Sun, Sep 07, 2014 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Islands’ gods set to become tourist draw

By Christie Chen  /  CNA, with staff writer

An entrance to a military installation on Dadan Island is pictured yesterday. The island is to be opened up to some tourists next year.

Photo: CNA

Soldiers stood piously in front of a temple, their hands together as they offered prayers in a plea for safety. They were not sure if they would survive to see the next sunrise.

Such a scene was common on Dadan (大膽) and Erdan (二膽) islets for three decades during the Cold War era as Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) forces in Taiwan and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forces in China bombarded each other with shells up until 1979.

The once tense and forbidding atmosphere of war has since given way to quiet serenity, but dozens of temples and statues of deities still dot the small islets, only 4km from the Chinese coast, giving a sense of solace to soldiers today guarding the front line of the nation’s defenses.

“These temples offer important spiritual support for the soldiers, who go to them to burn incense and pray when they encounter frustrations or problems in life,” said Lieutenant Colonel Lin Chia-ju, head of the Dadan garrison.

Some of the temples date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and were built by fishermen who took shelter on the islands, while others were built later by KMT troops, said Chiang Bo-wei (江柏煒), a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Department of East Asian Studies.

Many of the statues on the islands were given as gifts by private groups, but most were picked up by the soldiers themselves from along the shore during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when communist leaders encouraged people to do away with religious paraphernalia to destroy the “four olds” — old ideas, old cultures, old customs and old habits.

“The folk beliefs on the islands are rich and diverse,” Chiang said, with soldiers worshiping traditional deities ranging from Matsu, a sea goddess, and Tu Di Gong, an earth god, to Wang Ye, the prince of the gods, according to Taoist belief systems.

Chiang’s research team has identified more than 20 temples on the two islands, which occupy a combined area of about 1km2.

Many temples remain off-limits in military strongholds, or have been destroyed and buried by shelling, said Chiang, who was last year commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to conduct a survey of the islands’ cultural assets before they open to tourism.

Lin estimated that there are more than 30 temples on the 0.79km2 of Dadan alone, while some sources put the number at more than 100 for both islets.

In addition to traditional deities, a prescient red hen was said to have protected the troops from shelling during the war with China.

“Legend says that the hen would crow to warn the soldiers before the CCP fired shells,” Chiang said.

The hen died in 1960 and the military erected a tomb on Dadan the following year to commemorate the bird, now popularly referred to as Shen Ji, literally chicken god.

Shen Ji is not the only shrine built for an animal. Another tomb on the island was erected for Qian Lu (茜露), a German shepherd that served with the military on Dadan from 1954 until its death in 1970.

The rigorously trained Qian Lu, an honorary lieutenant, guarded cliffs and rock crevices on the island and even killed two CCP soldiers and injured another who all sneaked onto the island in 1955, the epitaph on its tomb says.

“Qian Lu lived for 19 years. It had a long life,” Lin said.

Another story told about Dadan is the legend of the well of the gods (Shen Quan Jing, 神泉井), the only freshwater well on the island.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top