Highways and Byways: Pioneer heritage in Pingtung’s ‘fifth ditch’

The Hakka village of Wugoushuei boasts impressive specimens of traditional architecture

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

Fri, Dec 07, 2018 - Page 13

The name may put you off, but it’s one of the most picturesque villages I’ve come across in Taiwan. Wugoushuei (五溝水, “fifth ditch”) in the eastern half of Pingtung County has more than three dozen strikingly attractive traditional buildings, a main street that is winding and narrow and some unique local customs.

The community was established by Hakka families who had migrated from southern China to Taiwan during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722). Wugoushuei owes its existence, as well as its name, to the way these pioneers redirected water flowing down from the nearby Central Mountain Range.

They dug a network of irrigation channels without the aid of machinery, using picks and shovels to break up the ground, and oxen to drag cartloads of soil from one place to another. By the late 18th century, they were able to exploit the region’s tremendous agricultural potential. Back then, rice was the main crop. Now, much of the land is used to grow bananas, betel nut and coconuts.

The current population of Wugoushuei is around 1,200. Within 2km, there’s a tiny village called Sangoushuei (三溝水, “third ditch”), and a more substantial community named Sigoushuei (泗溝水, “fourth ditch”). In Chinese, “four” is usually written si (四), but in 1920 the authorities decreed that this toponym should be modified to si (泗). According to one account, this was done to distinguish the village from two others in Taiwan with exactly the same name — but where these places might be is something I’ve not been able to discover.

Several of Wugoushuei’s oldest and most beautiful homes were damaged by flooding in the wake of Typhoon Morakot in 2009, but thanks to money from the central government and careful restoration work, they now look superb.

Many of these structures are located on Sisheng Road (西盛路), and one of the most-photographed is at number 28. Built during the reign of Japanese Emperor Taisho (1912–1926), it combines Chinese, Japanese and Western architectural elements. It was the first proper school in the village; previously, sons of the rich studied with tutors, or were sent away to attend traditional academies.

Wugoushuei’s most important family is the Liu (劉) clan. This branch of the Liu claim descent from Liu Yuancheng (劉元城), a Song dynasty scholar-official whose unwillingness to compromise his principles led the emperor to order his castration.

READING HISTORY IN BUILDINGS

The Liu Ancestral Shrine (劉氏宗祠) is both the best-known relic and the largest compound in the village. The Lius have been worshiping their ancestors here since at least 1864, but the buildings which stand here were constructed between 1887 and 1921.

Also enshrined here is a minor deity called Lord Xiqin (西秦王爺), who has long been the guardian of Wugoushuei’s children. Among local families, there’s a tradition of bringing infants who cry constantly, are unduly nervous or who aren’t thriving as they should to Lord Xiqin, so that he can adopt and protect them as they grow up.

The shrine is at 70 Sisheng Road, about 100m east of Wugou Elementary School (五溝國小). The buildings aren’t open to the public, but on my three visits no one has stopped me from exploring the courtyard and taking photos.

The elegant but somewhat small single-storey redbrick house at 53 Sisheng Road is known as Jinshihdi (進士第), because its construction was commissioned by a member of the Liu clan who had passed the highest level of China’s imperial civil service examinations. He thus become a jinshi (進士), often translated as “presented scholar.” This was a notable and extremely prestigious achievement; between 1823 and 1894, a mere 29 Taiwanese attained this status.

The Hakka settlers’ seizure of land and water resources inevitably led to conflict with the area’s indigenous people, and some of this history is preserved at Zhongyong Shrine (忠勇祠) on the southern edge of the village at 3 Sisheng Road.

It’s considered a shrine of the Hakka yimin (義民) folk religion, but rather than commemorate those who died protecting the community during the great uprisings of the 19th century, it was established to honor three settlers originally from China’s Guangdong Province who in 1833 were killed by indigenous people.

After that ambush, Wugoushuei’s Hakka pioneers realized that an early-warning system was needed. Some suggested that gongs be distributed to several households, but at that time, all available metal was needed for tools to work the land.

An innovative solution was eventually found. Bamboo baskets containing gunpowder were hung from trees near the frontline. When settlers came under attack, they’d ignite the nearest basket. Hearing an explosion, those nearby would rush to assist.

This practice evolved into a local custom called “detonation culture” (殲炮城文化). For generations, around the time of the Lantern Festival — the 15th day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar — a basket has been detonated to blast away misfortune. This tradition, known in Hakka as jiam pau sang, was registered in 2015 with the Ministry of Culture as a form of intangible cultural heritage.

LOCAL DELICACIES

Wugoushuei lies within Wanluan Township (萬巒鄉), which is famous for pig’s trotter. Local recipes result in meat which is sticky, yet deliciously succulent. Because of its heaviness, rather than eat it with white rice, you may want to order some stir-fried vegetables.

If you’re driving or riding from central Wanluan toward Wugoushuei, you’ll pass right through Minhe Road (民和路), which has the main concentration of eateries specializing in pig’s trotter. If you can’t find it, ask a local for directions to Pig’s Trotter Street (豬腳街).

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.