During my several months studying in Taiwan, Taipei has been an extremely convenient, livable, and altogether a great place to live. Despite occasional pressure from schoolwork and some misunderstandings between friends, adapting to life in Taiwan has been relatively smooth. From easily finding a quick bite to stopping at the counter convenience shop for some miscellaneous items, Taipei has all sorts of quick and convenient options. Often I don’t even need to walk five minutes before finding almost anything I may need.
One thing that impressed me about Taipei is the MRT, or metro system. The Taipei metro system is relatively new and clean, not to mention, well managed and well staffed. Despite regularly being busy—filling to well over capacity during rush periods—the metro works well and orderly, which is impressive considering the MRT system was built in response to years of over-congested traffic problems. Many services are offered in the metro including charging stations for electric wheelchairs and free WIFI throughout. The Taipei MRT is consistently ranked as one of best public transport for service in the world.
The Taipei MRT is continuously expanding, with many new lines to be added within the next few years including one linking Taipei to Taoyuan international airport, which is normally almost an hour trek by bus. This line in particular, I learned, will be opened sometime between this summer and next year. Moreover, new expansions has helped to revitalize areas of Taipei including Tamsui (淡水, dànshuǐ) and Hsimen (西門町, xīméndīng).
With so many conveniences and amenities, sometimes I find it difficult to gaze past Taipei’s modernity to explore the stories and traditions of the past. Recently I had taken several short trips within city limits to do just that.
In the past week, I visited three major temples in Taipei. The first of which was Longshan Temple (龍山寺, lóngshānsì), or literally, mount Dragon temple. Longshan temple is the most well-known temple in Taipei and is considered one of Taipei’s most historic site and beloved landmark. The temple is ornate with many details—images, statues, and carving featuring Chinese stories, mythical or sacred creatures, flowers, and historical figures, among other things.
Longshan temple is built in the traditional Chinese palatial architectural style (傳統宮殿建築, chuántǒng gōngdiàn jiànzhu), having three main entrances and an inner courtyard, which in Chinese is refered to as 四合院 (sìhéyuàn). Similar to any traditional Taoist temple, Longshan temple faces the south, and visitors enter to the east to see an image of a dragon (青龍, qīnglóng), and exist on the west to see a tiger (白虎, báihǔ). Longshan temple, however, much like Taiwan folk religion combines various elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. At longshan temple as well as throughout Taiwan, the most important deity is Mazu. Mazu (媽祖, māzǔ), also called the Holy Mother of Heaven (天上聖母, tiānshàng shèngmǔ) was orginally a deity worshipped in southeast China, notably Fujian, as a deity protecting sailors, but in Taiwan, as in elsewhere, Mazu has become an important deity who serves many sacred duties.
Another temple I visited was the Taipei Confucius Temple (台北孔廟, táiběi kǒngmiào). Despite being built within the past hundred years, this Confucius temple is an important center for Confucian learning and ritual in northern Taiwan. One important festival is Confucius’ birthday.
Unlike Buddhist and Taoist temples, Confucian temple are more so centers of learning and ritual than simply for worship and prayer. Inside of deities, Confucian temples are built to honor ancestors, respect human nature, blossom human virtues, cultivate human learning.
Throughout the outer rooms of the court of the temple, there are various exhibitions showcasing Confucian thought and history as well as Chinese history including such topics as mathematics in ancient China, instruments used in Confucian ceremonies, and the story of Chinese characters. While there, I learned that the mathematical theorem often attributed to Pythagoras was actually discovered to have also been proven in China during the Shang dynasty (商朝, shāngcháo) and the Chinese also had a version of triangulation in use during the western Zhou dynasty (西周, xīzhōu).
Seeing these reminded me of something wise one of my good Chinese friends told me once. He spoke rather simply. The modern world is not as much of a “Western” invention as we are often told, nor had “the Chinese invented everything”—as some Chinese may tell you—but rather every civilization throughout history has had many important discoveries; which ones we choose to acknowledge is one of the way in which we determine our view of history. As far as understanding is concerned, however, it is best to keep an open mind and heart.
Bao’an Temple (保安宮, bǎo’āngōng), built over three hundred years ago, is of the oldest and most historic temples in Taipei. The primary deity worshiped in the temple is the Baosheng Emperor (保生大帝, bǎoshēng dàdì), or literally the protector spirit, a major deity of Taiwanese and Minnan (閩南, mínnan) folk religion. The temple is rather ornate in design, having many Taoist temple design characteristics. There are many beautiful carving and hand-painted murals. The temple is considered one of the most precious historic sites of Taiwan.
This weekend, I went to dadaocheng (大稻埕 dàdàochéng), which is a historic district of Taipei. Dadaocheng, also called Twatutia, following its Taiwanese pronunciation, was a major trading port in the 19th century and still is a major historical tourist attraction and market area in Taipei today. The district specializes in selling various dried fruits, tea, and Chinese traditional medicine. Although much is imported, there were several local specialties sold including mullet roe (烏魚子, wūyúzǐ) and oriental beauty tea (東方美人茶, dōngfāng měirén chá). The most famous street in the district is called Dihua Street (迪化街, díhuàjiē). On that street, some of the more “exotic” things I had seen were dried shark fin (燕窩, yànwō) and bird’s nest (魚翅, yúchì). There are also many small temples in the area including that the municipal god temple (城隍廟, chénghuáng miào) and a temple dedicated to Mazu.
On a final note, I enjoyed my little quest to find old Taipei, but I actually believe that traditions and the past can be found everywhere—not just simply in old streets (老街, lǎojiē) and temples. Whenever I go on the metro, I am reminded that Confucian thought still heavily resonates in the Taiwan, much as Christianity does in America. Although there might not be any direct references to filial piety at the MRT, there are many friendly reminders (溫馨提示, wēnxīn tíshì) throughout the metro system. For example, there are reminders telling riders to yield their sear to those pregnant, elderly or simply in need or to think of others when speaking on the cellphone, keeping phone calls brief and speaking softly.
Thank you for reading my blog and please leave comments. I’d love to hear what you think. I hope to share more about my adventures in Taiwan soon.