The oldest district in the modern metropolis of Taipei goes by many names - To some it is “Bangka” (Báng-kah khu) or “Monga” (艋舺) and to others it is “Wanhua” (萬華區). Whatever you prefer to call the district, it is one of the most important districts in the city and is steeped in history, culture and religion.
Once one of the most prosperous districts in the city due to its proximity to the Xindian River (新店溪), the district served as a centre of commerce for over three hundred years. The area was originally settled by the Pinpu Kaitakela tribe, then Hokkien (閩南人) immigrants from Fujian Province and most recently by Chinese refugees of the civil war.
The district has suffered from a period of decline over the past few decades, yet efforts are being made by the local government to spruce things up, reinvent its image and make Bangka a cool place to visit for people of all ages!
The district is well-known for its treasure trove of historic sites which notably include Longshan Temple and the recently refurbished Bopiliao Historic Street (剝皮寮老街).
On the other hand, Bangka is also home to the popular Ximending Shopping District (西門町), Taipei’s answer to the hip and modern Shibuya shopping district in Tokyo where all of the latest fashion, technology and cuisine meet to offer a great shopping experience for those who visit.
The history of Bangka would not be what it is though without the influence of its 'Big Three Temples' (艋舺三大廟門) which have served not only as important places of worship but also as the glue that helped to preserve the cultural heritage and traditions of one of Taiwan's largest groups of immigrants alive for the past few centuries.
I've blogged in the past about a few of Bangka's other famous temples which include Longshan Temple (艋舺龍山寺), Qingshan Temple (艋舺青山宮) and Qingshui Temple (艋舺清水巖) but today I will be focusing on Taipei's Tian Hou Temple (台北天后宮).
Taipei's Tian Hou Temple, which is also known by locals as the "Ximending Mazu Temple" (西門町媽祖廟) is one that is easy to miss as it sits in an obscure and almost hidden location in the bustling Ximending shopping district. Most tourists pass by the temple and don't actually even realize that it is there.
The entrance to the temple looks like the entrance to a normal building, with a few lanterns on the outside and a temple plaque which indicate that a temple is inside. To reach the temple you have to walk through a small tunnel-like corridor which opens up to an open courtyard with a beautiful temple that surprised even me on my first visit. You would never expect to find a place like this in the middle of Ximending and is part of why I'm so fond of it.
The words "Tian Hou" (天后) in the temple's name translate as "Heavenly Queen" and refer to the goddess Mazu (媽祖), the principle deity of the temple and one who is an extremely popular deity in Taiwan.
It is estimated that there are over 1000 different locations to worship Mazu in Taiwan with temples dedicated solely in her honour as well as having shrines set up in other temples as well giant statues in various spots throughout the country. Mazu worship is an important part of life in Taiwan and as time has passed, the goddess has become known as a patron saint of the country.
There are many temples dedicated to Mazu worship all over the country but the name "Tian Hou Temple" (天后宮) however is one that has become synonymous with worship of the sea goddess and has been an important part of Taiwanese culture since 1593.
The first 'Tian Hou Temple' was constructed on the offshore islands of Peng Hu (澎湖) and the next one in 1664 in Tainan. Since then, many other Tian Hou temples have been constructed all over the country with the Taipei branch being a young one at over 270 years old.
Originally constructed in 1746, the temple is technically one of the oldest in the city yet, like a lot of Taipei's other major places of worship, the structure you see today has had to be rebuilt on more than one occasion, has changed locations and strangely enough has become a story of two different temples from two different religions merging into one.
Temple's like Longshan Temple and Bao-An Temple have also experienced their fair share of misfortune over the past few centuries, but I have to say that the history of Taipei's Tian Hou Temple is probably one of the most interesting (and confusing) of the temples I've researched so far!
I'll lay out the reasons why I think the history of this temple is particularly interesting in a timeline to hopefully give a less confusing idea of what happened:
1746 (乾隆11年) - Hsin-Hsing Temple (新興宮)
Taipei's "Mazu Temple" was originally constructed with the name "Hsin-Hsing Temple" (新興宮) after funds were collected from immigrant merchants hailing from Quanzhou (泉州) in Fujian Province. These immigrants were some of the same people who funded the construction of Longshan Temple, Qingshan Temple and Qingshui Temple and helped to build a spiritual network for the Hokkien people who settled in the area.
1813 (嘉慶十八年) - Hsin-Hsing Temple (新興宮)
Hsin-Hsing temple was completely destroyed in a fire and reconstructed over a period of 12 years.
1899 (明治32年) - Hong-Fa Temple (弘法寺)
In 1899, a Zen Buddhist temple in the Shingon Tradition (真言宗) was built in Ximending as a mission to help with the spread Buddhism in Taiwan. The mission was to become part of what would eventually a concerted effort by the colonial government to convert the locals into Japanese citizens.
1910 (明治43年) - Hong-Fa Temple (弘法寺)
The mission was renamed "Hong-Fa Temple" (弘法寺) in honour of the prolific Japanese Buddhist monk Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師) who helped spread Buddhism in Japan. Interestingly, Kōbō-Daishi is still worshipped at Tian Hou Temple today, a nod to the temple's history.
1943 (昭和十八年) - Hsin-Hsing Temple (新興宮)
In order to protect Japan and its interests in Taiwan and in the Pacific, the Japanese constructed several air strips throughout the country and began to further build up its military presence. In order to construct an airstrip close to the Governors Residence (Now Taiwan's Presidential Palace) the Japanese demolished Hsin-Hsing Temple. The statues inside would be moved to nearby Longshan Temple for safekeeping.
1948 (民國37年) - Hong Fa Temple becomes the Taipei Mazu temple.
After Japan's cessation of Taiwan, the Republic of China government in Nanjing haphazardly decided that the Japanese designed Hong Fa temple would be reclaimed and the former Hsin-Hsing temple would move in and take control of the grounds.
This decision met with controversy with the local population due to the fact that Hong-Fa Temple was designed by the Japanese and did not follow the rules of Feng-Shui which made it unsuitable.
1953 (民國42年) - Taiwan Tian Hou Temple (臺灣省天后宮)
A fire completely destroys the temple which ends up offering the locals a chance to redesign the temple and its grounds according to Feng Shui and traditional design.
1959 (民國48年) - Taiwan Tian Hou Temple (臺灣省天后宮)
On the 1000 year anniversary of Mazu's birth, the temple reconstruction is completed and opens to the public just in time for celebrations.
1967 (民國56年) - Taipei Tian Hou Temple (台北天后宮)
Taipei City officially becomes a municipality and the temple is renamed "Taipei Tian Hou Temple" by the city government.
Mazu, the goddess of the sea is a popular folk religion deity who is worshipped by the people's of Taiwan, Southern China, Malaysia and Singapore.
As a deity, she is thought to travel the seas protecting her believers which for Taiwan (as an island nation) was important with its early sea-based economy. Mazu worship has been a popular aspect of life in the country for hundreds of years with over a thousand temples or shrines dedicated to her.
As the patron deity of Taiwan, Mazu worship is said to be the 'glue' which binds together the people of various ethnicities as well as being the foundation for Taiwan's evolving culture and national identity.
I'm not sure how much of this is true, but there is no doubt that Mazu is an important figure in Taiwan and the respect that is given to her often trumps that of all of the other important deities worshipped throughout the country. Statistics show that before 1980 there were only 509 temples or shrines in Taiwan dedicated in her honour compared to the over one thousand today.
Mazu worship has been a popular aspect of Taiwanese history for hundreds of years, but that worship shows no history of slowing down and is now more popular than it has ever been.
Mazu, who in life was named Lin Moniang (林默娘) is thought to have been born on (my birthday) March 23rd in the year 960 in China's Fujian Province. Despite living a short life, legends are told of how she performed several miracles saving seafaring people from ultimate doom with her skills before ultimately ascending to the heavens as a deity.
In all of the legends that tell of Mazu's life, she was unmarried and a virgin by choice. She is described as a pious young woman who worshipped the Goddess Guanyin (觀音) and was a person filled with kindness and compassion for all living beings.
She is said to have been an extremely proficient swimmer who had supernatural gifts and was born into a family that made its living by the sea.
Mazu is believed to have died at the young age of 27 yet stories of her death differ. Some people believe that she died while attempting to rescue her family who were out at sea during a typhoon while others believe she climbed a mountain and ascended into heaven on her own.
If you are interested in learning more about Mazu worship and the legends surrounding her life and death check out this very well-detailed Wikipedia article about her: Mazu (Goddess)
Kobo Daichi (弘法大師)
When the Chinese Nationalists retreated to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War, they attempted to erase the influence of Japanese culture, religion and language and impose Mandarin upon the people. This campaign led to the destruction of many Buddhist and Shinto temples all around the country but due to a lack of housing, some buildings were spared in the purge.
Its interesting to note however that Taipei's Tian Hou Temple gives not only a nod to Taiwan's history, but its own history by allowing space for a statue dedicated to Kōbō-Daishi.
Kōbō-Daishi, who is also known as Kukai (空海) was a prolific figure in Japanese history who served not only as a Buddhist monk but a civil servant, scholar, poet and artist.
Kukai, who received an education in Chinese classics was not only well-versed in Buddhism but also Confucianism and Taoism. He travelled to China and spent a period of time living and studying in temple there where he studied various forms of Buddhism as well as learning Sanskrit and translating texts to bring back with him to Japan.
He is remembered today for his founding of the Shingon (真言宗) or “True Word" school of Zen Buddhism as well as his contributions to improving Japanese society through the creation of the "kana" syllable system which is still used today as well as the founding of Japan's first public schools.
Kōbō-Daishi has become a legendary figure in Japan and while his legacy may be debatable, he is still arguably the most important Buddhist monk in Japan's history and his contributions to Japanese society cannot be overlooked.
The shrine dedicated to him in Taipei's Tian Hou Temple is not only a nod to his importance, but also to the history of the temple which in its present location was once the headquarters for Shingon Buddhism in Taiwan.
English language guide books may not spend much time talking about this temple, but if you visit you are sure to meet Japanese tourists who visit the temple to show their appreciation for the shared history and culture between the two nations.
While the temple is dedicated primarily to the goddess Mazu, like most temples in Taiwan, there are of course several shrines in the building which are dedicated to a mixture of folk-religion, Taoist and Buddhist figures of importance.
Main Hall (正殿)
Main Shrine Room:
Right Shrine (左龕)：Guanyin (觀音佛祖), Child Birth Goddess (註生娘娘)
Main Shrine: Mazu (天上聖母), All-Seeing General (千里眼), All-Hearing General (順風耳)
Left Shrine (右龕)： Lord Guan (關聖帝君), The God of Literature (文昌帝君)
Outer Hall Shrines:
Right Shrine (左側殿)： Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師), Ksitigarbha (地藏王菩薩)
Left Shrine (右側殿)：Earth God (福德正神), The Tiger Generals (虎爺)
Second Floor Shrine:
Jade Emperor Hall (玉皇殿)：The Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝), Emperors of the Three Offices (三官大帝), Lord of the Sun (太陽星君), Lord of the Moon (太陰星君)
In conclusion, have to ask the question: When is a 270 year old temple not a 270 year old temple?
There are some people who would argue that the building is not actually as important as the idols, traditions or the organization that makes it what it is. For me, I look at the timeline and have a hard time telling people that this temple is as old as people claim it to be.
I will admit though that even after researching and studying temple culture in Taiwan for the past few years, I sometimes feel like I don't really understand a lot of what is going on.
There are times when I think I really don't know anything - This is one of those times!
I read a lot of the literature provided by temples as well as reading books and checking online sources but I've found that the claims made by some of these places seem to be much more grand than they really are.
Taipei's Tian Hou Temple is a perfect example of such grand claims. Admittedly, there is a complicated 270 year history of Mazu worship in Bangka, but it is a stretch to say that this specific temple is as old as they claim it to be.
What I will say about this Tian Hou Gong is that there is still an extremely interesting history and that is where I think the focus should be.
This temple has a history that spans the modern history and development of this country from the Qing Dynasty to Japanese Colonial Era to the current era. Each era brought with it changes that the temple could not escape yet it still stands there today in the middle of Ximending.
Let's not waste time worrying about ostentatious claims and think more about the relationship the temple has shared with the development of Taipei which saw a nearly empty patch of land turn into a modern metropolis thanks to the efforts of the immigrants who came here to start a new life.
In closing I just want to give a friendly reminder that this time I didn't upload the full set of photos to this blog. If you would like to see the full set of photos from this beautiful temple, click the Flickr link below!