoist temples are the place to be. Here, the aroma of incense fills the air as devotees throw divining blocks or burn ghost money. Groups of tourist take photos and people chatter away on cell phones while others read or quietly pray as the chaos enveloping them goes unnoticed. The sweeping rooftops of Taoist temples are lined with marching with icons. Dragons, representing all things good or pagodas are often the centerpiece in this line-up. These temples may be dedicated to Mazu, goddess of the sea, Guangong, god of prosperity and war or perhaps Tudigong, the earth god.
Some temples in Taiwan are quite old, but many are not. The number of temples has skyrocketed over the last few decades with the registered number of temples reaching around 15,000. Most traditional Taiwanese temples are southern, or Minnan style. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Northern Chinese architecture adopted a stiff and formal style that didn’t catch on in more remote or southern regions of the empire. When people emigrated from China to Taiwan, they built temples more aligned with the Song dynasty aesthetic principles. The temples of Taiwan represent a style that has died out in many other areas, hence they are special and worthy of my quest.
Zhinan Taoist Temple – First of all, this temple rocks because it has my two favorite things in life- Tea and Belaxation! Oh, it also has another one of my favorite things – signs with faulty English!
Xanzang Temple, Sun Moon Lake. The famous Buddhist monk Xuanzang led an epic journey from China to India in 629. He had a profound influence on the spread of Buddhism in China and apparently a fragment of his bone is now enshrined at this temple.
The architecture at Wenwu Temple has the palace style of northern China (wow, I sound like I know something about this stuff!). The front hall is devoted to the First Ancestor Kaiji and the God of Literature; the central hall is devoted to Guan Gong, the God of War, and the warrior-god Yue Fei. The rear hall of this temple is dedicated to Confucious. I bought some stellar tea here!