Final Reflection

Note: this is a reconstruction based on notes and memory, rather than exactly what I presented for my oral reflection.

Before I came to Taiwan, I expected to find a microcosm of Chinese culture. Free China, but still part of China. I have certainly learned different - learned of a culture with a long and varied history separate and distinct from that of mainland China. It has an ancient history, starting with the Polynesians spreading out from Taiwan to settle all the Pacific islands. It astounds me that Taiwan has a direct connection with such a vast undertaking.

Another item I wondered about was the speed and acceleration of events in Taiwan. After a couple thousand years of indigenous culture, and then being joined by the Chinese for a couple hundred years, events accelerated when the Japanese took control of the island in the late 19th century. Since then, no two generations have lived remotely the same life. When conquered by the Japanese, the indigenous people lost a significant portion of their lifestyle. 

Fast forward a generation, everyone’s learned Japanese. Some Taiwanese have become successful selling green tea to Japan. Fast forward another generation and they’re back in Chinese hands, following the Second World War and about to become nearly the entirety of the ROC. Another generation and Taiwan is the best aircraft carrier in the Pacific for the Americans and under strict martial law. One more and protests are bringing martial law to a close as Taiwan is one of the Asian Tigers economically, developing quickly while becoming sidelined by mainland China. Today, Taiwan is a fledgeling democracy, still defined by its relationship with China and struggling with that identity. 

Food has been a primary way I’ve interacted with the native population - I’ve hardly had a choice but to go out into the community in search of sustenance. Through this, I’ve gained valuable experience in interacting without a common language, as well as learned to appreciate the Taiwanese soul. Here, the people are always kind despite my not knowing how to communicate in Mandarin, and willing to try and work with me regardless. Often, they even seem apologetic - as if it was their failure that they didn’t speak my language.

Something something temples are another aspect of Taiwan that have really interested me, as well as religion in general. The Huang family temple is like nothing I know in the West. Religion is much more of a family affair, but it is also very public, with people everywhere giving offerings in front of their businesses and whole communities celebrating holidays at the temples. Even if many Taiwanese would not say they have a religion, religious culture seems very much alive in Taiwan.

And yet for all the differences I see some similarities with my experience with religion back home. I have attended a lutheran camp my whole life in the woods by a lake in New Hampshire. Though Christianity does not have a whole lot of emphasis on nature generally, when we’re in close contact with it I can definitely see the connection with the Daoist temples with their requisite nature surrounding them, even in the city.

Overall, my greatest takeaways will be the ability to function in any country and willingness to explore, even with little grasp of the native tongue, and the ability to make connections in these new and strange locales to concepts from places I am familiar with.

Tzu Fa Chan Monastery

We need more 10-story Buddhist monasteries in Boston because the Tzu Fa Chan monastery is quite the work of art, as well as being a very peaceful place full of generous people. 

It has a zen garden on the roof, with walls on all sides that block out the city and make it easy to forget that you are, in fact, in a city. This is a great adaptation to city life for a tradition rooted in nature and shows a nice parallel to urban/rooftop gardens back home - nature making itself present in the city.

The above Buddha is surrounded by hundreds of water bottles (from Costco) that have all received his blessing, or rather you can be blessed by drinking that water. You might also have to walk around the statue to get the blessing - the details were a bit fuzzy, but I did it anyways. This temple further went to show that gilt is common in temples - they have no problem deifying those they worship, unlike some Christians who struggle with alternately deifying and humanifying their savior.

Last but not least, this room was used for lessons and for chanting - the elder/senior monk sits on the platform just below the Buddha while the others had many seats and tables spread out to the left of the field of view. A note on the Buddha statues - statuary spread to India from Greece via Alexander the Great, so the statues were originally thin and Apollo-like. As they spread out from there, some images of Buddha grew fat, like in some regions of China.

Museum of World Religions

Water is important in nearly all religions, whether used for baptism, revered like the Ganges, or part of feng shui. I was glad to see water playing a part, a tangible part in the introduction to the museum.

The theme of similarities continued into the hallway of deep questions like “what am I before I am born?” and “where did the world come from?” that religions try to answer. Besides the models of the religious buildings, this theme was probably my favorite part of the museum. 

The choice of religious was a bit odd. Taiwanese indigenous beliefs get a pass because we are in Taiwan, but including Incan traditions over Egyptian or Greek mythology strikes me as odd, though that may be due to my Western outlook. Perhaps they were trying to grant the Americas some representation, since no religions followed by tens of millions originated in the Americas.


The models were amazing. Above, we have Chartres Cathedral, which is fully detailed even inside. 



Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world and the model really gives you a scale for it with the tiny stairs out in front. The museum struck an interesting balance between showing beliefs and effects - mostly it just showed cultural effects and traditions with some mention of the beliefs in the films we watched.

09Aug14 Megatrip

On Saturday August 9th we traveled to the south-west of Taipei, making several stops. First we stopped at the Huang family temple and were given a tour by the head of the family. The head of the family is a very powerful man, visited by presidents during election season because he controls 1.5mil votes in Taiwan. The temple is a magnificent, gilded structure with 11 generations represented on their generational wall. The extended, hereditary family is a significant form of organization for the Hakka in Taiwan, less so for other groups. The indigenous do not have the heredity tradition, but rather have their clan traditions and structure. Those Chinese who came from the mainland as short-term laborers or with the Nationalists in the late 1940s did not bring their ancestral records, since they did not expect to stay. It is only the Hakka, who settled here, that have all their ancestral records going back generations. The records in the Huang temple only went back to the first settlers of Taiwan in that family - 9 generations back from the head of the family. 


The temples seem to be a repository of intergenerational wealth. Each generation donates what they can, but even with a dozen generations a temple may be a simple building with a stone as seen in the movie we watched. The Huang family in Taiwan, however grew wealthy in what must have been the 20th century - for they traded in tea and that’s when the tea trade grew in Taiwan. The current leader of the family also sued for his family’s land taken during the Japanese occupation. With their newfound wealth, they built a magnificent temple to honor those that came before them, likely improving upon or replacing a simpler temple before. The family did have some level of importance beforehand, having capital to enter the tea trade and being important enough to warrant the notice of the emperor.


Our next stop was the Yimin festival being held at the Yimin temple in Hsinchu county as part of the festivities of Ghost Month. The Yimin festival celebrates the “Courageous People” (Yimin) who defended the Hakka against bands of robbers hundreds of years ago. The festival is important to all Hakka in Taiwan and consists of many rituals. We observed the bringing of offerings in red baskets to the temple and a great deal of bowing and speeches given. 


In some ways, the festival isn’t all that different from memorial day ceremonies in the United States. There was a bit of a parade, speeches were given, and everything was for celebrating those who died protecting them in the past. However, our celebration is necessary secular, even if religious figures participate, because we have a much more heterogenous religious populace. The Hakka seem to have held to their traditions, and even if some convert to Christianity I’d expect they’d probably keep with the traditions like the Yimin festival.

Next we visited the house of the Lin family. A complex might be a better word for the location we visited, as the area consisted of two sprawling houses as well as a temple behind. The residence shows what happens when many generations exist under the same roof. Inside, we saw a small shrine to the ancestors, going back a number of generations. All of this indicated to me a moderately well-off family. They had a great deal of land, but not the great wealth of the Huang family to build a large temple. The house was in need of repairs, in fact. 


Like the temple and the tomb behind it, this house has excellent feng shui, which was translated for us as “geomancy”. In this context, it meant the geographical position was such that it was pleasant year-round. With mountains to the north and east, they were protected from typhoons during the late summer and from the cold winter winds in the winter. The plains to the south meant that during the summer there was always a pleasant breeze to keep folk cool. Both locations also had water nearby - a manmade pond by the house and a natural spring by the tomb.


A tea factory and museum was another major stop on our trip. The factory had been active since the beginning of the 20th century, when the tea trade started to grow in Taiwan. Taiwan has great climate for tea growing in its hilly areas and on the sides of the mountains. Initially, the tea grown in Taiwan was processed by foreign companies - Europeans and Japanese. The Formosan Black Tea company was one of the first local companies formed that controlled the process buying from the fields all the way through processing and selling the finished tea. 


During the period of Japanese rule, the tea produced in Guansi was designated a key agricultural product of Formosa and it was gifted to the emperor annually. Early on, tea was more of an export product made for Japanese consumers and others around the world (see image above - stencils for the crates designating destinations, including Boston!). In the 1980s as the economy advanced, domestic consumption and Taiwan imports more than it exports - though it also imports tea raw and processes it for consumption and export. The factory we visited is still active, now producing solely green tea powder which we tried stirred into water and made into peanut candy.

Taipei Fine Arts Museum

A couple days ago we visited the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and the really neat part was getting a tour of the works of one of East Asia’s modern grandmasters, Chen Cheng Hsiung, by the artist himself.

He walked us through his early life, starting painting when he was in high school and continuing to this day. He’s now in his late 80s and still going! He also unabashedly talked about his (pretty abstract) works depicting male and female genitalia - the Fiery Youth series and the Break Through piece. 

After that tour, my group headed downstairs and walked through an exhibit of bizarre art, much of which had political commentary as an intrinsic part. 

Academia Sinica

On Wednesday the 30th we visited the museum at Academia Sinica, another institution that was moved in its entirety when the nationalists fled the mainland. It’s a large university, an apparently very highly respected research institution, and it has one of the top collections of Chinese artifacts along with the Palace Museum. 


We heard about how archaeology really took off in China after the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty and the foundation of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1911. 

[check out these sweet Daleks… I mean bells]

None of these artifacts came from Taiwan - the emperors of China didn’t even bother with Taiwan for most of its history, and didn’t think the barbarous locals had anything to offer a civilized people. And it’s pretty true - for most of China’s history, Taiwan has been full of headhunting tribal people.

Fun fact: horses were about this size a thousand years ago, like 4 feet tall at the head. This is true for the horses that knights rode in Europe. Also the knights - they were pretty short too. Everything was short a thousand years ago.

The Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines

On 24Jul14 we visited the Aborigines museum, right across the street from the Palace museum. It started as the private collection of a Mitsubishi heir who went all around Taiwan and nearby islands buying artifacts of the “ethnographic present”, or past 3-5 generations. The peoples still exist in Taiwan, but they’re quickly losing traditions and languages as modern Taiwan grows around them. 

The headhunting culture that existed until colonization by Japan in the late 19th century started in the neolithic era and remained with little change since the neolithic people sailed from the mainland and replaced/interbred with the paleolithic people. The pot below is an example of a chief’s pot. When the chief broke off a piece of the top, he was saying “I pledge that if you send this piece to me, I will come to aid you.”image

The headhunting societies had sharp divisions between expectations for men and women. Men were the hunters and defenders of the tribe, and their path to heaven was participating in a successful headhunting raid. The women owned the houses and their path to heaven was becoming a successful weaver. This is similar to the pacific islanders, where the men’s domain was the ocean and their ships while the women’s was the island and their homes. If your wife was angry with you, you could forget about sleeping inside the house!

National Palace Museum

On 22Jul14 we visited the National Palace Museum - the front of a huge collection of artifacts from China’s 8000 year history. When the Nationalist Chinese government retreated to Taiwan in the late 40s, they brought everything collected by the emperors of China over the thousands of years of Chinese empire. There are pots and vases painted with the styles of different dynasties: blue and white was the aesthetic of Ming dynasty while the Qing pottery was much more colorful. Thousands of years of funereal artifacts are in the Palace Museum, mostly taken from tombs by archaeologists in the early 20th century. The quantity of artifacts in the museum collection is such that it would take >40 years to show everything if they changed the exhibits every 3-4 months. Currently, the most famous artifact on display is a cabbage carved out of jade, which has a grasshopper on it, part of the same piece of stone.

We learned some interesting facts about jade while at the museum. At the earliest times, it was used for tools - axes, weapons, knives. However, as metalworking developed it was replaced by copper for functions such as these and relegated to a material used for beautiful ritual objects, which is how it remained for thousands of years.

At the top of the museum was a tea room designed by Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, who had the sole right to bring people up there. It’s a beautiful room looking out over the mountains surrounding the area. The decoration is simple and traditional and it would be very relaxing and expensive to drink tea there.

image source


The night markets are the most striking and interesting facet of Taipei to me so far. We’ve visited two so far: Gongguan near where we’re staying and the Guangzhou Street market by the Lungshan temple.

These markets are packed with tiny stalls, some free-standing, others built into the buildings along the street. Food, mostly unfamiliar to me, is far and away the top item. It’s easy enough to buy whatever you like with little-to-no language skills, just point. It’s a lot easier to be bullied by the vendors too, though. I did want to buy some tea, but when I showed any interest it took about 20 seconds for the man to strongly recommend a certain type and sell it to me.

We also visited Lungshan temple, which was very interesting itself of course. It was a Daoist temple, surrounded by nature including a small waterfall and a pond with some huge fish. There was a special Buddhist ceremony going on while we were there as well as many people visiting normally, praying at various shrines. One shrine that got a great deal of (mostly female) traffic was the moon goddess whose portfolio included love, so many prayed there for boyfriends or husbands

Since we were there during summer break, the shrine of the god who guides students had hardly any visitors.