Myths and Legends of China 09: Mountains & Lakes

The three places in today’s stories are real live places in China (and Taiwan) that people visit as modern day tourist attractions. Although, no one is visiting them just now, thanks Covid, there are a plethora of photographs, Wikipedia articles, and travel blogs about all of them. I didn’t get the chance to go to any landmarks myself, but I still think it’s cool that these traditional folk tales were inspired by stunning natural landscapes that still exist today.


The Goddess of Mt. Wu

The Immortal Maiden Yao Ji was Queen Mother Wang Mu’s twenty-third daughter. Not only did she grow up to be beautiful, but also kind-hearted. Wang Mu loved her especially dearly. Yao Ji’s natural disposition was vivacious, and she was never able to remain idle. Every day she would sneak out to go and play. Wang Mu had no way to catch her.

One day, Queen Mother Wang Mu came out to relieve her boredom and saw that Yao Ji looking right into the mortal world. Angrily she said, “Even if Heaven has tasked you to play, what are you looking at the mortal world for, that place can corrupt your eyes!” Yao Ji didn’t believe it, she pointed to a red-crowned crane and said, “That crane is pure white like jade, how could that corrupt my eyes? I want to be like that, to fly everywhere and finally see what the mortal world is like.”

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Wang Mu hastily tried to talk her out of it, saying, “The mortal world is a sea of bitterness without end, and you are a royal princess, a golden branch with jade leaves, you simply must not go no matter what!” Yao Ji didn’t listen, she simply sat atop her cloud looking down. She saw many people’s houses were just thatched cottages, their food vegetable husks, and their clothes were damaged and rotten cloth. With a sigh she said, “Oh, truly bitter!” Wang Mu heard this and smiled to herself, then she said, “Still, Heaven is good, we have exotic food without end, and unlimited fine silks and lace to wear…”, but the more Wang Mu talked, the more disgusted Yao Ji became, she resolved to go to the mortal world for a time!  Queen Mother Wang Mu defied her, and sent her instead to the Dragon Palace of the Eastern Sea.

The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea had a plan for Yao Ji from an earlier time, only at that time she was still young. Now she came as a guest, the Dragon King received her with special attention. He poured the wine himself, and said happily, “Beautiful maiden, our social position and economic status are in harmony, we are a match made in Heaven!” Yao Ji heard this and her face splotched red. She left the palace in less than the space of one breath, and simply went straight to the human world.

On the road, Yao Ji encountered many people fleeing trouble, leaning on beggars sticks and carrying worn out baskets, pulling along the elderly, carrying the young on their backs, and weeping endlessly. Yao Ji saw this and felt extremely sad. She just wanted to rush forward and ask what happened, so she failed to see the black clouds gathering in the sky. A fierce wind whistled by; twelve evil dragons were in the process of stirring up trouble. Yao Ji hurriedly started steering her rosy clouds. She approached the evil dragons and used sweet words and gracious language to persuade them to not work any more evil deeds. But the evil dragons paid no heed, going so far as to make even more of a ruckus. Yao Ji couldn’t take it anymore. She pulled a jade hairpin from her head, and brandished it at the twelve evil dragons. A ribbon of golden light flashed past, and the evil dragons all dropped dead.

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When Queen Mother Wang Mu found out that Yao Ji had gone to the human world and killed twelve dragon princes she became angry and resentful, however when she heard she was staying in the wild mountains, she also felt the pain of love and ordered her other twenty-two daughters to find Yao Ji and bring her back.

The twenty-two Immortal Maidens went down to the human world where they encountered many setbacks and finally found Yao Ji. They said to her, “Little Sister, our mother misses you day and night, with no thought for tea or rice, come back to Heaven with us.” “It isn’t that I heartlessly do not go back. Elder Sisters look, the common people are suffering hardship, how can I not care about that?” Yao Ji said this and at the same time pointed into the distance. There on the mountainside was a wild tiger in the middle of chasing a person, it overtook the person while they watched.

b6f64566dcc44579bf44103f162e93d0Elder Sister Cui Ping hurriedly caught up some silt and cast it out. The silt became dozens of arrows that shot the tiger down. Before long, at the foot of the mountain an old grandmother was climbing up, her complexion was pale and wan, she was weak and looked like she had a serious illness. Elder Sister Chao Yun immediately plucked out several hairs from her head, and cast them in front of her. The hairs changed into the reishi mushroom that grants miraculous recovery and saved the old woman’s life. Then, everyone heard a burst of work chanting, and turned their heads to look. In the river, passing by, was a boat floating on the water. The backs of the barge haulers pulling the boat were all almost bent to the ground, but the boat’s progress was still quite slow. Elder Sister Song Luan faced west and blew out a breath, the blow started a favorable sailing wind that pushed the boat forward. The barge haulers straightened up their backs and smiled. Everyone had just heaved a sigh of relief when suddenly they saw in a far off field a patch of dried up yellow, a drought had caused this severe damage, how would the farmers earn their daily living? The Immortal sisters thought and thought; they felt sad and cried. Their tears turned into rain that began to fall with a sound like hua-la-la. Very soon, the field had become a lush green.

When they had finished these things, the Immortal sisters had a contradiction in their hearts: their mother needed to be taken care of, but the common people also should receive blessing and protection, what to do? Finally, everyone made a unanimous decision, one half would return to Heaven, and the other half would remain in the human world. The eleven elder sisters who stayed behind plus Yao Ji blessed and protected the ordinary people of the human world day and night. Later, they transformed into the twelve mystical and beautiful peaks of Mt. Wu. Included among these, closely overlooking the Yangtze River, reaching through the clouds is the transformed Yao Jin Xian Nu Peak.

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Split the Mountain to Rescue the Mother

At the very top of the Western Peak of Mt. Hua there is a giant stone a hundred feet high that has been cut neatly into three parts. In the side of this giant stone is a 7 foot high, 300 pound Crescent Moon Iron Ax. Legend has it that this is the historic place where Chen Xiang split the mountain to rescue his mother. That giant stone is called “Ax Splitting Rock” and the axe is called “Mountain Opening Ax”.

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It is said that one year a scholar by the name of Liu Yan Chang went to Chang’an (the ancient city of Xi’an) to take the Imperial examinations. When he passed through Tong Guan (a county in Wei nan, Shan’xi) he climbed Mt. Hua to go sightseeing. He had heard that the goddess San Sheng Mu of the West Peak Temple was absolutely accurate, so he went into the temple to request a Qian bamboo stick to have his fortune told. He wanted to ask about his future prospects. However, that day San Sheng Mu just happened to be away from home attending a feast, and the boy watching the door did not dare to casually grant a Qian fortune stick. Liu Yan Chang even drew three Qian, but they were all blank and he became very angry. He took up his brush and wrote a poem on the wall of the temple reproaching San Sheng Mu.

When San Sheng Mu returned home, she saw the inscribed poem and became ashamed and angry. She found Liu Yan Chang and saw that his appearance was stately and grand, and immediately came to feel admiration towards him. She transformed into a mortal woman and came to Liu Yan Chang’s side. Liu Yan Chang also liked the dignified and elegant San Sheng Mu. The pair of lovers soon became parents. Not long after, Liu Yan Chang passed his exam and became eligible for the highest imperial civil service. San Sheng Mu gave him a son called Chen Xiang, and the whole family lived on blessed and happy.

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Time flew by, in the blink of an eye Chen Xiang was six years old. One day San Shang Mu’s elder brother Er Lang Shen Yang Jian found out that San Sheng Mu was living a mortal life, even going so far as to bear a son. He was furious. He sent out his spirit eagle to capture little Chen Xiang. Then, in a rage, Yang Jian found San Sheng Mu and yelled at her for having no shame, for violating the law of Heaven, and forced her to hand over her jeweled lotus lantern. The Jeweled Lotus Lantern was her Mountain Guardian Treasure, but in order to save Chen Xiang, San Sheng Mu had no choice but to give it over to Yang Jian.. After Yang Jian took the lantern, he released Chen Xiang, however he pushed San Sheng Mu down under the giant stone at the top of the Western Peak of Mt. Hua.

After nine years Chen Xiang had gradually grown up into a thoughtful young man. One day, his father explained what had happened to his mother. Chen Xiang heard this and was filled with grief and indignation, but at the same time was determined to go to Mt. Hua and rescue his mother.

At that time, one of the Eight Immortals, Lu Dongbin clutched his finger in contemplation, realized that Chen Xiang was going to Mt. Hua to rescue his mother, wanted to help him. He turned into a Daoist Priest and went to the foot of Mt. Hua. When Chen Xiang came to the base of the mountain he ran across the Daoist priest, explained his reason for coming, and asked about the road up the mountain. Lu Dongbin said, “If you go up the mountain like this, you cannot succeed. It would be better to first train with me.”

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Chen Xian honored Lu Dongbin as a teacher. Every day he rose early and went to bed late, practicing martial arts, and quickly became proficient in all eighteen styles of martial art. Lu Dongbin saw this and was very pleased, saying, “Very good! Your martial arts training is already complete, you can go up the mountain. The key to open the mountain is at your Uncle Yang Jian’s place. He has a dog and an eagle; they are very fierce. I will give you two small pills, the round one can subdue the spirit dog, and the long one can tame the spirit eagle. I hope you and your mother can be reunited soon.”

Chen Xiang took leave of his master, and carried an iron pestle up the mountain to find Yang Jian. When he got to the Gate of Heaven, he saw a bunch of Celestial Generals escorting a haughty and pure god. Chen Xiang knew that must be Yang Jian, he went firmly up to him and saluted, only to hear Yang Jian  sneer and say, “Heh heh, you really came!” saying this he raised a three pointed two edged knife and struck at Chen Xiang’s head. Chen Xiang raised the iron pestle and did his best to resist, there was a sound – ka-cha, and the knife snapped into two pieces. Yang Jian was angry and surprised, he let out a bellow and called forth Xiao Tian Quan, the Barking Celestial Dog. Xiao Tian Quan opened his bloody mouth wide like a sacrificial bowl, rose into the air and pounced. Chen Xiang tossed the round pill, Xiao Tian Quan swallowed it in one bite, and suddenly his jaw was tightly shut, it lay down on the ground in pain and began rolling around. Yang Jian then called forth the spirit eagle. The spirit eagle spread both wings, hid the sky and covered the earth, it spread its talons like knives and pounced. Chen Xiang tossed the long pill, the spirit eagle ate it in one bite, both wings froze in midair. Er Lang Shen saw that the spirit dog and spirit eagle had been defeated, he had no choice but to order the Heavenly Generals to fetch the key to open the mountain — a glittering, shining, crescent moon ax.

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Chen Xiang took the crescent moon ax and went up Mt. Hua calling loudly as he went, “Mother! Mother!” Chen Xiang called from the North Peak to the East Peak, he called from the East Peak to the South Peak, but from beginning to end he could not find her in those places, worried he cried out loud. A mountain spirit was moved by this, and said to him, “Oh filial child, your mother is in the West Peak.” Chen Xiang heard this and stopped crying, climbed the Western Peak as if he were flying, soaring into the air with each jump, raised the crescent moon ax high, and did his best to split the peak. There was a loud, earth shattering noise, the peak was split open, San Sheng Mu slowly came out.  Mother and son saw one another at last, they embraced one another excitedly and cried bitterly together.

Chen Xiang welcomed his mother back home and the family of three at last resumed their happy and blessed life together.

Notes: I actually climbed Mt. Hua on my 2012 visit to China, but I climbed the Eastern Peak because we wanted to stay the night a the peak and watch the sunrise as is the custom. I say climbed because we did spend about 7-8 hours walking up the endless stairs (no switchbacks here), but only after we took the bus up to the gondola. People in better shape than me climb the whole thing! No matter which peak you visit, it’s a stunning experience and I highly recommend it if you’re going to be in the Xi’an area. This was one of my lovely views.IMG_3109


The Legend of Sun and Moon Lake

In the jewel island of Taiwan, there is a beautiful scenic lake called Sun and Moon Lake. Beside the lake are two towering mountains, one is called Mt. Da Jian, and one is called Mt. Shui She. This is the origin of these names and a beautiful story about them.

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A very long time ago, there lived in a large lake, two evil dragons, a male and a female. One day, at noon, when the sun arrived in the sky over the lake, male dragon suddenly leapt up and in one gulp he swallowed the sun into his belly. At night when the moon rose into the sky, the female dragon also flew up and swallowed the moon into her belly. This pair of evil dragons swam to and swam fro in the lake, sometimes swallowing the sun and moon down and sometimes spitting them back out, playing by batting them around. It was as if they were in the middle of a performance, a pair of dragons with trick pearls. They only pursued their own pleasure. They didn’t consider that because the human world had no sun or moon, everywhere was dark. The threes all wilted, birds in the branches no longer sang, nearly ripe sugar cane dried out, cows and sheep couldn’t find grass to eat and nearly all starved to death. Days became unbearable, and the people all cried out in a wailing sigh.

In the village there were a pair of clever and courageous young people – Elder Brother Da Jian and Elder Sister Shui She, they saw this state of affairs and their hearts were filled with worry. They pledged to seize and return the sun and moon. But how could they fight the evil dragons? Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She arrived outside of the evil dragon’s cliff cave dwelling, and eavesdropped on the two dragons’ conversation. Actually the things that they were most afraid of were the golden ax and golden scissors buried at the foot of Mt. Ali

Having found a way to subdue the evil dragons, Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She climbed mountains and waded rivers, and arrived at the base of Mt. Ali. With no thought for tiredness they dug and dug until they couldn’t tell how long they dug. A crack in the rock finally showed a ribbon of golden light, they dug again a bit more down, and sure enough they dug out the golden hatchet and golden scissors buried under the mountain.

Carrying these treasures and full of confidence they returned to the side of the big lake. The two evil dragons were in the middle of playing by swallowing and spitting up the sun and moon. Brother Da Jian dashed forward bravely with no personal concern and jumped down into the lake, brandishing the golden axe and chopping fiercely at the evil dragons. Suddenly he chopped the male dragon’s head right off. Sister Shui She saw a timely opportunity, raised the golden scissors in both hands and ka-cha, sheared off the female dragon’s head.

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Both dragons were dead; however, the sun and moon were immersed at the bottom of the lake. Brother Da Jian tore down the male dragon’s eyeball and swallowed it; Sister Shui She swallowed female dragon’s eye; and both people instantly turned into giants. Brother Da Jian dredged the sun up from the lake bed, and Sister Shui She pulled up a palm tree from the lakeside propping it upward, and pushed the sun back up to the sky. The sun was once again joyfully hanging high in the blue sky. All living things also glowed with vitality; the people cheered and frolicked with joy. After the sun set behind the mountain, Sister Shui She dredged up the moon from the lake bed, and Brother Da Jian used the palm tree again to push the moon back into the sky. The gentle radiance of the moon once more spilled fully across the earth. The people were extremely happy. They wanted to show their appreciation for Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She, but it was discovered the two had already transformed into two majestic mountains.

The people arrived at the lakeside where the sun and moon were previously swallowed, they found that the island in the center of the lake had divided it into two halves: one half was like a round sun, and the other half was like a crescent moon, so they named the lake Sun and Moon Lake. In order to commemorate the selfless devotion of Elder Brother Da Jian and Elder Sister Shui She, they named the two mountains separately as Mt. Da Jian and Mr. Shui She.

Notes: I didn’t go to Sun Moon Lake on my 2019 visit to Taiwan. It is a very popular destination, but I was worried it was just going to be a crowded tour group and I also had limited time. I don’t regret my choices, but I may go to the lake if I ever get to go back to Taichung. I was curious about the shape and the mountains so I did some Google Mapping. I found the Shuishe mountain and the trailhead is quite near the lake, but I can’t pin down where Dajian Mountain is (the only one I found was much farther north near Taipei?). I’m not really sold on the idea that the lake looks like a sun and moon. The island is super tiny, I almost missed it because I didn’t zoom in enough on the map! This helpful satellite view from a Chinese source shows us where the sun (right) and moon (left) “shapes” of the lake are, with the line running through the small island of Lalu (拉魯島).

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Myths & Tales from China 07

My entire winter holiday is a zig zag of mental processes, and my random story hopping here is a great reflection of that! Ireland! Taiwan! Ancient Chinese Fairy Tales! It’s all humming around in my head with my real life plans, worries, hopes, and anxieties. Since writing this blog is really a kind of hobby/therapy for me, that means you get whatever topic I find most therapeutic at a given time. It’s a grab-bag. Today, more Dragon King myths, well Dragon King adjacent?


Gao Liang’s Race for Water

Legend has it that Beijing was once a part of the Bitter Sea, and not until later was there dry land. 

Many years ago Beijing was called Youzhou. It was part of the Bitter Sea and was held by the Dragon King. People could only live on the mountains of the western side and northern side. One day, Nezha came to the Bitter Sea Youzhou and began to fight the Dragon King. Finally, he captured the Dragon King and Queen, but he let the Dragon Prince escape. From that time on, the water the water receded and slowly the dry land was revealed.

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In the time following, this piece of dry land had households; villages and towns gradually took shape. Moreover, the escaped Dragon Prince had also changed and become Dragon Duke, and along with (his wife) Dragon Mother, (and their children) Dragon Son and Dragon Daughter, they hid in a lake at the foot of the western mountains, passing their days in total silence. One day, Dragon Duke heard some news: Youzhou would build Beijing City. He indignantly shouted out, “It goes without saying that our Dragon Palace gave people peace, and now they also want to build a city there. its just too much!” Later he also heard it said that Imperial Chancellor Liu Bowen and Yao Guangxiao drew the plans for Beijing Eight-Armed Nezha City and would build Eight-Armed Nezha City. This time he was even more angry, and said to Dragon Mother, “This is horrible. If they build Eight-Armed Nezha City then we have no hope of a change in our fortunes. We should take advantage while it is not yet built and reclaim all the water in the town, then they will die of thirst.”

imagesFirst thing in the morning the next day, the Dragon Duke disguised himself in the appearance of a rural person going into town to sell vegetables. He pushed a small cart; Dragon Mother pulled a small yoke; Dragon Son and Dragon Daughter followed some distance behind. In this way, the whole family snuck into the town. Inside the town, they walked in a circle. Dragon Son drank dry all the sweet water; Dragon Daughter drank up all the bitter water. Then they both transformed into fish-scaled water baskets, each laying down on one side of the small cart. Dragon Duke pushed the cart, and Dragon Mother pulled the small yoke. They exited Xizhimen (the main NW gate of Beijing) and abruptly turned to leave.

Just then, Liu Bowen was leading the artisans to build the Imperial Palace when suddenly someone ran up to report saying that all the water in the capitol city, large and small, had all dried up! Liu Bowen heard this and panicked, then  he thought about it: certainly it was that Eight-Armed Nezha City had invoked the Dragon Duke’s revenge. Quickly he dispatched individuals to go to each gate and make inquiries: had any strange people been seen entering or leaving the city that day. Not long after, a scout returned to report: a little while before, two people pulling water baskets had left at Xizhimen. Liu Bowen heard this and then all was clear.

He said, “That repulsive, evil dragon! I must dispatch some men to reclaim the stolen water and bring it back.” “How will it be reclaimed?”, everyone asked him. Liu Bowen said, “We send one person to overtake them; two spear jabs will break the water baskets, and the water will bubble forth and run back. No matter what happens behind him, he must not look back. Just enter Xizhimen then everything will be safe and sound. Which brave person will dare to go?” Upon hearing this, everyone shook their heads repeatedly. Liu Bowen anxiously stamped his foot, “If we wait until the foul dragon gets it to the Lake, we’ll never get it back!” At that moment, a young artisan named Gao Liang stood forward and said in a loud voice, “I will go!” Liu Bowen picked up a red-tassled spear, gave it to Gao Liang and said, “Be very careful!” Gao Liang accepted the red-tassled spear, turned around, mounted his horse and headed straight for Xizhimen.

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As soon as he left Xizhimen, Gao Liang hit a problem: should he go North or West? He figured the evil dragon would plan to put the water in the lake, but in this region, only Jade Spring Hill had a lake. Right! To the Northwest! Gao Liang spurred his horse on, pursuing them into the Northwest, pursuing straight up to Jade Spring Hill. He could see the Dragon Duke far off; the Dragon Mother had stopped for a rest to wipe away some sweat, and close by was the small cart loaded with fish-scaled water baskets.

Gao Liang dismounted and stealthily moved around the Dragon Duke, behind the Dragon Mother. He abruptly straightened up, lifted the spear, then jabbed. One jab broke one fish-scaled water basket and the water flowed out with a crashing sound. Gao Liang was just about to strike the second one when that basket turned into a strong-stomached young man. He giggled as he slipped away into the Jade Spring Hill’s lake. Dragon Mother quickly picked up the water basket that had been struck by the spear, leapt past the north side of the mountain top and straight into the Black Dragon Pool. Then the Dragon Duke shouted loudly, “Smelly boy! You think you can just walk away?” Gao Liang turned and ran. Behind him a huge wave like the surging of the tide chased after him. Gao Liang ran with urgency; he could just see Xishimen. His heart soared, and he could not help but turn and look behind, but as a result he was swept away at once by the giant wave.

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From then on, Beijing City’s wells once more had water, but it mostly bitter water. The sweet water was taken to the lake at Jade Spring Hill by the Dragon Son. Later, people built a bridge at the place where Gao Liang sacrificed himself and called it “Gao Liang Bridge”. Now it is known as “Gao Liang Qiao”.

Note: In the last blog where I talked about Nezha, I linked to the old animated video of his adventures. While finding fun photos for this one, I discovered a new high quality animated movie was released in 2019. You can see the trailer on IMDB. Plus, there appears to be a comic. These stories are a very vibrant part of modern Chinese pop culture.


Hunter Hai Libu

Long ago there was a hunter named Hai Libu. He was an extremely warmhearted person. Every time he returned from hunting, he would always share his game with everyone, only keeping a small portion for himself, so everyone loved and respected him a great deal.

One day Hai Libu went into the deep woods to hunt, when all of a sudden he heard from up in the air a cry of “save me”. He looked up and saw an eagle flying by with a small white snake which it had grasped by the head. He promptly loaded an arrow into his bow, took aim and fired at the eagle. The eagle was injured, and allowed the little white snake to escape.

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Hai Libu said to the little white snake, “Pitiable little thing, hurry and return home!” The little white snake said, “You are my benefactor who saved my life, I wish to repay you. I speak the truth to you: I am really the Dragon King’s daughter, return with me, my father will certainly thank you with a mighty gift. My father’s treasury holds many treasures, whatever you want you can have. If you don’t like anything there, you can ask my father for the small gem he keeps in his mouth. If only you have this gemstone, and keep it in your mouth, you can then understand the speech of all the animals of the world.”

Hai Libu thought to himself, “I don’t really care for treasure, but understanding the speech of animals, that could be very useful to a hunter.” He then asked, “There really is such a thing as this gemstone?” Little White Snake said, “There really is. But when an animal says something, only you can know. If you tell another person, you will change into a block of hard stone.”

Hai Libu followed Little White Snake back to the Dragon Palace. The Dragon King was entirely grateful that Hai Libu had saved Little White Snake and wanted to thank him with a great gift, so led him into the treasure hall and allowed him to chose a treasure, whatever he liked he could have. Hai Libu didn’t pick up any of the treasures, instead he said to the Dragon King, “If you truly wish to give me something to remember this by, then please give me the precious gem you keep in your mouth.” The Dragon King lowered his head a moment and thought, then he spat out the precious gem in his mouth and gave it to Hai Libu.

As Hai Libu was leaving, Little White Snake went out with him, and repeated to him over and over, “You must remember, whatever an animal says, you must not tell other people. If you tell them, you will instantly turn into stone, and can never again be brought back to life!” Hai Libu thanked Little White Snake and returned home.

With this gemstone, Hai Libu hunted very easily. He kept the gem in his mouth and could understand the language of the birds of the air and beasts of the field; he knew which mountains had which animals. From then on, every time he returned from hunting he shared even more game with everyone.

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Things went on this way for many years. One day while Hai Libu was hunting deep in the mountains, he suddenly heard a flock of birds discussing something. He leaned in to listen attentively. The first bird said, “We should quickly fly to somewhere else! Tonight this mountain will crumble and the ground will be submerged by a flood, who knows how many people will drown!”

Hai Libu heard this and was shocked. He hastily ran back home and said to his fellow villagers, “We should quickly move to somewhere else! This place isn’t habitable!” Everyone who heard this found it strange, it was a fine place to live, why should they move their homes? Despite the fact that Hai Libu anxiously urged everyone, no one believed him. Hai Libu shed worried tears and said, “Believe me, we must move quickly! Once night comes it will be too late!” An old man spoke up, “Hai Libu, we all know you would never lie, but you want us to move our homes. You need to explain clearly why this is. We have lived at the foot of this mountain for many generations, there are many old people and young children, moving would not be easy!”

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Hai Libu knew being worried was no use, he couldn’t give a reason for the move, and everyone was skeptical. If he wanted to rescue his fellow countrymen, he could only speak the actual truth! Arriving at this realization, he calmly said to everyone, “Tonight, this mountain will collapse, and a deluge will flood the ground.” He went on to explain how he had gotten the gemstone, and how he had overheard a flock of birds discussing taking refuge, as well as why he could not tell anyone else the information he heard, he told them the whole story. Just as Hai Libu finished speaking, he turned into a lump of hardened stone.

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Everyone was very remorseful, holding in tears, and remembering Hai Libu’s name, helping the elderly and leading the children, driving the livestock, they left for a far away place. While they were walking on the road, suddenly black clouds densely filled the sky, a fierce gale roared, and after that it rained a downpour. At midnight, there was a sound that shook heaven and earth, and the mountain had a landslide, and the rushing flood waters inundated the village where they lived. Hai Libu sacrificed himself in order to save his fellow villagers, and the people from generation to generation cherish his memory.

Once again, if you’d like to watch an animated short of this story, I have found a link! You can see it’s a different animation style than the pictures I chose, and that’s because there a a lot of different renditions of these famous stories.


The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea

Legend has it that a very long time ago there were eight Daoist Immortals. Separately, they are Tieguai Li, Han Zhongli, Zhang Guolao, Lan Caihe, Lu Dongbin, Han Xiangzi, He Xian’gu, and Cao Guojiu; together they are Ba Xian, the Eight Immortals. They behead goblins and drive out monsters; they eliminate evil and promote good; and they left behind many touching stories.

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Tieguai Li used to be called Li Xuan and he was a Daoist. Originally he was tall and sturdy, with a majestic appearance, he practiced Dao in the caves of Mt. Dang. One time, he sent his spirit out to go to Mt. Hua and visit the great teachers Laojun and Wanqiu, but when he returned to his body it was unexpectedly destroyed, and he had no choice but to use the body of a recently dead beggar brought back from the grave. He didn’t expect that the beggar would have an ugly face or a lame leg. He had to carry around an iron crutch and rest his leg on a cloud while travelling the four seas. He came to be called “Tieguai Li” or Iron-Crutch Li.

During the days of the Eight Immortals, Zhang Guolao would always ride around on a donkey. It is said that his donkey could walk thousands of miles in a day, and when they stopped, he could fold it up like paper. Han Zhongli was originally a general in the army, but since he lost in battle, he went into hiding deep in the mountains to practice austerity and become a Daoist Immortal. He always bares the the skin of his belly, waves a fan in his hand, and is smiling and laughing with an expression of good fortune. Pure Yang Master Lu Dongbin looks like a scholar and carries a double edged sword on his back. The sword gives off a bolt of divine light that can scare monsters away. 

He Xian’gu is the only female immortal among the Ba Xian. She carries a Lotus in her hand, and is slender and elegant. Lan Caihe often carries a flower basket which is overflowing with sweet smelling flowers in all seasons of the year. Han Xiangzi is the grand-nephew of the great Tang Dynasty poet laureate, Han Yu and carries a reed flute in his hand. Cao Guojiu’s device is a jade tablet. Legend has it that the sound of the jade tablet can make all things between Heaven and Earth peaceful and calm.

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Left to right: Tieguai Li, Han Zhongli, Cao Guojiu, Zhang Guolao, Han Xiangzi, Lan Caihe, Lu Dongbin, He Xian’gu

One day, the Eight Immortals were riding on the clouds to go to take part in an assembly of immortals across the Eastern Sea. Lu Dongbin said, “Riding clouds across the sea isn’t really considered a skill of the Immortal School, it would be better if we each used our own special abilities, tread the waves across the sea, and show off our magical power. Do you all agree?” The remaining Immortals voted in favor.

Iron Crutch Li was the first to cross the ocean. He simply threw the crutch in his hand into the Eastern Sea. The crutch resembled a small boat floating on the surface of the water and carried Tieguai Li safe and sound to the opposite bank. Next, Han Zhongli slapped the drum in his hands said, “Watch mine.”, then threw the drum into the sea. He crossed his legs and sat down on the drum and crossed nice and secure across the Eastern Sea.

Zhang Guolao grinned and said, “My move is the most brilliant”, then he took out a piece of paper and unfolded it into a donkey. Once its four hooves touched the ground it looked to the sky and let out a bray, then carrying the seated Zhang Guolao on its back, trotted across the waves. He Xian’gu threw her lotus flower into the water, stood patiently on its face and drifted along the waves across the sea. Soon after, Lu Dongbin, Cao Guojiu, Han Xiangzi, and Lan Caihe one by one tossed their treasures into the sea, and with the aid of those treasures they each showed off their special abilities and crossed the sea.

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Seven Immortals arrived on the opposite shore, to the left and to the right, there was no sign of Lan Caihe. As it turned out, when the Eight Immortals crossed the sea just then, it disturbed the crown prince, son of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. He dispatched the shrimp soldiers and crab generals out to sea to look around. Taking advantage of the Ba Xian being caught off guard, they captured Lan Caihe and took his flower basket.

Lu Dongbin couldn’t find Lan Caihe, he became worried and upset. He hollered in a loud voice toward the Eastern Sea, “Dragon King, listen up, hand over Lan Caihe right now or else you will feel my wrath!” The Dragon Prince heard this and became excited and angry and rushed up to the surface of the sea to let Lu Dongbin really have it. Lu Dongbin drew his double-edged sword and sliced the air. Afraid, the Dragon Prince sank back down to the sea bed.

Lu Dongbin was unwilling to let him go. He pulled his fire gourd from his pocket and burned the Eastern Sea into a sea of fire. After that, the seven immortals each made use of their powers, going forward to fight, cutting down two of the Dragon King’s sons. The shrimp soldiers and crab generals were unable to hold them off, and one by one were defeated and hid in the seabed. The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea saw his own sons die, flew into a rage, and called on the Dragon Kings of the South, North and West Seas to work together to overturn all of the water in the world into one huge tidal wave and crash it onto the Immortals.

At that critical moment, Cao Guojiu used his cherished Jade Tablet to open a path before them and the giant tidal wave went around them on both sides and receded. The other Immortals followed Cao Guojiu precisely and arrived unharmed. The Dragon Kings of the four seas quickly gathered their armies for war. They were about to launch a fight to the death. But just then, the Bodhisatva Guan Yin passed through the South Sea and yelled at both sides to stop. She then helped them to settle their differences. Before long, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea released Lan Caihe and both sides stopped fighting and made peace. The Eight Immortals then bid farewell and went freely and leisurely on to the meeting of Immortals.

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Note: This is a great example of the syncretism in East Asian religious faiths. Guan Yin is a Buddhist figure, a Bodhisattva is one who came to the edge of true enlightenment, but instead of choosing Nirvana, they chose to stay in the world to help others. On the other hand, the Eight Immortals are Taoist figures. It’s common to see the characters from each religion interacting in stories, and for people to practice rituals and prayers from both.

9 Days in Taiwan 1/2: GeoParks, Butterflies & Temples

I have been told over and over by native Taiwanese and twitterpated Taiwanese tourists that I simply HAVE to go to Taiwan, that it is nothing like China, or possibly it was everything I love about China with none of the Communism. It’s so close to Korea, the flights are easy, but the weather is hard. In January 2019 I had a spare 2 weeks before I would meet my friend for our whirlwind Middle East tour. It seemed like a great chance to finally see the Ilha Formosa. The rest of the holiday that winter was so much, I forgot I didn’t write about Taiwan until my Facebook Memories started popping up this January. Faced with an unexpected rainy week on my holidays in “sunny” Spain, it seems like an opportunity to fix that.

I went to three main cities: Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. I ate more delicious food than I thought could exist on such a tiny island, and I enjoyed local sightseeing, temples, and natural wonders. In the first post, I’m going to give a little historical context and then talk about the natural beauty and the temples I visited. In the second post, I’ll share my more urban tourist experiences and saving the best for last, the food.


A Very Very Brief History

I used to live and work in mainland China (in Jinan, and later Yanjiao, a small town outside Beijing), plus I studied Chinese history, culture and language in university. I knew Taiwan was different, but I didn’t really understand how much.

Taiwan separated from China when the Kuo Min Tang fled there after Mao and the Communists took over mainland China in 1949. China under the KMT government was part of the Allies in WWII. We gave them money to fight the Japanese, but they ended up using it to fight the communists, and still lost. Most of the Western World didn’t recognize the communist government of China until the 1970’s. We were busily still supporting the Taiwanese government as the rightful government of all China.

A few countries at a time slowly came to realize that the communists weren’t going anywhere, and then Nixon had his famous visit to Beijing to stand on the fake Great Wall and show solidarity and that was pretty much it. Since then, China insists that Taiwan is a part of China and everyone just sort of humors them. We make separate treaties and trade agreements, plus Taiwan has a different language, flag, currency, government and legal system from mainland China…. but, ONE COUNTRY! (says China)… Taiwan is starting to disagree.

Of course Taiwan has a strong Chinese identity and history, but it diverges sharply at 1949. At the end of the Civil War, the KMT retreated to Taiwan and the Communist (Mao) government claimed the mainland. Mao’s government worked hard to erase a lot of history in order to position the Party at the top and center of all life in China. It was huge disaster and tens of millions of people died from persecution and starvation. Plus temples and relics were destroyed or stripped of decoration and re-purposed as Party business community halls. Some time in the 80s, the government went “oops” maybe we need history after all, and started rebuilding both physically and narratively. Therefore almost everything you see nowadays in China is a reconstruction, and the few practicing monks and nuns in the temples are there under very strict observation because someone told China that civilized countries don’t murder all their religious leaders. (most of the literature on this is academic research and NOT readily accessible in Wikipedia, you can take my word or you can go ask a Chinese Studies scholar). Although, now with Hu… who knows?

Taiwan, on the other hand, continued the Nationalist traditions that were started in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that finally eliminated the monarchy and established a “people’s” government… although arguably back to the Boxer Rebellion because everyone was so fed up at those Royals supplanting Traditional Chinese Culture™ with Western European goods and values… and opium…The point is that the KMT were basically in favor of traditional Chinese culture, where the Communists were pretty opposed. So while mainland China went through this holocaust level cultural purge (The “Great Leap Forward” followed by what is still referred to as the “Cultural Revolution” which makes it sounds like hippies dropping acid and doing free love), Taiwan and other Chinese communities in Asia (Malaysia makes this super ovbs, too) were continuing to move forward with a more normal level of cultural changes influenced by post colonialism, globalization, and technology just like everyone else.

2000 years of shared history, followed by 60 very divergent years brings us to the ‘same but different’ cultures of mainland China and Taiwan. So while China firewalls out anything it doesn’t like and creates its own online reality, arrests anyone who dissents, and sends religious or sexual minorities to reeducation camps, prisons, or organ harvesting factories, Taiwan is a proud democracy that legalized same sex marriage last year. While that sounds a little behind to most westerners, its stunningly progressive for Asia. They were actually the first country to do it.

Lastly, a quick note on the spelling. Mainland China adopted a variety of romanization (“roman” letters, like the ones you are reading now) called “pinyin” while Taiwan used the older form Wade-Giles. Some brief examples (minus tone marker): Beijing /Peiking, Gaoxiong /Kaohsiung, Deng Xiaoping /Teng Hsiao-p’ing, Guomindang /Kuomintang. Although now-a-days a lot of things in Taiwan are romanized in Pinyin, those places which were internationally codified with Wade-Giles spelling still remain. Pronunciation remains a challenge for those who have not studied the language because neither system is intuitive for English speakers. (try typing the pinyin spelling into Google translate to listen).

Natural Wonders:

Taipei:

Yehliu Geopark 野柳地質公園

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This was part of a package bus tour I took, but honestly, if I ever go back to Taipei, I want to take the public bus out here and spend a whole day at this park. This website has some very nice English language explanations about the rock formations and erosion patters, if you’re curious.

I do love the science, but I have to say that I, like most of the visitors, was more enchanted by the fairy-tale like shapes that these rocks have come to embody. When I arrived, I got a little pamphlet showing the most famous formations. It was a little bit like a scavenger hunt trying to find them all, and I kept getting distracted by not at all famous, but still amazingly beautiful rock formations like joints and fossils all around.

The most famous rock is the Queen’s Head, which you may have seen on listicles of “cool things to visit”. The line to get a photo from the best angle was insane, and because I was in a tour group, I had to choose between standing in line for the famous rock, or going to see all the others. Still, I got a glimpse of Queens Head rock from the queen angle by wheedling past the line creatively (really the line is for people who want to pose with it, you are allowed to take a picture from anywhere). In case you can’t tell, it’s the one in the background that looks sort of like woman’s head with an updo or royal headdress.

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The park is well aware the Queen is their biggest draw, and that it is eroding a little more every year. It won’t be long before her neck erodes entirely and she becomes Marie Antoinette instead. To maintain tourism, the park has named a new “Cute Princess Rock” which is shaping up to become the main attraction when the old queen dies.

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Other rock formations I found include the Elephant Rock & The Pineapple Bread Rock. Pineapple bread is just cut to look like a pineapple.It doesn’t taste like and isn’t made with pineapple (unlike pineapple cake which is, but looks like tofu squares).

One little island turned out to contain at least 3 of the targets: the peanut rock (far left), the fairy shoe (about 3/4 on the upper right, kind of looks like a sandal) and the pearl, or globe (far right, the lower sphere, yeah, I know there’s like 4).

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Our tour guide challenged us to find a particular rock and take a photo of it that matched the angle in the brochure. The angles of these rock formations matters quite a bit. The queen doesn’t look like a queen from any other angle (see below). In this case it was a gorilla, and you had to walk all the way around to the side facing away from the path to see the illusion. Most people were taking photos through the hole in the rock without ever realizing they were at the gorilla! (I won the scavenger hunt).

Looking at the brochure and the website, it’s painfully obvious I saw only a tiny part of the park, and I had a very limited time to try and find and appreciate these unique formations. I’m glad I had the opportunity, but a full day return is on the top of my list for a second visit to Taipei (right behind the food).

Shifen Waterfall 十分大瀑布

This was a short stop on the same all day bus tour. To be honest, I’m not sure it would be easy to get here on public transit, so a tour to Shifen might be the only way if you aren’t renting a car. We were pretty rushed at this stop, and the waterfall itself is a medium length walk from the car park with lots of stairs and long bridge.

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I felt a little like I was playing tag with the scenery. I just about had time to get there take some pics, stare longingly at the cool water for a couple minutes and hike back to the bus. There is nothing “cold” about winter in Taipei. I saw pictures online of people in the snow, but I think it must be a real rarity. Locals did tell me the weather on my visit was unseasonably warm, but rushing around the geopark and speeding through the countryside to see the waterfall had me soaked in sweat.

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Nonetheless, it is a remarkable waterfall. No mere trickle through the rocks as far too many advertised waterfalls can turn out to be, this was a broad and strong roaring fall. If you are lucky enough to have more than 20 minutes here, there are also several restaurants and picnic tables where you can enjoy the waterfall over lunch.

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Kaohsiung:

I actually only included Kaohsiung in my travel plans after I read that one of the only sites of mass butterfly migration was near there and was going to be happening during January (when I was traveling). Like waterfalls, butterflies are an irresistible draw for me. I do enjoy a butterfly park, where many species are raised for ecological conservation or just because they’re pretty, and visitors can walk through a mesh enclosed garden to see them, but I also treasure butterflies in the wild. It always feels like a tiny little brush with magic when they pose for me.

Maolin Butterfly Trail 茂林賞蝶步道

Thus, when I read about the mass migration of the purple crow butterflies I was very excited. There are only two species in the world that overwinter en masse in a valley like this, and the other is the monarch. I’d seen beautiful footage of the monarch masses in Mexico (not open to tourists, btw, to protect the butterflies) and while the articles I read warned me not to expect anything so profuse, it is still the second largest natural gathering of butterflies in the world. I had to go.

I did a lot of research to prepare. Optimal butterfly viewing is 8-11am, but the buses don’t run that early. I actually emailed with the park about this. The best public transit option from Kaohsiung is to take Kaohsiung Bus E25 & E28 (Kaoqi Express) to Qishan and then change to H31 (Qishan-Maolin-Duona) (website link) The problem is the distance and time. The E25 takes just over 3 hours, and then you wait for one of the 6 daily buses to Maolin park entrance and ride another 45-60 minutes. Both E25&28 don’t run before 7am. Nothing gets you to Qishan early enough to reach the park entrance before noon. I also looked into hostel, b&bs or other options closer to the park, but even searching in Chinese with my not entirely terrible language skills, information was scarce. The few places I found online couldn’t take reservations online and were not on the shuttle bus route in any case.

To make matters even more complicated, there was an earthquake in 2005 which decimated a lot of that area, but there’s not a lot of information on what is or isn’t still functional post quake.

I could have just bused in and arrived at noon, and taken my chances the butterflies were not all having their afternoon nap, but I wanted masses of butterflies. I looked at videos as recently as two days before my arrival in Kaohsiung and saw them fluttering all over the roads. In some places, roads were even being shut down to protect the butterflies! So, I booked myself a car to drive me there at the very crack of dawn. I used a company called Tripool, and instead of a 4-5 hour bus trip for 5$, I had a 1 hour car ride for 35$. If it had worked as planned, I still say it would have been worth it.

I had been watching the weather forecast like a hawk, but it was barely reliable in the city and there was next to no data about the mountains. Several days of weather patterns led me to hope that a gray misty early morning would burn off into a sunny mid-morning, so I bundled myself in the car at 7am and headed to the Taiwanese countryside.

When I arrived, the weather was still terrible. The car I hired dropped me off here.

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I found what looked like the trail head which had lots of signs about trails and how to spot the butterflies, but they were old and dirty, like no one had used them in years. You don’t know how unsettling it is to be in this kind of fog filled emptiness and see signs that are obviously new (it has a QR code for heavens-sake) but look like they’re from some kind of post-apocalyptic survival film.

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It turns out the reason is that no one HAD used them in years. The original structures from before the earthquake had just been abandoned. Eventually, I found the actual visitors center, which made me feel a lot better. The people there said there wouldn’t be any butterfly activity that day, but the weather outlook for the rest of my time in Taiwan didn’t look any better. Plus, it was 4 hours until the next bus out of town.

I watched a movie about the butterflies with a group of school children on a school educational trip. I didn’t understand that much, but it was mostly fun to watch the kids react to the video (and to me). After that, I decided to hike the trail despite the weather.

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I climbed stairs for hours and saw zero signs of butterfly presence. My photos from the hike look like they should be eerily silent, but the music from the cafe could be heard pretty much all over the trail, and despite the terrible weather, there were a significant number of other tourists out here chattering away. 

Although I found no butterflies for most of my hiking time, I did find plenty of interesting things. There were adorable snails who thought the rainy atmosphere was perfect. There were beautiful tropical flowers, flourishing in the warm winter air. And,  there was an army of giant spiders. I experienced the summer spiders in mainland China, and to a lesser extent in Korea. These are monsters who build webs that are several meters across. I am not kidding or exaggerating. These suckers are like 5cm not counting legs.

Honestly, I rarely see them quite that big in Korea… at least in the cities, and they are really good about not ever coming inside houses, and about building their webs where people aren’t likely to walk. I don’t think they’re considerate, just that it’s a lot of effort to make an enormous web, and they don’t want us to smash it.

The spiders in Maolin think 5cm body length is scrawny. If I was not familiar with the species behavior, I would have totally freaked out. Luckily I know from experience, they are not interested in me. They don’t want to put a web across a path. They will not drop on you from above. That last one is really relevant since, to avoid the humans, a lot of them just built their webs about 10ft up. Where they can catch birds.

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To be honest, I was really surprised there were no butterfly corpses in these webs. And, however intimidating these spiders can look, the webs in the mist and rain were beautiful jeweled works of art.

After a couple hours of meandering, I finally found some butterflies. I saw maybe 20-30 the whole day, and only one close enough to photo. It was a far cry from the hundreds or thousands I had been hoping to see.

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It is awfully beautiful there, but I really wish I could have seen it in action. Just in case the Taiwanese government was exaggerating, I did check the live video feed and some Instagram filters from sunnier days, and it looks like it really is a little fairy land. Next time, I will have to watch the weather more carefully and be ready to rush to Kaohsiung at short notice. The good news is, it’s only a couple hours from Taipei to Kaohsiung, so I won’t have to stay there waiting (Taipei has better food, sorry Kaohsiung), but I will have to have a more flexible plan.

Temples

Taoism (pinyin: Daoism), Confucianism and Buddhism are considered the three main “religions” of China. Taoism is mainly a mix of local folk practices that consolidated after the introduction of Buddhism. It has a LOT of gods and spirits and ancestors and immortals and magic animals. The main goal of Taoism is immortality (although there is a split on whether that means corporeal or spiritual), but you can pray to any of the gods for help with more mundane stuff like health, marriage, or passing your driving test.

Buddhism, often heard of but rarely understood, is a spiritual practice without any gods. Buddhists search for Enlightenment and subsequent freedom from this world which is both an illusion and full of suffering. This takes a few hundred (thousand) lifetimes, so in the mean time a lot of people pray to the boddhisattvas (a little like saints?) for the same mundane stuff they ask the Taoist gods for.

Confucianism is more a total package social structure than a “religion” but it does incorporate a certain amount of ritual and spirit oriented behavior and a very clear “how to live” guide, though not a lot of praying for mundane stuff. To be even further removed from the Western traditions, a lot of people don’t choose just one, but rather go to whichever will serve an specific purpose at a time. They simply aren’t viewed as exclusive “truths”. Honestly, almost nothing we associate with “religion” in the western traditions applies to any of these, but until we have a better word, here we are.

Taipei:

Dadaocheng Cisheng Temple 大稻埕慈聖宮天上聖母 (Taoist) is dedicated to the Tianshang Shengmu (Heavenly Holy Mother), the guardian of sailors and also known as Mazu or Tianhou (Empress of Heaven). It is in the midst of an “eat street” and even has a dining area in the temple courtyard. Far from being serene and heavenly, it is quite lively and bustling.

Taipei Confucius Temple 臺北市孔廟 is more of an interactive educational experience than a holy place. It’s not surprising as Confucianism isn’t really a religion. The scholar Confucius (Kongfuzi 孔夫子) was more interested in the smooth running of things on the earthly plane than the spiritual one. Rituals were an important part of a social order for him, but he didn’t spend much time speculating on any gods or spirits.

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The entire compound is beautiful, but more that that, you get a wonderful English language detailed explanation of the meaning and purpose of each hall (which, under other circumstances I might have transcribed off the brochure, but I feel like you’ve had enough education for one post), a truly early-tech 3D film explaining the history of Confucianism and it’s modern interpretation (it was so campy it was fun) and interactive displays for the six Confucian Arts that Confucius considered vital for any civilized person in a civilized society: Calligraphy, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Computation (math), and Rites (religious, political, and social ceremonies).

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It was a big contrast to the Confucian temple I visited in Beijing which was a beautiful monument with little to no explanation as to it’s historical function. Plus, where Taiwan still teaches pieces of the 6 arts in schools and even holds some public Confucian rites today, the mainland has subsumed Confucian values into the Communist Party Line.

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Dalongdong Baoan Temple 大龍峒保安宮 (Taoist) is dedicated to Baosheng Dadi (Great Emperor Protecting Life). It claims to be the oldest temple in Taiwan, or at least the oldest Chinese temple. (Yes, there were indigenous people living in Taiwan before the Han ethnicity mainland Chinese people arrived many centuries ago). It’s been restored many times over the years and is now an important heritage site. There’s several stunningly decorated buildings, as well as beautiful gardens with statues of famous Taoist stories, and a dragon in the lake. I especially enjoyed the tile work of the roof dragons on these temples which is distinct in both color and style from the mainland.

Kaohsiung:

Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum 佛光山佛陀紀念館 was disturbingly hard to get to, but thankfully I can read bus timetables in Chinese. It probably would have been easier if I’d been coming direct from the city, but I was coming on my way back from the Maolin Butterfly Park. I also missed the last buses returning to the city, but it was ok because I was able to share a car with some other travelers. I don’t think it’s necessary to do this with a tour company, but if you aren’t at least “survival” level in Mandarin, then perhaps plan better than I did.

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Fo Guang Shan is a global sect of Buddhism which started there in Taiwan at the largest monastery in Taiwan. It really is huge, and not only the enormous statue of the Buddha, but the sprawling grounds filled with gardens, exotic birds, and more beautiful statues than you can count.

The grounds are divided reflect the three treasures: sangha (community) where the monks and nuns live, study and work; dharma (teachings) where scriptures (sutras) are housed and ceremonies held; and the Buddha (the teacher) where the famously enormous statue rests at the end of the majestic walkway.

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I think most people come for the third part, and honestly, that’s why I was there. I just took a “wrong” turn at the entrance and found myself walking all the way over to the Sangha, and then meandering back through the Dharma, before finally getting to the Buddha in time to for most of the tourists to leave and for the lights to come on.

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Their website is everything you would expect elderly monks to have created, but if you want to learn more about Fo Guang you can visit. Also, the museum’s website reflects a more worldly involvement and may be more palatable to the modern internet consumer as well as more helpful to the hopeful visitor.


That’s all for part 1. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the historical and natural side of my Taiwan trip. Next time, I’ll write about the more modern aspects including the “old streets” for tourists, a medieval style castle made by an eccentric millionaire, flowers, light shows, street art, and of course what Taiwan is best known for: the food.

Malay Peninsula 7: Ipoh- Temple Caves

Spring marches on, and Korea is filling up with colorful lanterns to celebrate the Buddah’s birthday. While I work on assembling my lantern festival stories, what better time to take a look at the temples of Ipoh? Despite the fact that Ipoh is not a tourist hotspot, there are certainly some stunning things to see. Just remember to take plenty of water!


Ipoh Caves

The Reggae House was a typical late night backpacker’s party hostel and so everyone was still asleep when I got up in the early morning to start exploring. After figuring out the padlock and iron door trick to lock up behind me, I set off in search of breakfast to discover that Ipoh is a very sleepy town. Only a couple places were open at 9am on a Saturday and these were offering a traditional Malay dish called “mee” (which just means “noodles”).20170121_091629 I managed to order something by playing a sort of 20 questions with the waitstaff, and enjoyed my noodles and mystery meat in a not yet too hot outdoor dining area with views of the neighborhood. There were a startling number of funeral homes nearby and plenty of evidence of the British colonial architecture, although much of it was in disrepair.

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Kek Lok Tong
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After breakfast, I caught another Uber to the Kek Lok Tong Cave Temple. Ipoh is probably most famous for it’s caves, and there are many of them around the city, and by around I don’t mean inside, I mean in a ring out and around. Unfortunately, the public transportation in Ipoh is somewhat lacking and it would have taken over 2 hours to get to my target by bus, but less than 20 minutes by car. Online advice suggested that I should negotiate with a taxi driver for a day rate, and I’ve done this before when I wanted to travel to remote places and be assured of a ride back, but I looked at the costs other travelers were paying for half and full day taxi hires and decided that I’d take my chances with ride-sharing.

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The temple is the star of Ipoh tourism and it’s not hard to see why it’s on the top of everyone’s list. Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur is a Hindu temple, but this is Buddhist. There were extra decorations in preparation for the Lunar New Year and a very short stairwell up to the main entrance. There is no admission fee for the temple. The limestone cave is open at either end, making it a lovely wind tunnel and a cool place to get away from the heat. It was still early enough in the day that I wasn’t uncomfortable yet. The wide cavern is completely day-lit, but does have a few artificial lights to show off exceptional formations. There are stairs to help access different levels, and the main areas of worship house large golden statues on plinths with the natural art of the cave as a backdrop. It was breathtaking.

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The back opening leads down to a lake and garden that is nearly completely enclosed by sheer towering limestone cliffs dripping with lush greenery. Although there was a quarry in the distance, it was far enough away not to disturb the tranquility of the garden. I was surprised to see it so empty on a Saturday morning, but I have no doubt that on the weekend of the New Year it was packed to the gills. I took my time walking around the garden in the relatively cool morning air. I enjoyed the sweeping grandeur of the cliffs, the bright tropical flowers, the miniature landscape art, and even the company of a few geese. In those hours I spent between the cave and the gardens it seemed like all the dirt and grime and inconvenience of Malaysia faded away, focusing my attention on only the calm beauty around me. 20170121_111231

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On my way out, I climbed up a few more staircases to get a closer look at the cave formations. Much like Batu caves, the limestone was in familiar shapes, but so much larger in scale than I was used to. I had no trouble getting another Uber to come out for me, and while I was waiting, I took a tour around a little turtle pond on one side of the parking lot. Most of the turtles were quite shy, plopping into the water to escape as soon as I got within a couple meters, but one large guy was holding his ground and I managed to get a few cute pictures.

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The next cave temple I wanted to visit wasn’t very far away and turned out to actually have 3 temples all along a single short road, so while the other two weren’t on my list it seemed a waste not to at least peak at them while I was there.

20170121_122942Sam Poh Tong is also a Buddhist temple and is said to be one of the busiest and most popular in Ipoh. I could tell it was an active temple from the freshly lit incense, but little else gave evidence that it was maintained or cared for. Even so close to such a large holiday, the grounds looked unkempt and abandoned. The huge numbers of underfed and skittish stray dogs was off-putting, but they were not aggressive. The garden in the front was a small lake with tiny “islands” that became miniature mountains holding tiny temples. As I walked around one side of the temple compound, I came upon a building that seemed long empty, covered in dust and bereft of occupation, yet there was incense burning at the dusty altars, observed it seemed only by me and some monkeys on the fence nearby.

I went back to the main gate and into the cave itself. The differences were striking. Where Kek Lok Tong had been left mostly natural and had only a few additions of statues and stairs, Sam Poh Tong looked almost like a building inside the cave.

20170121_124426The walls were painted and florescent lights were on the ceiling, while piles of furniture and other stored items crowded the rooms. The floors were finished and there were windows and doors installed into the stone. It felt less like a cave and more like a basement.

O20170121_125808n the other side of the cave was a small enclosed garden. The walls of the garden were more towering limestone formations and the greenery within was Jurassic in scale and seemed to be overgrown with no concern for trimming or arranging, dead leaves carpeting the ground. There was a small turtle pond behind a fence filled with turtles of all sizes that could be fed fresh greens and veggies bought from a 20170121_125305stand inside the cave. The stand and it’s sales person were some of the only signs of tending I saw. At the back of the garden behind a locked a fence and a forest of unkempt branches was a bright red pagoda that seemed more like something in an abandoned jungle than in a living temple.

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20170121_132845I crept around the cave rooms from one altar to another, plastic cups and cleaning materials lay scattered around, the tile floor was cracked and uneven. I followed a treacherous staircase up a flight, but it ended only in a tiny window and more dust. It was so easy imagine that I was exploring a temple long forgotten, and then I would find a lit candle, or a smoldering joss stick or even a lone employee selling souvenirs. Outside once more, I continued on to the cemetery. In Buddhism, cremation is the norm, so there were small buildings in another alcove that housed the remains. Despite signs requesting that no incense be burned, there were sticks shoved around all the doors and soot marks as well. The buildings were grown over with moss and leaves, the paint peeling and the ground cracking under the pressure of new roots, yet the incense showed me that human presence was recent.

20170121_133150The farthest end of the compound was an area designated for ritual burning and another weedy and overgrown garden that seemed to be turning into a dumping ground. As I made my way past more dogs and tourists, I couldn’t help wondering at how this temple had been so highly rated by so many visitors when Kek Lok Tong was so clean and well cared for. I enjoyed visiting Sam Poh Tong, but it felt like an archaeological excavation rather than a place of worship.

On my way out, an elderly gentleman on a bicycle greeted me in excellent English and as we chatted he told me that this was his regular temple. He was not looking forward to the coming new year celebrations because he said the temple would be overrun by traffic. Scalpers would charge for street parking and people would come just to show off. I was torn between hoping the extra income would help the temple recover and being bewildered as to how it could still be so shabby when expecting the year’s biggest visiting weekend in less than two weeks.

Nam Thean Tong

20170121_142613Next door is Nam Thean Tong, which turns out to be a Taoist temple. It was sparkling clean and in excellent repair if somewhat empty. The floors were also finished tile, but the rooms felt more like natural cave than basement room and the altars were small but beautiful and well cared for. In front of the main altar was a place to do a fortune telling by a traditional method that involves a cup filled with sticks. The supplicant shakes the cup in a rhythmic way until one stick comes up and out and then the meaning is interpreted. I didn’t partake myself, but I watched another do so. There were carvings and paintings on the walls and lanterns hung around for the coming celebration. Another staircase led me to a viewing platform and a small bridge where wishes were tied to the chain railings. When I came across a steep stairwell leading into darkness, I paused for a moment to consult my own oracle: Google. It transpires that the top few floors of this temple are in total darkness and are rumored to have a haunted house combination of cobwebs, unsteady floors and ghosts. Yet even the most avid ghost hunters seemed to think the climb was a little unrewarding, so I decided to save my energy.

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Although the beautiful artwork and unique architecture was a treat, it’s hard not to think the best part of these cave temples were the wind tunnels created by the rock formations that allowed visitors to have a seat in a naturally cool and breezy spot, gaining some respite from the oppressive heat outside.

Rojak

I was finally drawn back outdoors by hunger. The afternoon was getting on and my noodle breakfast had long since worn off. There were some little shops along the outside, mostly selling souvenirs like a local tea and charms, a few selling drinks and ice cream, and one had a handwritten sign advertising a food called “rojak”. 20170121_145104I looked it up to make sure it wasn’t something too scary, then ordered myself a bowl for lunch. Rojak just means “mixture” but fruit rojak is a common dish made of crisp (less than fully ripe and therefore slightly tart) fruits and veggies. Jicama, cucumber, mango, and apple are standard ingredients. The sauce is the magical part. The recipe gurus of the internet assure me it’s made with shrimp paste, hot chilies, sugar, soy sauce, and lime juice (with some regional variance). To me it tasted for all the world like molasses with chili, ginger and lime. I don’t know if mine was made with molasses or if that’s just what it tastes like when you mix soy sauce, shrimp paste and sugar together, but it was yummy!

The outside area was under some reconstruction, but it was a spacious courtyard with plenty of trees and benches, a giant golden statue of what was probably Lao Tsu, and a brownish pond with a moon bridge.

Ling Sen Tong

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20170121_151734Just one gate over is the third and final temple on this street, Ling Sen Tong. This temple mixes Taoist and Buddhist imagery along with other folklore in a big colorful Chinese melting pot. It is an all singing all dancing color fiesta. There are beautiful facades of buildings and temples, giant statues in fresh bright colors, elaborate scenes of mythology played out, and everything was touchable/climbable so visitors were having a blast posing for photos. There was only one small, dark cave. The ceiling had turned black from years of candle and incense soot, and it was chaperoned by a figure whose offerings exclusively included alcohol (for some reason, especially Guiness…) I enjoyed exploring the many statues and hidden rooms. I even found this one guy who looks like he’s checking his phone in the bath! I’m sure there’s a better explanation for it, but along one wall was a series of statues in sunken pits that had all filled with water. I don’t know if it was meant to be a kind of wishing well or something else entirely, but this one in particular stood out to me.

Hostel Hangouts

Finally, I couldn’t take the late afternoon heat anymore and had to call a car to come and rescue me. It was my intention to have a meal and a rest in the hostel before heading out in the evening (and cooler air) to check out “old town Ipoh”. However, I ended up meeting a trio of backpackers from Europe who dealt me into their game of Uno and chatted for a few hours. Then when they went upstairs, I ended up talking to the wifely part of the duo who runs the hostel for quite a while more. She is a Japanese lady who had spent so much of her young adult years in Malaysia that it just seemed natural to her to find a husband and move there. So it was that I spent my whole evening happily in the hostel chatting with new and interesting people from around the world until I was too tired to stay awake any longer and headed up to try and sleep.

As kind and wonderful and gracious as the hosts were, the Reggae House was a little hard to sleep in. The lack of full walls meant that light and sound easily came in from the spaces around my room, and the visiting rat didn’t really set my mind at ease, but I was settling in to the “roughing it” mindset and managed to persevere.


Stay tuned for the next installment of adventures in the Malay Peninsula wherein I go hunting for Ipoh White Coffee and learn more about my favorite bean on the way. Don’t forget to check out all the photos of Kek Long Tong and the other three temples on Facebook and keep an eye out for more spring colors in Korea coming soon! Thanks for reading ❤