WHERE A COMMUNITY KEEPS ITS SPIRIT
Feature photo courtesy of @longshantemple
The Significance of Taiwan’s Long Shan Temple
In my purse lies a little clay Guanshiyin keychain with a purple tassel attached to the bottom. She is posed in a common depiction (albeit a bit cuter than usual): legs crossed, with her left palm facing up and resting against her foot and her right hand in front of her chest in a half-praying position. I’ve carried this with me everywhere I’ve ever gone.
IMAGE CREDIT: BOBBLEHAUS / CASEY HUANG
The keychain was a gift from my parents from Long Shan Temple, a place that bears history dating back to the very foundations of Taipei city. It is a protection charm, although not a traditional one. The temple was initially established by settlers from Fujian in 1738, intended as a gathering place for Chinese settlers. But it’s also a family home of sorts. It is a place that my father frequented, that my mother brought me to, and that my uncle lives next to. With time, its significance only grows.
Located in the Wanhua district of Taipei city, the area that Long Shan Temple is situated in used to be considered an incredibly dangerous area—Meng Jia (艋舺). It was one of the earliest places that really saw the development of Taipei as a city, but it is also because of the dangerous nature of the area that Long Shan Temple was established. People would come and burn incense (燒香) to protect themselves and their families, and Long Shan temple rose as a beacon of hope in the community.
The temple has statues of deities from Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian faiths— reflective of the religious makeup of Taipei. The temple faces South and is organized like the Chinese character “回” (hui), with a front, center, and back hall. With a red roof and gold embroidery, the front hall is a sight to behold. The walls are made from a combination of granite and limestone, carved with stories from San Guo (三國) and Feng Sheng Bang (封神榜). In front of these walls lies a pair of columns with panlongs (蟠龍) coiled around them, completing the intricate front view of the temple. The center hall’s outer walls retains many carvings from famous calligraphers, whereas the back hall is the temple for Mazu, one of the most popular goddesses in Taiwan.
The temple as it now stands is a result of multiple renovations. In 1815 it was an earthquake that required huge renovations; in 1867 a typhoon; in 1919 an attack from termites; and in 1945 a bomb from Allied forces in WWII that severely damaged the temple. Many families also escaped to the temple to avoid the bombings, and, though almost the entire center hall of Long Shan Temple was ruined, the people and the statue of Guanshiying remained unharmed. The community only became more devoted to the temple after that. While this event is one of the key ones in cementing the importance of Long Shan Temple to the people, after every major incident there have been multiple donations from the community to allow for multiple rebuilds of the temple. It is a result of the hope and promise of the people that Long Shan temple still stands, and it is not only a place of worship and good fortune, but a symbol of the resilience and devotion of the local people. It is more than just a place of worship, but a strong community.
To be honest, I remember very little of this place, and while I vaguely recall wandering through the halls and lighting incense for prayer, I most distinctly remember coming here to eat. In my eyes, it is also the area surrounding the temple that forms the community. Now, Meng Jia is not as dangerous as it used to be. The area around the temple is filled with food vendors that make it a market both day and night, which my mom told me is a result of the natural progression of worship. We come and offer food and worship to the gods, then, since we are already with family, we go hang out and eat. It sounds logical, as my mom is, and it is a simple system that brought out an entire community. I still remember the shaved ice vendor that my uncle brought me as one of the best I’ve had in Taipei city to this day. Sometimes we even come specifically for the food (I mean, he lives right there). My mom also tells me that the street that the vendors now sell on used to be an alley where they killed snakes, and that foreigners loved to come and watch it. I like it much better now.
Though the surroundings have shifted with time, the temple nonetheless remains a hopeful place for the people. It is a place where traditions are upheld and people come together, where strength and devotion are intertwined. That is the essence of Long Shan Temple, and the essence of the Taiwanese community that surrounds it.