Thursday, 1 January 2015

temples of Tainan

Tainan city street - in the scooter lane
There's a certain magic about some Couch Surfing hosts.  Hans replies to our request to stay with him positively but qualifies it - unfortunately he and his girlfriend Ting are moving out the next day, New Year's Eve.  How many people host strangers the night before they move house?  Hans is a tall young guy who talks a mile a minute - in fact he's the fastest talker we've spoken to since we stayed with Brian in Almaty.  The reason is that Hans went to a 'British' boarding school in Canada before graduating there.  His English is natural and flawless and he has lots to say.  We have lots to ask too so that's okay.  It seems a shame that we will meet only briefly.  But then Ting comes to the rescue with another incredibly selfless offer:  we can stay in her new flat the next night as she will be with Hans' family in Kaohsiung.  How many people host strangers the day they move in, before they have even slept there??  Hans is a triathlete and Ting has studied martial arts - it is clear we are not going to argue with them and besides Tainan turns out to be a very interesting city with plenty to keep us occupied.  We are thrilled to accept their hospitality, not least because it turns out the new year is a national holiday even though it's not the Chinese New Year, and all the hostels are booked up to the gills.

Portugese sailors gave Taiwan the name Formosa when they saw what a pretty island it was.  The Dutch chased off Spanish traders from the Phillipines and built a fort in Tainan when they settled here back in the 1600s. Tainan had a large inland sea which has silted up and is now a protected wetlands area to the north of the city.  Around the 1660's a Chinese admiral, loyal to the recently defeated Ming emperor, turned up and sent the Dutch packing.  Koxinga's aim, in an interesting forerunner to Chiang Kai-Shek's intentions 280 years later, was to regather his forces in order to launch a new attack on the mainland of China and send the Manchurians back to their homelands beyond the Great Wall.  But, unlike Chiang Kai-Shek, Koxinga died soon after and eventually Taiwan was subsumed into the new Qing dynasty's empire.  It was this period that saw the big migrations of southern Chinese escaping the mess that China was becoming.  The ancestors of most Taiwanese arrived in Taiwan via Tainan, which was the main port and capital of the island in this period.
temple of the City God
We spend New Year's Day flitting from one temple to another in the city centre along with a large number of locals and other tourists.  The 1st of the month is an auspicious day to visit, make offerings and say prayers.  We are fascinated by the sight of young and old doing their thing: buying and making offerings of alcohol and food, lighting bunches of incense sticks and putting them around the temple, burning fake money.  
embroidered cloak

nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah
Each temple is devoted to a particular deity, some of which were real people in ancient times.  The temples are intricately decorated buildings with some stunning traditional architecture.  Roof lines sweep up at the ends in dramatic curves, a vivid mosaic of glazed tiles make up rows of dragons, lions and other creatures. 
money to burn

Doorways are surrounded by carved woodwork and stone columns feature a gamut of faces and creatures.  There are shrines with idols - small dark wooden characters wrapped in embroidered gold cloaks and statues of other fierce-looking Gods dotted around, with facial hair sprouting every which way.  The temples are either Taoist, Confucian or Buddhist and the scenes remind us strongly of the Hindu temples in India.

sweet smelling

carved stone column

looks like a nice bloke

roof detail
It's interesting to think that this part of Chinese culture has almost all been eradicated on the mainland by Mao's Cultural Revolution.  We have seen some temples in Fujian province and remember one in Guangzhou when we first visited China in 2009, but nothing on the scale of Taiwan.  Every village has a shrine and the towns are full of them.   Later when we talk to Hans and Ting we learn that Hans' mother is Christian.  Missionaries came with European traders and most of the aborigines here converted.  Many Chinese who came with the Kuomintang, including Chiang Kai-Shek himself, were also Christian.  It's all part of the melting pot of Taiwanese culture.  At one of the shrines I spot a bloke offering up his incense sticks in one hand, cell phone pressed to his ear in the other.  Taiwan feels quite westernised in many ways, but our temple tour has opened up another aspect of the country to us.

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