Here’s another (somewhat abridged) chapter from my new book, Taiwan 101: unforgettable places, events and experiences on Isla Formosa (working title: feedback and suggestions for improving it welcomed!). It’s a bit more ‘specialized’ than the majority of the 101 sections, but these historic curiosities become remarkably interesting when you start to explore them, and they’re sadly little known and under-appreciated. The chapter in the book will include more examples of each.
At first glance, Taiwan’s historic relics seem rather humble in comparison with the island’s magnificent natural beauty and its extraordinary cultural richness. It’s a sad fact that much of Taiwan’s history has been lost for good owing to a lack of money in the past to preserve many old and crumbling structures, combined with an unfortunate eagerness to tear down historic houses to make room for more modern structures, or rebuild precious old temples simply to make them bigger and grander. Thankfully though, the Taiwanese authorities are generally far better these days at looking after the island’s remaining historic treasures, and, although Taiwan has little that’s likely to quicken the pulse of the average European historian, there’s a great deal of pleasure and fascination to be found by exploring the island’s heritage structures.
In 1982, the Ministry of the Interior promulgated the Cultural Heritage Preservation Law, classifying sites of special historic value into three grades (with Grade One being the most important). The classification waters were muddied in 1997 when an amendment to the law altered the grading system, classifying relics as of national, provincial or county (city) importance, although for some sites the three grades have also been retained!
In any event Taiwan’s quota of legally protected historic sites sounds pretty impressive, on paper at least: 19 Grade one, 49 Grade two and well over 200 Grade three relics, or if following the later classification 90 National, 385 provincial and 292 county or city relics.
Taiwan’s lawmakers classified the island’s heritage into twelve categories, and admirers of dusty old temples, private residences, forts, academic institutions and whatnot will find plenty to goggle at in the old towns of Lukang, Tainan, on the island of Kinmen, and also (to a lesser extent) in Changhua and Hsinchu cities. Taipei is also remarkably rich in fine old buildings, especially from the Japanese colonial era. Among the other eight categories featuring on the list however are such curiosity-arousing listings as ‘memorial arches’, ‘tombs’ and that ever-useful standby, ‘other,’ many of which have fascinating backgrounds, and are well worth a look if you’re already in the area.
The beautiful carved stone arches that commemorate the good deeds of citizens that lived on the island a century or more ago are as quintessentially, elegantly Chinese as the island’s old temples, yet remain little-known. Arches (known as paifang (牌坊) were generally erected to either record filial piety or chastity (usually a young widow who refuses to re-marry after her husband’s death) or to praise a person’s generous deeds, such as donating a large sum of money for a good cause.
Today about twenty of these fine structures remain on Taiwan and the outlying island of Kinmen, including no less than three in Taipei city. Two now stand in 228 Peace Park, after they were moved from their original positions during the Japanese colonial era when the city’s streets were widened. The Huang Family Widow’s Memorial (黄氏节孝坊), which once stood in today’s Ketagalan Boulevard but is now near the north entrance of the park, dates from 1882, and pays tribute to a lady who lived a widow’s life for 46 years following the early death of her husband. Jigonghaoyi Arch (急公好義坊), just south of the park amphitheater, was erected in 1887, and commemorates the charity of a businessman who donated money to build an exam hall to accommodate students taking government exams in Taipei, thus saving them a long journey down to Tainan. It used to stand in nearby Hengyang Road (then called “stone arch street”).
The third arch, the Zhou Family Widow’s Memorial (周氏節孝坊), stands close to Beitou MRT station, and was erected in 1861 to commemorate the chastity of a lady called Zhou Juan (who died 15 years before the arch was built) after the early death of her husband. To get there walk out of Beitou MRT station and follow the path underneath the elevated tracks north (away from Taipei), branching left along the branch line towards Xinbeitou. The arch is a few meters down a road on the right about 200 meters from the MRT station, and is signposted (in English).
The historic streets of Hsinchu, one of Taiwan’s most underrated cities, boast no less than four beautiful arches, the first three of which are dedicated to chaste widows. The Su Memorial Arch (蘇氏節孝坊), off Nanya Street (湳雅街) in the north of the city (just behind Carrefour) dates from 1880. A couple of hundred meters south, off Guohua Street (國華街), the fine Zhang Memorial Arch (張氏節孝坊, 1871) stands in a tiny space sadly hemmed in by ugly apartment blocks on three sides. Yang Memorial Arch (楊氏節孝坊), the oldest surviving chastity arch in Hsinchu (1824) spans a side street just west of Hsinchu Chenghuang Temple (the highest ranking of the many city god temples in Taiwan). Finally Liyangjin Memorial Arch (李鍚金孝坊; erected in 1879), stands just south of the city beside the busy Route 117, and is unique because was built to memorialize not a chaste widow but a filial son.
Standing in a tiny grassy park in the center of the town of Dajia (大甲), north of Taichung city, the handsome carved granite Lin-shi Chastity Memorial Arch (林氏貞孝坊), erected in 1848, memorializes a lady whose parents were so poor they gave her away at a young age to a family surnamed Lin, with the intention that she marry the son. The man died in an accident before they could marry, yet the chaste lady remained loyal to her dead fiancé, and remained devoted to the man’s mother. She died in 1864, 16 years after the arch in honor of her was built. The arch stands just down the road from the fine Zhenlan Temple (鎮瀾宮), starting and finishing point of the world famous Dajia Mazu Procession.
Tainan, fittingly, has several of the oldest surviving memorial arches in Taiwan [the Zhongdao Chongwen Arch (重道崇文坊; 1815) and Pangong Gate (泮宮石坊; 1777) will both be described in the Tainan section of the book]. In front of the beautiful Wind God Temple (風神廟) in the west of the city, the Jieguanting Arch (接官亭石坊), perhaps the most beautiful in the city, once stood on the shore of a channel connected to the sea, and official visitors from elsewhere would walk through it when coming ashore. Finally the Xiao Chastity Arch (蕭氏節孝坊), just off Fucian Road (府前路) a couple of hundred meters west of Tainan Confucius Temple, is the only surviving chastity arch in Tainan.
The island of Kinmen has some of the finest historic buildings and other structures in the entire ROC. The imposing and splendidly carved Memorial Arch for Ciou Liang-Gong’s Mother (邱良功母節孝坊), spanning a narrow street in the center of Jincheng (金城), the main town on the island, is the finest surviving example in the whole of the ROC. It was built in 1812 by one Ciou Liang-Gong, who was Military Governor of Zhejiang province at the time, in honor of his mother, who lived as a pious widow for 28 years without remarrying. As if anyone could underestimate its importance, or mistake its purpose, the characters etched in the arch read ‘By Imperial Order“, and (in golden characters), ‘Imperial Recognition of Chastity’. The good deeds of Ciou himself are commemorated by a smaller, less florid arch standing in front of his impressive tomb, near Qionglin in the center of the island (see below).
On a side road just southwest of Qionglin (瓊林) in the center of the island, the Yimen Sanjie Gate (一門三節坊; erected in 1831) honors Madam Chen and two of her daughters-by-marriage, all three of whom were widowed at a young age and never remarried. In their old age, Mrs Chen and her daughters’ extended family totaled over eighty people and spanned five generations, all living together under one roof. Just east of Qionglin, beside the busy road to the Shanmei, the main town in the northeast of the island, is the Qinjing Arch (欽旌節孝牌坊) topped by a finely carved pair of fish. These are carp, a pair of which symbolize a harmonious marriage.
Standing at the eastern edge of Yangzai (陽翟) village in the east of the island, the Chen Zhen Honorific Arch (陳禎恩榮坊) was built (on the command of the local government) to posthumously honor Chen Zhen (a local resident) after his son Chen Jian achieved great distinction in the provincial magistrate examinations, and became a high-ranking official. Another arch stands in front of the tomb of his son, who’s buried nearby (see below).
To this day, large, impressive and intricately decorated tombs seem almost as much in vogue in Taiwan as they once were among wealthy Europeans, and can be a minor attraction in their own right. Today’s historically significant examples, however, are mostly Qing (and occasionally) Ming dynasty tombs of Chinese officials, a few of which can be found on the main island of Taiwan and on Kinmen.
Just a few kilometers south of Hsinchu, the Zheng Yong-xi Tomb (鄭用錫墓), laid in 1869, marks the final resting place of the first Taiwan native to pass the highest imperial civil service examination, held in Beijing. Zheng was the owner of the Jinshi Mansion (進士第) in Beimen Street, one of Hsinchu’s finest remaining historic relics. His tomb is guarded by pairs of stone scholars, horses, goats and lions, a privilege only afforded to imperial officials. The tomb is in the compound of the military cemetery a couple of kilometers south of the city center, in a grassy meadow to the left of the main shrine building.
Dating from 1922, the Wuluanqi Cemetery (吳鸞旂墓園) is the finest (and biggest) Western-influenced tomb in Taiwan, set in a fine formal garden surrounded by a wall, featuring an enormous, extremely intricately carved marble base relief behind the tombs, which contain the remains of the Wu family, a famous and very wealthy local family. The tomb lies at the back of the Dongfang Village (東方大鎮) compound in Taiping (太平), a town just to the east of Taichung across the Dali River, almost a suburb of the city these days. Ask the guard at the entrance to the community compound for the “fen moo.” These days the enclosure is usually kept locked, but it can be seen pretty well from the gate in front.
The finest Qing dynasty tomb in the ROC is found on the island of Kinmen. The Tomb of Ciou Liang-Gong (邱良功墓園) dates from 1819 and stands in the center of the island, about a kilometer southeast of Qionglin. The tomb spreads out over a large area to give an impression of greater dignity, with a memorial gate and pairs of stone servants, horses, lions and goats. It’s signposted from the main road south of Qionglin.
Several other Qing dynasty tombs on the island are well worth visiting, although none of them are signposted, making them a bit tricky to find. Near the north coast of the island, the Chen Zhen Tomb (陳禎古墓), although smaller, has a more atmospheric situation, in a small wood just outside the lovely and very traditional village of Houzhai (后宅), while yet another memorial gate frames the whole ensemble. Chen’s son (who was a high-ranking official) is buried in the fine Chen Jian Tomb (陳健古墓) in the woods to the northeast of Yangzhai in the northeast corner of Kinmen, again fronted by a memorial arch.
On a small grassy hillock overlooking pancake-flat agricultural land south of Shamei town, stands the rebuilt Tomb of Huang Wei (黃偉墓), a Ming dynasty scholar whose tomb, if the present structure is anything to go by, was once as grand as any on the island.
Just outside the village of Yingkeng (英坑) a little further northeast the Tomb of Huang Pien (黃汴墓) is a lovely spot, boasting some beautiful stone relief carvings including dragon heads and a pair of guardian horses out in front, although its best feature is its beautiful setting in a small forest glade carpeted with thistles. The tomb is a five-minute walk along a track from Yingkeng village, past a couple of army buildings and up some stone steps.
Finally, there are the two cemeteries in New Taipei City dedicated to foreigners who died on the island during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tamsui Foreign Cemetery (淡水外僑墓園), at the back of the Tamkang High School campus at Tamsui, was established in the late 1860s and contains the graves of 69 foreign citizens, including Canadian missionary George McKay, and members of his family. Around the island’s north coast at Keelung, beside the busy coast road in the city’s port area, the Keelung French Cemetery (基隆法國公墓) is a small, peaceful, tree-shaded plot of land in which lie the remains of about 600 French nationals who died in battle or from disease during the Sino-French War of 1884-85. This isn’t the original site of the cemetery, which was moved here in 1909.
Ancestral (or family) shrines (家廟, 宗祠) are small temples dedicated not to various gods and immortals but to ancestors bearing a specific family surname. They’re quite common in Taiwan’s older towns and cities, and the finest are of real historic and artistic interest.
Naturally Tainan has plenty of ancestral shrines, including a rather beautiful example to one of the best-known and most revered surnames in Taiwan. The Zheng Ancestral Shrine (鄭氏家廟) is where ancestors of the family that includes Taiwan’s national hero, Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) are venerated. As usual there are no remains here (in ancestor shrines the spirits of the ancestors are believed to dwell in the tablets standing in the main hall), but a statue of a young Koxinga with his mother is in the shrine compound.
One of the finest ancestral shrines in the ROC is the Cai Family Ancestral Hall (蔡氏家廟; 蔡氏宗祠) in the village of Qionglin on Kinmen island, one of seven ancestor shrines in this village alone. The Cai (蔡) clan were locally renowned for their success in the imperial exams, hence the high standard of the architecture here. One of Kinmen’s seventy-odd Wind Lion God statues is set into the rear wall of the shrine.