Fri, Oct 19, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Highways and Byways: The City God’s acre: A look at historic Chiayi

A stroll through old town Chiayi brings forth historical curiosities dating back to the early Qing Dynasty and Japanese colonial period

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

A painting at Chiayi’s Cheng Huang Temple depicts a siege of the city during the Qing Dynasty.

Photo: Steven Crook

Chiayi City gets short shrift from travel writers. That international travelers reaching the municipality tend to immediately head west (to see water birds near the coast) or east (for Alishan and other highland destinations) is both a cause and a consequence. Yet, within 1.5km of the train station, those willing to explore on foot will find a neighborhood awash with history and human activity.

Strolling east along Jhongshan Road (中山路) and then Gongming Road (公明路) will bring you to Wufong North Road (吳鳳北路). If you’ve read a bit about the history of relations between Taiwan’s Han majority and the island’s indigenous minority, the last name may well catch your eye. Wu Fong (吳鳳), a merchant born in Fujian in 1699, settled in a mainly Aboriginal part of Chiayi. According to legend, he died in 1769 after being ambushed by indigenous headhunters.

For a couple of generations after World War II, the way in which school children in Taiwan were taught about the circumstances of his death deprecated Aboriginal people. In some cases, Han students were inspired to bully indigenous classmates, claiming they were avenging Wu’s murder. The legend was removed from textbooks in 1989, but there seems no pressure to change the name of this road.

If you turn right and move south on Wufong North Road, very soon you’ll see the grand pailou (牌樓) gateway that stands in front of the city god temple. Chiayi’s Cheng Huang Temple (城隍廟, cheng meaning city wall, huang meaning moat) is a good bit larger — and far taller — than its more famous counterparts in Tainan and Hsinchu. On the left, directly beneath the gateway, inscribed panels bear the names of those who helped fund the shrine’s 1990 renovation. Almost 3,000 donors are listed according to how much they gave. For many, the amount must have been over a week’s salary.

Between the temple’s founding in 1715 and 1895, when Japan took control of Taiwan, newly-appointed imperial officials slept, ate and prayed inside the shrine while taking part in soul-purifying rites before they assumed their posts. When Japan launched the Kominka Movement (皇民化運動), an effort to shift Taiwanese culture closer to that of Japan, the temple’s existence was threatened. In the end, the colonial authorities razed or converted to other uses 63 of the 66 major public shrines then standing in Chiayi; this place of worship was one of three they spared.

Cheng Huang Ye (城隍爺), the city’s protecting deity, is in the very center on the first floor. High above the altar, almost lost in the gloom and soot, there’s a four-character bian (扁, “inscribed tablet”) presented to the temple in 1887 on behalf of the Qing emperor. It reads Tai Yang Xian You (臺洋顯佑) and means “Protector of Taiwan and the Ocean.” No other city god in Taiwan received similar imperial recognition of his power and benevolence.

In the chamber behind, you can see spirit images of Mazu (in the center) and Cheng Huang Ye’s wife (on the petitioner’s right). Guanyin is the center of attention of the second floor. If you go behind her shrine you’ll find, facing out the back of the temple, a large oil painting that depicts a key event in the city’s history.

In 1786, the Taiwan branch of an anti-Qing secret society rose in rebellion. The uprising was led by Lin Shuang-wen (林爽文), and his followers quickly took control of much of central and southern Taiwan. Chiayi, then known as Zhuluoshan (諸羅山), was besieged for several months, but thanks to Cheng Huang Ye’s intervention, the settlement never fell into rebel hands.

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