The People of Taiwan
First-time visitors to Taiwan often expect to find a completely homogenised society, with little difference in thinking, customs and attitudes from one generation to the next, from city to countryside, or even from person to person. In fact, the country is a multiethnic melting pot. Customs and traditions go back and forth between groups and evolve over time; these days, family background and life experience are far more indicative of a person's attitudes and beliefs than simple ethnicity.
Taiwan may have some of the world's most colourful traditional festivals and a sizeable population, predominantly in the south, that live by both the lunar and Gregorian calendars, but it's worth keeping in mind that Taiwan is still a very modern country with a strong and charismatic urban culture.
In Taiwan, just as traditional rites are used to celebrate the opening of businesses and honour the passing of lives, pop culture is part and parcel of many religious processions. It is not uncommon to spot scantily clad pole dancers busting moves on large vehicles at these events, or dance music pumping out of converted cars with gull-wing doors and badass lights, not to mention bros sporting tats and trainers strutting along to the temple dressed as deities. Whatever one's opinion of such modern manifestations of faith, they're not meant to be disrespectful of tradition. If anything, they show how deeply ingrained faith is in the lives of Taiwanese of all ages. And for outsiders, the ease with which the Taiwanese sashay in and out of tradition and modernity is what makes this country so fascinating.
Aside from pop, performance art, literature and a vibrant book-and-lifestyle-shop culture all figure in Taiwan's luxuriant contemporary cultural landscape. It's worth checking out the museums, galleries and performances in the big cities, and the arts festivals. And don't forget the jazz festival and jazz bars, the cool indie dives and the calmly ambitious modern cooking, be it return-to-roots Euro-inspired Taiwanese or chefy Taiwan-inspired French. You'll find these and more in Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taichung and Chiayi, just as you'll find equivalents in any major city in the world.
About 98% of Taiwan’s inhabitants are ethnically Han Chinese, with the other 2% being indigenous. Hoklo and Hakka are often referred to as běnshěngrén (本省人; home-province people), while mainlanders, or those who came with Chiang Kai-shek (and their descendants), are wàishěngrén (外省人; outside-province people). These titles are gradually falling out of use, however, especially with the younger generation.
Accounting for about 70% of the population, the Hoklo (Taiwanese) are the descendants of Chinese immigrants from Fujian province who arrived between the 17th and 19th centuries. While nearly all speak Mandarin, many also speak Hoklo, or Taiwanese, as their native language. Hoklo are found all over Taiwan.
About 15% of the population are Hakka, descendants of immigrants from Guangdong Province. Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Miaoli Counties are Hakka strongholds, but you'll also find significant populations in Pingtung and Taitung.
Around 13% of the people are those who emigrated from mainland China following WWII and the defeat of the Nationalist army by the communists in 1949, and their descendants. They tend to be concentrated in urban areas such as Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung and are among the most educated, connected and wealthy of citizens, but also among the most poor. Intermarriage and a Taiwan-centred consciousness among the young has made the label somewhat passé, though one still hears the phrase 'high-class wàishěngrén' used as a mark of distinction in certain circles.
The population of Taiwan’s 14 officially recognised tribes is around half a million (2% of the total population). Villages are concentrated along the east coast and the mountainous interior, though many young indigenous Taiwanese work in the major cities. Although indigenous people are by far the least prosperous, and most discriminated against, group in Taiwan, in recent years many villages have seen a rebirth of indigenous practices and pride, and have begun building a sustainable and nonexploitative tourism industry around traditional culture.
Nearly all indigenous people speak Mandarin in addition to their own tribal languages. DNA tests have shown that 88% of ethnic Taiwanese have some indigenous blood in them, likely owing to the lack of Chinese female settlers in the early days of immigration from the mainland.
Indigenous tribes in Taiwan include:
Amis (population 184,000) Mostly live on the east coast in Hualien and Taitung Counties.
Paiwan (population 88,000) Live in Kaohsiung and Pingtung Counties.
Atayal (population 80,000) Across the central and north mountainous regions, with Wulai (near Taipei) their most northerly extent.
Bunun (population 51,000) Live in the central and southern mountains as well as Taitung County.
Truku (Taroko; population 26,000) Live in Taroko Gorge and other parts of Hualien.
Tao (Yami; population 3900) Live only on Lanyu Island.
Several hundred thousand Southeast Asians and Chinese have immigrated to Taiwan in the past decade, many as mail-order brides for rural Taiwanese men. There are also a small number of Westerners who have become Republic of China (ROC) citizens and thousands who have become permanent residents.
Taiwanese Women Today
Taiwan, alongside Hong Kong, leads Asia in sexual equality. The ROC constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of gender, educational opportunities are equal for boys and girls, and in working life women are found in the upper echelons of many companies, religious organisations and government departments. The president is London School of Economics–educated Tsai Ing-wen. Following the January 2016 elections, a total of 43 women were sworn in as lawmakers in the 113-member Legislature, which translates to 38%, the highest in Asia and a historical high for Taiwan.
Among young women, marriage and childbearing are being delayed longer and longer (the average age now is 29 to 30, higher than most Western countries), with the result that Taiwan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. What exactly is behind the low rates is multifold. In part it's simply that Taiwanese women have more choices, but economic stagnation also plays a large role: young Taiwanese simply cannot afford their own families.
Boys are still favoured over girls in some families, and it is not uncommon to hear of a mother who is pregnant once again because her first three children were girls. But this is becoming less and less common and comes down to individual family pressure rather than societal pressure.
Despite the low birth and marriage rate, family still remains central to Taiwanese life. Both young and old are generally deeply committed to each other. Parents dote on and indulge children in a way that seems developmentally harmful to many Westerners, while adult children continue to defer to their parents for major decisions. Male offspring take their role as guardian of the family name with utter seriousness.
Most people in Taiwan live in crowded urban conditions. However, with low taxes, cheap utilities, fresh local foods, to say nothing of excellent low-cost universal medical care, people enjoy a good balance between the cost of living and quality of life. (On the other hand, stagnating wages are a major problem for young people.) Life expectancy is 83 years for women and 77 years for men.
One of the most unfortunate parts of Taiwanese life is education: an emphasis on rote learning means kids are burdened with long hours of homework and evenings spent at cram schools. Elementary school is fairly low pressure, but junior and senior high schools are true soul crushers and suicide is common among teens.
Like their peers in the West, young Taiwanese have taken to pop culture, casual dating, sexual experimentation, (limited) drug and alcohol use, and expressing themselves with fashion choices. They have been labelled the Strawberry Generation in that they look perfect but can't bear pressure. While often true, many in this generation are also proving to be devoted to social causes and willing to put themselves on the line in protests, as was shown in 2013 when 250,000 mostly under-30s protested in front of the Presidential Palace over the death-by-torture of a young army recruit. Strawberries are also more than willing to drop out of the rat race to pursue a dream. More and more young people favour opening cafes and boutiques over seeking stable employment in a large firm.
In general, relationships are the key to Taiwanese society and this is expressed in the term guānxi. To get something done, it’s sometimes easier to go through a back door, rather than through official channels. This has serious implications for the rule-of-law, however, as well-connected people are often able to get away with anything.
The Taiwanese Character
Taiwanese have often been characterised as some of the friendliest people in the world. Reports from Western travellers and officials in Taiwan in the 1930s read like modern accounts, which suggests friendliness is a deep long-standing quality. Some claim this is likely due to Taiwan's immigrant background in which trust among strangers was paramount.
The important concept of ‘face’ can seem scary to those prone to social gaffes, but in reality the idea is largely about not causing someone else to lose status or dignity in front of their peers. Locals may often appear humble and polite but they have a fierce pride. Taiwanese men seem to have an instinctive way of defusing tension, but once things go too far, extreme violence could be the result.
Taiwanese stress harmony in relationships, and if the choice is to be made between maintaining harmony and telling the truth, many people opt for the former. It's best to see this as an expression of different values.
Associated with this is flattery. Travellers are often told how beautiful they are or that their Chinese is terrific. The best response is a smile and a humble reply in the negative, to avoid sounding arrogant. On the other hand people are often shockingly direct once they know you and will tell you directly you have gained weight, gotten ugly, are wearing unflattering clothing, and so on. And between friends and even loved ones a bossy, pushy, insulting tone is often taken. However, one of the best parts of the Taiwanese character is the general capacity for very open, sincere and lifelong friendships.
Despite their propensity for work and study, Taiwanese are a sports-loving people. Basketball and baseball are the most popular organised spectator sports: both have their own leagues in Taiwan and games are popular with local audiences, especially baseball. In fact, Taiwanese baseball players regularly make it to the big leagues in Japan (which introduced the sport to Taiwan in 1906) and America, with players like Wang Chien-ming now household names around the world.
Taiwanese are also quick to embrace athletes such as probasketball star Jeremy Lin, born in the US to Taiwanese parents, as one of their own. And with the ascension of Yani Tseng and Lu Yen-hsun, golf and tennis are seeing a resurgence of interest.
When the five-day (more or less) work week was established in 2001, Taiwanese began to take up biking, hiking, surfing and travel in record numbers. Today, a sporting and leisure society mentality is well entrenched, something that often confounds visitors from mainland China.
As with most activities, Taiwanese localise some aspects of their sports. Hikers always get up predawn, for example, to watch the sunrise (a chi-enhancing activity), while cyclists can't bear to be seen outside without the latest flashy gear and clothing.
Feature: Traditional Festivals
In addition to scores of local cultural holidays and events, Taiwanese celebrate the big traditional Chinese festivals such as Lunar New Year. These are mostly family affairs but it's good to know a little about them as they are integral parts of local culture, and you might find yourself invited along at some point.
Lunar New Year (農曆新年; Nónglì Xīnnián) Celebrated for two weeks (people get four to nine days of public holidays) in January or February, this is the most cherished holiday of the year. Activities include a thorough clean of the house; decorating doorways with couplets expressing good fortune; and a family reunion dinner on New Year's Eve. On the second day of New Year's, married daughters return to their parents' home. The last days of the public holidays are for visiting friends and travelling. The 15th and final day is the Lantern Festival, which in Taiwan is celebrated with a number of exceptional activities.
Tomb Sweeping Day (清明節; Qīngmíng Jié) Ancestor worship is among the most important features of Taiwanese culture, and on this day (Gregorian calendar, 5 April) families return to tend to their ancestral graves (though many now are interned in a columbarium).
Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節; Zhōngqiū Jié) Originally a harvest celebration, this public holiday falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Families gather to barbecue, eat moon cakes, gaze at the full moon, and recount the story of the fairy Chang'e and a jade rabbit who lives on the moon and mixes a mean elixir of immortality.
Feature: Etiquette: Dos & Don'ts
- If a Taiwanese gives you a gift, put it aside to open later to avoid appearing greedy. Expect the same for a gift you have given.
- Don't leave your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. It reminds Taiwanese of funeral incense.
- Present and accept things (such as business cards) with both hands as a sign of respect.
- Don't be afraid to talk politics. But if someone says they are tired of it, they're probably sincere and not being cautious.
- Don't give four of anything as a gift or white flowers. They are both associated with death.
- Don't worry about being cheated by a taxi driver or small-business owner. Taiwanese are generally honest this way and will even offer you the same discount they would a local.
Taiwan has a literacy rate of 96.1%. The country uses traditional Chinese characters to read and write with, and the average adult must learn to write and recognise thousands.
One of the best books for a quick understanding of the Taiwanese character in all its quirks and qualities is Steve Crook's Dos and Don'ts of Taiwan.
If you want to get a good sense of the national character, especially the capacity for mocking humour, candidness and creativity, check out a few Next Media Animations (tw.nextmedia.com).
Epitomising the ideological gap between the generations, 67-year-old Guo Tai-ming, founder of iPhone manufacturer Foxconn, famously remarked that it was beyond him that so many of Taiwan's young today are content simply opening cafes.
After giving birth, Taiwanese women partake of the month-long zuò yuè zi, an ancient custom of post-partum recuperation with specific dietary and movement restrictions. These days zuò yuè zi nursing centres provide 24-hour assistance in a hotel-like setting.
Religion in Taiwan
A funny thing happened to Taiwan on the way to its future. Instead of losing its religion as economic growth, mobility and education brought it into the developed world, the very opposite happened. There are more Buddhists today, for example, than ever before, and in fact you'd be hard-pressed to find a larger (per capita) monastic population in all of Asia. The old Taoist gods, and the old acts of worship, have hung on, too.
A Brief History
Early immigrants to Taiwan faced conditions not unlike those faced by settlers in the New World: a harsh environment, hostile natives, a lack of wives and a host of devastating diseases. Faith in the local cults of their home village in China was vital in forming new and strong community bonds in Taiwan.
During the late Qing dynasty and into Japanese times, a period of increasing wealth and mobility, many temples began to expand their influence beyond the village level. Famous pilgrim sites arose, and Matsu started her rise to pan-Taiwan deity status.
The Kuomintang (KMT) at first tolerated local religion but then attempted to both suppress and co-opt it, fearing that it was at best superstitious nonsense and at worst a rallying point for Taiwanese independence. They were largely unsuccessful and even before the lifting of martial law had abandoned trying to direct local culture.
Three Faiths (Plus One)
The Taiwanese approach to spirituality is eclectic and not particularly dogmatic; many Taiwanese will combine elements from various religions to suit their needs rather than rigidly adhering to one particular spiritual path. Religion in Taiwan is largely about an individual relationship to a deity, dead spirit or even spiritual leader. Many of the gods, customs and festivals have little to do with any of the three official religions and are sometimes described as part of an amorphous folk faith. But don't expect anyone to ever tell you they are a believer in this faith: instead, they will say they are Taoist or Buddhist.
Confucian values and beliefs (Rújiā Sīxiǎng) form the foundation of Chinese culture. The central theme of Confucian doctrine is the conduct of human relationships for the attainment of harmony and overall good of society. Society, Confucius taught, comprises five relationships: ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and son, elder and younger, and friends. Deference to authority and devotion to family are paramount.
The close bonds between family and friends are one of the most admirable attributes of Chinese culture, a lasting legacy of Confucian teachings. But Confucianism's continuing influence on modern Taiwanese society is often overstated. The effects of modernisation, which include greater mobility, mass education (for both males and females) and democratic elections (which allow ordinary citizens to make demands of their rulers), are all centrifugal forces acting to push society away from a simple adherence to Confucian values.
Taoism (Dàojiào) is easily the most confusing facet of Chinese culture, consisting of a vast assembly of philosophical texts, popular folk legends, various organised sects, a panoply of gods and goddesses numbering in the thousands, alchemists, healers, hermits, martial artists, spirit-mediums, alcoholic immortals, quantum physicists, New Age gurus…and the list goes on. Controversial, paradoxical and – like the Tao itself – impossible to pin down, it is a natural complement to rigid Confucian order and responsibility.
Taoism began with Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching. Its central theme is that of the Tao – the unknowable, indescribable cosmic force of the universe. Organised Taoism came into being in the 2nd century, at which time there was an emphasis on mystical practices to cultivate immortality. Taoism reached a high point during the Tang dynasty when there was a fierce (but productive) battle with Buddhism and when many branches became increasingly tied to popular religion.
In modern Taiwan, Taoist priests still play a vital role in the worship of deities, the opening of temples, the exorcising of bad luck (and sometimes illness) and the presiding over of funeral services.
For a more thorough look at Taoism, including the myriad deities, see the Daoist Encyclopedia (en.daoinfo.org/wiki).
Buddhism (Fójiào) came to Taiwan in the 17th century with the Ming loyalist Koxinga, but there were few orthodox associations until Japanese times. Many Japanese were devout Buddhists and supported the growth of the religion during their occupation.
In 1949, thousands of monks, fearing religious persecution in China, fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists. Under martial law, all Buddhist groups were officially organised under the Buddhist Association of the Republic of China (BAROC). By the 1960s, however, independent associations were emerging, and it is these maverick groups that have had the most influence in modern times.
Buddhism in Taiwan is largely Chan (Zen) or Pure Land, though few groups are strictly orthodox. The main Buddhist associations are Foguangshan (the Light of Buddha), Dharma Drum, Tzu Chi and Chung Tai Chan.
The Bodhisattva Guanyin, the embodiment of mercy, is the most popular Buddhist deity in Taiwan.
Beliefs about ancestor worship permeate almost every aspect of Chinese philosophy. Most homes in Taiwan have their own altar, where family members pay their respects to deceased relatives by burning incense and providing offerings.
Closely tied to ancestor worship is popular or folk religion, which consists of an immense celestial bureaucracy of gods and spirits, from the lowly but important kitchen god (zào jūn) to the celestial emperor himself (tiāndì or shàngdì). Like the imperial bureaucrats on earth, each god has a particular role to fulfil and can be either promoted or demoted depending on his or her job performance. Offerings to the gods consist not only of food and incense, but also opera performances, birthday parties (to which other local gods are invited) and even processions around town.
Presbyterians are few in number but are politically influential. Indigenous Taiwanese tend to be overwhelmingly Catholic or of other Christian faiths; church steeples are a common fixture in villages, as are ageing nuns and priests from Europe.
In addition Taiwan has a small number of Tibetan Buddhists and Muslims, and a number of followers of cults such as Falun Gong, Yiguan Dao and those that occasionally arise around a single person.
As an integral part of religious life in Taiwan, it's not surprising that pilgrimage fulfils many roles besides worship: it gives people an excuse to travel; it helps reinforce the relations between daughter and mother temples; and it's a major source of funding.
Jìnxiāng, the Chinese term for pilgrimage, means to visit a temple and burn incense to the god. But not any temple will do. Famous pilgrim sites have a reputation for divine efficacy (靈; líng), which is the magical power to answer a worshipper's prayers. Pilgrims visiting such sites expect to have a direct experience of the god's powers, and to return home with both good-luck trinkets and good results (such as prayers granted). In return they usually make a donation to the temple.
The most famous pilgrimage in Taiwan is in honour of Matsu. But there are many others, such as those to Beigang's Chaotian Temple, Maokong's Zhinan Temple, Tainan's Nankunshen Temple and Donggang's Donglong Gong.
In all phases of Taiwan's history, the wealthier society got, the bigger the religious festivals. Well, there's never been a wealthier Taiwan, which means bigger, flashier, more extravagant festivals than ever. Good places to catch random celebrations are Lukang and Tainan.
Acts of Worship & Prayer
Worship is known as baibai and doesn't have to take place in a temple, as most families have a household shrine devoted to their ancestors. In addition to the following, typical acts of worship include offerings of food, candles and thanks, as well as fasting or refraining from eating meat.
It's been said that the most important part of a temple is not its statues but its incense censer. In every temple in Taiwan you will see worshippers holding burning incense in their hands as they do the rounds, bowing first before the main deity and then the host of subdeities. Afterwards the incense is placed in the censer.
Burning joss paper is another common act of worship and there are four different types, with each used for a variety of purposes, such as supplicating the gods, worshipping ancestors and literally providing spirits with money to use in the afterlife.
Going to a temple to ask gods or ancestors for answers to questions is common. The most typical form of divination is bwah bwey, which involves tossing two wooden half-moon divining blocks after a yes-or-no type question has been asked. If the two bwey both land curved-side up, the request has been denied. If one is up and one down, the request has been granted. If they both land curved-side down, it means the god is laughing at your request or suggesting you try again. There is no limit to how many times you can perform bwah bwey but if you get the same answer three times in a row, you should accept it.
Who's Who on the Door?
In Taiwan the most commonly encountered deities aren’t statues of Matsu or Buddha inside temples, but the colourful door gods that are practically everywhere. These supernatural bouncers are spotted not only at temple entrances but also on city gates, house doors or even indoors as bedroom guardians. The function of door gods is to frighten away evil spirits; they are right on the front line when it comes to securing the well-being of a temple or a family at home.
Among the panoply of predominantly male door gods, the most common are warriors from Chinese folklore; legendary members of the traditional mandarin class are also featured. If their origins appear too prosaic, know that the holy door-keeping profession is also graced by the presence of celebrated eunuchs and youthful virgins.
Door gods of the same kind generally stand sentinel in pairs and some of the most famous partnerships are introduced below. Sometimes one can tell the kind of deity that’s worshipped inside a temple or the religious faith of a house owner just by looking at the door gods they’ve chosen.
Taoist temples and homes are usually guarded by the likenesses of two Tang dynasty generals, Qin Shubao and Yuchi Gong. Typically, one of them is fair-faced while the other has a dark appearance, yet both share a penchant for long beards and wield weapons. They are also very popular door gods for city gates and ancestral halls.
Buddhist deities Skanda (Wei Tuo) and Sangharama (Jia Lan) are the most commonly seen door gods at Buddhist temples, and they are sometimes found at Taoist temples, too. Skanda is portrayed as a young, beardless military general while the localisation of Sangharama has seen him metamorphose into Guandi.
Occasionally, Buddhist temples are protected by Generals Heng and Ha, a fierce door god double act known for their unorthodox ways to vitiate an assailant. With a sullen pout and a snort, bile-faced General Heng fires blazing rays from his nose. Similarly, when General Ha opens his menacing jaws, a blast of amber gas thunders out, showing who’s boss. These mean tricks are used to rob an enemy of their soul.
If a temple is dedicated to a high-ranking deity (for example, Baosheng Dadi or the City God), or one who was previously an emperor or an empress, the door gods will be palace maids or even eunuchs. Images of the latter are not noted for their facial hair, of course, but they would sport a dust brush and long fingernails (hinting at a life of little toil). At Tainan’s Wufei Temple, which honours five Ming dynasty concubines, the door gods are played by palace maids and their emasculated counterparts.
Constantly battered by the elements, door gods have to be periodically restored and, in some cases, completely replaced when the weight of battle scars forces them into retirement. Most door gods on duty in Taiwan today were painted after the 1960s, but older ones do exist, and they may well have been watching you all along.
Same God, Many Statues
Wonder why temples offer worshippers so many statues of the same god? Well, different statues can play different roles. In Tainan's Matsu Temple, the Great Matsu statue oversees the local neighbourhood; a second watches over the internal affairs of the temple; yet another is a helper of the Great Matsu. Each is said to have a different personality and be receptive to different requests.
Religion & Modern Life
When a modern Mr Wang is troubled, he is as likely to burn incense and joss paper, toss moon blocks (bwah bwey) and pray at the altar of a favourite deity as his ancestors were. Of course, before asking Baosheng Dadi to help cure his glaucoma, Wang will take the medicine his doctor prescribed, knowing full well which one is more efficacious. But if he is cured, it's still the temple that will get the fat donation.
Perhaps the biggest change has been the way the media, feeding the public demand for religious content, has made nationwide stars of regional temple cults and festivals. Religious associations understand this very well, and several Buddhist and Taoist groups now control their own image by running independent TV stations. Probably only in the US, with its tradition of fiery evangelists spreading the word of God on TV, will you also find such a potent fusion of technology with tradition.
All of which is to say that the more things change in Taiwan, the more they stay the same. No matter what form it’s received in or how it's propagated, religion in Taiwan continues to foster a sense of shared culture and identity, and to provide the individual with satisfying rites of passage and intimations of the divine.
Feature: The Main Folk & Taoist Deities
Those outlined here are just a few of the dozens, even hundreds, of folk and Taoist gods you will come across in temples. Among the most important deities in the south, the Wang Yeh (the Royal Lords), who number in the hundreds, were either once real historical figures (such as Koxinga) or plague demons. Today, they are regarded as general protectors.
Matsu (Empress of Heaven) is the closest thing to a pan-deity in Taiwan. She is worshipped as a general protector.
GuanGong, or Guandi, is the so-called God of War, but is better thought of as a patron of warriors and those who live by a righteous code. More generally he is worshipped as a god of wealth and literature. He is easy to recognise by his red face, beard and halberd.
Baosheng Dadi (the Great Emperor Who Preserves Life) is the god of medicine. He played an important role for early immigrants faced with a host of diseases and plagues.
The top god in the Taoist pantheon, the Jade Emperor, fulfils the role of emperor of heaven. In Taiwan he is usually represented by a plaque rather than a statue.
The City God (城隍爺; Chénghuángyé; protector of cities), also officially the Lord of Walls and Moats, is the moral accountant of the world, recording people's good and bad deeds for their final reckoning. People pray to him for protection and wealth.
Tudi Gong, the Earth God (and minor god of wealth), has the lowest ranking in the Taoist pantheon. As governor of local areas, he was very important in preindustrial Taiwan and his shrines can be found everywhere. Look for statues of an old bearded man with a bit of a Santa-like visage.
Feature: Rénjiān Fójiào: This-Worldly Buddhism
You won't get far understanding the Buddhist influence on modern Taiwanese society if you simply try to grasp doctrine and schools. In the past 40 years a special form of socially active Buddhism (Rénjiān Fójiào; this-worldly Buddhism) has emerged to redefine what that religion means to its practitioners. Rénjiān Fójiào draws inspiration from the thoughts of the early-20th-century reformist monk Taixu in China, but has been completely localised by masters such as Chengyan of Tzu Chi.
A central tenet of Rénjiān Fójiào is that one finds salvation not by escaping in a monastery but by bringing Buddhist compassion into ordinary life and adapting the dharma to the conditions of modern life. Taiwanese Buddhist groups stress humanitarian work, and teach that traditional beliefs, such as filial piety, should be expanded to encompass respect and consideration for society at large. With a de-emphasis of ritual and a central role for lay followers to take in the organisations, Taiwanese Buddhist groups have made themselves the religion of choice for middle-class urbanites and professionals. The older folk gods, on the other hand, typically remain more attractive to the working class.
A common sight at religious festivals are the spirit mediums (jītóng in Mandarin, tangki in Taiwanese). Not sure who these are? Look for wild bare-chested guys lacerating themselves with swords and sticking blades through their cheeks to prove the god is within them.
Want to learn more about religious life in Taiwan? Pick up a copy of Mark Caltonhill's Private Prayers and Public Parades: Exploring the Religious Life of Taipei.
At the Dizang Temple in Xinzhuang, Taipei County, thousands of people come each year to file indictments with Bodhisattva Dizang against people who they believe have wronged them in some way. A bit of an indictment against the legal system, too, we would say.
A god's ability to grant requests is critical to popularity. In the past, protection against plague may have been sought. Today, it could be career advice; help passing an important test; or even, as we once saw on a prayer card at Donglong Temple, that the young believer grow to over 160cm tall.
Sidebar: Top Festivals
- Matsu Pilgrimage
- Burning of the Wang Yeh Boats (Donggang)
- Ghost Festival (Keelung)
- Yenshui Fireworks Festival (Chiayi)
- Welcoming the City God (Kincheng)
- City God's Birthday (Taipei)
- Bao'an Folk Arts Festival (Taipei)
- Qingshan Temple Night Patrol (Taipei)
The Temples of Taiwan
Taiwanese clearly love their temples. And why not? In addition to being houses of worship, temples fill the role of art museum, community centre, business hall, marketplace, recreation centre, orphanage, pilgrim site, and even recruitment centre for criminal gangs and a front for money laundering.
Historians generally divide temple development in Taiwan into three periods. In the early immigrant stage (16th to 17th centuries), settlers, mostly from Fujian province, established branch temples based upon the gods worshipped in their home villages. These temples were sometimes little more than a thatched shrine covering a wooden statue brought from China.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, as Taiwan grew wealthier, the small shrines were replaced with wood and stone temples. Wages for craftspeople were high and top artisans from China were eager to work here. Most materials were imported. This era also saw the establishment of Hakka temples.
The modern period began with the colonisation of Taiwan by the Japanese in 1895. Though Chinese masters were still used, several highly talented local schools developed and much of the fine work you'll see today comes from them.
The basic characteristic of any temple hall or building is a raised platform that forms the base for a wood post-and-beam frame. This frame is held together by interlocking pieces (no nails or glue are used) and supports a curved gabled roof with overhanging eaves. Think of any pagoda you have seen as a ready example.
The layout of most temple complexes follows a similar and comprehensible pattern of alternating halls (front, main, rear) and courtyards, usually arranged on a north–south axis. Corridors or wings often flank the east and west sides, and sometimes the whole complex is surrounded by a wall, or fronted by a large gate called a páilóu (牌樓). Exploring the variations of this theme is one of the pleasures of visiting multiple Taiwanese temples.
Stand outside a traditional Taiwanese temple and look up at the roof. It will be single or multitiered (with two or even three levels). The roof's ridgeline, slung low like a saddle, will curve upwards at the end, tapering and splitting prettily like the tail of a swallow. Not surprisingly this is known as a swallowtail roof, and is a distinctive feature of southern temples.
The ridgeline is always decorated with dragons in jiǎnniàn (mosaiclike temple decoration). Sometimes a pearl sits in the centre (which the dragons are reaching for); sometimes three figures (福禄寿; Fu Lu Shou) who represent the gods of good fortune, prosperity and longevity; and sometimes a seven-tier pagoda.
Slopes are covered with tiles (long and rounded like a bamboo tube) and fabulously decorated with vibrant cochin pottery and figures in jiǎnniàn. Fish and some dragon figures on the ends symbolise protection against fire (always a threat for wooden structures).
Wooden brackets help to secure posts and beams, and they are also decorative features. They vary from dragons and phoenixes to flowers and birds, or tableaux of historical scenes unfolding as if on a scroll. Examples are Bao'an Temple in Taipei, Yinshan Temple in Tamsui and Longshan Temple in Lukang.
Stand under the eaves of a temple roof and look up. Notice the complex system of two- or four-arm brackets? These brackets (very apparent when you see them) are called dǒugǒng and are unique to Chinese architecture. In fact, they are considered the very heart of the system.
Dǒugǒng gives builders a high degree of freedom during construction and is one reason why Chinese architecture can be found across a wide region so varying in climate.
Spiderweb Plafond Ceilings
This type of inverted ceiling (like in a cathedral) is constructed with exposed dǒugǒng arms that extend up and around in a spiderweb pattern (sometimes swirling like a vortex). Plafond ceilings are probably the most striking of all temple architectural features.
Examples are Confucius Temple and Qingshan Temple in Taipei, Anping Matsu Temple in Tainan, Tzushr Temple in Sansia and City God Temple in Hsinchu.
Temple Decorative Arts
One of the most delightful of the folk arts, jiǎnniàn (剪粘; cut-and-paste) is a method of decorating figurines with coloured shards. Imagine a three-dimensional mosaic.
True jiǎnniàn uses sheared ceramic bowls for raw material. The irregular pieces are then embedded by hand into a clay figurine. These days many artists use premade glass pieces but still embed them by hand. Some temples save money by simply buying prefab whole figurines.
Jiǎnniàn is usually found on the rooftops of temples (which can often be reached by stairs). Figures include humans, dragons, phoenixes, carp, flowers and the eight immortals.
Examples are Bao'an Temple and Qingshan Temple in Taipei and Kaohsiung's City God Temple.
A type of colourful low-fired, lead-glazed ceramic, cochin (also spelled koji) is one of Taiwan's unique decorative arts. The style is related to Chinese tricolour pottery and came to Taiwan in the 18th century. Common themes include human figures, landscapes, flowers and plants, as well as tableaux depicting stories from mythology and history.
Cochin pottery is found under eaves, on lintels or on the rooftop.
Examples are City God Temple in Chiayi, Confucius Temple in Taipei, Ciji Temple in Xuejia and the Koji Ceramic Museum in Chiayi.
Woodcarving is usually found on cross-beams, brackets, hanging pillars (often carved in the shape of flowerpots), doors, window lattices and screen walls. Its basic function is decorative, though many parts are integral to the temple structure. Many temple god statues are also carved from wood and are exquisite pieces of art.
Examples are Bao'an Temple in Taipei, Yinshan Temple in Tamsui, Matsu Temple in Makung and Longshan Temple in Lukang.
Painting is mainly applied to wood beams and walls. Though decorative, painting also helps to preserve wood, and is said to drive away evil, bless and inspire good deeds. Common motifs include stories from literature and history. Probably the most distinctive paintings at any temple are the guardians on the doors to the Front Hall. Examples are Xiahai City God and Bao'an temples in Taipei, and Matsu and Dongyue temples in Tainan.
Before the 20th century most stone came from China, and was often used as ballast in the rough ship ride over. Later locally sourced Guanyin stone became the preferred choice, though today cheaper Chinese imports are often used.
Stone is most commonly used for courtyard surfaces, stairs and doorposts, dragon columns and other pillars, lion statues, and relief wall panels showing scenes from history and literature.
Examples are Lukang's Longshan Temple, Tzushr Temple in Sansia and Chaotian Temple in Chiayi.
Temples are fragile structures prone to weathering, and subject to outright destruction by fire, flooding, earthquakes, typhoons, landslides, wars, occupations and indifference. Nearly every temple in Taiwan has been restored at least once since 1945, in many cases radically altering the original style.
In fact, most temples you see in Taiwan today will not have a traditional southern style at all. Since the 1960s the trend has been to build in the so-called northern palace style. Such temples are squat and broad, with a flat roof ridgeline and a flat interior ceiling. Decorations tend to be repetitive and are often prefabricated in China. The change resulted from political reasons (to please the Nationalist government), insecurity among Taiwanese regarding the worth of their southern heritage, and cost-cutting measures.
Feature: The Dying Masters
Taiwan has a serious problem ahead with a lack of fresh blood moving into the traditional decorative-arts field. The last survey of jiǎnniàn masters in 2004, for example, showed that only 37 remained. A combination of low prestige, long hours and low pay has made traditional craftwork unattractive to younger Taiwanese. One master woodcarver we met from Pingtung even said he refused to pass his skills on to his children, not wanting them to get stuck in a dead-end career.
Feature: How Many Temples are There in Taiwan?
In Taiwan anyone can have a temple built, and it seems almost everyone does. Government statistics from 2009 show there are 14,993 registered temples, approximately one for every 1500 residents (just a little higher than the average for convenience stores). This figure does not include unregistered temples, family shrines and the ubiquitous Earth God shrines. What's more astonishing is that the majority of these temples are relatively new. In 1930 there were 3336 registered temples; by 1981 there were 5331.
Feature: Branch Temples & the Divine Power of the Mother
New temples are almost always established as a branch (or daughter) of a larger and more famous mother temple. This involves a rather fascinating process called fēnxiāng (分香; spirit division).
In this practice, representatives from the newly built temple go to the elder one to obtain incense ash or statues. By doing so they bring back a little of the líng (靈; divine efficacy) of the original temple deity to their own humble house of worship.
Periodically representatives from the daughter temple must return to the mother to renew or add power to the líng of their statue. At the mother temple, they once again scoop out incense ash to place in the incense burner of their own temple and also pass their statue through the smoke of the mother temple's incense burner. The process is usually accompanied by a large parade.
Feature: Touring Through Taipei's Bao'an Temple
The Unesco heritage award winning Bao'an Temple is hard to beat as a place to start your study of traditional temple art and architecture.
- To begin, stand before the Front Hall (basically a colonnaded entrance portico with five doors) and observe the sweeping swallowtail ridgeline, elaborate rooftop decoration (jiǎnniàn figurines), and row of cochin pottery figures nestled snugly between the roof's double eaves.
- Then note the stone lions, octagonal dragon pillars, rectangular pillars, and side dragon and tiger panels. These all welcome visitors and protect against demons. They are also among the oldest parts of the temple. The dragon columns, for example, were carved in 1804.
- Above the lions look for carved wood panels between the posts. See the Western-style balcony on the left panel? When Bao'an was renovated in 1917 during the Japanese-era, two teams (one from China, one from Taiwan) were given one half of the temple each to complete: the left side was given to the Taiwanese and features more innovations and touches of modernity.
- The interior of the Front Hall serves as a worship area, with long kneelers and tables piled high with offerings and flowers. In other temples this worship area may be further in towards the Main Hall.
- Next, step into the open stone courtyard (this area is covered in many temples). Note the large incense burner (made in 1918), and bell and drum towers on the sides. These towers are Japanese influences and are now widely found in other temples.
- The Main Hall is another double-eaved structure with stunning rooftop decoration, hanging flowerpots in differing styles and carved pillars. On the far left eave, look up to see a Western figure with an umbrella and dog. Also note the different dǒugǒng styling on the left and right (the left is shaped like the character 人, rén, meaning people). A long panel of cochin figurines represents the Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea.
- Inside the Main Hall (where the resident god always resides), check out the gorgeous roof truss. This is an example of traditional san tong wu gua, or three beams and five melon posts. Also look on either side for the astonishing ceramic green dragon and tiger reliefs (created by master cochin artist Hong Kunfu in 1917), and the celebrated wood statues of the 36 celestial guardians (carved between 1827 and 1833).
- While inside the Main Hall, look for lacquered tables piled high with offerings. As with most temples, the shrine at the back is elaborately carved and features multiple statues of the resident god (the smallest inside the glass is the oldest). Note that the pillars in here are rounded. In pillar hierarchy, round is best, octagonal second best and rectangular third.
- The exterior of the Main Hall is covered in masterful paintings completed by Pan Li-shui in 1973. The back shows the legendary ghost queller Zhong Kui welcoming his sister home.
- Like most larger temples, Bao'an features a Rear Hall (note the single eave) with shrines to various deities. Check out the delicate bird and flower pillars (made in 1918) and the exorcism room to the far right.
Feature: Temple Styles
South vs North
Traditional Taiwanese temples are constructed in a southern Chinese style (sometimes called Minnan). What does this mean? Well, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, architecture in China moved away from the aesthetic principles of the Song dynasty (a high period of art) towards a stiff, formal and grandiose expressiveness best exemplified by Beijing's Forbidden City.
In more remote regions (such as Fujian), however, Song principles of beauty, playfulness, ornamentation and experimentation persisted. As all early Taiwanese emigrated from the south, they naturally constructed their temples in the style they knew. So don't rush through your next temple visit. It's heir to a thousand-year-old high tradition now found only here and in a few scattered Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.
Buddhist vs Taoist vs Confucius
One of the easiest ways to distinguish between temples is to look at the actual name. A Buddhist temple's name will almost always end with the character 寺 (sì), while a Taoist temple will end with the character 宮 (gōng) or 廟 (miào). A Confucius temple is always called a Kǒng Miào (孔廟).
The general architectural features (such as a raised structure with a post-and-beam frame) will be the same for all three types, though modern temples may incorporate foreign influences; for example, in the mosque-meets-rocket-ship design of the Chung Tai Chan Monastery in Puli. Older Buddhist temples, such as the various Longshan temples, are harder to distinguish from Taoist ones, but modern Buddhist temples are usually built in a northern Chinese 'palace style' and have fewer images and less elaborate decorations.
Confucius temples are always large walled complexes and generally sedate, except on 28 September, the sage's birthday. Taoist temples, on the other hand, will generally be loud, both in noise level and decoration. They tend to be very enjoyable to explore because of this.
Feature: Temple Etiquette
- In general, temples welcome visitors.
- You can take pictures but be courteous.
- Don't go past gated altar areas.
- Enter via the right door of a temple and exit via the left. The main door is reserved for the resident god.
- Remove your hat and don't smoke.
- Some Buddhist temples might ask you to remove your shoes.
In every temple, look for animals in the paintings, carvings and ceramic figures. The dragon, phoenix, tortoise and qilin are known as the 'four Spiritual beasts'. The tiger, leopard, lion and elephant are also important symbols in both Buddhism and Taoism.
When the US stopped pegging gold at US$35 an ounce in the 1970s, the price skyrocketed and many temples (traditionally big recipients of gold donations) suddenly found their worth multiplying. Many restoration projects got their funding from this unexpected windfall.
A temple can seem raucous and worldly compared to a church, but before holy festivals it will undergo rites to transform it into a sacred space. Check out the Five Day Completion Rituals to Thank Gods at Bao'an Temple in Taipei every spring.
Most larger temples are incorporated, and run by a manager appointed by a board of directors. His office will usually be found along the east–west wings, and nearby will be other offices where you'll find the accountants, PR reps, website designers and volunteers who help run the show.
Homonyms are an important part of Chinese visual art. Bats, for example, are commonly used motifs because bat (蝠; fú) sounds like 福 (fú), which means good fortune. Other common homophonous symbols include a vase (píng; peace), a pike and chime (jíqìng; auspicious), and a flag and ball (qíqiú; to pray for). For examples, see Xiahai City God Temple in Taipei.
The Arts of Taiwan
Taiwan has a rich and varied art scene covering genres such as painting, film, dance, ceramics and literature. Local arts are either wholly indigenous or evolved from Chinese genres, carried over by waves of immigrants from mainland China, or a unique mix of both.
Modern Visual Arts
Western styles of painting were introduced to Taiwan by the Japanese. Ishikawa Kinichiro (1871–1945), now considered the father of modern Taiwanese art, taught local painters to work the tropical landscapes of Taiwan in a French impressionistic style. Ishikawa’s students included Li Mei-shu (1902–83) who is best known for his work overseeing the reconstruction of Sansia's masterful Tzushr Temple.
During the 1970s a strong nativist movement, sometimes referred to as ‘Taiwan Consciousness’, began to develop. Artists found inspiration in Taiwanese folk traditions and the arts and crafts of indigenous tribes. The sculptor Ju Ming (born 1938), whose stone and woodwork can be seen in his personal Juming Museum on the north coast, is the most well-known artist from this period.
The opening of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the ending of martial law were two of the most significant events in the 1980s. For the first time, artists could actively criticise the political system without suffering consequences. And they had a public venue in which to do so.
Since then, alternative art spaces have blossomed and Taiwan's participation on the international stage has been well established. Artists regularly exhibit at top venues such as the Venice Biennale, and work in multimedia as much as traditional forms.
Indigenous Arts & Crafts
The indigenous people of Taiwan have their own distinct art traditions, many of which are alive and well these days.
The Tao of Lanyu Island are famous for their handmade canoes, constructed without nails or glue. The striking canoes have carved relief designs embellished with human and sun motifs painted in white, red and black.
The Paiwan and Rukai also excel at woodcarving; they build homes and make utensils that feature elaborate carvings of humans, snakes and fantastical creatures. Along the east coast the Amis use driftwood for sculptures of humans and animals and fantastic abstract pieces. You can check out part of the scene at the Dulan Sugar Factory.
Dance & Music
Vocal music is one way indigenous Taiwanese preserve their history and legends, passing down songs from one generation to the next. This music has become popular in recent years and music shops in Taiwan’s larger cities carry recordings.
Indigenous dances, accompanied by singing and musical instruments, are usually centred on festivals, which may celebrate coming-of-age rituals, harvests or hunting skills. These days, it's relatively easy to watch a genuine performance of traditional dance in the summer along the east coast.
Though rarely performed now, the Bunun Pasibutbut, a song with a complex eight-part harmony, was once considered impossible for a 'primitive' hunter-gatherer society to have created.
In addition to indigenous song, Taiwan has a long and rich tradition of classical instrumental music such as Nanguan (southern pipes) and Beiguan, which originated in Fujian Province (the ancestral home of most Taiwanese).
Folk music includes Hakka shan ge (山歌; mountain songs), and the Holo music of the Hengchun Peninsula (very southern Taiwan) in which singers are accompanied by the yuèqín (月琴; moon lute). In the hit Taiwanese movie Cape No 7, the character of Old Mao plays the yuèqín.
Taiwanese pop music goes back decades. One of the most popular singers in the 1970s was silky voiced Teresa Teng (1953–95) whose grave in Jinbaoshan Cemetary (just up from the Juming Museum) is still visited by adoring fans to this day. Perhaps even more well known in the Chinese-speaking world is A-mei (阿妹; Ā Mèi; born 1972), a singer-songwriter from Taiwan's Puyuma tribe. Younger stars include Jay Chou and Joline, both huge idols in China.
Since the late 1990s Taiwan has developed a vibrant indie, hip-hop, folk and underground scene, with some bands, like metal Chthonic, becoming near household names. Popular music festivals such as Spring Scream and Hohaiyan Rock Festival continue to introduce new bands to a wide audience.
The various styles of folk opera commonly seen in Taiwan have their origin in Fujian and Guangdong Provinces, though over the centuries they have been completely localised to the point where they are now recognised as distinct art forms. Initially performed on auspicious occasions such as weddings, birthdays and temple festivals, folk opera later developed into a more public art form, drawing larger audiences. By the 1940s opera was the most popular folk entertainment in Taiwan and remains well-received to this day.
Taiwanese opera is complemented by a wide range of musical instruments, including drums, gongs, flutes, lutes and two- and three-stringed mandolins. Common opera styles include Nanguan Xi Opera and Gezai Xi (sometimes just called Taiwanese opera), which evolved out of a ballad tradition that involved musical accompaniment. It's the most folksy and down-to-earth form of opera, making use of folk stories and sayings and, of course, the Hoklo language. The occasional martial arts display is a result of a merger of Beijing and Taiwanese opera troupes in the 1920s.
Modern dance in Taiwan has its roots in the 1940s, when it was introduced by the Japanese. In the 1960s and '70s a number of outstanding dancers, trained abroad or influenced by American dancers who had toured Taiwan, began to form their own troupes and schools, some of which remain influential today.
The most highly regarded is the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, founded in the early 1970s by Lin Hwai-min. Lin was a student under Martha Graham and upon his return to Taiwan in 1973 desired to combine modern dance techniques with Chinese opera.
Lin’s first works were based on stories and legends from Chinese classical literature. Soon, however, Lin decided to try to explore Taiwanese identity in his work. Legacy, one of Lin’s most important works, tells the story of the first Taiwanese settlers. Later works are more abstract and meditative as Lin explored Tibetan, Indian and Indonesian influences. No matter what the topic, Cloud Gate performances are breathtaking in their colour and movement.
Taiwanese cinema began in 1901 with Japanese-made documentaries and feature films. Many of these show the progress of Taiwan under colonial rule and were clearly meant for a Japanese audience.
In the 1960s the Nationalist government created the Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMP) and a genuine movie industry took off. During the 1960s and '70s, audiences were treated to a deluge of romantic melodramas and martial arts epics.
In the 1980s a New Wave movement began as directors like art-house auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien and the Western-educated Edward Yang broke away from escapism to give honest and sympathetic portrayals of Taiwanese life. Hou's City of Sadness (1989) follows the lives of a Taiwanese family living through the KMT takeover of Taiwan and the 2-28 Incident. This movie was the first to break the silence around 2-28 and won the Golden Lion award at the 1989 Venice Film Festival. Other social issues explored by New Taiwanese Cinema included urbanisation, disintegration of the family and the old way of life, and the clash of old and new values (as in Yang's Taipei Story; 1985). This cinema is also marked by an unconventional narrative structure that makes use of long takes and minimal camera movement to move the story at a close-to-real-life pace.
In the 1990s directors appeared who came to be known as the Second New Wave. Big names include Ang Lee, known for megahits The Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain; and the Taiwan-educated Malaysian art-house guru Tsai Ming-liang (Vivre L'Amour, What Time Is It There?) whose bleak, meticulous, slow-moving and sometimes bizarre take on urban life in Taiwan has won him recognition worldwide.
Piracy and competition from Hong Kong and Hollywood films sent the Taiwanese film industry into near collapse by the late '90s. With the release of Wei Te-sheng's Cape No 7 (2008), a romantic comedy that became a box-office smash, audiences and critics began to feel renewed hope for the industry. Wei's Seediq Bale (2011), an epic about an indigenous revolt against the Japanese, as well as Doze Niu's Monga (2010), about gangsters in Taipei in the 1980s, and Yeh Tien-lun's Night Market Hero (2011), is keeping the dream alive.
Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢; 1947–) is the best director to check out if you want to know more about Taiwanese society. As much as Ang Lee is a successful Hollywood director, Lee's compatriot Hou is a master of art-house cinema. Recently his elliptical visual feast The Assassin (2015), starring Shu Qi, won Best Director at Cannes. Hou's austere and beautiful dramas are known for their long takes and handling of tensions in Taiwanese society. Here are a few recommended titles:
- A City of Sadness (悲情城市; 1989) The film that made Jiufen famous is a Golden Lion (Venice) winner that deals with the White Terror era.
- Goodbye South, Goodbye (再見南國，再見; 1996) A gritty and subtly humorous drama showing the challenges confronting a gangster-businessman in a rootless, money-obsessed society.
- The Boys from Fengkuei (風櫃來的人; 1983) A bunch of boys from Fengkuei in Penghu leave their home to seek work in Kaohsiung.
- The Puppet Master (戲夢人生; 1993) In this Cannes Jury Prize–winner, Taiwan's legendary puppeteer Li Tian-lu reminisces about his life and work under Japanese colonial rule.
If Hou Hsiao-hsien likes to make rural Taiwan the topic of his films, urban Taiwan figures prominently in the works of American-educated Edward Yang (楊德昌; 1947–2007). Yang won Best Director at Cannes for his final work, Yi Yi aka A One and a Two (2000), about a family in Taipei as told from three different perspectives. But for many his best work is A Brighter Summer Day (1991), an epic based on an actual crime that grapples with the dilemmas and injustices faced by a teen of mainland Chinese parents growing up in 1960s Taiwan. A Brighter Summer Day is often regarded as a defining work of what's known as New Taiwanese Cinema.
One of the world's most famous directors, Ang Lee (李安; 1954–) is known best for his megahits The Life of Pi (2012) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Ang’s first film was Pushing Hands (1992), filmed in New York. His next movie, The Wedding Banquet (1993), took a bold step in exploring homosexuality in Chinese culture. Ang then joined Hollywood and filmed Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Lust Caution (2007). Lee's accolades have included the Golden Bear (Berlin), the Golden Lion (Venice), and Best Director (Academy Awards).
Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮; 1957–) is a Taiwan-educated Malaysian-Chinese film-maker who explores issues of alienation, gender and despair in the urban setting of his films. Rebels of the Neon God (1992) deals with troubled youth in Taipei; The River (1997) centres around a fractured Taiwanese family and hidden homosexuality; Malaysia's social underbelly is the subject of I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006); and Vivre L'Amour, winner of the Golden Lion at the 1994 Venice Film Festival, depicts the longing and isolation of urbanites living in Taipei. Tsai's latest, Stray Dogs (2013), shines an unusual light on poverty in Taipei.
Tsai's works are slow-moving and often bleak though definitely not without humour.
Taiwan has a rich and diverse literature. The earliest Taiwanese literature comprises the folk tales of the indigenous peoples, which were passed down by word of mouth. Later, in the Ming dynasty, Koxinga and his sons brought mainland Chinese literature to the island. A great number of literary works were produced in Taiwan during the Qing dynasty, the Japanese colonial era, and later the post-WWII period.
Taiwan spent the first half of the 20th century as a Japanese colony and much of the second half in a close relationship with China. Because of this unique heritage, Taiwan's literature is highly heterogeneous, undermining preconceptions about what constitutes a 'national literature'. There are authors, for example Yang Chichang, who studied Japanese literature in Tokyo in the 1930s and wrote their works in Japanese. There are also writers like Liu Daren, who was born in mainland China, and later, as a young intellectual in Taiwan, engaged in political activism that got him exiled in the 1970s.
Modern Taiwanese literature, like Taiwan's history, is rife with conflicting legacies and sensibilities. It is based on Chinese culture and wears the marks left by Japanese and American influences. Yet it is much more than that.
Taiwan's modern writers, many of whom were serious intellectuals, were keen to fill in the gaps in the Taiwanese cultural narrative that resulted from different political agendas and government-sponsored education. At the same time, they sought to establish a distinctly Taiwanese cultural identity that existed outside the colonising influences of Japan and mainland China. Authors like Lee Min-yung (李敏勇) and Tseng Kuei-hi (曾貴海) strove to gain acceptance for the Taiwanese Hoklo language, the Hakka dialect, and indigenous languages – essentially the mother tongues of the majority of the island's people. Serious literature and music were written in these dialects. These writers also turned their focus to Taiwan's folk traditions for inspiration and adopted a largely Taiwanese perspective in their writings. The movement is closely associated with the emergence of Taiwan's democracy in the 1990s.
The National Museum of Taiwanese Literature in Tainan is an excellent resource. The museum's bilingual website also has information on its research and translation activities, including a list of publications for sale. The museum has its own translation centre.
Some translated works of Taiwanese literature:
- Frontier Taiwan: An Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry (Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan), eds Michelle Yeh and N G D Malmqvist
- Indigenous Writers of Taiwan: An Anthology of Stories, Essays, and Poems (Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan), eds John Balcom and Yingtsih Balcom
- University of California's Taiwan Literature English Translation Series
Sidebar: Huang Tu-shui
The first Taiwanese artist to study in Japan was Huang Tu-shui (1895–1930) whose relief masterwork Water Buffalo can be seen in Taipei's Zhongshan Hall.
Sidebar: Yingge Ceramics Museum
The Yingge Ceramics Museum not only covers the history of pottery and ceramics in Taiwan, but also showcases the current leading masters and their efforts to keep expanding the boundaries of their art.
Sidebar: Atayal & Seedig Weaving
The Atayal and Seediq are well known for their weaving which uses hand-prepared ramie (vegetable fibre). The bright 'traditional' colours were actually introduced in the 1920s.
Sidebar: Indigenous Arts Museums
Learn more about native indigenous arts and crafts at the Wulai Atayal Museum, Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in Taipei and Ketagalan Culture Centre in Beitou.
Sidebar: Free Temple Opera
It's common to see free performances of opera held on stages outside local temples, sometimes even on trucks. Check out Bao'an Temple, Xiahai City God Temple and Dadaocheng Theatre in Taipei.
Taiwan has a rich puppetry tradition in marionette, glove, rod and shadow styles. Check out Taipei's Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum. Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Puppet Master (1993), winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, is based on the memoirs of Li Tian-lu, Taiwan’s most celebrated puppeteer.
The Landscape of Taiwan
At merely six million years of age, gorgeous Taiwan island is a bouncy child pumping with vigour and potential compared to 4.6-billion-year-old planet earth. Lying 165km off the coast of mainland China, across the Taiwan Strait, it covers 36,000 sq km (roughly the size of the Netherlands), and is 394km long and 144km at its widest. The country includes 15 offshore islands: most important are the Penghu Archipelago, Matsu and Kinmen Islands in the Taiwan Strait, and, off the east coast, Green Island and Lanyu.
Visitors to Taiwan and the surrounding islands can experience a stunningly broad variety of landscapes, from rugged mountains in the centre of the main island (there's even snow in winter at higher altitudes) to low-lying wetlands teeming with wildlife on the western coast, rice paddies and farmland in the south, and lonely windswept beaches punctuated with basalt rock formations on the outer islands. The east coast, with its towering seaside cliffs and rocky volcanic coastline, is utterly spectacular. The Central Cross-Island Hwy and the Southern Cross-Island Hwy link the island from east to west, cutting through spectacular mountain scenery.
However, Taiwan’s colourful – and wild – topography means that the majority of the country’s 23 million people are forced to live on the small expanses of plains to the west of the Central Mountain Range, and this is where agriculture and industry concentrate.
Mountains are the most dominant feature of Taiwan. The island is divided in half by the Central Mountain Range, a series of jagged peaks that stretches for 170km from Suao in the northeast to Eluanbi at the southern tip. Gorges, precipitous valleys and lush forests characterise this very rugged ridge of high mountains.
Running diagonally down the right half of the island like a sash are the country’s four other mountain ranges. The East Coast Mountain Range runs down the east coast of Taiwan from the mouth of the Hualien River in the north to Taitung County in the south. The Xueshan Range lies to the northwest of the Central Mountain Range. Xueshan, the main peak, is 3886m high. Flanking the Central Mountain Range to the southwest is the Yushan Range, home to the eponymous Yushan (Jade Mountain). At 3952m, Yushan is Taiwan’s pinnacle and one of the tallest mountains in northeast Asia. The Alishan Range sits west, separated by the Kaoping River valley.
Rivers & Plains
According to the Taiwanese government’s Council of Agriculture, the country boasts 118 rivers, all originating in the mountains, and it thus appears rather well watered. However, most of Taiwan’s rivers follow short, steep and rapid courses down into the ocean, which causes flooding during typhoon season. During the dry season, on the other hand, the riverbeds are exposed and the reservoirs alone are unable to supply adequate water to the population. An extensive network of canals, ditches and weirs has therefore evolved over time to manage and channel this elusive river flow for irrigation.
The country’s longest river is the 186km Zhuoshui, which starts in Nantou County, flows through the counties of Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi, and serves as the symbolic dividing line between northern and southern Taiwan. It is also the most heavily tapped for hydroelectricity. The Tamsui, which runs through Taipei, is the only navigable stream. Other rivers include the Kaoping, Tsengwen, Tachia and Tatu. Located in the foothills of the Central Mountain Range, Sun Moon Lake is the largest body of freshwater in Taiwan and is one of the country’s top tourist destinations.
Fertile plains and basins make up most of western Taiwan, which is criss-crossed with many small rivers that empty into the sea and has the most suitable land for agriculture. Over on the east coast, however, even plains are in short supply. Outside the three cities of Ilan, Hualien and Taitung, the area is among the most sparsely populated on the island.
Taiwan is home to 100 wetlands that have been officially declared ‘nationally important’, with estuaries being the most common form. There are large wetland concentrations in the southwest and southeast of the island; Tsengwen Estuary and Sihcao Wetland, both in Tainan, are classified 'international class' wetlands.
Besides providing a valuable ecosystem that supports a multitude of life forms including insects, amphibians and fish, Taiwan’s wetlands are a precious gift to vast populations of migratory birds. These enamoured, annual visitors stop in Taiwan when migrating from northern areas such as Siberia, Manchuria, Korea and Japan to southern wintering sites in, for instance, the Philippines and Indonesia.
When Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops were driven off the mainland, they brought more than just millions of Chinese people fleeing communism with them: they also brought capital, much of which was used to transform a primarily agrarian society into a major industrial powerhouse. Taiwan became wealthy, quickly, but it also became toxic, with urban air quality ranking among the world's worst, and serious pollution in most of its waterways. Indeed, Taiwan's 'economic miracle' came at a serious price, and pollution, urban sprawl and industrial waste have all taken a heavy toll on the island.
Things have improved markedly over the last decade. Environmental laws, once largely ignored by industry and individuals alike, are now enforced far more rigorously across the board, and the results have been tangible (the Tamsui and Keelung Rivers in Taipei, for example, once horribly befouled, are significantly cleaner in sections). Urban air quality is noticeably better, thanks to a combination of improved public transport, more stringent clean-air laws and a switch to unleaded petrol. The Taiwanese collective unconscious has changed as well: so much of the new 'Taiwanese identity' is tied in with having a clean and green homeland that people are tending to take environmental protection far more seriously.
Lest we paint too rosy a picture, it's possible to counter any perceived step forward with another step back towards the bad old days.
One of the bigger issues belying the image that the Taiwanese government hopes to project of an environmentally conscious democracy is that of land expropriation – that is, the legal removal of farmers from privately owned lands. Critics said the December 2011 revision of the Land Expropriation Act only served to reinforce the interests of development, which is very loosely defined to cover anything from military construction to projects approved by the executive, over farmers’ rights. Government and industrial proponents of expropriation point to the issue of common good, saying that transforming farmland into industrial areas creates jobs, reducing the country's climbing unemployment rate. However, opponents say that the main beneficiaries are a conglomerate of large corporations and real-estate developers. Although Taiwan's High Speed Rail (HSR) has been touted for making travel around the island even more convenient, many feel that placement of the stations – in the far outskirts of Taiwan's westernmost cities as opposed to in the city centres themselves – has actually promoted both increased traffic and urban sprawl. And, of course, the ongoing issue of decaying barrels of nuclear waste buried on the indigenous island of Lanyu has also yet to be resolved to anybody's satisfaction.
Taiwan's environmental issues are a global concern as well. Despite its diminutive size, Taiwan is a major CO₂ producer. A 2009 study contended that the 4130-megawatt coal-burning Taipower was the biggest CO₂ emitter on the planet. To date, it remains one of the most polluting coal power plants globally. That said, the Taichung City Government has negotiated with Taipower to reduce its carbon emissions in central Taiwan and stabilise air quality in the region. Taipower has pledged to end the open-air storage of coal by the end of 2018 and to upgrade some of its coal-fired generators.
So while it's fair to say that Taiwan has made great strides on the environmental front, it's clear that more remains to be done.
Natural Disasters: Earthquakes, Typhoons & Landslides
Taiwan is in a singular geological and climatic setting. It is highly susceptible to earthquakes and typhoons, while heavy rainfalls exacerbate the risk of landslides.
A fact of life for people living in Taiwan, natural disasters are also something that travellers need to take into account when planning their trip. Aside from the obvious dangers that may arise from being in the vicinity while one is occurring, landslides, typhoons and earthquakes have the potential to actually alter the landscape, rendering once-scenic areas unreachable and roads impassable. Sections of the Central Cross-Island Hwy that once stretched across the middle of the island from Taichung to Hualien remain closed to visitors, while large sections of the Southern Cross-Island Hwy are still impassable after being altered beyond recognition by Typhoon Morakot in 2009.
Geologically, Taiwan is on one of the most complex and active tectonic collision zones on earth. Sitting atop the ever-colliding (albeit slowly colliding) Eurasian and Philippine plates has given Taiwan the beautiful mountains, scenic gorges and amazing hot springs that keep people coming back. Alas, these same geological forces also put the island smack dab in earthquake central, meaning that nary a week goes by without some form of noticeable seismic activity. Most of these quakes are small tremors, only noticed by folks living in the upper storeys of buildings as a gentle, peculiar rocking sensation. Others can be far more nerve-racking to locals and visitors alike.
One quake on the southern coast in late 2006 caused only a few casualties, but severed several underground cables, disrupting telephone and internet service across Asia. On 4 March 2010 an earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale with an epicentre 362km south of Taiwan's southernmost city caused buildings to tremble as far north as Taipei, knocking out power and rail service for a short time and causing several injuries. The most devastating earthquake to hit Taiwan is remembered locally simply as '9-21' after the date it occurred, 21 September 1999. Measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale, the earthquake collapsed buildings and killed thousands. Damage caused by the 9-21 earthquake – especially the dramatic collapse of buildings in commercial and residential neighbourhoods – led to the passage of laws requiring that new buildings be designed to withstand future earthquakes of high magnitude.
Common during the summer months in the western Pacific area and the China seas, typhoons are tropical cyclones that form when warm moist air meets low-pressure conditions. Taiwan experiences yearly tropical storms, some of which reach typhoon level. Having better infrastructure than many of its neighbours, Taiwan tends to weather most typhoons fairly well, with the majority resulting in flooding, property damage, delays and headaches – but little loss of life. In August 2009, however, Taiwan found itself in the direct path of Typhoon Morakot. The island was unable to cope with the massive rainfall brought by the typhoon (it delivered over a long weekend what would be about three years’ worth of rain in the UK), which, combined with winds of up to 150km/h, triggered heavy flooding and landslides, especially in the southern counties of Pingtung, Chiayi and Kaohsiung. Nearly 600 people were killed in the disaster.
Although there has been no official consensus on precisely why Morakot was so devastating, many who study local climate and land-use issues in Taiwan factor in poor land management, excessive draining of aquifers and wetlands, and climate change in general as being partially responsible.
According to Dave Petley, one of the world's top landslide specialists, Taiwan is the ‘landslide capital of the world’ because of the high rates of tectonic uplift, weak rocks, steep slopes, frequent earthquakes and extreme rainfall events. But while Taiwan has almost every type of landslide, the number of known ancient rock avalanches remains surprisingly low given the prevailing conditions.
Feature: Energy Sources
A lack of energy resources means Taiwan is highly reliant on imports to meet its energy needs. However, the country has a poor record in the use of renewable energy: it is a major exporter of solar panels but there's almost no domestic use. Tsai Ing-wen's government has pledged to end nuclear power generation by 2025 and put forward a plan to expand application of wind and solar power. However, energy experts have expressed doubt over whether renewables can fully replace nuclear power.
At 3805m, Siouguluan Mountain not only represents the apex of the Central Mountain Range, but it also sits on the busiest tectonic collision zone in the whole of Taiwan. At present, it’s rising by approximately 0.5cm a year. Expect more spouting to come.
Legendary Japanese engineer Yoichi Hatta (1886–1942) still commands hero status in Taiwan today thanks to the major contributions he made to hydraulic engineering in the country.
If you drive along Lanyang River in the dry season, you’ll be greeted by a giant cabbage patch instead of flowing waters. To find the impressive, curious sight, follow the highway through the Xueshan and Yushan Mountain Ranges up to Wuling Farm.
For one of the most unusual geological curiosities in Taiwan – or anywhere – head to Wushanding Mud Volcanoes in Yanchao, 27km north of Kaohsiung. This tiny nature reserve has two volcanoes, where you can get really close to the craters to see the boiling pots of grey goo.
Taiwan Wildlife Guide
To most of the world Taiwan is best known as one of the Asian Tigers, an economic powerhouse critical to the world's IT supply chains. Decades earlier it had a reputation (now overtaken by China) as a manufacturer of cheap toys and electronics. But going back even earlier, Taiwan was not just the 'beautiful island' but also the kingdom of the butterfly and an endemic species wonderland where one could find the most astonishing variety of native plants and animals. Is there anything left of this old world? Plenty.
Taiwan's Forests & Climate
Taiwan is 60% forested, with about 20% (and growing) of the land officially protected as national park or forest reserve. One of the absolute highlights of any trip to Ilha Formosa involves getting to know the flora and fauna, much of which you can't find anywhere else on earth.
Taiwan lies across the Tropic of Cancer and most fact books record its climate as subtropical. But with its extremely mountainous terrain (it's almost 4000m high in the centre), Taiwan has a climate ranging from subtropical to subarctic, and its vegetation zones range from coastal to montane to alpine. It's been said that a journey 4km up to the 'roof' of Taiwan reproduces a trip of many thousands of kilometres north from Taiwan to the Russian steppes.
Taiwan has 4000 to 5000 plant species, with an estimated 26% found nowhere else. Travellers will be most interested in the forest zones, which is a good thing because Taiwan has plenty of forest cover.
Foothills (Tropical Zone) 0–500m
Most of Taiwan's original tropical forests have long been cleared to make room for tea fields, orchards and plantations of Japanese cedar, camphor and various bamboos. Intact lowland forests still exist along the east and in parts of Kenting National Park. In other areas you will find dense second-growth forests.
Submontane (Subtropical Zone) 300–1500m
It's in these broadleaved forests that most people get their first taste of just how unspoiled and luxuriant Taiwan's forests can be. It's a junglelike environment teeming with birds, insects, snakes and so many ferns that you often can't count the number of species in one patch. Though ferns can grow as high as trees (giving forests a distinct Lost World feel), common larger plant species include camphor, Machilus, crepe myrtle, maple tree, gums and cedar.
You can see submontane plants in Nanao, and near the Pingxi Branch Rail Line, the Walami Trail and Wulai.
Montane (Temperate Zone) 1600–3100m
The montane forests vary greatly because the elevation changes mean there are warm temperate and cool temperate zones. You might start your journey in a mixed broadleaved forest that soon turns to evergreen oaks. At higher elevations, conifers such as Taiwan red cypress, Taiwania, alder, hemlock and pine start to predominate. In areas that have been disturbed by landslide or fire, you often get large tracts of Taiwan red pine. When their needles fall, the forest floor becomes almost ruby in colour.
Between 2500m and 3100m in elevation, a natural pine–hemlock zone runs down the centre of Taiwan. This is one of the most pristine parts of the country (logging never went this high) and many trees are hundreds and even thousands of years old. A good part of any hike to the high mountains will be spent in this zone.
You can see montane plants along the Alishan Forest Train, Forestry Rd 200, and the hiking trails in Yushan National Park and Snow Mountain.
Subalpine (Cold Temperate Zone) 2800–3700m
You might think that this high-altitude zone is inaccessible unless you hike in, but you can actually reach sections of it by road. Taiwan's highest pass sits at 3275m on Hwy 14, just before Hehuanshan Forest Recreation Area. The rolling meadows of Yushan cane (a type of dwarf bamboo) that you can see from the roadside stand as one of the most beautiful natural sights on the island.
Less accessible are forests of tall, straight Taiwan fir and juniper (a treeline species). To see these you will need to put on your boots and strap on a knapsack.
You can see subalpine plants in the Hehuanshan Forest Recreation Area, Snow Mountain, Tatajia and Wuling Pass.
Alpine (Subarctic Zone) 3500m
If you manage to climb your way to this elevation, you'll be above the treeline. The zone is divided into a lower scrub zone and an upper herb zone where tiny patches of vegetation cling to the exposed rocks. It's a chilly place even in summer but the views are worth every effort to get here.
You can see alpine plants on the peaks of Snow Mountain and Yushan National Park.
There are about 70 species of mammals in Taiwan, and about 70% of those are endemic. Once overhunted and threatened by development, species like the Formosan macaque, wild boar, martin, civet, sambar deer, and the delightful and diminutive barking deer (Reeves' muntjac) have made great comebacks and are relatively easy to spot in national parks and forest reserves. Sika deer, which once roamed the grasslands of the west from Kenting to Yangmingshan, have been reintroduced to Kenting National Park and are doing well. Head out at night in submontane forests with a high-powered torch (flashlight) if you want to catch Taiwan's flying squirrels in action.
Though tropical at lower elevations, Taiwan lacks large species of mammals such as elephant, rhino and tiger. Taiwan's biggest cat, the spotted cloud leopard, is almost certainly extinct, while the Formosan black bear is numbered at fewer than 1000. Your chances of seeing one of these creatures are pretty slim.
You can see mammals in Chihpen Forest Recreation Area, Jiaming Lake National Trail, Kenting National Park, Nanao, Shei-pa National Park and Yushan National Park.
With its great range of habitats, Taiwan is an ideal place for birds, and birdwatchers. Over 500 species have been recorded here: 150 are considered resident species, 69 are endemic subspecies and 15 are endemic species (though some authorities say there are 24, or more). It's an impressive list and compares very well with larger countries in the region such as Japan.
Bird conservation has been a great success over the past two decades, and it's therefore easy to spot endemics like the comical blue magpie, or multicoloured Muller's barbet, even in the hills surrounding Taipei. For one of the world's truly great shows, however, check out the raptor migration over Kenting National Park. Once threatened by overhunting, bird numbers have tripled in the past decade. Several years back, over 50,000 raptors passed over the park in a single day.
You can see birds in Aowanda Forest Recreation Area, Dasyueshan Forest Recreation Area, Kenting National Park, Kinmen, Tatajia, Wulai and Yangmingshan National Park.
In the 1950s and '60s, Taiwan's butterflies were netted and bagged for export in the tens of millions (per year!). Remarkably, only three species became extinct, though numbers plummeted for decades. These days top butterfly areas are well protected, and these delightful creatures can be seen everywhere year-round.
Taiwan has over 400 species of butterflies, of which about 60 are endemic. Some standouts include the blue admirals, red-base Jezebels and Magellan's iridescent birdwing, which has one of the largest wingspans in the world. Prominent sites include Yangmingshan National Park's Datunshan, where chestnut tigers swarm in late spring; the overwintering purple butterfly valleys in the south; Fuyuan Forest Recreational Area; and the Yellow Butterfly Valley outside Meinong. You can also see butterflies in Linnei, Maolin and Tatajia.
On Wings of Gossamer: Butterfly Migration
Butterfly migration is fairly common the world over, but Taiwan's purple crow migration can hold its own. Each year in the autumn, as the weather cools, bands of shimmering purples (four species of Euploea, also known as milkweed butterflies) leave their mountain homes in north and central Taiwan and begin to gather in larger and larger bands as they fly south. By November they have travelled several hundred kilometres, and in a series of 12 to 15 warm, sheltered valleys in the Dawu Mountain Range, 10 to 15 million of them settle in for the winter.
This mass overwintering is not common. In fact, Taiwan is one of only two places in the world where it happens: the other is in the monarch butterfly valleys of Mexico. The most famous overwintering site in Taiwan is in Maolin Recreation Area, but according to experts this is actually the least populated valley. It simply had the advantage of being the first to be discovered and written about.
The discovery happened in 1971 when an amateur entomologist was invited into Maolin by local Rukai people. Though not aware of just how significant the find was, the entomologist (and others) continued to study the valley. By the mid-1980s it was obvious that a north–south migration route existed, though it wasn't until 2005 that the 400km route along the west could be roughly mapped out. Since then a second migration path along the east coast and a connecting path joining the two have also been discovered.
The northern migration usually begins around March, and, astonishingly, it involves many of the same individuals who flew down in the autumn (purples have been found to live up to nine months). Some good places to spot the spring migration are Linnei, Dawu (in Taitung County), Pingtung County Rd 199, Taichung's Metropolitan Park, Baguashan and coastal areas of Jhunan (Miaoli County) where the purples stop to breed. In May and June, large numbers of purples appear to take a mysterious detour and are blown back south over the high mountain pass at Tatajia.
If you're curious as to just how the migration occurs in the first place, the answer is relatively simple: seasonal winds. In the autumn they come strong out of Mongolia and China, while in the spring they blow up from the Philippines. Without them the purples would be unlikely to move such great distances and this would mean their death when the temperatures drop during northern winters.
From spring until autumn, purple butterflies are easily spotted all over Taiwan. So give a nod to these brave wayfarers when you encounter them in a park or mountain trail. They may have come a long way.
For a mostly accurate look at the discovery of the western migratory route, check out The Butterfly Code, a Discovery Channel DVD.
Taiwan has a host of reptiles including a wide variety of beautiful but deadly snakes. Lizards, frogs and a long list of insects including stag beetles, cicadas and stick insects can be found anywhere where there's a bit of undisturbed land.
Marine life (whales and dolphins, as well as corals and tropical fish) is abundant on the offshore islands and the east coast where the rich Kuroshio Current passes. You can see corals in Little Liuchiu, Green Island, Lanyu, Penghu and Kenting National Park. Many species of river fish are also making a good comeback, though sports fishers are sadly too quick to catch (and not release) fry.
Today, conservation projects all over Taiwan are restoring mangroves and wetlands, replanting forests and protecting the most vulnerable species. A 10-year moratorium on river fishing has succeeded in restocking streams, while a 2013 ban on the destructive practice of gill-net fishing in Little Liuchiu should protect the corals and the 200 endangered green sea-turtles inhabiting the coasts.
Further, hundreds of small community projects are bringing back balance to urban neighbourhoods; even in Taipei, the sound of songbirds and the flittering of butterfly wings is common stuff. There are also vast areas now inaccessible to the public because of the closing of old forestry roads (a deliberate policy). In 2012 Pingtung County Government declared the section of coastline along Alangyi Old Trail to be a nature reserve, and the construction of a controversial highway was halted – a victory for the wildlife and ecosystem of the coast (there are 49 protected species, including the endangered sea-turtles).
However, it's not all good news. The oceans and rivers are still treated as dumping grounds by industry and overdevelopment is rampant (constrained in many cases only by the extreme terrain).
Feature: Stopping To Smell The Flowers
Taiwan is not lacking beautiful flowers to appreciate. The blooming period is long and you can usually see something year-round. Here are a few scented petals to watch out for, besides the sublime day lilies.
- Flamegold tree Appropriately named native tree with large yellow and red blooms in autumn. It grows in lowland forests, and is widely planted on city streets as it does well in polluted air.
- Youtong The large white flowers of the youtong tree bloom all over the north in April. Around the Sanxia Interchange on Fwy 3, entire mountainsides go near-white in good years.
- Rhododendron & azalea Native species bloom from low to high altitudes from April to June.
- Formosa lily One of the tallest of lilies, with long trumpetlike flowers. Blooms wild all over Taiwan twice a year in spring and autumn.
- Orchid There are many wild species but large farms around Tainan and Pingtung also grow these delightful flowers. Taiwan is, in fact, the world's largest orchid exporter.
- Lotus Baihe in Tainan County has a two-month-long summer festival devoted to this flower.
- Cherry blossom Cherry trees bloom in great numbers in February and March in Yangmingshan, Wulai and Alishan Forest Recreation Area.
- Calla lily These beautiful long-stemmed white lilies bloom in large fields in Yangmingshan in spring. There's even a festival for them.
- Plum blossom The national flower (at least for the Kuomintang) blooms in February in orchards all over the island at midaltitudes. Intoxicating scent.
- Butterfly ginger A hopeless romantic, the white flower of the native butterfly ginger gives off its strongest scent at night. Blooms from spring to autumn all over the island.
- Awn grass (silvergrass) A tall, swaying grass, with light, airy blooms. Its blooming signals the end of autumn in the north. The Caoling Historic Trail is one of the best places to see entire hillsides covered in it.
- Alpine flowers Taiwan has dozens of petite flowers that splash a bit of colour above the treeline all summer long.
Feature: The National Biodiversity Research Promotion Project
In 2009 a seven-year study by the Biodiversity Research Centre of Academia Sinica reported that Taiwan had 50,164 native species in eight kingdoms, 55 phyla, 126 classes, 610 orders and 2900 families. To cut to the chase, this means that Taiwan, with only 0.025% of the world's land mass, holds 2.5% of the world's species. It's a rate of endemism 100 times the world average.
The study, the first since British diplomat and naturalist Robert Swinhoe completed his own in the late 19th century, was a revelation – to put it mildly. Altogether, it was found that 70% of Taiwan's mammals, 17% of its birds, 26% of its plants and 60% of its insects are endemic species.
What accounts for such a high rate of bio-density? It's Taiwan's long isolation from the mainland, as well as a geographic environment that harbours a variety of ecosystems in a small area. About the only ecosystem that Taiwan is missing, scholars have noted, is a desert.
Sidebar: Taiwan's Wildlife Highlights
- Super-high rate of species endemism
- Huge variety of flora and fauna within a small area
- Easy access to wild areas
- Fascinating yearly migrations of birds and butterflies
Sidebar: Visitor Information
There are no comprehensive English books on Taiwan's wildlife, but the visitor information centres at the country's national parks sell a wide range of individual books and DVDs that cover butterflies, birds, mammals, reptiles and more.
Sidebar: Snakes of Taiwan
For a closer look at the variety of snakes in Taiwan, check out Snakes of Taiwan (www.snakesoftaiwan.com).
Sidebar: Taiwan's Birds
- Birdlife International (www.birdlife.org/regional/asia)
- Wild Bird Society of Taipei (www.wbst.org.tw)
- Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil
Sidebar: Relic Species
Taiwan has many relic species that survived the last ice age. One of the more intriguing is the Formosan landlocked salmon, which never leaves the mountain streams in which it was born.