Dokodemo Door!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Journey to Taipei, Day 3

The Lunar New Year was set to begin at the end of the week so the various temples and public buildings in town were getting decorated with red lanterns and parenthetical couplets astride the doorways. This was a good chance to head-out and visit Longshan temple, the oldest place of worship in Taiwan, having been established by Fujianese Buddhists in the late 1730s. But this is not to say that the buildings are terribly old; in 1945, the complex had been subjected to extensive bomb-damage. The sad fact is: if you want to see old structures, Taiwan isn't the place.

I can't help delving into the history because it's kinda neat: Taiwan was the last significant piece of territory to be securely brought within the Chinese empire. Up until the 1600s, the island was primarily inhabited by a variety of early Austronesian pre-state societies, some of whom are still up in the mountains. (Linguists have determined that roughly five millennia ago, some groups of these natives sailed down to the Philippines and Indonesia. Somehow, they took-over and Austronesian became the dominant language group across much of southeast Asia. But back to Taiwan...)

Over the centuries, settlers from Fujian sailed across the strait to Taiwan's flat western side, established farms and slowly worked their way inland, either acculturating or displacing the yuánzhùmín (original inhabitants), as the natives are called today. (Calling them 'barbarians' went-out of favor a few decades ago.)

In the 1600s, Dutch tried to claim Taiwan but were soon forced-out by a Japanese-born Chinese sea commander by the name of Guo Xing-ye. Alternatively, he was known to the Dutch East India Company (remember Nagasaki?) as Koxinga... a filthy filthy pirate. Guo established the Tungning kingdom, an enclave of Ming loyalty, which held-on for four decades after the mainland fell to the Qing. Today, he's something of a demi-god among certain sectors of southeastern Chinese folk belief.

The Qing invaded Taiwan in the 1680s (with some Dutch assistance) and forced the surrender of Guo Xing-ye's grandson. The Emperor Kangxi was persuaded by advisors to annex the island and officially-sanction Chinese emigration to the island. The Longshan temple was founded about fifty years later, in what would seem to be the aftermath of the first wave of official settlers.

So, here's a taste of the oldest religious structure in Taiwan:

Half a click away is the most iconic building of modern Taiwan since 1980: the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, the ultimate culmination of the Generalissimo's personality cult.

A few years ago, there was an almost-farcical re-naming controversy about this monument which touched-upon the Chiang regime's dark side. The relatively new Democratic Progressive Party wanted to re-title the place National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall in order to reflect Taiwan's transformation into a multiparty republic and memorialize individuals who were persecuted under the Kuomintang's single-party rule.

Beginning in 1949, the ROC's constitution began to be bypassed by a series of emergency decrees which were ostensibly aimed at suppressing communists but were also used to bludgeon opponents of the KMT. The sometimes-bloody suppression of dissent in the 1950s is today referred to as Taiwan's White Terror. (A little glimpse of the mailed fist played-out in 1984 in southern California when Henry Liu, a dissident reporter and naturalized U.S. citizen, was murdered in his garage by Taiwanese agents.) Martial law didn't officially end in Taiwan until 1987.

So in 2007, the monument's name was changed to National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall... And in 2008, the name changed right back again.

After you walk through the modestly-named Gate of Great Centrality and Perfect Uprightness you progress through a wide square between the national theater and concert hall. Then, you go through the garden and climb the stairs up to the memorial which have been modeled after the kinds of steps over-which Chinese emperors were carried in the Forbidden City. You approach the iron sliding doors, and it kind of looks like this:

If you arrive at noon, you're just in time to see the 10 minute, needlessly-elaborate changing of the guards. This particular segment of it goes about 3 and a half minutes. If I hadn't filmed this, I swear you'd accuse me of making this up:

In the basement museum, one can see personal effects and plenty of photos. One of them was an obviously-staged snapshot of the 1943 Cairo Conference which depicted a grinning Chiang having a 'chat' with FDR and Churchill, despite the fact that he didn't speak English. There are also items on display like medals gifted by faraway anticommunist heavies such as Paraguay's Alfredo Stroessner and the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo. You can also see his 1955 Cadillac and his 1972 Cadillac.

The place was kind of anticlimactic, really.

But towards the end of our last full day, we went to some department stores and had dinner. All in all, we managed to pack a lot of stuff into rather too short a time.


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