Taiwanese Culture

Lukang Longshan Temple (鹿港龍山寺)

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When planning a trip to Taiwan, one of the stops that is always high on the list of places to visit is Taipei’s historic Longshan Temple - and for good reason - the bustling temple in the city’s historic Wanhua District (萬華區) offers tourists a first-hand experience with the vibrancy of Taiwanese religion, culture and the traditional architecture that is considered ‘exotic’ by a lot of foreign visitors.

What though do those tourists who are able to invest a bit more time exploring Taiwan do?

Well, they get out of Taipei and head south - Then they visit the ‘other’ Longshan Temple.

Yes, there is more than one Longshan Temple. (There are a handful of them actually)

Taipei’s Longshan Temple tends to be the busiest of the lot, but that is really only because it is conveniently located within the capital and is easily accessible thanks to the amazing MRT system. Don’t get me wrong, it is an amazing place to visit - I’ve been there a hundred times and I’ll probably go a hundred more times.

But, (yes, there is a but) Taiwan’s first “Longshan Temple”, the most historic of the group, not only stands out as one of the most attractive of the bunch - it is also regarded as one of the most beautiful temples in the whole of Taiwan as well as one of the best remaining examples of a building constructed during the Qing dynasty with traditional Fujian-style architecture.

Located in the historic village of Lukang (鹿港), the temple is just one of the many amazing destinations the small coastal village has to offer. Needless to say, if you haven’t heard of Lukang, you really should take some time to check it out. What might seem a small village in the middle of no where is actually an action packed day trip with some of the coolest historic sites you’re going to see in Taiwan. This is why it has become such a popular destination for both domestic and foreign tourists alike. Lukang is a village that has been frozen in time and provides visitors with an amazing snapshot of what the Taiwan of olde was like.

Longshan Temples of Taiwan

The Longshan Temples of Taiwan have a history that is directly related to the early migration of Hokkien Chinese settlers from China’s Fujian Province (福建省). Starting in the early 1600’s, due to the political instability of the Ming Dynasty (明朝), many people hailing from the Fujian and Guangdong (廣東省) areas made the decision to emigrate across the Taiwan strait and throughout various parts of South East Asia.

In Taiwan’s case, the Hokkien people sought to make a go of it in what was a very under-developed land bringing with them only their language, culture, cuisine and folk religion as well as what little possessions they could fit on the boat.

The original Longshan Temple, constructed during the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) somewhere between 618-619, received its name thanks to its location on “Longshan” (龍山) or Dragon Mountain in Anhai, Fujian.

The original, like every other ‘Longshan Temple’ that followed is dedicated to the Buddha of Compassion, whom in the Chinese Buddhist tradition takes the form of Guanyin (觀音菩薩), a female Buddha.

  • Non-Chinese Buddhists are likely more familiar with Tibet’s Buddha of Compassion who appears in human form as the Dalai Lama.

Here in Taiwan, the tradition that these temples would be dedicated to Guanyin has continued, but as the centuries have passed they started to accommodate Taoist and local folk-religion deities as well - many of whom also happen to hail from the Fujian region.

Even though you can now find several deities housed within Taiwan’s various Longshan Temples, the fact remains that essence of religious worship that takes place within is rooted in Chinese Zen Buddhist tradition.

Something that I can’t underscore enough about the religious experience in Taiwan compared to the west is that temples here have the ability to house gods from what are considered to be ‘different’ religions yet there are never any problems that arise from this. The religious experience here is one of tolerance and should certainly act as a model for those around the world who would use their beliefs to cause harm to others.

Today there are five temples in Taiwan with histories that date between 160 - 370 years which were all constructed during the Qing dynasty.

Lugang Longshan Temple (鹿港龍山寺) - 1647

Tainan Longshan Temple (台南龍山寺) - 1715

Monga Longshan Temple (艋舺龍山寺) - 1738

Fengshan Longshan Temple (鳳山龍山寺) - 1765

Tamsui Longshan Temple (淡水龍山寺) - 1858

Daxi Longshan Temple (大溪龍山寺) - 1868

Each of the temples differs in its design, but they all share a similar history and purpose making the Longshan Temple’s of Taiwan an important place of worship and of course, historical value.

Lukang Longshan Temple (鹿港龍山寺)

The oldest of all of the Longshan Temple’s in Taiwan is located in Changhua County’s Lukang Village - With a history that is said to date back to 1647. and is considered to be one of the most historic in all of Taiwan.

Something I’ve learned over the past few years though is to take some of these historical “facts” with a grain of salt.

Does the Lukang Longshan Temple in fact date back to 1647? Technically yes and technically no.

The history of a ‘Longshan Temple’ in the area most certainly dates back to the mid-1600s. However that history doesn’t necessarily relate to building that we see today. The original was actually a much smaller shrine, in another part of the village and was constructed solely to house a statue of Guanyin that was brought to Taiwan from the original Longshan Temple.

The temple we see today moved to its current location in 1786 and since then has been expanded upon, renovated and restored on several different occasions with reconstructions in the 1800s forming the basis of the structure that we continue to enjoy today.

So, while it may not be as old as advertised, Its still quite old.

History

To make things a bit clearer, I’ve gone ahead and translated some of the more important historical events over the temple’s long history:

  • 1647 - Immigrants from Quanzhou (泉州) bring a statue of Guanyin from the original Longshan Temple in Fujian on the voyage across the Taiwan strait and set up a small shrine on what is now a small alley near Dayou Street (大有街).

  • 1786 - The original shrine moves to its current location across town on a larger plot of land.

  • 1798 - After only a decade the newly constructed temple turns out to be far too popular and needs to be expanded to accommodate the amount of people who visit. The expansion sets in stone (literally) the layout for the temple which confines the complex to the 5,300 square meter plot of land that we still see today.

  • 1897 - Two years after the Japanese Colonial Era began, the Japanese authorities rented out the rear hall of the temple to create a Pure Land Buddhist (浄土仏教) shrine to accommodate Japanese Buddhists who lived in the area. Part of the temple is also used as a school for teaching the Japanese language to the local people.

  • 1904 - The temple joins a network of Pure Land Temples (淨土真宗本願寺派 / じょうどしんしゅうほんがんじは) and the Guanyin statue is relocated to the Rear Hall and replaced with a statue of Amida (阿彌陀佛) in the Main Hall.

  • 1921 - In what would become one of the worst tragedies in Lukang history, a fire completely destroys the Rear Hall of the temple taking with it the historic statue of Guanyin.

  • 1938 - Reconstruction of the Rear Hall is completed.

  • 1961 - Sixteen years after the Japanese Colonial Era ended, it is decided that the Main Shrine of the temple would revert back to Guanyin and the statue of Amida would be moved to the Rear Hall.

  • 1983 - The temple is awarded the designation as a ‘First Class National Historic Site’ (國家第一級古蹟) making it a protected historic building.

  • 1999 - On September 21st the powerful Jiji Earthquake (集集大地震) rocked Taiwan and created mass destruction all over the country. The temple was badly damaged as a result of the quake, so another massive reconstruction project is started to repair the damage.

  • 2002 - Reconstruction project is completed.

  • 2005 - Josh visits for the first time and falls in love (with the temple).

Design

When most people talk about the Lukang Longshan Temple, they only briefly mention the temple’s long history - Numbers are thrown out and people nod their heads and think “cool”, because when it comes to this temple, its not its age that really matters.

This temple is often described as one of the best remaining examples of Southern Fujian Qing-style architecture remaining in Taiwan. Does the average tourist really understand what any of that means though?

When you walk around the temple you don’t really have to really understand the complexities of historic architecture to realize that this temple is a masterpiece of design.

Interestingly though, whenever you search for “Southern Fujian Architecture” or “Hokkien Architecture” (閩南風格) most of the search results will feature a photo of the temple as the prime example of the characteristics of this style of architecture.

Hokkien-style architecture shares many similarities with other styles of Chinese architecture but there are of course several different ways that make buildings constructed in this style distinctive from others. First, the material used to construct this style of building is usually a mixture of red brick and wood. For most commoners in China, the usage of the colour red was frowned upon because “red” was typically reserved for imperial buildings. The Hokkien people it seems didn’t really care much about that though.

Swallowtail Roof

Another important characteristic is the “Swallowtail Roof” (燕尾脊) which refers to having a roof with an ‘upward-curving ridge’ shaped like the tail of a swallow. This design tends to vary in terms of the degree of the curve as well the number of layers on the roof but is something quite common throughout Taiwan.

Finally, to compliment the swallowtail roof designs, the Hokkien style often includes colourful porcelain carvings (剪瓷雕) which became common not only on the roofs of temples but also homes and ancestral shrines as well. The porcelain designs range from plants and animals to mystical creatures from Chinese mythology including dragons and phoenixes.

As one of the most well-preserved temples of its kind, the Lukang Longshan Temple combines all three of these architectural designs with beautiful red brick, swallowtail designed roofs on the main halls and gates and expertly crafted porcelain figures decorating the buildings.

The temple also follows the traditional ‘Three-Hall-Two-Courtyard’ design (三進二院) which refers to the three halls - The Front Hall (五門殿), Main Hall (正殿) and the Rear Hall (後殿) which are separated by the front courtyard and the rear courtyard and surrounded by passage ways on the perimeter of the building.

If you take a look at the diagram above, you may discover that the temple is constructed to resemble the Chinese Character “日“ which translates into English as either “sun” or “day”.

You could easily spend hours of your day enjoying the minutia and intricate designs of this temple, so I hope the following descriptions of each section helps to point out some of the things that you should pay close attention to when you visit.

Even if you can’t read Mandarin, I recommend checking out this site to see some historic photos of the temple as well as some sketches that beautifully illustrate the layout of the temple.

The Main Gate (山門)

The Main Gate of the temple, often referred to as the “Mountain Gate” (山門) is one of the most impressive you’ll see in Taiwan. The courtyard in front of the gate is decorated with red lanterns that lead up to the beautifully constructed wooden gate. Between the layers on the roof is a plaque that reads “Longshan Temple” (龍山寺). There are also red lanterns hanging off of the layer below that read “Lukang Longshan Temple” (鹿港龍山寺).

Not only is the gate held up on the front end by wooden pillars, it is also connected to a brick base that forms the entrance and also part of the wall that surrounds the entire perimeter of the temple.

The Main Gate is not only impressive from a distance but when you get close enough you can easily see the mastery it took to design such an intricate roof with the pillars holding the gate up.

Before entering the temple make sure to take some time to stand under the gate looking up at the beautiful work and all of its intricate pieces.

Paper Incinerator (惜字塔)

In the front square before you enter the temple quietly sits a relic of the past that isn’t widely talked about in English-language articles. What looks like a simple brick tower is actually a paper-burning incinerator that is of cultural and historic significance.

To describe it simply, Taiwan is a very humid place which makes it easy for things (like paper) to rot or become moldy. Before we had dehumidifiers and air conditioners people had little recourse to preserve the books they had, so as a show of respect for the written word, when people finished reading something they wouldn’t just leave it around. Likewise, throwing books in the garbage was simply not an option, so they took the book to an incinerator like this one and burnt it so that the words would live on in eternity.

I know, it sounds weird, right?

This practice was especially common with the Hakka people of Taiwan who constructed these special furnaces in the areas where they lived. As time went on, these towers became more and more unnecessary, so in many places around the country they’ve unfortunately been torn down.

In recent years however there has been a push to preserve them as they are of cultural and historical significance. In Taoyuan for example two of these incinerators, which are known as “Miracle Terraces” (聖蹟亭) have been restored and are open to the public as cultural shrines.

The paper incinerator at the temple looks like it hasn’t been in use for decades and sits quietly in a corner, still though, most people, including locals walk by it and don’t pay it any attention despite its historic significance.

Front Hall (五門殿)

The “Front Hall” is a actually a very simplistic term for what the main entrance of the temple actually is; In Chinese, the name translates directly as the “Five Door Hall” and is sometimes referred to as the “Five Door Portal”. No matter how you like to translate the name of the Front Hall, it consists of five doors with the three in the middle separated by four stone pillars.

Directly in front of the centre-most door is an incense cauldron with beautifully carved calligraphy on it.

On either side of the cauldron are stone pillars that have a dragon encircling the column.

On the walls you’ll find traditionally carved windows that are made out of wood and allow for the natural flow of air through the gate. On the windows you’ll find various designs including dragons, tigers, phoenixes which together symbolize prosperity and longevity.

On the interior it is important to pay attention to the ‘Door Gods’ (門神) that are painted on the doors.

When the doors are open they will face the inside of the temple and when the temple closes at night they’ll face the exterior. The ‘Door Gods’ have somewhat faded over the years but this style of artwork has started to become something of a lost art in Taiwan, so its great that we can still enjoy these.

The Door Gods on the main door in the centre represent Skanda (韋馱), the guardian of Buddhist Monasteries as well as Sangharama (伽藍), the Buddhist name for popular historical figure known as Guan Yu who is highly regarded for his ability to offer spiritual protection and grant blessings. The remaining four doors each have one of the Four Heavenly Kings (四大天王) who bestow wealth, success, peace and protection.

Theatre Pavilion (戲殿)

The ‘Theatre Pavilion’ is traditionally an area where temple performances would take place.

Temples constructed in Taiwan within the last century have (for the most part) constructed their performance stages in a separate area from the rest of the temple, usually outside of the main gates. This has allowed for larger, more mobile stages and more space for the audience, while reducing the amount of noise within the temple.

Truthfully, in all my years of temple hopping I can only count a handful of times where the Theatre Pavilion was actually constructed in such a central location in the temple.

Once you enter the Front Hall, the Theatre Pavilion is a large flat space with a spider-web caisson decorating the ceiling above it.

Few performances are held in this area anymore but the open space it provides in addition to the caisson above make it an especially grand spot that you won’t find at many other temples in Taiwan.

The Caisson (八卦藻井)

While doing research for this post I learned a new word - I’ve never actually known the English word for these so-called ‘spider web ceilings’ but whenever I see them I’m absolutely amazed by them.

In the case of this temple, the “caisson” is jaw-droppingly beautiful. There are so many adjectives that could be used to describe how beautiful the craftsmanship on this ceiling is but I’m at a loss for words - and if you have the chance to see it, I’m sure you will be too.

Known as the most beautiful “caisson” (藻井) in all of Taiwan, the “Ba-Gua ceiling” as I’d prefer to call it is an architectural masterpiece found in many East Asian temples and palaces. The reason I call it a “Ba-Gua” ceiling is because it is octagonal, a shape that has particular significance in local folk religion and culture.

Note: Bagua (八卦) refers to eight symbols in Taoism that represent the fundamental principles of reality and are interrelated with each other. At the centre of the Bagua is the Yin-Yang symbol. (Wikipedia link)

This particular caisson was constricted during the temple’s 1831 reconstruction and there are claims that it is one of the oldest of its kind in Taiwan.

A caisson is basically a sunken layered panel in a ceiling that raises above the rest of the ceiling almost as if there were a dome above it. The layers of the caisson are often beautifully decorated and with a design at the centre - in this case a beautifully painted dragon.

The most amazing thing about these caisson’s is that they are designed using expertly measured interlocking pieces that go together in a way that mean that neither beams nor nails are used to keep them together.

They just lock together to form a six-layer deep spider-web of beauty.

The Ba-Gua ceiling here commands respect and has become one of the most defining features of the temple. If you are visiting, I can’t stress it enough that you need to spend a few minutes with your head in the air appreciating the beauty and genius of this architectural masterpiece.

Worship Hall (拜殿)

To make a bit of a comparison, the Worship Hall at the temple is similar to something like the front patio of a house - It is more or less just a large covered platform that allows people to perform religious rituals without actually entering the Main Hall.

On the left and right side of the Worship hall sit a couple of century-year old trees that offer a bit of shade in front of the hall. Likewise each side of the hall has a station that allows people to light candles and incense for their prayers. In the centre there is another large incense cauldron with beautiful calligraphy carved on it. Behind the cauldron sits a large table where people can place offerings and is where you’ll often find beautiful floral decorations donated by visitors to the temple.

Of note when it comes to the design are the two stone dragon columns on either side of the incense cauldron - The columns which date back to 1852 are each carved with a dragon encircling the pillar. The dragons each have a pearl in their mouth and one in their foot while showing their fangs. The way the dragons encircle the columns make them is said to make them almost lifelike as they seem like they’re constantly in motion.

On the back of each column you’ll find the same four creatures featured in the windows of the Front Hall - A Phoenix (鳳), Qilin (麟), Crane (鶴) and Turtle (龜) - known as the ‘four spirit animals’ and together represent an idiom in Chinese (鳳毛麟趾、鶴算龜齡) that is really hard to translate to English but more or less refers to the rarity of the animals, how precious they are and the longevity of their lifespans (稀奇珍貴、祥瑞長壽) - certainly a metaphor for the temple.

Also of note are the two octagonal passageways on either side of the Worship Hall that lead to the the rear area of the temple. The passageways have become quite popular with photographers, especially wedding photographers who you might run into while touring the temple.

If you visit the temple make sure to take a few photos from the two doors as they’ve become quite iconic.

Main Hall (正殿)

To start, the roof of the Main Hall is actually quite simple; Following the same design as the other sections, the roof is a double-layered swallowtail design. On each of the tips you’ll find a dragon that is facing a pagoda in the middle.

Interestingly the Door Gods at the Main Hall mirror those of the Front Hall and consisting of the Four Heavenly Kings (四天大王), Skanda (韋馱), and Sangharama (伽藍). This time however they are painted a bit differently representing different aspects of their character. In this case they appear more ‘compassionate’ and ‘scholarly’ while they appear a bit more threatening on the outside.

Note: The scary, threatening Door Gods are considered to be “martial” (武) representations while the compassionate representations are considered ‘scholarly’ (文).

The interior of the hall is really where the design of the temple really shines - It is dark, not very well-lit and constructed with a network of stained wooden beams that hold everything up.

In the centre of the building, the ceiling rises almost a level higher than at the entrance - On the sides there are windows on both the east and west ends that allow for natural light to flow into the building offering a bit more light on the inside.

On the far right of the shrine room you’ll find statues dedicated to the Eighteen Arhats (十八羅漢), the original disciples of the Buddha. Next to them you’ll see desks nearby where there are attendants watching over the building and are there to answer any questions you may have.

The main shrine consists of several different statues of Guanyin, the Buddha of Compassion.

The largest statue is a replacement for the original that was brought to Taiwan in the 1600s. Accompanying the large image of Guanyin are several others which were carved out of wood or molded out of bronze.

Once again, to the direct left of the main shrine you’ll find martial representations of Sangharama (伽藍) and to the right Skanda (韋馱) whose purpose is to act as spiritual bodyguards for Guanyin.

You’ll also find a shrine dedicated to the Goddess of Childbirth (註生娘娘), The Monkey King (齊天大聖) and the Dragon King (龍王).

Rear Hall (後殿)

The Rear Hall of the temple is considered the youngest part of the entire complex due to the fact that it had to be rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original hall.

The new version of the hall dates back to 1938, during the Japanese Colonial Era and its design us a reflection of the era with a mixture of both Japanese and Chinese styles.

The exterior of the hall is a simple one that follows the Hokkien style of design making using of the swallowtail roof. The doors and the interior however are constructed completely of Taiwanese Cyprus and the Stone Dragon Columns are more ‘Japanese’ in design than the columns in the previous two halls.

To the sides of the Rear Hall you’ll find two round doors which used to be the dorm rooms for the temple abbot. Today the room to the right has been converted into a kitchen and the room on the left is partly used for storage and also allows guests to go to visit the back garden or the public restrooms.

On the doors of the Rear Hall you will find General’s Heng and Ha (哼哈二軍) who are mythical generals that date back to the Shang Dynasty (商朝). They’re mostly known today in their capacity as ‘Door Gods’ at Buddhist Temples.

Like the exterior, the interior of the hall is very simple in design with shrines dedicated to various Buddhist figures. In front of the shrines there is ample floor space that allows for the nuns who hold daily prayer services to take a seat on the floor.

In fact, the main reason why I don’t have many photos of the interior of the Rear Hall is due to one of the daily prayer services taking place at the same time of my visit. Even though I missed out on getting better photos of shrines inside, I did enjoy taking photos of the ladies who were busy chanting.

As mentioned above, the Rear Hall is home to several Buddhist figures which include Amida (阿彌陀佛), Sakyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼) and the Medicine Buddha (藥師佛) - known as the ‘Three Treasures’ (三寶佛).

You’ll also find statues of Manjusri (文殊菩薩), Puxian (普賢菩薩), Jizo (地藏王菩薩), the Wind God (風神), Rain God (雨神), the God of Literature (文昌帝君) and the Zhenwu Emperor (玄天上帝).

Last but not least in the courtyard in front of the Rear Hall you’ll find an old well known as the “Dragon Stream Well” (龍泉井) which used to be where the people who lived and worked at the temple got their water. Today the well is closed up but you can still see that there is water inside.

Getting There

 

Lukang isn’t particularly a large town and is easily walkable - If you arrive in a car or on a scooter the best thing you can do is just find a parking space walk around to better explore the magic of the historic village.

Home to several historic temples, buildings, businesses as well as an old street were you can sample local delicacies, there is certainly more than enough to do while you’re in Lukang and if you plan your day well enough you should be able to explore for an entire day (or more if you have the time).

If you get tired of walking there are bicycle rental vendors all over the city - I’d recommend saving yourself some money and getting a Youbike instead. 

Lukang doesn’t have its own railway station, so if you want to visit using public transportation you have a few different options:

  1. Take a Ubus direct to the village from Taipei Bus Station ($350NT).

  2. Take a bus from Taichung - You can choose either Bus #6936 from Taichung HSR Station or Bus #6933 from Taichung Railway Station.

  3. Take a bus from Changhua - From the Changhua Railway Station you’ll find buses that frequently travel back and forth. (Buses: 6900, 6901, 6902, 6909, 6933, 6934, 6936 - Website)

  4. Take a scenic ride with a YouBike from Changhua Train Station on the six kilometre ride to Lukang - There are stations all over Changhua City as well as in Lukang to get a bike. Make sure to download the YouBike App so you’ll know where to get a bike.

Whatever method you choose to get to the village, I can’t stress it enough that once you’re there you should walk around and enjoy the quiet ambience of one of Taiwan’s most historic villages. You’ll easily be able to walk through the village and see all of the most important sites without needing a car or a scooter.

The Lukang Longshan Temple is located at “No. 81, Jinmen Street” (彰化縣鹿港鎮金門街81號) and is open to the public and to tourists everyday from 6:00am - 9:00pm.

Okay, so this post turned out much longer than I actually expected - And I really only scratched the surface when it comes to the history and design - You could write a thesis about this place and you still wouldn’t come close to describing all of the fine details. 

I suppose it is arguable whether or not Lukang‘s Longshan Temple is factually one of the “oldest” temples in Taiwan, it is however the oldest “Longshan Temple” in the country and when it comes to its beauty, it really does stand out as one of the most stunning places of worship in Taiwan. Its age and adherence to traditional architectural styles place it very high on the list of the most important historic temples to visit and I can assure you that if you do have the chance to go, you’ll certainly be glad you did.

Visiting Taipei’s Longshan Temple is obviously much more convenient for the majority of people who travel to Taiwan, but if you’re one of those people who takes a little bit of extra time to explore the country, a visit to Lukang and the many historic temples within the small village should be high on your list of things to do.


Changhua Confucius Temple (彰化孔子廟)

Changhua County, in central Taiwan is an area that rarely receives the amount of attention it deserves, especially from tourists. The county sits on the western coast of the country and seems to have the unfortunate luck of being overshadowed by its popular neighbours, the city of Taichung (台中) to the north and the beautiful mountainous county of Nantou (南投) to the east.

A fast-growing industrial area that has attracted a lot of business thanks to the affordability of land and proximity to the Port of Taichung (台中港), Changhua has always been an ideal space for industry allowing the products that are manufactured there to be easily exported out of the country.

Few people however realize that Changhua has always been an important centre for trade and commerce with a history dating back hundreds of years to the Qing Dynasty. In fact, as one of Taiwan’s earliest centres for commerce, Changhua developed much earlier than other areas in Taiwan.

Like some of Taiwan’s other historic hot spots, Changhua not only developed at a fast pace but its residents earned a lot of money and in turn constructed extravagant places of worship which has left a historic footprint on the area that the people of today continue to enjoy. 

With historic buildings dating back to the 1700s and a wealth of delicious local cuisine, it’s unfortunate that Changhua hasn’t been able to make more of a name for itself within foreign tourists circles - but locals will always tell you how great the area is, especially since many of Taiwan’s most traditional dishes originated there.

Visiting Changhua is a simple two hour train or bus ride from the capital and travel times are even shorter if you splurge and take the High Speed Rail - Once you’re there though you can easily walk the streets and soak up all that the city has to offer.

Among the long list of historic buildings in Changhua is one of the nation’s oldest temples and places of learning - The Changhua Confucius Temple. With a history dating back over three centuries, not only is the temple one of the oldest in Taiwan, it is also among a very exclusive list of truly historic places dedicated to the worship of Confucian philosophy.

Taiwan is home to well over a dozen temples dedicated to Confucius, but only in a few rare cases are they as historic or as culturally significant as the Changhua temple.

If you’d like to learn more about Taiwan’s Confucius Temples check out the guide I wrote which explains in more detail the history of Confucianism in Taiwan - The Confucius Temple’s of Taiwan.

The Changhua Confucius Temple

The Changhua Confucius Temple holds the distinction of not only being one of the oldest Confucius Temples in Taiwan but also the site of the oldest places of higher learning in Taiwan.

Dating back to 1723 (大清雍正四年), the temple is only pre-dated by the Fengshan Confucius Temple (鳳山舊城孔子廟) in Kaohsiung and the Tainan Confucius Temple (台南孔廟)

Like most historic structures in Taiwan however, in order to properly explain their history, you need to explain how they’ve been able to survive through the different periods of Taiwan’s colonial history.

In the case of this temple, its history has successfully spanned the latter stages of the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese Colonial Era and the current Republic of China-era which should be considered a feat given the fact that colonial regimes have a bit of a habit of tearing down reminders of the past.

Likewise, it is important to note that when it comes to the history of older temples like this, facts tend to become a bit convoluted and you often have to take some of their history with a grain of salt.

So before I start, let me state things clearly: This temple truly is several hundred years old BUT it is currently only a fraction of its original size and has been renovated and restored several times throughout its history. Suffice to say, what you see today isn’t what you would have seen a century or more ago.

Qing Dynasty (1723 -1895)

During the 17th Century, Changhua was one of the four main areas established in Taiwan for mass-immigration from the Chinese mainland. Its important to note that even though the Qing “controlled” Taiwan for over two centuries, they only controlled small portions of the country, mostly on the western coast and were uninterested in venturing any further, due to hostile indigenous peoples who were (for the most part) uninterested in interacting with them.

In 1723, Changhua was granted “county” status by the Qing Emperor thanks to the economic success of trade between the port town of Lugang (鹿港) and China’s Fujian Province (福建省).

With its official designation as a county (and the favourable economic situation), local officials were able to start urban development projects that not only included fortifications but the construction of places of cultural significance.

In the 4th year of the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (雍正), construction started on what would be the site of the Changhua Confucius temple. In addition to the temple, plans were made to construct an educational institute, Baisha Academy (白沙書院) next door which would serve as one of the foremost institutes for higher learning in Taiwan.

  • Note: Baisha Academy later moved and is currently known as the “National Changhua University of Education” (國立彰化師範大學).

In 1726, County Magistrate Zhang Gao (張縞) hired craftsman from China to come to Taiwan to construct the temple. The craftsman brought with them not only their expertise but also the necessary building materials and stone carvings that were pre-made by artisans in China.

A few decades later, in 1786, the original Minglun Hall (明倫堂) and Baisha Academy were burnt to the ground during an anti-Qing rebellion known as the Lin Shuang-Wen Incident (林爽文事件).

Then, in 1816, thirty years after Baisha Academy and Minglun Hall were destroyed, the local government put together a plan to rebuild the school in its original location. The site where Minglun Hall once stood however was replaced by a shrine dedicated to the God of Literature (文昌帝君) making the Confucius Temple a one-stop shop for all your academic needs.

In 1830, the temple underwent its final major renovation which saw the addition of several shrines and the difficult task of raising the foundation of the main hall by over two feet, completing the layout that we see today.

Japanese Colonial Era (1895 - 1945)

The Japanese Empire took control of Taiwan in 1895 and wasted no time instituting reforms that sought to drastically reshape the island’s infrastructure and economy. Not only was the existing railway system modernized, it was greatly expanded upon and eventually connected the entire island. The original walls constructed by the Qing around cities like Taipei, Hsinchu, Changhua, and Yilan (among others) were torn down and urban renewal plans transformed the look of many of Taiwan’s urban centres.

Changhua in particular is a case where you can still enjoy the mastery of Japanese urban planning - The roads in the city are much wider than areas around the country and the city is designed in a way that makes it easy to traverse (although later development has muddled that up a bit).

The projects undertaken by the Japanese however meant that the walled parts of the city weren’t going to be the only casualties to improving the city’s urban planning - Many homes and businesses also fell victim to the plans.

History has shown that the Japanese weren’t really big fans of temples dedicated to Confucius, so when it came time to widen the roads around the temple they came up with plans to tear it down completely.

These plans however met with staunch indignation and protests from the locals, so accommodations were made to preserve the temple. Baisha Academy however was torn down and relocated.

In 1933, local residents committed funds for a restoration project that would ensure the continued survival of the temple and improve the condition of the Main Hall.

Republic of China (1945 - Current)

In 1945, when the Second World War finally came to an end, as part of the terms of their surrender, the Japanese were forced to give up their colonies. The allied leaders (ambiguously) decided at the Cairo Conference that control of Taiwan would “returned” to Chiang Kai-Shek’s Republic of China.

The problem with the decision and the reason why it has remained ambiguous for so many decades is that the ‘Republic of China’ (中華民國) was a non-existent entity when the Japanese took control of Taiwan in 1895 and the Qing never really had any interest in fully controlling Taiwan.

The claim that Taiwan belonged to “China” was and still remains a contentious one.

Political arguments aside, (there is a reason why I mention this) the Nationalists at that time were embroiled in a bitter Civil War against the Communists and had little time to deal with what was happening in Taiwan.

For the first few years control of Taiwan was given to Garrison Commander Chen Yi (陳儀), an infamous figure in Taiwanese history who will forever be remembered as the architect of the 228 Massacre.

As the Communists declared victory in the Civil War though, Chiang Kai-Shek, his government, military forces and elite members of society retreated to Taiwan as a last ditch effort to regroup their forces and continue the struggle against the Communists.

Upon arrival, Chiang Kai-Shek inherited a well-developed island but the sudden influx of more than two million refugees put a considerable amount of strain on Taiwan’s existing infrastructure. This further enflamed tensions between the people of Taiwan (who in turn became second class citizens) and the refugees which contributed the a long period of Martial Law that ensued.

When the refugees first arrived the housing situation was quite dire, so to solve the problem, temporary measures were made to construct military communities. Additionally buildings like the Changhua Confucius Temple were opened up for people to take up short-term residency.

In 1949, permits were awarded to vendors to set up stalls at the temple gate in order to allow people to not only earn a living but to feed those living in the area. The vendors, in addition to the squatters living in the temple complicated the situation at the temple and its long-term health became an issue with the local population.

Due to the deterioration of the temple, the government drafted plans in the 1970s to tear it down and instead use the land to construct a shopping centre. The temple would then be relocated and reconstructed on Bagua Mountain (八卦山).

Once again the residents of Changhua were forced to stand up to yet another colonial regime to ensure the continued existence of their historic temple. The ensuing pressure that was put on the government forced officials to eventually capitulate to their demands and instead of tearing the temple down, they decided to instead restore it.

In the years since that restoration project was completed the temple has been awarded the designation of becoming a National Historic Site (國定古蹟), is recognized as one of the ‘Top Religious Sites’ in Taiwan and has become a popular tourist attraction.

Design

Confucius temples tend to be uniform in their simplicity - Unlike the overwhelming beauty of Taiwanese folk temples and Taoist temples - Confucius temples stand alone in their almost "zen-like" nature. You won’t find any shiny gold or bronze decorations nor will you find beautifully painted murals on the walls or hundreds of sticks of incense creating a haze throughout the temple.

The simplicity exhibited in the Confucius temples found throughout most of East Asia is a show of respect to Confucius as well as the importance of his philosophical views of education and his influence on Chinese culture and history.

One of the common features of all Confucius temples is that there is no imagery or statues of Confucius. This is a rule that goes back almost 500 years to the Ming Dynasty (明朝) when the emperor decreed that all Confucius temples should be uniform and only have "spirit tablets" (神位) rather than images of the sage. 

The design of the Changhua Confucius Temple adheres to the most traditional construction standards for Confucius Temples. In fact, as I mentioned above, the original designers and craftsmen who constructed the temple were brought over directly from China for the sole purpose of building the temple.

Even though the temple we see today has pieces that were later added and others that have disappeared, the complex is still one of the best examples of traditional Confucius Temple design in Taiwan making it an important historical relic.

Lingxing Gate (櫺星門)

The Lingxing Gate acts as the main entrance to the temple and is a necessary part of any Confucius temple. The gate symbolizes Confucianism's ‘willingness to accept anyone with talent and virtue' and the name Lingxing refers to the Taoist Star of Knowledge (櫺星) whom Confucius is often regarded as a reincarnation of.

When it comes to the architecture of the Lingxing Gate at Taiwan’s Confucius Temple’s, the designs tend to vary. In some cases the gate may be a freestanding structure similar to that of a Torii at a Japanese Shinto Shrine. In other cases the gate may be constructed in the form of a building that has a wall on either side that helps to enclose the complex.

The Lingxing Gate at the Changhua Confucius Temple is a proper gate that connects to the perimeter of the temple. The design follows the ‘Five-Kaijian’ (五開間) style which means that the gate has five doors which are separated by pillars. The gate also has a roof that is separated into three different sections with a swallow-tail design at each end.

As is the case with other Confucius Temples, the Door Gods (門神) you typically find at other temples around Taiwan are absent and according to tradition are instead replaced simply with 108 metal studs.

Ji Gate (戟門)

The “Ji Gate” at the Changhua Confucius Temple was a ‘first’ in Confucian Temple design in Taiwan - While the gate is common in older Confucius Temple’s in China, here in Taiwan due to a lack of space these gates are usually left out when the temples were designed.

In Chinese, the word “Ji” (戟) refers to a hybrid-style weapon that was used for thousands of years by infantrymen in China. The weapon resembles a spear but also has an ax-dagger.

Tradition has it that when military personnel entered a Confucius Temple they would have to leave their weapons at the gate as a sign of respect for the sage.

The Ji Gate acts as the second gate of the Confucius Temple but like the Lingxing Gate before it, its huge doors are rarely ever opened. Instead the are two round doors to either side of the gate that provide entry to the main area of the temple complex.

The round doors are an absolute treat and are common in a lot of the historic temples in Changhua - unfortunately something that became a less common practice with newer buildings.

Dacheng Hall (大成殿)

The Dacheng Hall or “Hall of Great Perfection” is the main shrine area of a Confucius Temple. 

The exterior of the hall is minimalist in design but you will want to pay close attention to some of the wooden carvings as well as the craftsmanship of the two stone dragon columns and the twenty other pillars that encircle the exterior.

The interior of the hall likewise is a simple set up with a shrine that has a Confucius Spirit Tablet (神位) in the middle with a table in front of it for offerings.

On either side of the Confucius shrine there are additional shrines with spirit plaques dedicated to the four sages (四配): Yan Hui (顏子), Zengzi (曾子), Zisi (子思) and Mencius (孟子) who were Confucian scholars and authored books expanding upon the Confucian philosophy.

Above the shrine are several plaques (御匾) that were placed by the Yongzheng Emperor (雍正), the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆), the Jiaqing Emperor (嘉慶), the Xianfeng Emperor (咸豐), the Tongzhi Emperor (同治), and former President Chiang Ching-Kuo (蔣經國), who all praised Confucius’ superior knowledge and personal character.

The plaques and their meanings are as follows:

  • Yongzheng Emperor (1726) - “生民未有” (A Person of Unsurpassed Intelligence)

  • Qianlong Emperor (1739) - “與天地參” (At One with the Heavens and the Earth)

  • Jiaqing Emperor (1798) - “聖集大成” (Combined Wisdom of the Sages)

  • Xianfeng Emperor (1851) - “德齊幬載” (All Encompassing Virtue)

  • Tongzhi Emperor (1862) - “聖神天縱” (Divine Wisdom)

  • President Chiang Ching-Kuo - “道貫古今” (Tao is Universal Through all Times)

Even though the Hall of Great Perfection is rather plain in comparison to Taiwan’s other temples you’ll still want to pay attention to some of the designs on the exterior, especially the two stone dragon columns - The pair of dragons date back to 1830 and are similar in design as they encircle the column. They differ only in the fact that one of them has a closed mouth while the other is open. Likewise the carved designs on the wooden gables are beautiful as well. 

Chongsheng Shrine (崇聖祠)

As with tradition, the Chongsheng Shrine is located directly behind the Dacheng Hall and is used as a shrine room to venerate the ancestors of Confucius as well as the various Confucian sages and philosophers throughout history.

The shrine room is not unlike a shrine room that you'd find in any large Taiwanese home and is an important place for ancestral worship. It consists of an altar with spirit plaques and a couple of red lights. In front of the altar there is a table for placing offerings.

There are additionally two shrines both to the left and right of the main shrine but truthfully when I was there the shrines, which have several spirit plaques on them were blocked by stacks of benches. It would seem that the staff at the temple consider the shrine room to be more useful as a storage space than what it is actually supposed to be for.

Getting There

 

The Changhua Confucius Temple is conveniently located a short distance away from both the Changhua Train Station (彰化車站) and the Changhua Bus Terminal (彰化客運站).

The downtown core of the city is perfectly walkable and if you’re arriving by train or bus and want to visit some of the city’s historic sights, you’ll be happy to know that they are all relatively close to each other.

If you are driving a car I’d recommend simply finding a parking spot and getting rid of your car for the duration of your visit. The beauty of this historic city is best experienced on two feet and you will have definitely missed out on most of it if you’re driving.

You can find history (and amazing food) in every little alley in the city, so if you take the time and pay enough attention you’ll be able to learn quite a bit - and eat extremely well in the process.

The Confucius Temple is located at #30 Kongmen Street (孔門路30號).

The temple is open Tuesday - Sunday from 8:30am - 5:00pm.

It is only closed on Mondays, national holidays and on election days. Entry is free of charge.

If you’re walking from the train station simply cross the street and walk straight down Guangfu Road (光復路) until you reach Minsheng Road (民生路). From there make a right turn and continue walking straight until you reach the temple.

The Confucius Temple is also conveniently located near the base of Changhua’s historic Bagua Mountain (八卦山), so if you are driving a car you should be able to find adequate parking if you can’t find anything near the temple.

Within a short walking distance from the temple not only will you find a wealth of great food to eat, but the Bagua Mountain Great Buddha, Changhua Roundhouse, City God Temple, Mazu Temple, Martial Arts Hall, etc.

Taiwan is home to well over a dozen Confucius Temples but rarely are they as complete and as historic as the Changhua Confucius Temple. With an almost three century year history, this quiet little temple sitting the heart of historic Changhua City is one of the highlights of any visit to the area and if you are interested in Taiwanese history and traditional architecture, you’ll definitely want to stop by this one for a quick visit.

No matter where you live in Taiwan, I recommend hopping on a train for a day trip to this beautiful central Taiwan city where you’ll be treated to historic temples, amazing food and displays of Taiwanese culture that you so often miss if you spend all your time in Taipei.