Fri, Nov 09, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Highways & Byways: Jhutian and its leaning tower

The small community in Pingtung County provides a fascinating glimpse into Taiwan’s past — whether the ancestral halls built during the Qing Dynasty or the old train station erected during the Japanese colonial era

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

The building at the center, the clan’s ancestral shrine, is left unlocked during the hours of daylight, a resident told me.

Japanese-era infrastructure and ancestral shrines aren’t uncommon in Taiwan; something more unusual lies 1.2km southwest of the train station. The Tiaodi Village Words-Worshipping Oblation Furnace (糶糴村敬字亭) is evidence of a custom that was practiced until fairly recently in many parts of the Sinosphere, but which appears to have been especially strong in Hakka villages.

Reflecting a deep reverence for learning and literacy, any scraps of paper on which words had been written or printed were picked up, placed in special baskets, then carried to a special furnace for destruction.

Traditional Han communities had very few of the voluntary non-kinship groups we find in free, affluent societies like 21st-century Taiwan. The only exceptions, according to Americans and Chinese: Passage to Differences by Francis Hsu (許烺光), were groups that promoted teetotalism, provided free coffins to the indigent and “hired men to roam the streets [who] collected any piece of waste bearing written characters in the gutter or on the ground and burned what they collected at the end of the day in the specially provided urn in the local Confucian temple.”

Tiaodi Village’s oblation furnace is easy to find if you take Sanmin Road (三民路) southwest from the downtown, then turn right onto Sanhe Road (三和路). After less than 150m, look left and you’ll see the tower-like furnace beside a large sluice gate. It’s about six meters in height, and leans noticeably toward the waterway.

The current furnace is thought to have been built around 1930. Thanks to a thorough renovation earlier this year, the site is now a pleasant picnic spot.

Given its laid-back character and appealing rural setting, it’s surprising that Jhutian hasn’t been mentioned as a candidate for slow-city status. Within Taiwan, four communities have already been recognized as “slow cities” by Cittaslow International, the Italy-based network that connects more than 200 towns across the world.

Only towns with fewer than 50,000 residents can apply (Jhutian has around 17,000). More importantly, they should be towns where people “are still curious of the old times… [and] still able to recognize the slow course of the seasons and genuine products respecting tastes, health and spontaneous customs.”

That sounds like Jhutian to a tee.

Steven Crook has been writing about travel, culture, and business in Taiwan since 1996. Having recently co-authored A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, he is now updating Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide.

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