The Temples of Taipei
By Scott Dicken
With over 12,000 temples registered across the country, it’s fair to say that religion plays a vital role in everyday life in Taiwan. In terms of pure numbers, Taiwan has one of the highest temple per capita ratios in the world. To put that statement into perspective, there are more registered temples than there are convenience stores in Taiwan (a statistic that I’m sure has the senior management team at 7-11 quaking in their boots).
That doesn’t only mean that the Taiwanese population practices a large number of common faiths in peaceful harmony (although that statement is certainly true). It also means that they take those faiths and mix them up with a hodge-podge of religious and spiritual beliefs that often overlap with native ‘folk religions’. This diversification means that a trip to Taiwan could have you visiting temples honoring Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, and Hinduism, in addition to the worship of divine figures as diverse as Mazu, the Earth God, and the Electric-Technco Neon Gods (yes, that’s really a thing and has nothing to do with rave music).
All in all, ‘religiously diverse’ is probably a good way to describe Taiwan and this is appropriately reflected in the temples of Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei. So, saddle up and take a quick tour of some of Taipei’s temples with me.
Mengjia Longshan Temple
Longshan Temple, built in 1738, is probably the most famous of Taipei’s multi-denominational temples. In my opinion this isn’t necessarily because of the temple’s size or because of any particularly exciting architectural characteristics. Instead, the real draw for me is the atmosphere. I’ve visited Longshan on two separate occasions and both times it was my favorite place in the city (in fact on my last visit I spent an hour standing in the same spot transfixed by the hypnotic chanting of some 200 devotees inside the temple). If you want to sample that same atmosphere of burning incense and chanting then you’ll need to visit at 6am, 8am or 5pm when devotees gather. The temple was built to honor Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, but has statutes honoring over 165 other deities (it would make for a fantastic, if somewhat challenging, treasure hunt!) and is guarded by dragons, phoenixes, and heroes from ancient Chinese folklore. There’s also a photogenic waterfall in front of the temple which makes for the perfect ‘I was here’ photo for Instagram (if you’re into that sort of thing)!
Confucius is probably best known as China’s most renowned philosopher and his teachings have gone a significant way to shaping modern day China. Taipei’s Confucius Temple combines the style of the Qufu Confucius Temple, and Southern Fujian architecture. The result is an architecturally simplistic temple (something Confucius himself very much valued) and you will see much less of the grandeur and adornment that you might see in Taipei’s other temples. The temple you’ll visit sadly only dates back to its reconstruction in 1928. Unfortunately, the original temple, which was constructed in 1879, was damaged beyond repair during the Japanese occupation and was rebuilt by Wang Yi-Shun, who also happened to design Longshan Temple. If you’re looking for more ‘enlightenment’ than a wander around the temple can provide then you might want to consider arranging a visit to the temple’s regular Chinese calligraphy and poetry classes. Carrying on the Confucian tradition of education these classes are free – in itself a great reason why the Confucius Temple is one of Taipei’s top temples.
If you plan to visit the Confucius Temple then you have no excuse if you don’t visit the Bao-an Temple as well; after all, it’s located right next door (well, technically it’s just around the corner). Located in the Datong District this Taoist temple was constructed in a fairly humble wooden design way back somewhere between 1742 and 1760 by Fujian immigrants. Today’s temple was reconstructed in 1805 (so not exactly a recent renovation), took 25 years to build, and was conferred UNESCO induction in 2003 for cultural heritage conservation. Architecturally, the temple is known for its stone-carved artwork; the oldest of which is located in the Sanchuan Dian (front hall) where you’ll find two dragon columns. As the 900sqft temple is dedicated to the Taoist saint, Baosheng Dadi a cultural festival is held every year to honor his birthday. Unfortunately, planning your visit around that date is somewhat difficult as it’s held on the 14th day of the 3rd moon…. nonetheless, if your trip happens to coincide with the festival then you’ll be treated to colorful parades worshipping the local agricultural gods, sweat inducing displays of firewalking, enough firecrackers to permanently damage your eardrums, and traditional cultural shows; quite the extravaganza!
If I had to give one piece of advice for visiting Ciyou Temple, it would be to visit at night. I first visited during the day and while the temple was aesthetically pleasing it was nothing compared to visiting at night when the temple is spectacularly lit and humming with crowds from the nearby Raohe Street night market (which is a great place to grab yourself some dinner by the way). The folk temple is dedicated to the Sea Goddess, Black-Faced Mazu and, if legends are to be believed, it was constructed by a traveling monk who happened to stumble across a of Mazu followers. They worked together for ten years raising the money for the temple’s construction. Finally completed in 1753 the temple is one of the oldest in Taipei and is one of the more elaborate of Taipei’s top temples to visit.
Having been constructed in 1967 Xingtian Temple is relatively modern when compared to Taipei’s other major temples. But what it lacks in age it makes up for in atmosphere as Xingtian is probably the busiest temple I visited in Taipei. Devoted to Guan-gong, a red-faced general who became deified and is worshipped as a god of war and martial arts, the temple is also one of larger temples in Taipei. The temple itself is a fairly simple design, so don’t go expecting the ornate adornments that you’ve seen on the other temples on my list. That said, the highlight of this temple (for me at least) wasn’t the temple itself, but the atmosphere created by the crowds interacting with the numerous fortune tellers and temple vendors (who seem to be particularly adept at taking commercial advantage of the crowds). It creates a somewhat heady and hectic atmosphere that makes the temple compelling to visit, and worthy of being one of Taipei’s top temples!
If you’re keen to find more inspiring tips for Taiwan, or Taipei, then make sure to visit the takephotosleavefootprints.com website.
About the Author: Scott Dicken is a world traveler and amateur photographer on top of being employed full time at an internationally known company. His love of travel is evident – you can read more articles like this at takephotosleavefootprints.com