Asia

The Confucius Temples of Taiwan (臺灣的孔廟)

There are few sights more common in Taiwan than that of its convenience stores and temples. The nation is home to the highest density of both per capita than any other in the world. Sometimes when you’re walking around it seems as if you’ll find a 7-11 on every street corner.

Taiwan is a very convenient place to live and even more so if you’re religious with more than 12,000 registered temples around the country - higher than the number of convenience stores!

If you are a visitor to Taiwan, one of the things you’ll quickly learn to appreciate is the attention to detail you’ll find in the temples here. A visit to one of the nation’s Taoist or Folk Religion temples is often awe inspiring for people unfamiliar with the architectural and artistic detail of these halls of worship.

Of the over twelve thousand temples that you’ll find around the country, around 80% of them are dedicated to Taoism and Chinese folk religion while the remaining 20% are either Buddhist or dedicated to philosophers like Confucius.

One of the most beautiful things about religious worship in Taiwan though is that even if you’re a Buddhist, you can still visit a Taoist temple and find a place to worship freely. The religious experience here in Taiwan can be an exciting one but also one that is harmonious.

Visiting a Taiwanese temple is an excellent opportunity that affords gives outsiders the chance to better understand the diverse cultures of this tiny island nation.

While the majority of Taiwan’s temples tend to be ‘loud’ in terms of both their noise level and their attention to artistic and architectural detail, you are still able to find places that are much quieter and a lot more peaceful.

If peace, quiet and a ‘zen-like’ experience is what you prefer, then a visit to one of Taiwan’s Confucius Temples is exactly what you’re looking for. Temples dedicated to Confucius, who was one of the most important Chinese philosophers and educators to have ever lived, are a stark contrast to what you’ll find at other local temples and stress uniformity and simplicity while adhering strictly to the concepts of traditional Chinese architecture.

Temples dedicated to Confucius are common sights throughout many Asian countries and even though some of them may add regional elements to their design, most of them are uniform in their design which is based off of the type of architecture popular during the Song Dynasty (宋朝 - 960-1279) and are more importantly modelled after the first Confucius Temple in China’s Shandong Province (山東省) where Confucius and his descendants are buried and has an over 1500 year history, making it one of the oldest temples in China. 

Link: Confucius Temples Sacrifices and Rites

Here in Taiwan, the history of Confucius Temples is considerably shorter with the first one being constructed around 350 years ago. With that in mind however its important to note that the temples dedicated to the sage have played interesting historical roles in the various eras of Taiwan’s modern development and in some cases can be a bit confusing (and also unimportant) to the average tourist.

Like the original temple in Qufu (曲阜), most of the Confucius Temple’s in Taiwan have been expanded upon, renovated and reconstructed several times over their history. Visitors to these temples have to keep in mind that what you see today is often much different than what you would have seen when they were first constructed.

Despite the fact that some of the structures you are able to visit today aren’t always as ‘historic’ as they claim to be, the important thing to keep in mind is that each of these temples has an interesting story to tell and the most important thing to consider isn’t always the age of the building but the important role they have played in Taiwan’s history.

History

The history of Confucius Temples in Taiwan can to be divided up into two different periods - specifically anything between 1665-1945 or from 1945 until the present day. To put it more simply - the years prior to the Chinese Nationalists arrival in Taiwan and the years after.

You may think, oh no, he’s going to get political - but in the case of Confucius Temples, its difficult to separate the politics of the era from these temples, which are themselves very political in nature.

The first Confucius Temple in Taiwan was constructed in Tainan during the Kingdom of Tungning (東寧王國) when Koxinga (鄭成功) and his Ming-loyalist army fled to Taiwan after the Qing came to power in China. Koxinga placed quite a bit of importance on Confucian thought and philosophy and the construction of a shrine, where Imperial Examinations (科舉) could be held was important to the fledgling ‘kingdom’ which sought to keep up the traditions of the Ming dynasty.

When the Qing came to Taiwan a few more temples were constructed around in the island in the areas where they controlled - for the most part however Confucius worship was limited to “Academic Academies” (書院) which were private schools devoted to higher learning and the promotion of Chinese classics, literature, philosophy, ethics, etc.

The Academic Academies that were constructed around the island were often built in a way that could be considered similar to the set up of a Confucius Temple, but the design of the schools was never as strictly adhered to in the same way a Confucius Temple was and it was common for them to also have shrines dedicated to Taoist literature deities.

Today only a few of these academies remain in existence around the country but for the most part they have slowly disappeared with the passage of time. 

Links: Visits to Huangxi Academy (磺溪書院) and Daodong Academy (道東書院)

The Confucius Temples constructed after the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan, of which are in the majority at this point, were built between 1958 and 1985 in a time when the government sought to forcibly impose traditional Chinese culture on the local citizens of Taiwan.

In 1966, as a response to the insanity of the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命) in China which threatened to destroy the over 5000 years of Chinese history, the KMT initiated the “Chinese Cultural Renaissance” (中華文化復興運動) movement here in Taiwan. The purpose of the movement was meant to not only help preserve traditional Chinese culture but also promote Chinese cultural development in Taiwan and around the world.

One of the goals of the moment was to improve educational standards in the country and put an emphasis on Confucian principles of ‘filial piety’ and ‘fraternal love’. To help achieve this the government started to construct Confucius Temples throughout the country that would not only promote Confucianism but help to keep Classical Chinese architecture and design alive.

The plan was to construct at least one Confucius Temple in every major city or county where one did not already exist - Currently the majority of the temples you will find in Taiwan were either built, renovated or expanded upon after 1966 as part of the Chinese Cultural Renaissance initiative.

It is common, such as in the case of the Taipei Confucius Temple that you will see literature claiming that the temple was constructed in 1881, but in actuality what you see today was a product of the 1960s and not as ‘historic’ as you’d expect and has become somewhat of a forgotten piece of Taiwan’s history that even fools locals.

This isn’t to take away from the temples, they are excellent places to visit - you just have to be a bit careful when considering the history. Confucianism has played an important role in the development of Asian societies for well over a thousand years and continues to play a role in Taiwan with regards to education and ones roles in his or her family.

With the exception of the Taipei and Tainan Confucius Temples, the rest that are on the list below may not be tourist hotspots, but that is part of the reason why I prefer them - They are quiet, peaceful and are great places to visit where you can learn quite a bit.

In all there are over twenty temples dedicated to Confucius in Taiwan - My list however is going to skip over any of those temples that are not strictly dedicated to the sage. I’m also not going to include the small elementary school shrines which are common in the south of Taiwan. The list consists of seventeen temples of which ten are publicly owned and another five that are private - but still open to the public.

I still have a few of these temples to visit, take photos of and write about, so I plan to update this space several times in the future. I hope that this provides a useful English-language resource for people who want to visit and learn more about these temples as information about them tends to be a bit convoluted. 


Public Temples (官立)

  1. Taipei Confucius Temple (台北孔廟) 1881, 1960

  2. Yilan Confucius Temple (宜蘭孔廟) 1868, 1958

  3. Taoyuan Confucius Temple (桃園孔廟) 1985

  4. Hsinchu Confucius Temple (新竹孔廟) 1958

  5. Taichung Confucius Temple (臺中孔廟) 1976

  6. Changhua Confucius Temple (彰化孔廟) 1726

  7. Chiayi Confucius Temple (嘉義孔廟) 1964

  8. Tainan Confucius Temple (台南孔廟) 1665, 1989

  9. Kaohsiung Confucius Temple (高雄孔廟) 1976

  10. Fengshan Confucius Shine (鳳山舊城孔子廟) 1686

  11. Qishan Confucius Temple (旗山孔廟) 1985

  12. Pingtung Confucius Temple (屏東孔廟) 1815, 1938

  13. Peng-Hu Confucius Temple (澎湖孔廟) 1766, 1963

Private Temples (私設)

  1. Luodong Confucius Temple (羅東孔子廟) 1966

  2. Miaoli Xiangshan Confucius Temple (象山孔廟) 1901

  3. Nantou Confucius Temple (南投孔廟) 1831

  4. Puli Confucius Temple (埔里孔廟) 1911

Honourable Mention: Okinawa’s Naha Confucius Temple (那霸至聖廟)


Puji Temple (普濟寺)

Whenever you see travel articles about Taiwan, you’re likely to see the same themes mentioned over and over again - This country prides itself on its culinary prowess, its beautiful landscapes, the friendliness of its people and of course the thousands of 7-11s and ornate temples that line the streets of this tiny island nation.

When it comes to promoting Taiwan to the outside world, the food and the friendliness of the people of this country are often good enough reasons to attract a bit of attention. 

There is however a lot more to this country than friendliness and food but you’ll rarely find much else in terms of in-depth articles from official sources or the Taiwanese media which markets the country to both domestic and international tourists in the same way. 

For travellers who only have a short time to visit the country, there is a wealth of things to do here that cater to particular interests and hobbies.

Unfortunately the biggest problem is that information for a lot of these places isn’t readily available or even useful when it is.

As the government aims to promote tourism and attract more foreign visitors than ever before, these issues will eventually have to be solved to help make travelling here much easier for the average non-Chinese speaking visitor.

When I first arrived in Taiwan, one of the first things that caught my attention was the ornate temples that are found throughout the country.

Longshan Temple, Xing-Tian Temple and the Xiahai City God temple for example have all been promoted really well and each of them attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. This made learning about the temples really easy. When it came to the other temples however, I had to spend a considerable amount of time researching their history to learn about them.

So even though those three are beautiful examples of Taiwanese temple architecture and design with interesting histories, you might be surprised to find out that you can easily find larger, older and more beautiful temples in other parts of the country which pretty much receive little-to-no attention from foreign tourists. 

Some might argue that not all of these historic temples want thousands of foreign tourists invading each and every day while others might insist that it would be extremely difficult to promote all of these temples to foreign travellers, but that’s not the point.

No one expects an article about all of these places, but one would hope that the situation continues to improve so that people can make much more informed decisions while visiting. 

Today’s post is about one of Taipei’s under-appreciated temples which is situated only a short walk away from the popular Beitou Hot Spring resort area.

It would only make sense that this century-old Japanese Colonial Era temple, one of the few left remaining in Taiwan, be promoted to tourists who are visiting the area but so far it remains somewhat of a secret despite some vague signage.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last year searching for the remnants of Taiwan’s Japanese Colonial Era to learn their history and take photos.

This particular temple was on my list of places to visit for quite a while but when I finished my research about Taipei’s Huguo Rinzai Temple (臨濟護國戰寺) and realized the historic relation of the two buildings, I decided to make a visit to Beitou’s Puji Temple (普濟寺) as soon as I could find a free day with some agreeable weather!

History - Japanese Buddhism in Taiwan

The ‘Japanese Colonial Era’ (日治時代) began on April 17th 1895 when representatives from the Qing signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki (下関条約) which signalled the end of the first Sino-Japanese War. The treaty, which is still a sour point in Sino-Japanese relations today forced the Qing empire to cede both territory and copious amounts of cash to the Japanese Empire.

When the Colonial Era started, the Japanese were quick to take care of any opposition to their control and also wasted no time in their effort to develop the island with modern infrastructure and also put systems in place to create a thriving economy that would contribute to the Japanese.

As Taiwan was considered to be an important part of the empire, both strategically and economically, the Japanese took special effort to construct buildings of Japanese cultural influence while at the same time building schools, banks, roads, etc.

The buildings of Japanese cultural origin which include the various Martial Arts Halls (武德殿), Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples, etc. were constructed with the sole intention of helping to ‘convert’ the people of Taiwan into loyal citizens of the Japanese empire. The goal was ultimately to have an island of people who were Japanese in everything but ancestry.

Buddhism, having established a foothold on the island several centuries earlier was one of the tools that the Japanese used to help bring the two peoples together. Initially, the Japanese brought Buddhist monks with them to serve roles in the military as chaplain-missionaries offering spiritual guidance during the initial years of the occupation.

The monks who came to Taiwan eventually began to construct language schools and charity hospitals where they would focus on improving the lives of average Taiwanese citizens as well as promoting Japanese-style Buddhism. This effort didn’t last long however thanks to the language barrier and the fact that Japanese Buddhism was viewed by the locals as a colonial system of beliefs which only benefitted the colonial power.

The lack of results in terms of cultural conversion led to funding ultimately being cut off by the Japanese central government and forced the monks who had come to Taiwan to focus less on the native population and more so on the benevolence of the Japanese people who migrated to the island.  

Despite Buddhism being a tool used by the Japanese to help endear the people of Taiwan to their new colonial rulers, the religion had taken a major hit in both its support and its funding within Japan thanks to the Meiji Restoration (明治維新).

The restoration which started in 1868 sought to modernize and reform the country and focused its efforts on aspects of society which were deemed to be ‘feudalistic’ or ‘foreign.’ Buddhism, despite its immense importance to the development of Japanese culture was a religion from outside of Japan and was thus viewed as inferior to state Shintoism.

Interestingly, even though Buddhism was originally used as a way for the colonial powers to endear themselves to the people living in Taiwan, the religion ultimately became a tool for the people of Taiwan to use in an attempt to brush shoulders with the higher-ups in Japanese society to gain political or economic favour and also to use religion as a cover for activities that the colonial powers might frown upon.

Today, most people in Taiwan, if asked would say that they are Buddhist. The history of Buddhism in Taiwan is a long and confusing one and despite the religion being a tool for state control (for both the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists) the legacy of the Japanese Colonial Era can still be felt today as most of the largest Buddhist organizations operating in Taiwan today adhere to the philosophy and practices of the schools of Buddhism brought to Taiwan by the Japanese.

Puji Temple (普濟寺)

The relatively unknown Puji Temple, one of the few remaining Japanese-style temples in Taiwan today sits quietly on a hill above the popular hot spring resort area in Taipei City’s Beitou District (北投區). The temple, which dates back to 1905 (明治38年) is now over 110 years old and is considered one of Taipei’s most important historic sites.

The temple, which was originally named “Tetsu’shinin Temple” (鐵鎮院) was constructed with funds donated by Japanese railway workers and engineers who wanted to celebrate the completion of the project with a newly built temple.

The (now defunct) Tamsui Rail Line (淡水線) was completed in 1901 and followed pretty much the same route as Taipei’s Danshui MRT Line (淡水信義線) today. When the rail line was completed it provided service between Tamsui and Taipei as well having a special off-shoot line of the railway which transported tourists between (the former) Beitou Railway Station (北投車站) and the Xinbeitou Train Station (新北投車站).

Hot Spring culture, known as “Onsen” in Japan has been popular throughout Japanese history, so when the Japanese arrived in Taiwan, they wasted little time developing Beitou, which was then known as Hokutō Village into one of the premiere hot-spring resorts in the empire - one so luxurious that even Prince Hirohito enjoyed a stay!

Puji Temple, which was constructed on a hill above the hot spring resort area belonged to the Shingon school (真言宗) of Buddhism, one of the most history and most widely practiced schools of Buddhism in Japan, founded by Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師), one of the most prolific figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism.

 Note: Kōbō-Daishi has appeared on my blog before @ Taipei Mazu Temple

The temple which was constructed with traditional Japanese architecture and beautiful Hinoki cypress is extremely well-preserved and is one of the finest examples of Japanese temple architecture in Taipei today. The small temple, which has only been renovated once since its original construction maintains the original design.

The roof of the main hall features a typical Japanese swallow-tail or hip-and-gable roof in its original state and still in excellent condition. The roof has yet to be restored, so the tiles on the top have faded in colour from the original black but despite their age are still quite impressive.

One of the most important things to notice on the exterior of the temple are the bell-shaped windows on either side of the main entrance which are known as katōmado (火灯窓) and are common in Japanese temples, shrines and even in castles built after the sixteenth century but rare here in Taiwan.

The interior of the temple itself hasn’t changed much in the years since the end of the colonial era - the interior design remains the same and the religious ceremonies that are held within still adhere to the original Japanese way of worship. The interior is almost perfectly square in dimensions and when you enter there is an elevated area covered in tatami mats where people sit to meditate. The wooden beams on the ceiling and to the sides are all large single-piece hinoki cypress and even today a century after the temple was finished still smell amazing.

If you have a keen eye, you’ll notice that the two bells to the sides of the entrance are not the originals and are only about 30-40 years old evidenced by the ROC era dates (民國) on the side. I asked the monk who was at the temple what happened to the original bells but he didn’t have any idea and was surprised to find out that the bells in the room weren’t actually the originals.

The temple’s main shrine is dedicated to Guanyin (觀音菩薩) but interestingly the Guanyin that is worshipped inside is a bit different than the typical Guanyin that you’ll find in other areas around Taiwan. This Buddha is a special one that is known as the ‘Protector Deity of Hot Springs’ (湯守觀音) and sits cleverly above the hot springs resort protecting the people who come to visit.

When the Japanese Colonial Era ended in 1945, ownership of the temple transferred to a new Buddhist association which then in turn changed the name to Puji Temple. Initially the temple was used by Tibetan lamas who escaped to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalists. The temple was then later transferred to the ownership of the same Rinzai Buddhist association who control the beautiful Huguo Rinzai Temple (臨濟護國戰寺) in Taipei.

Today the temple sits peacefully and somewhat secretly on a hill above the popular hot-spring resort area. There are signs that lead tourists to the temple, but it seems like most of them are unclear and without the aid of Google Maps, I would have had a hard time finding it myself. The relative seclusion and the beautiful view of Datun Mountain (大屯山) from the front entrance however make for a zen-like experience.

For tourists there isn’t a whole lot to see when you visit this beautiful temple - you don’t need a lot of time but if you are interested in Taiwan’s history, a quick visit to this century-old temple should be able to shed a little bit of light on a period of Taiwan’s history that is quickly disappearing as time goes by.

Getting There

 

Getting to Puji Temple is quite easy if you are visiting Taipei's Beitou District - Simply take the MRT to Xinbeitou Station (新北投站) and when you exit, walk up either side of the road that takes you to the Hot Spring resort area. You'll see signage along the way that will lead you to the temple. It is a short ten minute walk from the MRT station and is very close to Beitou's Thermal Valley which is also a pretty popular spot for tourists.