Taiwan’s Fascinating Memorial Arches, Historic Tombs and Ancestral Shrines

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. 

Qinjing Arch, Kinmen

Qinjing Arch, Kinmen

Zheng Yong-xi Tomb, Hsinchu

Guardian statues at Zheng Yong-xi Tomb, Hsinchu

The beautiful Wuluanqi Cemetery  in Taiping, Taichung City

The beautiful Wuluanqi Cemetery in Taiping, Taichung City

View from the Tomb of Huang Wei over the flat plains of northern Kinmen island

View from the Tomb of Huang Wei over the flat plains of northern Kinmen island

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.

 

Memorial Arches

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.

The Huang Family Widow’s Memorial  At 228 Peace Park in Taipei

The Huang Family Widow’s Memorial At 228 Peace Park in Taipei

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”).

Zhou Family Widow’s Memorial, near Beitou MRT station

Zhou Family Widow’s Memorial, near Beitou MRT station

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).

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Zhang Memorial Arch, Hsinchu

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.

Lin-shi Chastity Memorial Arch, Dajia, Taichung City

Lin-shi Chastity Memorial Arch, Dajia, Taichung City

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), 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.

Memorial Arch for Ciou Liang-Gong’s Mother at Jincheng, Kinmen island

Memorial Arch for Ciou Liang-Gong’s Mother at Jincheng, Kinmen island

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).

Yimen Sanjie Arch, near Qionglin, Kinmen island

Yimen Sanjie Arch, near Qionglin, Kinmen island

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 (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).

Tombs

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.

Zheng Yong-xi Tomb, just south of Hsinchu City

Zheng Yong-xi Tomb, just south of Hsinchu City

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.

Tomb of Ciou Liang-Gong , Kinmen

Tomb of Ciou Liang-Gong , Kinmen

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.

Chen Zhen Tomb, Kinmen

Chen Zhen Tomb, Kinmen

Chen Jian Tomb, Kinmen

Chen Jian Tomb, Kinmen

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.

The rebuilt Tomb of Huang Wei , Kinmen island

The rebuilt Tomb of Huang Wei , Kinmen island

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.

Tomb of Huang Pien, Kinmen island

Tomb of Huang Pien, Kinmen 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.

Keelung French Cemetery

Keelung French Cemetery

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.

Tomb of  Chen Xian, Kinmen island

Tomb of Chen Xian, Kinmen island

Ancestral Shrines

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.

Ancestral Shrine at Shuitou, Kinmen island

Ancestral Shrine at Shuitou, Kinmen island

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.

The entrance to Cai Family Shrine, Qionglin, Kinmen

The entrance to Cai Family Shrine, Qionglin, Kinmen

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.

Wind Lion Statue embedded into the rear wall of the Cai Ancestral Shrine, Qionglin, Kinmen

Wind Lion Statue embedded into the rear wall of the Cai Ancestral Shrine, Qionglin, Kinmen

The Wind Lion Gods of Kinmen

Wind Lion God at Xiyuan

Wind Lion God at Xiyuan

Houhu

Sihu

Xiguoshan

Xiguoshan

It’s been many months since I posted a blog here, simply because I’ve been working flat out getting my new book (actually a pair of volumes), Taiwan 101: unmissable places, sights and experiences on Isla Formosa (working title!) researched and drafted. It’s finally getting there! Here’s a draft of one of the 101 sections (slightly abridged: the book will have GPS coordinates for each statue, and some more info) that will be in the book as a taster. Kinmen is a must-see stop in any tour of the ROC (I know – it’s NOT part of Taiwan, so no angry messages please!), and the island’s fengshiye (wind lion gods) are one of its quirkiest and most fascinating sights [my total of statues found and photographed to date is 78 of the 81 statues – wind lion god statue hunting can become an obsession!), so they deserve a chapter all to themselves. The pair of books will be out by the end of the year.

Lions and tigers are held in high esteem by the Chinese, although thankfully not only for the perceived benefits of their various body parts in dodgy Chinese medicine prescriptions. The power symbolized by both animals is perceived to protect, and to have a calming effect on negative forces. Just as the Tiger Tablet on the Caoling Trail on the New Taipei City-Yilan County Border in northeastern Taiwan was carved 150 years ago in an attempt to quell the gales that regularly buffeted travelers crossing a high pass near Taiwan’s northeastern point, the residents of windy Kinmen island turned to the lion in an attempt to improve the feng shui in its villages and to save them from a sand blasting whenever the wind picked up.

Near Dongxiao, eastern Kinmen

Near Dongxiao, eastern Kinmen

Kinmen wasn’t always a treeless expanse at the mercy of a capricious Mother Nature, however. Blame for reducing the once wooded island to a treeless, dusty expanse rests squarely on the broad shoulders of Chen Chenggong (Koxinga), who, during his attempt to defeat the Manchu government and restore the recently toppled Ming dynasty in the mid-1600s, landed on Kinmen and proceeded to chop down all its trees for timber to build a fleet of warships for the impending battle.

Koxinga was unsuccessful of course, and Kinmen was left largely bare of trees until another exiled leader, Chiang Kai-shek visited the island three centuries later, similarly bent on retaking China from the enemy. As the long war with Communist China started to drag on, he ordered the Nationalist army to begin a program of reforestation on the island.

Tahou

Tahou

However, long before the island’s earth-binding forests were restored, locals believed they’d found another way to protect themselves from the misery of the annual northeast monsoon winds that buffeted the island each winter. They erected guardian fengshiye (風獅爺; ‘wind lion gods’) along the borders of villages, at the mouths of rivers, and in other exposed spots around the island. In addition to commanding the winds, the statues were also considered to be village guardians, repelling evil spirits and misfortune.

Wind rooster on Lesser Kinmen

Wind rooster on Lesser Kinmen

About 80 of these unique statues (plus another hundred or so smaller statues, mounted on rooftops) can be found on Kinmen. Over half are to be found in Jinsha township, which bears the full brunt of the relentless northeast monsoon winds each winter. Most of the statues (the oldest of which are thought to date back to the late seventeenth century) are made of white granite quarried at Quanzhou on the mainland. The lions come in a variety of shapes, sizes and poses, and although they generally stand upright, some are crouching, laying, sitting down, or even look set to pounce. The majority of wind lion gods are unpainted, but others have been decorated, almost always in bright, exuberant colors. They all have wide, long mouths, intended to symbolically “swallow” the wind. The statues can be male (which are easily distinguished by their large, anatomically rather exaggerated hulu (葫蘆) or female. By the way locals believe that touching the hulu of a male wind lion god statue help expectants mothers give birth to a male heir. Lesser Kinmen (Lieyu), which has just one wind lion god, instead has as its village guardian of choice the curious wind rooster (風雞), of which six can be found on the island.

Lion at Dongxiawei, in the east of Kinmen

Lion at Dongxiawei, in the east of Kinmen

No visit to Kinmen is complete without seeking out a few wind lion gods, and searching for some of them is one of the best ways to explore the island and get into some really out-of-the-way places. The free island maps handed out by tourist information centers on the island mark almost all of them, but even with map in hand a few are very tricky to find.

Statue near the Qing dynasty Chenjian Tomb, east Kinmen

Statue near the Qing dynasty Chenjian Tomb, east Kinmen

The first wind lion god most visitors to Kinmen see is a brand new one that stands right outside the entrance to the terminal building at Shangyi Airport. Another new statue, 12 meters high, towers over Shangyi Environmental Park (尚義環保公園) on the main road a kilometer east of the terminal. A visit to the park makes a great introduction to the statues; an island in the park’s artificial lake is a miniature likeness of Kinmen, on which are stone replicas of 64 of the statues.

Kinmen’s wind lion gods start to look rather alike after finding twenty or thirty, and several are such a challenge to find that they’ll drive you mad with frustration, so below is a recommended selection of the most interesting, most beautiful, unusual, or most attractively situated, listed under the name of the village in (or near) which they stand. Much of the pleasure of wind-lion-god-searching is that it takes you to some of the most traditional and rustic corners of the island, so although most of the statues listed below are easy to find, even if you don’t get to see the statue, the nearby area is still well worth exploring!

 

Western Kinmen

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Xiabie (夏墅): The closest fengshiye to Jincheng town, this stylized, almost cartoonish, bright blue lion stands beside the road to Jiangong Island and Koxinga Shrine, in the tiny front yard of a newish house.

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Guanlubian (官路邊): Sitting under a huge banyan tree across a grassy field from the tiny settlement of Guanlubian, and staring out over pastoral farmland, this unpainted statue has one of the most peaceful positions of any on the island.

Guanli (官裡): Painted bright blue, with a bulbous red nose, bulging eyes and very prominent hulu. Beside Huandao South Road.

Oucuo lion a few years ago...

Oucuo lion a few years ago…

...and now...

…and now…

Oucuo (歐厝): Kinmen’s remotest wind lion god has finally been tamed. Once tricky to find, a path has recently been laid to it from the nearest road, and the lower half of the statue is now hidden in a rather plain marble plinth. Not as atmospheric as it was, but still worth seeing.

Sihu (泗湖): Large, yellow-painted statue, highly stylized. In the center of the village.

Houhu (后湖): Beside the road leading down to the beautiful, extremely long beach at Houhu, this unpainted stone lion has claws held up in almost comical ‘attack’ mode, and an unusual, fanned tail.

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Huxia (湖下): Delightful statue, painted in attractive ochre and brown, beside the road behind the village elementary school.

Central Kinmen

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Xiguoshan (昔果山) A lovingly painted, bright blue lion right beside the perimeter wall of Shangyi Airport, on the edge of a small village which features some lovely saddleback houses.

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Anqi (安岐): The tallest old wind lion god statue in Kinmen (3.8 meters tall), now sporting a gaudy new coat of bright colors, standing in a small park on the outskirts of the village.

Qionglin (瓊林): Probably the best-known (and most photographed) wind lion god on Kinmen, this is a fairly large one (almost 2 meters), standing conspicuously beside busy Huandao North Road (還島北路), next to the exit of the town’s wartime tunnels (which are open to the public).

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Zhonglan (蘭): Beside the south side of the busy Qionglin to Shamei Road, this small statue is painted bright blue, with a striped red-and-yellow chest, perched on an old army pillbox.

Chenggong (成功): Small and unpainted but rather fine statue on a marble plinth, with a fine back of furry curls. Check out the wartime Chenggong Tunnels nearby and the Chen Jing-lan Western-style House (one of the finest on Kinmen) with its outrageous winged Statue of Liberty, just behind the lion.

Eastern Kinmen

Tahou (Shanwai) (塔后): Not even wind lion gods are sacred anymore, as this one, just south of Kinmen’s second largest town, was recently moved a hundred meters from its original position, to make room for new housing development. The new setting is an improvement however, and the painted orange statue with its rather cute expression, is one of the most photographed on the island.

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Huqian (Shanwai) (湖前): Painted in faded orange and blue, this statue, unusually, leans forward, as if about to pounce. At road junction in middle of village.

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Tianpu (田埔): Near the easternmost tip of the island, this fine, skillfully carved statue right beside the road has an unusually friendly expression.

Yangzhai (Huishan Temple)

Yangzhai (Huishanm Temple)

Yangzhai (in village)

Yangzhai (in village)

Yangzhai (陽宅): This village has four wind lion gods, all worth visiting, and a few other interesting sights, such as the Chen Jian Tomb. The two most interesting statues lie either side of Huishan Temple on the eastern edge of the village. The statue in front of the temple is old and eroded, while the larger one a hundred meters away is brightly painted, with a large red nose.

Bishan (碧山): This fine old village, which boasts a couple of very fine old Fujian and Western-style buildings from the early twentieth century, has two statues, both slightly tricky to find. One lies in vegetation behind one of the Western houses, and the second, finer one (GPS coordinates below) is at the end of a short lane on the northern edge of the village. It’s tall, thin, and intricately carved both back and front.

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Shamei (沙美): There are no less than seven statues around the largest village in northeast Kinmen, although the little one just south of the main road to Jincheng, beside a small lake, is perhaps the most interesting. The tiny statue, painted deep blue, is shaded by a pair of small banyan trees.

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Yangshan (洋山): This lovely village beside the ocean towards the northern tip of the island is studded with attractive fish ponds, beside the largest of which lies a tiny unpainted stone statue, unusual in that it’s lying down, looking out over the water. A bit tricky to find in the maze of narrow alleyways, the village has a second lion, also a bit of a challenge to find.

Xiyuan (西園): A large unpainted male lion stands guard in front of the salt field office in this village near the island’s northern tip. A second similar statue (its mate) stands fifty meters away, behind the temple.

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Mashan (馬山): Near the famous observation post at the northern tip of the island are three interesting statues. A small one, looking out over rough grassland, stands to the right of the road shortly before arriving at the entrance to Mashan. A much larger one with a proud grin and prominent, goat-like legs is less than a hundred meters away, beside the new road along the sea dyke to Guanao village. The third, of similar size, is 500 meters further south, just off the old road south from Mashan to Guanao. Turn left at the pink tiled house.

The best of the best: five fantastic Taiwan day hikes

Shipwreck on the Chufengbi Coast Hike, Pingdong County

Shipwreck on the Chufengbi Coast Hike, Pingdong County

On the Stegasaurus Ridge, New Taipei City

On the Stegasaurus Ridge, New Taipei City

Jhuilu Historic Trail, Taroko Gorge, Hualien

Jhuilu Historic Trail, Taroko Gorge, Hualien

On the 'Cliff Trail', en route to Jiuhaocha aboriginal village

On the ‘cliff trail’, en route to Jiuhaocha aboriginal village

Cloud Dragon Waterfall, Batongguan Historic Trail

Cloud Dragon Waterfall, Batongguan Historic Trail

[Apologies for the false alarm a few weeks ago when I accidentally posted an incomplete version of this blog up on the site and immediately took it down again; it’s now – finally – finished!]

Without a doubt, Taiwan’s finest hiking is in its astonishing high mountains, but with a very few exceptions (the peaks of Hohuanshan and the Southern Three Stars, which are still out-of-bounds over half a decade after Morakot destroyed the road leading to the trailheads) arranging the logistics of the trip (permits, transport, accommodation etc) is guaranteed to prove anything from a headache to a full-blown migraine.

However Taiwan (and especially the northern half!) has scores of outrageously good day hikes, most of which are free of such irritating hassles, and there are enough hikes of all grades to satisfy all but the most demanding of hikers. After all these years, I’ve not even begun to exhaust the day-hike resources of this amazing island, and I’m still discovering great new hikes almost every month. Even so I thought it would be fun – although this list is likely to be added to in the future as I discover more truly outstanding walks – to briefly describe (in no particular order) a couple of the very best Taiwanese day hikes. I could easily have added several others: the Pingxi Crags and the tough Fengtou Peak Ridge traverse (both in New Taipei City), the shortish but exciting scramble up to Xingang Waterfall in Taidong, the Stone Dream Valley hike in Chiayi County and more classic day hikes, but here’s what I consider the cream of the crop – five low-altitude hikes that are really something – and all of which are (mostly) hassle free!

Jiuhaocha abandoned Rukai village (Pingdong County)

Traditional Rukai aboriginal house, Jiuhaocha

Traditional Rukai aboriginal house, Jiuhaocha

The easier route to Jiuhaocha runs from the village straight down to  the river far below

The easier route to Jiuhaocha runs from the village straight down to the river far below

Forget all the hype about Smangus. The oft repeated myth to the effect that this now-famous village in Hsinchu County was the last aboriginal settlement in Taiwan to be connected to the outside world (in the early 1990s) by road is hogwash! I know of at least three other aboriginal settlements that to this day can only be reached by a steep walk (and there are certainly others). the twin vllages of Dali and Datong, clinging to the side of a spectacular side canyon just off Taroko Gorge are reached by a magnificent hike that itself earns an honorable mention here. But that relatively popular walk pales in comparsion with the fascinating adventure entailed in getting to Jiuhaocha, perched high on a mountainside across from Mount Beidawu (one of Taiwan’s top hundred peaks), which rears up across the great valley. The mountain is sacred to the Rukai, which inhabited Jiuhaocha (‘old’ Haocha) until they moved down several decades ago to a new settlement beside the river far below. That village (called Xinhaocha; ‘new’ Haocha) was almost completely buried under many meters of gravel, rocks and sand when Typhoon Morakot struck in August 2009 (thankfully the inhabitants were all evacuated in advance), and now only the roof of the village church is visible amid a vast wasteland of bare rock and dirt that covers the broad, deep gorge.

On the cliff path

On the cliff path

Heading back along the riverbed to the trailhead at the end of the road

Heading back along the riverbed to the trailhead at the end of the road

An early stretch of the cliff path

An early stretch of the cliff path

The first and last part of any expedition to Jiuhaocha village means a lengthy stumble along the river far below the village

The first and last part of any expedition to Jiuhaocha village means a lengthy stumble along the river far below the village

Even before Morakot wiped out the original route to Jiuhaocha (the village somehow survived the catastrophic typhoon completely undamaged), the only way there was a 3-4 hour walk along a trail from the end of the nearest road. Now it takes twice that time to reach the village, along either of a pair of trails which together make one of the very finest low-level hikes in all Taiwan.  Although the hike in and out could conceivably be completed in one very long day, the 11-12 hour return hike should really be done as a 2-day trip, staying the night in one of the traditional (and unforgettably atmospheric) Rukai stone-slab houses in the village overnight. OK, this means it’s no longer technically a day hike, but it’s fantastic, and has to go in here! There’s no electricity (grid or transformer-supplied) and no running water in the village (you probably won’t even have any company, as the village has long been abandoned), but that’s one of the many attractions of this hike – this place is remote.  The hike is described in detail in another blog entry here. One suggestion though: when sorting out your guide (you must bring one – they’ll put you up in their house, and you’ll never find the way up there without one in any case) make sure it’s one who is prepared to follow the ‘cliff path’ up there, thus turning the hike into a loop walk. Some guides apparently won’t go that way because it’s very unstable and a little risky, and instead go out and back by the safer but less exciting trail that goes straight up to the village from the river below. This route is easier (and safer) but at the cost of missing some extremely impressive and wild scenery.

Chufengbi Coastal Hike (Pingdong County)

This little-known route, which isn’t really a trail at all, follows a dramatically scenic stretch of coastline in Pingdong County, at the far southeast of the island. Only two significant stretches of the coastline of Taiwan (they’re close together on the east coast, north of Kenting) remain completely undeveloped, with no road or formal trail to spoil the natural scenery. The northern stretch (the name of which escapes me at the mo) – has become hugely popular during the last few years, and requires aboriginal guides, a permit and whatnot. The southern stretch, from the settlement of Jiupeng south for about 12 kilometers to Jialeshui, a popular beauty spot north of Kenting, seems to be officially off-limits to the public, but since there’s no-one around to check and access is completely unimpeded (there are no fences to climb, and no obvious warning signs to turn a blind eye to) it’s worth the small risk of getting told off to walk a magnificent stretch of coastline. For me this is a clear first choice for a day hike in a region of Taiwan that so far at least has otherwise offered no truly memorable hikes (the only really recommendable hikes I’ve done in the south are the exciting scramble/climb/river trace up to Xingang Waterfall in northern Taidong County and of course Big Sharp Mountain above Kenting; Mount Beidawu is still on my to-do list.

The start of the hike, near Jiupeng

The start of the hike, near Jiupeng

Rock formations on the route

Rock formations on the route

The newly wrecked ship

The newly wrecked ship

The beautiful, untouched coastline

The beautiful, untouched coastline

A typical rock formation on the Chufengbi hike

A typical rock formation on the Chufengbi hike

It’s a very simple route to follow – get down to the coast at Jiupeng, at the end of a winding minor road (one of those wonderful hidden, out-of-the-way seaside spots with which the East Coast rewards those who take the time to really explore), and start walking south. There are a few scraps of trail in places, but most of the way it’s simply a case of following the foreshore, which consists of large, flat stones, areas of pebble beach, and amazing outcrops of flat sedimentary rock eroded into some of the most amazing shapes and patterns to be seen anywhere in Taiwan. Behind the foreshore the ground rises in steep, lushly foliaged hillsides, turning to sheer cliffs in some places such as at Chufengbi point itself, where incredible cliff formations greet the eye every few meters. It’s around 6 hours from Jiupeng to Jialeshui, so it’s an easy day hike. The northern half as far as (and just beyond) Chufengbi itself is possibly the best half for those that have to go in and back out the same way to return to their own car or scooter.

The Chufengbi hike is unique in Taiwan for its combination of pristine wilderness (so far it seems to be all but unknown – we met not a single other soul walking it on a fine-weather Sunday), beautiful, wide panoramas along the coast and out to sea, and rock formations which I found far more absorbing even than the famed formations at Yehliu on the northeast coast. Sealing the deal for me (although the walk would have appeared on this list even without this final cherry on top of the cake) is the awesome wreck of the Aviva Cairo, a ship that grounded here on September 22nd this year (2014) and presently lists alarmingly to one side, stuck firmly on one of this coastline’s many awesome flat rock formations. Coming upon such a big, dramatic wreck with no inkling that it was there was an unforgettable, one-off experience on our visit, but, even when it’s gone (or, like the other ship that was also wrecked here, a couple of decades before, has been broken into rusting pieces by a series of typhoons) the hike will still be a classic. Hoping to return myself in the spring, and camp the night in the old army post about halfway along the route.

Jhuilu Historic Trail (Hualien County)

On the cliff

On the cliff

Looking down...

Looking down…

The eastern trailhead, at Swallows Grotto in Taroko Gorge

The eastern trailhead, at Swallows Grotto in Taroko Gorge

Tyhe western end of the trail has some narrower, trickier patches to negotiate

The western end of the trail has some narrower, trickier patches to negotiate

If you’re a hiker and you’re in Taiwan, Jhuilu should need no introduction. Since reopening after a prolonged closure due to damage caused by the great 1999 earthquake, Jhuilu has become one of the most sought-after day hikes in Taiwan, and with reason. The famous portion (of which there are actually several, although the most dramatic is the first, coming from Swallow’s Grotto) is cut into a vertical cliff in the side of mighty Taroko Gorge, almost 500 meters above the road and river through the gorge far below. Fall off the trail and you’d only hit the cliffs in a couple of places before slamming into the road nearly half a kilometer below – it’s that vertical! Despite its alarming position the trail is pretty safe these days (it’s apparently been widened considerably), and can be seen as the “Yushan” of greatest day hikes in Taiwan – an absolute ‘must’ for all hikers, but (like the island’s highest mountain) also one of the easiest to do, and suitable for any walker with a reasonable head for heights. There’s a longer description of the hike here. The full route from Zimu Bridge to Swallows Grotto is a fantastic walk, but if the western side of the trail is closed (as it seems to be at times), the eastern part, from Swallows Grotto to the end of the first (and best) cliff section is the highlight of the walk. This is the only hike that does require a permit, which should be obtained in advance, although it appears that getting these is easier for foreigners these days, and it’s certainly a great deal easier than trying to secure a permit and camping/bed space on one of the popular big mountains!

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Batongguan Historic Trail: Dongpu to Yinu Waterfall (Nantou County)

Although the entire middle section of the magnificent Batongguan Historic Trail, which crosses the Central Mountain Range between Nantou and Hualien counties, is still closed following severe damage caused by Typhoon Morakot over five years ago, the two ends of the trail are both open for business as usual, and both are extremely popular. The eastern end, near Yuli in Hualien County, is usually called the Walami Trail, and is a very popular one- or two-day hike. For my money it’s it’s a bit underwhelming, considering the considerable effort it takes to reach the trailhead, although the wildlife you might see along it is pretty special. The eastern end of the Batongguan Trail, from Dongpu Hot Springs, however, is absolutely spellbinding in fine, clear weather, and is even accessible by public bus! Cut for much of its length into the sheer side of a canyon, with sheer drops below the trail and huge panoramas across the gorge and over towards the Yushan (Jade Mountain) range, it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful on a fine, sunny day. Add two dramatic waterfalls (nearly all daytrippers turn back by the second, Yinu Waterfall, or before) and it’s one of the best short hikes you can do in Taiwan.

The views from the trail are inspirational in fine weather

The views from the trail are inspirational in fine weather

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After Cloud Dragon Waterfall the route is less well preserved, although not difficult

After Cloud Dragon Waterfall the route is less well preserved, although not difficult

Like Jhuilu, the trail conditions have been much improved (following Morakot damage) and the present path (as far as Cloud Dragon Waterfall) is accessible to just about all walkers. Beyond Cloud Dragon the trail condition deteriorates, with a couple of small landslide sections to get the blood racing a little, but nothing very difficult, and Yinu Waterfall is a beautiful spot (and a quiet one, as many hikers turn back at the first waterfall) to rest awhile before starting the 6 kilometers back to Dongpu, where a cluster of nicely modernized hot spring hotels (some very reasonably priced) make a perfect excuse for turning the trip into a weekend. There’s more info up on my earlier entry here.

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The west and front peaks of Yushan (Jade Mountain) can be seen near the start of the trail, just after leaving Dongpu

The west and front peaks of Yushan (Jade Mountain) can be seen near the start of the trail, just after leaving Dongpu

Stegasaurus Ridge (New Taipei City)

Until I find an even better hiking area (and I’m doubtful that I will), the small sliver of countryside in eastern New Taipei City along the headwaters of the Keelung and out to the coast at Jiufen, Jinguashi and Shuinandong is, square kilometer for square kilometer, hands down the finest area in all Taiwan for magnificent day hikes.

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Among quite a few other routes, there’s the Pingxi Crags, Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk, Pingxi Three Peaks and the Fentou Ridge hike along the upper Keelung River valley, and the cluster of mountains and trails around Teapot/Banping Mountains, Mt Caiguangliao and Mt Nanziling above the coast at Shuinandong, which between them provide an astonishing range of great (and sometimes pretty challenging) day hikes.

On the ridge

On the ridge

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Best of all though is probably the hike sometimes called Stegasaurus Ridge, after the line of pointy, rocky little peaks emerging from the ocean and marching skywards to end at Mount Banping above the old copper and gold mining town of Jinguashi on Taiwan’s northeast coast. The route is easy to follow – simply start at the old copper smelting plant on the coast road beside the ocean near Nanya (the western boundary of the Northeast Coast National Scenic Area), find the trail at the back of the plant through the tall silver grass up onto the ridge, and then follow it (usually keeping right on the knife-edge blade of the ridge itself, with serious drops on both sides) all the way until it rejoins civilization at Mount Banping where proper trails return. There’s a choice of routes here, but the only sensible way ahead is continue the excitement by descending the rocky northern face of Mt Banping by fixed rope, and scaling the conspicuous rocky knob of the Teapot before a final descent to Jinguashi. These last two peaks are one of the classic walks of northern Taiwan, and it’s a fairly simple and safe hike. For more experienced hikers though, Stegasaurus Ridge is a far more exciting and mildly challenging option, well off the beaten path (there’s no trail as such for most of the way), and on a clear, blue-sky day (head up between May and October for the best chance of good weather) day hikes simply don’t get more exhilarating than this!

On the way up, near the trailhead

On the way up, near the trailhead

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On the Buddha’s Tongue (thanks to Joshua Fish for the photo)

Save The Sanctuary!

Sean McCormack’s inspirational venture, a shelter for abandoned dogs and other animals on the north coast of Taiwan, is facing closure after the authorities declared their structures on their new location illegal yesterday (November 20th), despite assurances in the past on the contrary. In Sean’s words: Public Works came this morning. They said we have to destroy the kennels, even though they advised us we could remove the roofs and lower everything to legal height, which we have spent a lot of time and money doing instead of finding a new place. Judy will be calling Mr. Kao, the official overseeing our case, to find out why this is happening.

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Sanctuary residents get a walk

The Sanctuary is a not-for-profit organization established in 2010 and run by expat and local animal lovers to give a home to abandoned, injured and unwanted animals. Its mission, in its own words, is ‘To relieve the suffering of animals in the Taipei City and Taipei County areas, through rescue, rehabilitation and rehoming…‘ Presently over 200 dogs, plus various other animals, including cats, birds, squirrels, and even pigs, call The Sanctuary home. Unfortunately, through reasons beyond its control The Sanctuary is suddenly facing eviction from its present location, and with a long and wet winter coming up soon, a new home for The Sanctuary’s many animal residents is urgently needed.  Continue reading ‘Save The Sanctuary!’

The Daylily Mountains of Hualien and Taidong

Daylilies at Chihkeshan

Daylilies at Chihkeshan

Liushidanshan

Liushidanshan

The harvested buds laid out to dry, Chihkeshan

The harvested buds laid out to dry, Chihkeshan

Winter is returning, and with it the Yangmingshan Calla Lily festival, which means that once again while heading up Yangmingshan to teach students there twice a week I’ll have to share the bus with gaggles of giggling young couples clutching armfuls  of white calla lily blooms.

What’s the big deal with calla lilies and the annual Jhuzihu Calla Lilly Festival? What drives so many to venture up into frigid, mist-shrouded Yangmingshan at the nastiest time of year just to see a muddy fields of apple-green foliage studded with white funnel-flowers which don’t even have a scent? Those who seem to think that the calla lillies at Jhuzihu make a fine display in the early months of the year really must make a point next summer of hiring a scooter, renting a car, joining a tour, or otherwise finding some way to get down to Taiwan’s east coast during the hot months (August and September are best) and see one of Taiwan’s most astounding annual sights: the blooming of the three great daylily plantations in southern Hualien and northern Taidong Counties Continue reading ‘The Daylily Mountains of Hualien and Taidong’

Shuiyang Forest: a remarkable reminder of the 921 Earthquake

Shuiyang Forest

Shuiyang Forest

The stream just above the lake

The stream just above the lake

Mianyue Ancient Tree, an hour's walk beyond the lake

Mianyue Ancient Tree, an hour’s walk beyond the lake

The great Jiji Earthquake, which rocked Taiwan on September 21st, 1999, caused both a huge loss of life and enormous devastation. However in several places the earthquake actually created new landscapes, some of great beauty, such as the lakes at Jiufenershan. None of these new landmarks, however, are quite as magical as Shuiyang Lake (水樣森林), which was born that night when a landslip blocked a stream running through a remote valley in central Nantou County, close to the epicentre of the earthquake. As the stream backed up behind the natural dam, creating a sizable lake, it also flooded a coniferous forest that once clothed the valley floor. The flooded trees, their roots deprived of oxygen, died, and over the following years the tree trunks were bleached white by the sun. The unique result now draws large numbers of hikers to one of Taiwan’s most arresting natural curiosities. Continue reading ‘Shuiyang Forest: a remarkable reminder of the 921 Earthquake’

Hua Island: truly off-the-beaten-track in Taiwan

Hua Island Lighthouse

Hua Island Lighthouse

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Hua Island village

Hua Island village

Hua Islander collecting wild beans near the island's north coast

Hua Islander collecting wild beans near the island’s north coast

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Hua Island (花嶼), with no airport and only three weekly boats connecting it with the outside world, is probably as far off the beaten track as you can go in Taiwan, short of walking several days into the high mountains. It’s the westernmost island in the Penghu archipelago (and is often quoted as being the westernmost point in Taiwan; in political talk Matsu and Kinmen belong to the ROC but are not part of Taiwan itself – look it up!). Quickly moving away from a highly sensitive subject, I think we can all agree that given it’s lack of connections with the rest of the world, Hua Island is something of a backwater. Continue reading ‘Hua Island: truly off-the-beaten-track in Taiwan’


Hi and thanks for visiting!

I'm a musician (a pianist) and writer who's been living in Taiwan since 1993. This blog is a new attempt to document my travels all over Taiwan and the outlying islands. I have written six books (Taipei Day Trips I and II, Yangmingshan: the Guide, Taipei Escapes I and II, and The Islands of Taiwan). Most of my post-April 2010 trips will hopefully appear here, along with some favorite past explorations, many of which are based on articles from a column I wrote (called 'Off the Beaten Track') for the China Post newspaper, here in Taiwan.

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