Taiwan Journal (formerly Taipei Journal)
Government Information Office of the Republic of China
April 25, 2003

Restored Talungtung Paoan Temple celebrates deity's 1,025th birthday

By Abby Lee

Even first-time visitors to Taiwan quickly discover the vital role that religion plays in the life of its people. For instance, if they happen to hail a taxi, they will likely find it decorated with Taoist statuettes and religious slogans that purportedly deliver protection from traffic accidents and other untoward events.

Or if they happen to pass one of the island's numerous temples, they might very well witness a celebration of the birthday of a revered deity, with crowds of devotees swarming into the temple building and grounds to offer incense to the gods and appeal for divine blessing.

Such scenes are not only common in rural Taiwan, but also in the island's biggest city, Taipei. In fact, one of Taipei's oldest and most beloved temples, the Talungtung Paoan Temple, is currently the site of a magnificent celebration marking both the 1,025th anniversary of the birth of the temple's main deity, Paoshen Tati, and the completion of a large-scale reconstruction project that has restored the temple to its original glory.

Talungtung Paoan Temple, which is also known affectionately as the temple of Ta Tao Kung--literally the temple of the great Taoist master--was built in 1805, and has been classified as a second-grade historical site by the Taiwanese government. The temple is considered one of the most representative of Taiwanese temples, and holds an important place in Taiwanese architectural history.

Paoan Temple is quite large and its construction was fraught with difficulty. One of these difficulties was that all the materials used in building it, including both wood and stone, were brought over from China, as were the artisans who crafted the exquisite ornaments that festoon its many buildings.

Owing to its size and intricacy, the temple complex required a full quarter-century to complete. It soon became a social gathering place for residents of nearby communities as well as a place of religious worship. Today, it remains central to Taipei's Tatung District--both geographically and spiritually.

The temple complex enshrines 39 deities spanning the whole range of Taiwanese folk religions. The temple's main deity is Paoshen Taiti, the god of medicine, said to have been given human form by a skilled medical practitioner in China's Fujian province in 979. Worship of the deity was first introduced to Taiwan by large numbers of Tungan immigrants from Fujian.

These immigrants settled at the convergence of the Tamsui and Keelung rivers in Taipei, creating the Talungtung area--known today as the Tatung District--one of the city's first districts. The Tungan settlers built Paoan Temple as a center for the worship of the god of medicine.

Apart from the temple's main deity in the complex's central hall, 36 generals are enshrined on either side, Chusheng Niang-niang, goddess of birth, is in the middle of the bell tower and Shen Nung, god of agriculture, resides in the rear hall.

In 1917, during the Japanese occupation, the temple underwent its first major refurbishment, expanding both in terms of size and importance. The renovation incorporated Western architectural features in the old temple, making it a two-story building.

What is more, the building combined different architectural styles--such as northern Chinese, southern Fujianese and Hakka-style features, reflecting the fact that the sculptors came from different ethnic and geographical backgrounds. "The temple is a good representation of the island's ethnic melting pot," said Liao Wu-chih, vice president of the temple.

Because of damage from long exposure to Taipei's damp climate and termite infestation, the temple became the focus of a major restoration project in 1995, the likes of which had never been seen. "Reconstruction was based on the principle of preserving the original appearance. In addition, the process of restoring Paoan Temple combined the delicate craftsmanship of old masters with modern techniques to improve the physical construction," said Liao. After seven years of restoration, the historical building revealed its magnificence to the public. The temple held a three-day sacrifice--called chien chiao in Chinese--to celebrate the completion and thank the gods.

Located in the middle of the Tatung District, Paoan has always been the area's spiritual center. People see their fortune and prosperity hinging on the temple's ups and downs. As a result, the sacrifice became an event of utmost importance to local believers.

According to Liao, the temple's four sacrificial altars reflect its tradition of ethnic harmony. The altars mirror the four design styles of the temple. "As is customary, during the ceremony, temple doors are closed so no one except ceremony participants can see in. This is why ordinary people have no idea how the ritual is performed. This time, however, the temple has set up a live TV broadcast. Historical experts will be present to interpret and explain the rite," said Liao.

Administrators decided to time the festivities to coincide with the birthday of the temple's chief deity. "The temple has a full slate of religious and cultural events to celebrate these two happy occasions. The events include traditional musical performances and an exhibition of ancient temple arts," said the temple's vice president. He proudly noted that the scale of the performances is the largest in northern Taiwan.

Traditional Taiwanese temple art encompasses folk art processions, fire-walking, martial arts battles, lion dances and fire-lion spectacles--similar to the fireworks fight held in Tainan County's Yenshui on the 15th day of lunar new year.

In order to preserve these cultural assets, the temple continues to stage performances to keep the traditions alive. Temple spokesmen blame their declining popularity to lack of exposure. For example, while an idol representing Paoshen Tati is being transported around the neighborhood to "inspect" the environs, a parade, including performances such as stilt-walking, 12 baby-sitters, drum dances and Song Chiang battle arrays among others will accompany the god.

Besides parades, fire-walking is another event that urban residents unaccustomed to such spectacles find especially intriguing. In fact, when advance notice is given, there has been opposition from some quarters. Some are concerned that stepping on burning coals with bare feet might result in injury. Others think that the event caters to inappropriate superstitions.

Liao, however, noted that when the young wizards hold aloft the deity's sedan chair and walk across the 10-meter fire dragon--the charcoal fire--is not only safe but actually brings the religious ritual to a fitting crescendo. "Since it is part of a process, we should respect that," opined Liao. "Fire-walking is one mysterious aspect of the Taoist religion. Few injuries have happened during the event. The faithful brave flames with sheer willpower and courage because they believe in divine protection," he said, adding that for the safety of participants, the temple uses salt to lower the temperature of the coals.

The celebrations taking place at Paoan Temple are another fascinating chapter in its long history. Throughout its colorful existence, the temple has had to cope with challenges wrought by the weather and passage of time. Refurbished by people well aware of its cultural and historical significance, the temple continues to play an important role in the lives of local residents.

While some aspects of traditional culture are losing their appeal or are being undermined through simple neglect, religious life in Taiwan clearly remains as vital as ever.