Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fengshan's Divine Magistrate (

The Chinese folk pantheon is massive, and includes many deities said to have once been ordinary mortals. Most of these personalities - Mazu is an excellent example – are semi-legendary, and are believed to have spent their human lives on the Chinese mainland.
Some, however, undoubtedly existed, and spent all or part of their lives in Taiwan. Zhu Yi-gui is one. Born in Fujian, he migrated to Taiwan in 1713. While earning a living as a duck farmer in south Taiwan, he led an uprising against the Qing Empire in 1720. The rebellion collapsed and he was put to death, but he is now worshipped as one of a trinity of city gods in Tainan's Xiaonan Chenghuang Temple.


The likes of Zhu Yi-gui are commemorated because in their lifetimes they displayed great wisdom, righteousness or kindness. These are not qualities often associated with politicians and government officials, many of whom are regarded as self-serving and vain. So if a government appointee is still revered more than 150 years after his death in one of the places where he held office, he must have been an exceptional individual.

Cao Jin seems to have been such a man. A Qing Dynasty scholar-bureaucrat, he was born in what is now Qinyang City in Henan Province  in central China. Cao was already 51 years old when he arrived in 1837 in what these days is Kaohsiung City's Fengshan District in 1837. At that time, it was the administrative headquarters of Fengshan County, Taiwan still being part of Fujian Province and divided into four local government units. Cao’s position as Fengshan County magistrate gave him power over and responsibility for an area more or less equivalent to today’s Kaohsiung City and Pingtung County

Like other parts of Taiwan, Fengshan County had a lot of land that would have been ideal for farming if only water supplies were reliable. Realizing this, Cao ordered the digging of a 9km-long irrigation canal between the waterway now called the Gaoping River, but then known as the Xiadanshui River. Work began in the winter of 1838 and took two years.

Although the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the West - and it is said steam engines were used in China back in the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) - all the work was done by hand. Some 44 branch canals were also dug, and together they provided water to around 2550 jia of arable land, equal to 2,473 hectares. Even before it had been completed, Taiwan’s governing prefect, Xiong Yi-ben, decided to rename the waterway the Cao Gong Canal to celebrate the magistrate’s achievement. Cao Gong can be translated as “the honorable Mr. Cao.”

Intact sections of the canal can be found near Fengshan Railway Station. In recent years, the waterway has been tidied up. It is now a lovely place to stroll, and a fitting memorial to the magistrate. Look into the waters and you will see lots of fish, a few turtles and some frogs.

The Fengshan area was not the first part of Taiwan to have its fortunes transformed by irrigation works. Lugang was founded in the mid-17th century, but did not grow rapidly until after the completion in 1719 of a huge privately-financed irrigation system in its hinterland. Rice output rose dramatically, providing the surpluses which the town’s merchants exported to Fujian. Nor was it the last. The inhabitants of the Chianan Plain had to wait until the 1930s, when Hatta Yoichi (1886-1942) masterminded the construction of Wushantou Reservoir and a network of channels and ditches which converted more than 100,000 hectares of drought-prone, malaria-stricken land in Taiwan’s southwest into highly productive farmland generating three rice crops per year.

Cao Gong’s contribution to Taiwan’s development is not as well known as Hatta’s, but in Fengshan at least he is far from forgotten. Less than 500m from Fengshan Railway Station, a medium-sized house of worship is dedicated to his memory. Cao Gong Temple stands on Cao Gong Road; the school on the other side of the road is named Cao Gong Elementary School.

From the outside, Cao Gong Temple is little different to a thousand other shrines in Taiwan. Established in 1860 - 11 years after Cao’s death, and 15 years after he left his final Taiwan posting in Danshui (淡水) - it was totally rebuilt in 1992. The effigy of Cao on the main altar is no bigger than a child’s doll. Every summer, memorial ceremonies are held here on the 15th day of the eighth month on the lunar calendar. Inside the temple there are four-character inscribed boards presented in recent years by representatives of Cao’s hometown on the Chinese mainland. More interesting are the black-and-white photos which show how the canal looked a few generations ago, and the Chinese-only timeline of Cao’s life.

Cao Gong Elementary School boasts an ancient and gnarled bishopwood tree that was planted as a memorial to the official sometime after his death (no one is sure precisely when). During weekends and school holidays, outsiders are free to enter the campus via the gate on Fengming Street to look at what is called the Cao Gong Giant Tree. At other times, if you set foot in the school’s grounds you risk annoying the security guard. 

Fengshan has other relics within walking distance of the railway station. Two can be found if you go a little further east along Fengming Street. Fengyi Chenghuang Temple at no. 66 is one of the district’s three historic houses of worship; the others are Cao Gong Temple and Longshan Temple. Fengyi Chenghuang Temple was founded in what is now called Kaohsiung City’s Zuoying District, back when that place was called Fengshan and served as the headquarters of Fengshan County. After a rebel army led by Lin Shuang-wen captured old Fengshan in the late 1780s, the Qing court decided to relocate the county offices to the southeast. The city-god deity was moved at the same time, and the temple reestablished.

Adjacent to the temple, Fengyi Tutorial Academy was built in 1814 as a school where young men could study the classics and prepare for imperial civil-service examinations. The complex has 37 rooms, but has long been closed for much-needed renovations.

Fengshan’s Longshan Temple is not as well known as the houses of worship that share its name in Lugang and Wanhua. Nonetheless, it is worth visiting on account of the delicate carvings and paintings inside. If the temple is your last stop, the most convenient way of returning to downtown Kaohsiung or Zuoying High-Speed Railway Station is to take the KMRT’s Orange Line from Dadong Station.

This article was originally published on Culture.TW, a website sponsored by Taiwan's central government. As it's no longer online, I've posted the whole thing here. The photo shows a library in Fengshan.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Prayers and Flames: The Burning of the King Boat (Travel in Taiwan)

Taiwan wasn’t always the safe, healthy place it is today. Until the early 20th century, malaria was a constant threat and cholera epidemics were frequent. Lacking medical knowledge and influenced by traditions they’d brought from mainland China’s Fujian province, Taiwanese of Han descent lived in fear of plague-spreading demons. Naturally, they sought divine protection from these malevolent spirits, whom they called Wang Ye (王爺), or "royal lords."

The moment the King Ship left Donglong Temple (東隆宮), the exodus began. The vessel wouldn’t be set afire for at least three hours, but Taiwan’s most famous conflagration happens only once every three years, so we wanted to snag a good spot. Judging by the crowd that swept us through Donggang’s (東港) narrow streets, everyone else had the same idea.

Getting to the burning site was more like a mass escape than a religious parade. Because the crowd was so dense, I found myself taking short, shuffling steps. Every few minutes, we were jostled aside so a deity-bearing palanquin, or a team carrying one of the ship’s masts, could pass. But at the beach we got clear views as the sails were unfurled and the anchors raised. Then a king’s ransom in "spirit money" (yellow paper rectangles especially made for burning during folk religion ceremonies) was piled around the hull. Finally, volunteers laid long strings of firecrackers across this mountain of combustible material...

When the whole article is online, I'll post a link here. I blogged about this festival late last year.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Taro Town (Travel in Taiwan)

Thanks to Taiwan’s fabulously diverse landscape and climatic variations, the country’s farmers are able to grow almost every kind of fruit and vegetable, including many which aren’t native to the island.

If you’ve spent your life in cool climes, you’d be excused for not knowing what taros (芋頭, yutou) and sweet potatoes (番薯, fanshu in Mandarin; also known as 地瓜, digua) look like, or how they taste. Every Taiwanese can tell you in some detail how taros differ from sweet potatoes, however, and not only because they grew up eating them. The Chinese names of these root vegetables are cultural code words: “Sweet potato” is shorthand for a Taiwanese person whose ancestors came to this island several generations back, while a “taro” is someone who (or whose parents) arrived after 1945.

The taro has its origins in Southeast Asia, but these days is grown on a significant scale from Nigeria in the west and Polynesia in the east. No one knows when taros were first cultivated in Taiwan (long before 1945, that’s for sure), but there’s no doubt which part of the island can claim to be the Republic of China’s taro capital: Dajia (大甲區), a bustling town of almost 80,000 people which is part of Taichung City.

Downtown Dajia, just 6km from the ocean, is home to one of Taiwan’s preeminent places of worship, Jenn Lann Temple (鎮瀾宮)...

The rest of this article, which appears in the January/February issue of the magazine, can be read here.