Temples

Bishan Temple (碧山巖開漳聖王廟)

For most people in the west, when we think about temples here in Asia, what often comes to mind is what we’ve seen in movies - The Shaolin Temple or secluded monasteries high in the mountains in Tibet.

Here in Taiwan the majority of the temples you’ll come across won’t have monks practicing martial arts or Lamas reciting humming mantras - They are actually a lot different than what you probably expected but are still wonderfully mysterious and extremely interesting. 

Temples in Taiwan come in all shapes and sizes - They can be large and extravagant or modest shrines on the side of the road. They can either be quiet, contemplative places for meditation and reflection or loud, extremely busy and exciting places of worship.

The great thing about temples here is that no matter what you believe - You are always welcome! You’re going to be pressured into anything, you won’t have to pay an admission fee and no one is going to ask you to donate your hard earned money.

Sometimes though, you will come across those types of temples that you’ve seen in the movies - Those places of worship in the mountains where you’re able to enjoy a bit of “Zen” - and of course the scenery. 

Bishan Temple in Taipei’s Neihu District is pretty much what you’ve imagined.

The large temple, which has become a tourist attraction in recent years, is nestled on the side of a mountain and was constructed in a way that allows it to blend in beautifully with the natural environment that surrounds it.

The temple also offers one of the best views of the city that you’re going to find.

Disclaimer: If you’re here only looking for information about the cityscape views and how to get to the temple you may want to skip the next few sections!  

Bishan Temple (碧山巖開漳聖王廟) 

Located on Bishan Mountain (碧山巖) in Taipei’s Neihu District (內湖區), Bishan Temple has a long history and is the largest temple in Taiwan dedicated to the folk-religion deity known as Kaizhang Sheng Wang (開漳聖王).

Dating back to 1751, the temple was originally just a simple stone shrine located near the peak of Bishan Mountain. Thanks to a bit of legend and some ‘good luck’ the temple has had the ability to attract its fair share of followers, and of course that means wads and wads of cash.

The legend is a bit convoluted but it more or less goes like this: A long time ago some guy belonging to the Huang family came to Taiwan and had the odd habit of placing amulets in auspicious locations. One day he was walking on Bishan Mountain and placed one of his amulets in a small hole in the side of a mountain (possibly a cave).

Years later, a group of bandits who were planning to rob the farmers who had settled on the mountain were suddenly cast away by a massive rock slide when they tried to make their way up the mountain.

The rock slide was said to have originated from the location of the amulet.

One of the rocks that cast away the bandit later split into three pieces which was interpreted as a supernatural message from the folk deity Kaizhang and his two generals.

(I’m assuming this is because the amulet was from a Kaizhang temple in China and not completely random.)  

Praying outside of the main shrine

To express their gratitude, the people living on the mountain constructed a small shrine in honour of Kaizhang and from there the legend grew and worshippers started making pilgrimages to the area to seek the protection of the folk deity.

Soon enough the number of people visiting the small stone shrine was more than could be accommodated, so in 1861 the first iteration of Bishan Temple was constructed.

Since then the temple has been renovated, repaired and expanded upon on several occasions - most notably in 1913, 1971 and 2016 with the final product becoming the beautiful temple that we see today.

The front of the temple

With the completion of the most recent expansion in 2017, the temple has become a massive multi-floor complex. Not every level of the temple is open to the public though - So far only the top floor (where the temple is located) and the floor below it are accessible. 

The floor below the temple is currently home to a coffee shop and an art space run by the organization that controls the temple. The coffee shop is open from Tuesday to Sunday until 5:00pm and is a great spot to enjoy a drink and the views of the city.

Despite its size (and its obvious wealth), Bishan Temple is actually very simple in its design.

It doesn’t come across as flamboyant or ornate as many of other Taiwan’s places of worship which I think allows it to blend in more serenely with the natural mountain environment that surrounds it. 

However, due to the necessity for expansion and the temple being located on the side of a mountain, it is obvious that the designers had to take a bit of liberty with its design - Especially with regard to the structural stability of the complex and traditional architectural styles.

An Instagram hot spot - The beautiful stairs that lead up to the original shrine.

The main part of the temple is designed in the traditional ‘two-hall and two-passage-way’ style (兩殿兩廊式) - This means that the front of the temple has a Temple Gate (廟門) with passages on either side,  a court yard in the middle and the Main Hall (主殿) to the rear.

There are however two sets of stairs on either side of the Main Hall that transport visitors up the hill to the original stone shrine constructed in 1801.

This is the internet though, I’m fully aware that people like to argue, so if you wanted to say that the design is actually the ‘three-hall and two passage-way’ (狹長形三殿) style you’d also be correct.

Rarely though is the rear hall elevated on a hill above the main hall, nor is the actual entrance to the temple separate from the Temple Gate. This stuff can definitely become a bit confusing at times.

The main temple gate - oddly on the side of the temple.

What is considerably easier to understand is that the beauty of Bishan Temple lies not in the display of extravagance and wealth that you see at other temples but its simplicity and careful consideration of the natural environment that surrounds it.

One thing you’ll notice when visiting the temple is the distinct lack of bright colours on the interior - There is an obvious focus on red lanterns which blend well with the dark-grey tones of the stone carvings found on the walls throughout the complex.

The stone-craftsmanship at this temple is absolutely beautiful and its obvious that no expense was spared in hiring skilled artisans to create the beautiful murals and dragon pillars throughout the complex. As the temple was crafted on the side of a mountain, I’m sure you can imagine that the focus on the stonework was meant to give visitors the feeling that the temple was carved out of the mountain itself.

If you visit, you’ll want to make sure you take a walk up one of the two passage-ways to the rear which are extremely picturesque and are full of beautiful stone murals and beautifully hand-painted wooden pillars.

Main Hall (主殿)

The interior of the main hall

The main hall in the temple consists of five separate shrines: 

The shrine to the far left is dedicated to the Jade Emperor (玉皇上帝) and the Tai Sui Generals (太歲星君) - The Jade Emperor is pretty much the ‘godfather’ of Taoism and the Tai Sui generally represent the Chinese Zodiac. Both are represented by spirit plaques on either side of a statue of the Goddess Doumo (斗母元君).

The shrine to the far right is a simple one dedicated to the God of Literature (文昌帝君), an important deity for anything to do with scholarly study. Students often visit one of the many shrines dedicated to the God of Literature throughout Taiwan to pray for a bit of spiritual help with their studies.

The Main Shrine of the temple consists of three separate shrines:

  1. The shrine on the left is dedicated to the Earth God (福德正神) one of Taiwan’s most popular deities.

  2. The shrine in the middle is dedicated to Kaizhang Sheng Wang (開漳聖王) and his court, which includes his two generals General Lee (李將軍) and General Ma (馬將軍).

  3. The shrine on the right is dedicated to the ‘Martial’ representation of Kaizhang Sheng Wang (武身聖王).

Something that confused me while doing research for this blog was that there was little information readily available for a god named “武身聖王”. I did lots of searching through Chinese-language sites for an answer but came up with very little.

So, I took another trip to the temple to solve the mystery and after a short discussion with the lovely people at the information desk I learned something new:

The god in the main shrine is considered a “文” (Wen) representation meaning that he is ‘scholarly’ and ‘compassionate’ and is useful for attracting good fortune and blessings.

The shrine to the right is the “武“ (Wu) representation that depicts Kaizhang’s “martial” nature as a former military leader. This is a common thing that happens with representations of historical figures in Chinese folk religion. The martial representation has the power to help ward off evil spirits and bad influences. 

Likewise, every temple in Taiwan will have Door Gods” or “Menshen (門神) on the front doors which act as guardians for the building with one always appearing as a ‘martial’ (武) deity and the other a ‘scholar’ (文) 

Kaizhang King (開漳聖王)

Kaizhang Sheng Wang (開漳聖王)

As mentioned above, Bishan Temple is the largest of its kind in Taiwan dedicated to the folk-religion deity known as Kaizhang Sheng Wang (開漳聖王).

In most cases when you encounter a folk-religion deity in Taiwan, their worship is likely to have been brought here along with the Hokkien people (閩南人) of Fujian (福建) hundreds of years ago.

The Hokkien’s ended up bringing with them not only their language but their culture, cuisine and beliefs and helped to shape Taiwan into the land that it is today. 

Kaizhang” was a historical figure named Chen Yuan-Guang (陳元光) who lived during the Tang Dynasty (唐朝). He was a famous general who was credited with the development and prosperity of the Zhangzhou (漳州) region of Fujian Province.

After his death both Chen and his top two aides were deified becoming known as the patron saints of the people due to the fact that in life they were known for unifying people through ‘respect’ rather than the heavy-handed approach which was usually taken by the governors of that time. 

Coincidentally Chen’s defied name “Kaizhang” (開漳) is directly related to his efforts to develop or “open” (開) the Zhangzhou (漳州) area. So you get the name “開” (open) and “漳” (Zhangzhou). 

Today ‘Kaizhang Sheng Wang’ is a popular folk-deity worshipped by the Hokkien people of Taiwan, China’s Fujian Province, Singapore and Malaysia.

Link: Tan Goan-Kong 

City Views

Enjoy the haze.

I gather that most of you aren’t actually here to learn about the temple, its design or its history.

You’re probably here looking for information about the great views!

It’s okay, I understand. Not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for Taiwan’s temples as I do.

This temple is not only a popular place of worship for locals but it has also become a tourist attraction, especially with photographers thanks to the spectacular views it offers of the city.

While most temples in Taiwan close their doors around 9:00pm, this one stays open a bit later to accommodate those who come to see the beautiful night views of the city.

The front of the temple offers two large viewing platforms to guests who get to enjoy a panoramic view of the Taipei Basin, Taipei City as well as the mountains that surround the temple.

The upper platform on the main floor of the temple has a large protection barrier that may partially block some of your views. It does however allow you a much wider perspective than the platform on the lower coffee shop level. 

A rainy sunset in Taipei

I’m going to have to add a bit of a disclaimer here in order to save myself from angry emails:

The views at the temple are not always great.

You’re going to want to make sure that you visit on a day when the weather forecast is looking good and the skies are clear - This of course can be a bit difficult if you are a tourist and are on a tight schedule and don’t have a lot of time in the country.

As you can see from some of the photos I’m sharing here, I was both lucky on one occasion and extremely unlucky on another. Not only is the weather an important factor, but so is air quality -  If you visit on a day when the weather is fine, you may still not have great views due to the haze caused by pollution.

Link: Air Pollution in Taiwan: Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map

The temple and the viewing platform are free of charge for visitors and is open until 10:00pm.

If you can’t show up until later, you may want to consider a night climb of nearby Jinmian Mountain.

Getting There

 

The best way to get to the temple is to use Taipei’s excellent public transportation network.

If you have your own means of transportation, you could always drive up the mountain, but then you’d have to find a parking spot for your car and on weekend that could be relatively difficult.

The bus that goes up the hill is inexpensive ($15NT), fast and comes at regular intervals, so you won’t have to wait very long for service.

To get to the bus first take the MRT Brown Line (文湖線) to Neihu Station (內湖站) and from Exit 1 walk to the rear of the building (where the MRT station is located).

There are two options for the bus stop - The closest is a simple right turn from the back of the MRT building. It is possible though that you won’t get a seat on the bus if you board from there. The expert thing to do would be to turn left from the back of the building and then walk down the road until you reach #452 Neihu Road Section 2. The bus stop is easily spotted as it is located a little bit past a small Earth God Shrine (梘頭福德祠) that blocks part of the sidewalk.

From there you’ll just have to wait for the “小2” bus which will bring you up the hill.

Link: 小2 Bus Schedule 

When you arrive at the entrance to the temple all you’ll have to do is get off the bus and walk up the long set of stairs to the entrance. You’ll easily know when you’re at the temple stop as pretty much everyone will get off the bus at the same time. 

The temple roof from the mountain above.

Whether you’re visiting Bishan Mountain for the historic temple or just for checking out the cityscape - There is a variety of other activities and things that you can see and do while up on the mountain. There are various hiking trails, strawberry fields, temples, a beautiful suspension bridge, parks as well as restaurants and tea shops to keep you busy for an entire day. The area is also extremely popular between February and March every year when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

If you’re looking to take a day-trip but don’t really feel like leaving Taipei, you might want to consider taking in some of the recreational activities available on the mountain.

Its definitely a great way to escape the city and who doesn’t want to sit on a mountain drinking tea?


Longgang Mosque (龍岡清真寺)

This post is the second part of a long-planned three part series on Longgang (龍岡), a culturally and historically significant area of Zhongli, the city I’ve called home for the past decade.

In the first post I introduced and listed the reasons  why it stands apart from your average Taiwanese community. 

This post will focus on the beautiful and historic mosque that serves the people of that unique community.  

If you missed the first post, which focuses more on the history of the area and more importantly answers the question as to why the area has a mosque, I’d recommend taking some time to go back and read that one before moving on with this one.

When I first arrived in Taiwan over a decade ago, an expat sighting around town was still something that was considered a rare experience.

Whenever someone saw myself or my friends, they were likely to stare for a bit and then suddenly shout “American!” or “so handsome!”.

Neither are actually true statements.

Over the years however I’ve come to accept these kinds of things as part of the friendly and welcoming nature of the people of Taiwan.

In recent years though, there has been a noticeable shift in the way some people, especially the younger generation react to the sight of a foreigner.

While most are still quite hospitable and friendly, it is becoming common to hear the experiences of some expats who are randomly approached on the streets and told to “go back to America”.

There are of course a myriad of reasons for this.

That being said, a group of foul-mouthed kids was probably just what the doctor ordered to ease a bit of the ‘weirdness’ I felt while visiting the local Mosque.

I had known about the Longgang mosque for a while and that it was an important cultural and historic building here in Zhongli - But I truthfully always felt a bit apprehensive to visit (especially with my camera) as I’ve leanred in my travels that mosques aren’t the easiest places to photograph. 

Normally in Taiwan I walk around temples and take photos and have never once felt unwelcome or that I was doing something wrong. Taiwanese people love sharing their culture with foreigners and no matter what you believe in, you are free to walk around and appreciate all the art and culture that is put on display.

I feel like churches and mosques are a bit different. When in Taiwan though, do as the Taiwanese do! 

When I approached the mosque I took quite a few photos of the beautiful gate and the exterior (trying not to be noticed) and saw a bunch of young boys hanging out on a picnic table in the shade nearby.

They were having a loud conversation with a woman in a hijab and the conversation seemed lighthearted - save for the fact that the kids had a penchant for using foul language. 

I decided that the lightheartedness and lack of formality was probably evidence that while I was visiting a mosque, it was a mosque in Taiwan and probably very much like every other temple or religious place I’ve visited. 

After a few minutes of banter between the teenage boys, the lady walked over to me and said very plainly in Mandarin: “Hey handsome, what brings you here?” I replied that I was studying the history of the area and learned that the mosque had quite a bit of historic significance to the area.

That was enough to earn myself a guided tour!

The Longgang Mosque dates back to the 1960s and shares an interesting history that coincides with the political and military history of the Republic of China Armed Forces.

With this blog I won’t be focusing on the religious aspects of the mosque but will instead spend more time on its historical importance and the reason why it exists in a country with a very small Muslim population.

Islam in Taiwan

You’d probably also be surprised to find out that the history of Islam in Taiwan dates back to 1683. Walking around the streets of Taiwan, you’re not likely to ever notice anything Islamic in nature. 

Even though there is a three century history of Islam in Taiwan, the Islamic population makes up only 0.2 percent of the total population today. 

These days the Taiwanese government does a pretty good job promoting religious freedoms and over the past few years has done quite a bit to ensure that Taiwan is a safe and inclusive place for Islamic tourists to visit.

Taipei City in particular has done quite a bit to identify and promote Halal-friendly restaurants and has committed to constructing more Mosques and prayer rooms in public spaces. 

It is probably safe to say though that when most locals think about Islam, they are likely to associate the religion with foreign labourers from Indonesia.

I’m sure few people really have no idea how, where or when Muslims worship. It just isn’t something that people notice in their everyday life. 

  1. Islam in Taiwan: Lost in Tradition (Al Jazeera) 
  2. Taiwanese Muslim: The History of Islam in Taiwan 
  3. The Future Faces South (New Bloom)

There are currently seven large mosques in Taiwan that serve not only the religious needs of the foreign labourer population (and tourists) but also the people who came to Taiwan from the Yunnan-Burma region in the 1950s and 1960s.

Prior to the 1950s it was unlikely that you’d find many Muslims in Taiwan. When the Kuomintang was forced to relocate thousands of guerrillas and their dependents from the Yunnan-Burma border region in the 1950s-1960s, the nation was suddenly faced with a population of Muslims who had no place to worship.

To solve that problem the government and religious organizations worked together to construct five mosques between 1947 and 1967 in Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung and Zhongli.

Longgang Mosque (龍岡清真寺)

In 1967, the Zhongli Mosque was built in the Longgang area of the city where there was not only a high population of evacuees from the Yunnan-Burma region but also several military bases and military villages. 

The Mosque that we see today is the result of several periods of construction, expansion and renovation throughout the fifty years of its existence.

When the mosque was originally constructed in 1967 it was considerably smaller than it is now and was hastily built (much like the military housing in the villages nearby) using materials and construction techniques that weren’t suitable for Taiwan’s humid environment.

After joining the Chinese Muslim Association (中國回教協會) and receiving funds from Saudi Arabia the group was able to reconstruct and renovate the existing building as well as purchase land adjacent to the mosque in order to construct dormitories, shower rooms and a kitchen.

The mosque complex we see today was completed in 1995 and consists of the main building and a larger one next to it that serves as the official residence of the Mosque’s Imam (Abdullah Liu - 柳根榮) and where the administrative staff offers classes to the public.

I’m not as well versed in the design techniques of Islamic Mosques as I am with East Asian Temple design but what I can say is that the mosque is quite a bit different than what you’re probably used to in Taiwan and is very minimalistic in design.

The exterior and interior of the building are a dark shade of green (which symbolizes freedom) with plain white walls on the inside.

As is custom, the Mosque is gender segregated with separate entrances for both men and women - Men worship on the top floor while women are relegated to the first floor.

I would typically complain that this type of segregation is a terrible thing but in the case of this mosque, I’d say the women are the winners due to the fact that the heat on the top floor of the Mosque was almost unbearable while I was touring it.

The Mosque is open every day and is available for the daily call to prayer.

The busiest day of the week is on Fridays when the Imam offers services to the public. 

The atmosphere at this mosque is quite laid back and considering the historical importance it has in the area, it is also attracts a few curious people who stop by to check it out.

Travellers shouldn’t worry that they are intruding on sacred space, that they won’t be welcome to visit or that they will have religious pushed on them - The people who run the mosque are welcoming and there are signs in Chinese, English, Arabic and a few other languages that explain the history of the mosque to visitors. 

Getting There

If you are coming from another area of the country and want to visit the Mosque, the best way to get there via public transportation is to take a train or bus into Zhongli (中壢) and then from the bus station (next to the train station) take a bus (#112) headed toward “Zhong Zheng” (忠貞) getting off at Longdong Road (龍東路).

Address: No. 216, Longdong Rd. Zhongli District, Taoyuan City. (桃園市中壢區龍東路216號)

 

Gallery / Flickr (High Res Shots)