Sat 26 Nov 2011
One way to look at Taiwan is to think about it as a small scale version of what China could have become if history had taken a different turn. While mainland China went after 1949 through the radical changes brought up by the Communist take over, the island of Taiwan became host not only of the defeated nationalist government but also of some of the treasures of imperial China (like much of the Forbidden City thesaurus today at the National Palace Museum in Taipei) and continued cultural or religious traditions which were forbidden or at least much diminished in the rest of China. However this view risks to be somehow simplistic, as Taiwan itself has a history of its own which is to a large extent different and sometimes even antagonistic to the one of the Middle Empire, a history that mixes the seek getting rid of the successive foreign occupations while integrating their influences and the attraction of the great empire across the straights. There is no better way of understanding the culture of Taiwan than visiting its temples, marvels or architecture and art by themselves but also a mix of influences where the dominant Buddhism coexists with Confucianisms, Taoism and local beliefs in a way only religions of the Far East can do one near the other rather than one against the other as religions clash in the rest of the world.
All the temples I could visit during my stay in Taiwan are located in Taipei, and I have seen them all in one day. Liliana had the chance to see a few more out of the capital city of the island. The first we got to is probably the largest, the most beautiful and the most crowded temple in Taiwan – the Longshan Temple. It is located in the Wanhua district which is the Old Taipei whose buildings date mostly from the first half of the 20th century when the island was under Japanese rule. The neighborhood is by no means impressive, think like south Tel Aviv or Athens around the old airport, but as in the two Mediterranean cities districts this is where real life is. The first characteristics of the Taiwanese temples is visible from the first one – the dimensions are not meant to impose, and although the style and the decorations are exceptional, the buildings are organically integrated in the day to day life, they do not tend to impose or dominate.
It is when entering inside that you get the feeling of the complexity of the gathering of art and faith you are living through. The Longshan temple of Taipei was built the first time in 1738 by colons from the mainland province of Fujian, and was many times destroyed and rebuilt since then, the last major destruction taking place at the end of the second world war. It is said that much of the temple was then destroyed but the wooden statue of the goddess Guanyin, goddess of goodness stayed intact.
The visitor meets here some of the best examples of the splendors that are characteristic to the Taiwanese temples – the columns sculpted in stone, bronze or wood, the golden altars, the roofs with the arched shapes and the decorations that profile arabesques on the skies, the statues of the deities which sometimes smile, sometimes are angry, never indifferent, more human than representations of deities in other religions.
One of the motives met in the Taiwanese art is the crouching tiger which lent its identity to the country and the fellow Asian fast developing economies in the last decades of the 20th century. If the economic push-up may have cooled down the art in the temples remained.
Integration with nature is another theme which can be found in or around the temples, including the Longshan, maybe also an effect of the Japanese influence in the period of half a century they ruled over Taiwan between 1895 and 1945. Even if it is located in the middle of the city Longshan has a masterly man-made natural oasis with a fountain decorated with golden statues of sirens and dragons.
The most striking aspect for me was however the fact that all the temples that we visited in Taiwan were active temples, full of active practicing believers. I had visited several temples in Beijing, the sensation was that they were museums, and the ratio between visitors and believers was 99 to 1 and more. Here the situation is quite the inverse, an active and effervescent religious life dominates the atmosphere, and the visitors are the exception. Young and old people, women and men and mothers and fathers with children, people of all social conditions come and pray, and you feel that praying is part of their life and they are part of the permanent living soul of the temples.
The way people pray and relate to their gods may seem sometimes strange to the Western visitor. They bring flowers and food, they burn incense and knee and talk. Food offers may range from bags of potato chips to elaborated trays with roasted duck. What happens with all this food? it is used to feed the monks and nuns in the monasteries and if there is more left it will be distributed to the poor in charities.
One distinct tradition is consulting the opinion of gods on day to day issues, small or big, by throwing pieces of painted wood with crescent shapes. The position of the fallen pieces is read by the believers in ways known only to them and used as advice.
We continued our itinerary in the Wanhua district with the Quingshan Temple. The name of the temple comes from a king whose statue was brought to Taiwan and at the very place the temple was built became that heavy that the porters could not further move it, which lead them to the conclusion that it is the wish of the king to have a temple raised here in his honor. This is what happened and the year was 1854.
The statues of two fierce generals of the king not only keep guard of the temple, but also of the law and morals of the whole neighborhood, which it is said they patrol sometimes at night. There are many such stories in Taipei, which seems to be a city haunted at least as Edinburgh in Scotland is. Even the modern hotel we stayed in was said to be haunted by ghosts. Take a look at the statues and observe the striking difference to statues in the Western iconographic not only in the relation between divinity and the person who looks at the statue, but also in style, colors, closing. If there is a similarity it is more to carnivals and rites in the Spanish and Latino-American versions of Catholicism. The gods of the Far East are mostly exuberant and colorful, and not cold and cast in stone.
One of the beautiful elements of the Quingshan temple is the octagonal ceiling of the first hall, with delicate carvings. The number eight is considered in Chinese numerology as auspicious and lucky.
There are three levels in the Quingshan temple, each of them with praying halls, columns and altars. The rich decoration and the collection of objects – ceramics, wood carvings, golden statues – can be admired for hours.
The third temple in the neighborhood is the Quingshui Temple. It is built at the end of the 18th century and well preserved. The access is through an alley boarded by small restaurants. The god the temple is dedicated to is a protector of the Anxi province (where the tea of oolong originates from) but his protection extended to the city of Taipei since the temple was built.
In the courtyard we could admire the combination of the sculpted columns with traversal ornamentation of stone, wood, ivory, bronze – the mix of colors and materials providing an effect of richness and joy which is almost Baroque in its consistency and elegance.
Liliana had more time during the week that followed and visited a few more places out of Taipei, and the itineraries of the trips included more temples. Above are the statues of the Buddha in the temple near Keelung. Observe the huge ‘happy Buddha’ in the first plane and also the swastika symbol, which has of course nothing to do with the Nazis. In Chinese writing the symbol means eternity and Buddhism.
The temple at Cape Bitou is located in a natural environment that includes a lot of natural formations, one of them visible in the background of the picture taken by Liliana.
The place that probably I should be mostly sorry to have missed is the Zushi Temple in Sanxia. Most of its elaborated sculptures in stone and wood were created by or under the supervision of the local master Li Mei-shu (1902-1983).
Li Mei-shu was a painter, a professor of fine arts and a renovator and decorator of temples. The temple in Sanxia built initially in 1769 was destroyed during the war and it was Li Mei-shu who took over the renovation and decoration, achieving a masterpiece of the traditional art on a traditional structure brought back to life.
He was an artist of many media – wood, stone, sculptures and carvings. The delicacy of the line, the realism of the expressions and the elegance of the details are striking in all.
The combination of art – new and old – and of a vibrant and active religious life is the strongest characteristic that remains in memory from visits in the temples of Taiwan. When you visit churches in the Western world one has the feeling that the period of great artistic achievements of the religious art is well past, and the newer forms of expression are seldom equal to the ones created many centuries ago by the masters. It is not the case of the Buddhist religious expression the way we experienced it in Taiwan. I actually am pretty sure that creating art continues as we speak and new forms and objects will be added in the future to the treasures that we could admire during our visit.