Visitors often take Chinese culture for granted in Taiwan. Famous for its temples and museums, inhabited by a population of more than 20 million — almost all of whom are ethnic Chinese — the island is hard to picture with any other background.
But traditional Chinese culture wasn’t so prevalent here. Settled by both the Dutch and Spanish, attacked by the French, colonized by the Japanese and, recently, transformed by modernization, Taiwan has still managed to preserve Chinese cultural roots reaching back thousands of years.
Today, you can see this birthright preserved in its artworks, architecture, festivals and fortune tellers. Amid the hundreds of taxis, highways, and modern buildings of Taiwan’s cities, you sometimes have to look hard, but it’s there, nonetheless.
Few elements of Taiwanese life are as reminiscent of traditional Chinese culture as the island’s temples, shrines and pagodas. Protected by majestic swallow-tail roofs, their edges adorned with dragons, phoenixes and unicorns, they house scholars and worshipers, festivals and whispered legends.
One of the finest is the Lungshan (Dragon Mountain) Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Taipei, located on Kwangchow Street, west of the Botanical Garden. Dedicated to Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy, the temple was built in 1740, razed by an earthquake in 1817, replaced, blown apart by a typhoon in 1867, rebuilt and reconstructed twice since.
Buddha is big in Chinese culture.
In fact, he’s 88 feet tall in Taichung, where the largest Buddha on the island gazes across the countryside. At Fo Kuang Shan, or Buddha Torch Mountain, in southern Taiwan, no less then 480 six-foot statues of the philosopher surround an 82-foot Buddha on a mountain summit.
But architecture isn’t the only thing that’s reminiscent of Chinese culture. Rise early from your Taipei Hotel – at 5:30 or 6 A.M. – when the sun hasn’t yet baked the city streets and you’ll see people filling the parks doing a sort of slow-motion dance. This is Tai Chi Chuan, an ancient Chinese exercise that tones the body and gets it ready for the day.
Chinese culture wouldn’t be Chinese without festivals and festivals wouldn’t be festivals without dragons. In Taiwan, life according to the Chinese lunar calendar is a steady parade of the unusual and the festive.
The lunar calendar, in which each month begins with the new moon, governs many holidays in Taiwan. The Chinese calendar designates signs of the zodiac for each year in a 12-year recurring cycle. Astrologists say that people have the attributes of the animal specified for their year of birth.
No one does anything in Taiwan, include getting married or getting cremated, without consulting a fortune teller. Today, there are six general categories of Chinese fortune telling: horoscope casting, palm reading, bone feeling, coin divining, and character analyzing. There are over 100 registered fortune tellers in Taipei alone.
Before you leave Taipei, you must attend a production of Chinese opera. Unlike western operas which depend on lavish sets and a cast of hundreds, Chinese opera depends on symbolic movements, which often bewilders westerners. Dating back to the reign of the Sung Dynasty in 1000 A.D., the opera is universal in its message, and it’s not necessary to understand the language. The magnificent costumes and elaborate makeup are half the show. The unusual instruments produce exotic music which accompanies body movements ranging from stylized pantomime to strenuous acrobatics. However, the performers sing in shrill high-pitched tones which can cause you to want to leave after a few minutes.
Don’t worry if you’re late, either, since each production can go on for four or five hours!