Sun, Aug 05, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: Deadly waters and their legends

The floods of 1898 and 1959 caused widespread destruction mostly to the country’s central and southern areas, leaving behind some intriguing folklore

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

A scene in Changhua County during the Aug. 7, 1959 floods.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Aug. 6 to Aug. 12

The “iron typhoon” (鐵颱) caused the sky to turn black for three days. The wind blew wildly and rain seemed to fall endlessly from the sky. When a river overflowed, it swallowed the fields and turned the land into a vast lake. Water, rocks and sand flooded a village, and the lower-lying parts were completely submerged. The current spread livestock in all directions, and most people lost all their property. Even the terrain changed. The river shifted 300 meters to the west, the old sandbanks disappeared and sediment created new ones, some of which measured three stories high.

This is an account by residents of Hsihu Township (溪湖) in Changhua County on the Great Flood of 1898 (戊戌大水災). Taking place on Aug. 6, it is one of three major floods this week in history to wreak havoc on central and southern Taiwan.

The next one, on Aug. 7, 1959, caused over 1,000 deaths and disappearances and is ranked among the deadliest natural disasters in Taiwan since World War II. The Aug. 8, 2009 floods caused by Typhoon Morakot are probably still relatively fresh in most people’s minds and will not be discussed in this column.


Before discussing the 1898 flood itself, the disaster is widely believed to have led to the creation of one essential Taiwanese street food: bawan (肉圓), translucent disk-shaped dough filled with pork and bamboo shoots.

This story was most recently recounted in May by a Changhua County Cultural Affairs Bureau publication. Since the flood had drenched all the firewood and destroyed most people’s stoves, the locals had nothing to eat but sweet potatoes. Nor could they make the usual glutinous rice snacks to appease the spirits during Ghost Month.

After the flood, Fan Wan-chu (范萬居), a spirit medium and scribe at a local temple, became possessed by a deity. While under a trance, he wrote down a recipe that used sweet potato powder and vegetables to create a delicacy that resembled glutinous rice cake, so villagers could worship and distribute them as disaster relief. Over the generations, bawan developed into the form we know today. Fan’s great-grandson continues to sell bawan in the same area.

The local Jhuoshuei River (濁水溪) had a long history of flooding. Sediment accumulation caused the river to change course often, and every course change meant flood. Qing Dynasty records show 11 disasters between 1749 and 1792, as well as 1892 and 1893. Records also show that an entire village had to relocate in 1806. However, none of these reports were very detailed, writes Chang Su-fen (張素玢) in the book 300 Years of the Jhuoshuei River (濁水溪三百年). The 1898 flood, on the other hand, was carefully documented by the Japanese colonizers.

This flood was a combination of heavy rains brought by a typhoon and one of the river’s tributaries dyke breaking, leading to a complicated series of course shifts and finally the bursting of the riverbank. The devastation was not only brought by the water but massive sediment accumulation, leading to an exodus of the affected areas. Official records show 182 casualties with 6,165 houses completely destroyed and 5,045 partially ruined. The flood significantly transformed the area’s terrain, leading to much resettlement.

Siho resident Yang Hsing-hsin (楊興新) recalls that his entire village scattered in all directions, but his family eventually returned after more than 10 years since they still owned the land there.

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