Cultural Tourism in Taiwan:What's in It for You?
China's political turbulence in the modern era has emasculated many forms of traditional cultural expressions there. These days,frantic and often careless modernization is bulldozing what's left. Singapore and Hong Kong have not seen preservation of traditional culture as guaranteed in the quest for rapid capitalist success. In the face of all this,Taiwan has consciously sought to preserve and foster all the richness of traditional cultural life,balancing this with the needs of modern profit-seeking existence. This is no easy task,and the beauty of the results are to be found in the eye of the visiting beholder you.
This annual ritual of devotion is repeated at hundreds of island temples annually. The Goddess of the Sea is one of Taiwan's most popular deities. At the time of the Mazu Festival,celebrating her birthday (23rd day,3rd lunar month),raucous celebrations erupt at about 500 dedicated temples around this land. Immerse yourself in fireworks,dragon dances,and parades of deity icons on inspection tours in sedan chairs. I suggest the fantastically ornate 200-year-plus-old Bao-an Temple in Taipei,given a UNESCO heritage award honorable mention in 2003 (www.baoan.org.tw).
And if you can take in all or part of the remarkable annual Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage,do so. Mazu devotees from the central Taiwan town of Dajia "accompany" their Mazu icon on her 8-day,7-night procession to the south and back,visiting one of the powerful temples I mentioned earlier (and about 60 others),covering about 300 kilometers. Many thousands join the spectacle,many tens of thousands come out to watch and pay their respects. All are blessed and protected by doing so. (Taichung County Mazu International Festival; mazu.taichung.gov.tw)
In spite of the intricate craftsmanship,Chinese temples,traditionally made of wood,have no nails or adhesives. They resemble traditional Chinese palaces for good reason; it is believed when Buddhism first appeared in China about 2,000 years past nobles lent their palaces for worship. Dedicated temples in similar style later followed suit. Daoists then followed this practice. A raised-beam construction technique is used,with the roof propped up on cascading tiers of transverse beams themselves propped atop columns. Notice that such buildings often sit on raised platforms of tamped earth; traditionally the columns sat upon giant stones set in the platforms.
Southern Chinese temples and thus those in Taiwan are far more floridly decorated than northern. You can easily define a temple as southern by looking for gracefully upturned roof ridges ending in "swallow's tails." The massive roofs and pronounced,gravity-defying overhang of eaves is the result of a brilliantly cantilevered system of brackets and trusses,intricately fitted together with mortise and tenon joints no nails/adhesives. Roof weight is evenly distributed on the brackets and columns,not on walls as in the West. To extend the roof,"simply" add more columns with brackets atop.
Temples have a rigidly formalized layout. A complex is insular,halls facing inward to open courtyard(s). This holds true for traditional courtyard residences as well. Halls and courtyards are fixed along a central longitudinal axis,right side symmetrical with left. In terms of fongshuei (geomancy),buildings should face south. This practice arose in chilly north China to take in maximum southerly winds and sunlight. Longshan Temple indeed faces south. The breaking of this rule is acceptable should the lay of the land facilitate the flow of ci (vital natural energy).
Chinese temples are usually home to more than one deity. They are arranged according to hierarchy,as were clan members in courtyard residential complexes. The main deity is on the central altar of the main (front) hall. To left and right are inferior but still important deities. A rear hall has icons/deities from lower ranks,side halls the lowest of all. You can immediately discern rank by roof height; highest means greatest. You'll also notice that worshippers generally move about paying respects to deities in order of their importance. (Note: When at a temple,do not point at icons,which is believed to anger the gods.)
As at Longshan,main temple doors often have images of fierce door gods,facing outwards,scaring off baleful spirits. Notice the raised thresholds in doorways; it is thought ghosts and spirits cannot jump over them. A temple's central doors are generally shut save for key festivals,for this is the home of the deities and only they can enter/exit here. Mortals use the side gates.
AS TEMPLES HAVE,as said,long been the center of local communities,courtyards and plazas have long served as venues for traditional-arts performances. But in recent times more permanent homes have been created in order to preserve and foster live-art traditions. Let's visit a few of the island's best,and call this section "Something Old in Something New."
Taipei's expansive plaza in front of the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall ( until recently named Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall) think of Forbidden Palace scenes from the movie The Last Emperor is a place of big-sky vistas and space to breathe. It is flanked by the massive,ornate National Theater on the south side and National Concert Hall on the north,built and painted a few decades back in colorful classical north-Chinese Ming Palace style. The plaza and performance venues are collectively called the National Chiang Kai-shek Cultural Center (www.ntch.edu.tw),regularly staging a wide selection of both traditional and modern events regularly staged in elegant emperor's-court trappings.
TaipeiEYE (www.taipeieye.org.tw) is perfect for the visitor who needs a quick wide-ranging primer on local performance-arts basics. Tailored performances of traditional Chinese and Taiwanese folk arts are staged for the tourist,introducing numerous forms Beijing and Taiwanese opera,puppetry,Chinese acrobatics,musical ensembles,and even native song-and-dance repertoires in an exciting 90-minute visual/aural kaleidoscopic sampler each Fri/Sat night. Subtitles are used when needed. Care is taken to explain the forms' evolution in the past century.
The National Center for Traditional Arts (NCTA; www.ncfta.gov.tw) in Yilan County is both a performance-arts venue and a living museum. Performances are staged throughout the sprawling 24-hectare site,opened in 2002. The dance,drama,music,ceremonies,and rituals are often accompanied by lectures and exhibits. Numerous traditional-style buildings explore traditional local culture,some relocated originals,others exact replicas of well-known structures. Spots I find especially enjoyable are Wunchang Temple (relocated),the Opera Stage,Guangsiao Hall (relocated; a family ancestral shrine),the Huang Jyu-ren Residence (relocated; a U-shaped courtyard home),and fabulous Folk Arts Boulevard (street with two-story buildings both sides,with traditional arts and crafts displayed and made,and with DIY sessions).
I've digressed because I enjoy that museum so much. This article's subject matter is,yes,this island-nation's traditional forms of cultural expression. The crown jewel in this department is the magnificent National Palace Museum (www.npm.gov.tw),always in the elite on international lists of our world's greatest museums. Though built in the 1960s,it also qualifies for our purposes as one of the "sleek new" museum-facility crowd because of the all-encompassing facelift and internal bodywork it has received in the past few years. The imperial-palace-style complex is itself beautiful to the eye,snuggled against the base of the Yangmingshan massif in Taipei's north. The countless treasures inside (actually,approaching 700,000) also tickle the visual senses,for here is the world's greatest trove of classical Chinese cultural treasures. The largest and finest collection of great Chinese artworks is here Song Dynasty paintings,Tang Dynasty ceramics,Ming Dynasty porcelain and more,and more. The majority of the pieces were part of the official private collection of the emperors of China,painstakingly hunted down over a 1,000-year period. Only a portion can be displayed at any one time; the remainder are safe in massive cooled vaults in the mountainside directly behind,protected against long-expected invasion from an obstreperous nearby national foe. Guess who. You can take in the emperors' collection for a very modest fee. Note that the museum has been expanding its focus in recent years to recognize the valuable contributions arising from Taiwan's unique cultural experience.
Runners-up on my list of guaranteed-to-stimulate museum entries is,first,the Yingge Ceramics Museum (www.ceramics.tpc.gov.tw) in the town of Yingge,30 minutes by vehicle south of Taipei,in what has been called the ceramics "mecca" of Taiwan. There are hundreds of kilns here,and many shops with items suiting your pocketbook capacity. The modernistic young museum takes you through the history and the how-to of island production; you can even get your hands muddied. Two other must-mentions are what I'll call living museums. Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village (www.nine.com.tw),in mountainous,landlocked Nantou County,has nine mock-up villages showing the native peoples' varied architectural approaches. Live demos of age-old arts and crafts are presented,and traditional song-and-dance extravaganzas staged. The Taiwan Folk Village in adjoining Changhua County has mock-ups of traditional Taiwanese architecture (and some relocated originals),with live demos of such traditional techniques as camphor production,candy sculpture,spirit-paper making,and joss-stick making.
What these last two venues offer,along with the Yilan traditional-arts center,you just won't find anywhere else. As they say,a picture or rather a live visual is worth 10,000 words. Leap on this chance,and the others presented. You'll be better for it.