CHIH NAN TEMPLE / TAMSUI, TAIPEI — The Lunar New Year season is a time for families and for many in Taiwan, this means time away from the city. For those of us away from our families, it’s a time to reflect.
Fortunately, Taipei has plenty of places for reflection. In the Wenshan District, the Chih Nan Temple sits tucked away in the mountains that separate Taipei City from New Taipei City.
The “30 minute” estimate for this hike was woefully inaccurate, as the stairways up the slopes take somewhere in the range of an hour or so. Lovely stairs, but so. many. of. them. With the gondolas closed for the holiday, the only option is to head forwards, and upwards.
Another good reason to make this hike alone? Local legend is that the temple god Lü Dongbin is terribly jealous of lovers because he himself was spurned by He Xiangu (one of the Eight Immortals, she is Immortal Woman and represented by the lotus). The jealousy causes the temple god to spite any lovers who visit the temple. A more contemporary view? No couple could ever hike these stairs without an argument. =)
The first stop along the way is a small alter, where a family was tending to daily preparations. It’s not clear if this area is part of the Chih Nan Temple or not, and language barriers prevent me from finding out more information. Mostly, two older people shuffled around a remarkably ornate chimney, where charcoals were piled behind and fragrant smoke poured from the snouts of dragons, and a small pipe on top.
Overlooking the cliffs, one is constantly reminded of the sprawling city. The city seems quite far away, but Taipei 101 peaks through the clouds and the haze — a 500m tall building (the second-tallest in the world) that provides a clever juxtaposition of old and new thought.
The smells of the first altar below mix and waft over, and a few (hundred, 300 to be exact) steps later, we’re finally at the opening of the Chih-Nan Temple’s main hall.
The main hall was construed in the late 1800s, funded through gold deposits found in the surrounding area. An early governor of the area brought with him a statue of Lü Dongbi brought from the cherished Yongle Palace, in mainland China. That palace, this temple, and those cursed stair (I added a few more curses myself, during the hike) all stand in memorial to the de facto leader of the Eight Immortals — notably, a mortal gentleman and scholar who lived during the 8th century before “achieving” immortal status through his work. Perhaps there is a promotion beyond tenure.
It was a remarkably quiet day and beyond a few worshippers and a friendly cat, I could count on two hands the number of people visiting the temple. A few took the hiking trail with me — we were the ones making liberal use of the washing bins to clean ourselves before entering the complex.
I watched one family teaching their young daugther (maybe four years old) how to pray, and I think I have the sequence down: make offering, light incense, wave, kowtow, incantation, place incense, turn, repeat. I’ll put that knowledge to a test, later on.
One more hike, as the temple complex continues up to the Linxiao Hall. Built in the 1960s, the building houses tributes to the Jade Emperor (玉皇), or the first god, as well as a Taoist institute. The size of this hall dwarfs anything that I’ve seen to this point, and the views of Taipei are even more majestic. Even fewer people have hiked this far back up the mountain, and I’m left alone to think about the day, the week, and the coming year. I feel a small pang of guilt in that I don’t understand Taoism to appreciate my surroundings, but I hope that just “feeling humbled” is enough to allow me to experience the place authentically.
The hike back down is uneventful and empty. Walking past half-closed restaurants, families gather around for their Lunar New Year dinners (no pictures, for this one). Food is everywhere, and on each table: whole fish as a sign of prosperity, fresh noodles as a sign of longevity, and more. So much laughter. So many firecrackers. The few families left in the area already start to celebrate, and the neighborhood come to live again.
Off to bed, and up the next day — and a return to silence. Silent, still streets. Few cars, few buses, few trains. I’m able to hail a bus into the city center, for the Grand Hyatt Taipei and their Dragon and Lion Dance. Many expatriate blogs celebrate the Hyatt’s work here, as the event gives us all a common and open cultural touchstone to both make sense of our foreign surroundings, and to meet each other and share our own stories.
NOTE: The first family I meet? A family of Christian missionaries from Lubbock, who met at Texas Tech. They’ve lived here 12 years and raised their children here, and we’ll have to get together soon.
The crowd is mostly non-Asian, with lots of questions, lots of cameras, and lots and lots and lots of “oohs” and “aahs.” The dances are both designed to awake the spirit and encourage good fortune in the coming year, and already feeling both.
The photos really don’t do the dances justice, but a snippet of video fills in the blanks.
It was nice being around folks again, but the show is over and I’m not staying at the hotel, so it’s time to head back. On to the subway platforms, and folks are missing again. It’s a very empty city, but it’s not nearly as lonely anymore.
NOTE: A few folks had asked me about whether or not the coronavirus was to blame for sparse crowds, but that’s not it. No doubt this is a serious global health concern, but to date only three case have been confirmed in Taiwan. We’ll have to write about this one later, but Taiwan’s relationship with the World Health Organization is remarkably complicated, and hardly in the service of global health. That said, the government here as acted quickly, for example cracking down on those who might be carriers and have not reported to local officials.
In the end, I did find some crowds — the Tamsui Old Streets were completely packed with visitors. But, I’ll save that post (and some history on this district), for another time. For now? I’ve some dumplings to devour.
请您用餐! / Qǐng nín yòngcān!