One of the things I like most about Taipei, and Taiwan for that matter, is how often I am surprised by something I find right under my nose. This city is a wealth of hidden little curiosities that many people don’t know about, and most of them are out in the open – even in places as public as 2/28 Park.
2/28 Park, as it is now known, is a profound symbol of the messy history of Taiwan, and by extension, Taipei. It didn’t even really begin as a park – an example of just one of those things a lot of people don’t know about. In fact, instead of being a symbol of peace, it has been a neutral ground for violent territorial disputes, a point of political uprising, a memorial of the 2/28 Massacre and of the “White Terror”, a meeting place for engaging in illicit behavior, and much more.
Even today, this central public spot still holds a variety of particular meanings for an array of different groups – it is a point of ROC Nationalist pride juxtaposed against a backdrop of recent Taiwanese statements of self-determination. Its design is Japanese-colonial in origin, built on the ruins of the old Qing dynasty, using a European inspired model. It now also houses newer structures made in the style of classical Chinese architecture. Furthermore, it’s an epicenter of gay culture in Taiwan, and has been since the early days of martial law – and probably even before that.
Before I get into the remnants of what was at the park before it was a park, you need a little background info:
What you may not know is that during pre-colonial days the people who would become known as Taiwanese didn’t define themselves so much as “Chinese” or “Qing” or “Taiwanese”, but by their local ethnic groups, most of which are either taken for granted today or forgotten altogether (they were all Fukienese, but from different counties in Fujian). Still, in the 19th century these divisions were pronounced. Similar to gangs just about anywhere else in the world, they fought amongst each other for territory, influence, and control.
As a matter of fact, places that you know today were old headquarters of local clans. For instance, Longshan temple was the stomping grounds of a group called the Sanyi (三邑) who fought against the TongAn (同安), based out of Xiahai temple. Another example is when the walls of old Taipei City were built, the family of Lin Wei-yuan of Banqiao was tasked with constructing the south wall. In order to avoid the West Gate district (Ximen/西門), dominated by a subethnic group called the Quanzhou, Lin’s family, part of the rival Zhangzhou, built what we know now as Xiaonanmen (小南門), or “Little South Gate”.
Now, you may be asking, “what does any of this have to do with 2/28 Park?”. Well, on the block we now know as 2/28 Park used to lie Tianhou Temple (天后宮), dedicated to Mazu (媽祖) – goddess of the seas. This temple, in what was the epicenter of the old walled city, was neutral ground where the various groups would come to negotiate, thus making it an indispensable part of old Taipei. Furthermore, it also served as a gateway to the Qing Imperial Academy and examination halls – the temple represented not only neutrality in local politics, but also access to the mainland.
Sadly, there is almost nothing left of this temple today as it was eventually torn down by the Japanese colonial administration, but not before they converted it for use as a traditional Chinese studies school and built an entire “mock European” park around it. Now, all that remains are a few ancient columns-turned-stools that stand outside the National Taiwan Museum. These worn-down stumps are some of the most historically significant relics in the city, but people stop to sit and relax on them every day.
However, the stumps of the Tianhou temple aren’t the only remaining Qing artifacts in the park.
Near a small temple, tucked away in a corner of the park almost hidden behind the hideous amphitheater (we’ll get to that later), there is an old stone arch “guarded” by two ancient stone lions. This arch, built in 1888, was once the gateway to the Qing civil service examination hall; the lions stood outside the prefectural office – all of this was built before the Japanese takeover, and all of it is still clearly visible after 130 years.
Perhaps even more impressive is the arch near the museum. This arch was built in 1882 and was commissioned by Tongzhi (同治), the Qing emperor himself (commissioned before his death in 1875). The arch was actually restored and moved to its current location when the MRT was constructed – unlike its counterpart near the amphitheater, the Tongzhi arch features gold painted characters and looks like it was recently erected (I actually thought it was a re-creation until I did some fact-checking).
So what about these remnants of a time past? Well, besides the fact that they’re old, the arches and lions are reminiscent of a very different time – but one that reflects modern Taiwan own in some very important ways. These symbols were part of the imperial drive to get Taiwan and the Taiwanese to consider themselves “Chinese”, much like current cross-strait debates about Taiwan’s identity.
The reason the arches were moved into the park is also intriguing – the imperial Japanese, in order to make way for construction projects nearby, moved two Qing era arches from their original homes into the park, both as a display of respect for the literary traditions of China that the Japanese colonialists so admired, but also as a way of displacing the former Chinese cultural influence that dominated the area before Japan took over.
The lions and arches represent not just the original Chinese influence on Taiwan, but they also represent the extremely complicated relationship that China, Japan, and Taiwan still have with each other – one rooted in wars and disputes going back hundreds of years, but that still very much resonate today.
2/28 Park is full of interesting bits of history and a multi-layered cultural tapestry you could only find in Taiwan. In my next articles I’ll talk about more of the developments of the Japanese colonial period, the martial law era, the history of the park as a center of gay life in Taipei.
Check in next week For Part 2: A Park of Empires!
I’d like to give credit to Professor Joseph Allen of University of Minnesota for information and letting me use his work as a source. If you are interested in the layered history of Taipei, I strongly suggest picking up Taipei: A City of Displacements.