Monday, March 29, 2010

Local colour III

A woman washes clothes the traditional way at a spring-fed trench in Nanzhuang, Miaoli County (苗栗縣南庄鄉). Nanzhuang is a delightful township far from the sea. The population is mostly Hakka with a significant aboriginal minority.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Know your traditions: Burning incense

Worshippers place incense in the main censer at a temple in Taoyuan City. The offering of incense to gods and ancestors is central to Taiwanese folk religion; even in those temples that now discourage the burning of joss paper, the pious tend to hold three incense sticks in their hands when praying. In several places, you'll see incense sticks as thick as your thumb and as long as your forearm glowing and smouldering. A shrine where incense isn't burned throughout the day is indeed a strange - or neglected - place of worship.

According to this article:

"The burning of incense is considered a means for communicating with the spirits. It is said that when people hold a stick of incense in prayer before an image of a god their soul becomes transparent and the god knows what they are thinking... [It is believed] that fragrant scents attracted good spirits [and] smoke from incense carried the wishes of the supplicant to heaven."

A lot of incense is made from sandalwood, but as with joss paper, there are many different kinds for different purposes.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Strange and wonderful place names

These days, Taoyuan (桃園) is unrepentantly industrial city of almost 400,000 with a name that strikes 21st-century visitors as oddly bucolic: táo (peach) yuán (garden). Before it became Peach Garden, it bore a much more vivid toponym. The pioneers who settled hereabouts in the late 1700s dubbed it Humaozhuang (虎茅庄) meaning ‘the terrace covered by plants with leaves as sharp as tigers’ teeth’.

Kaohsiung (高雄) was long known to the world as Takau. This name, often spelled Takao and sometimes Dagou, stuck for more than three centuries, until the Japanese colonial authorities decided the written form – two Chinese characters with the literal meaning 'hit the dog' (打狗) – was undignified. They replaced it with different characters (the current 高雄) meaning 'lofty hero', pronounced Takao in Japanese and Gāoxióng in Mandarin.

For the same reason, they renamed what's now Minxiong (民雄), a town just north of Chiayi. Originally dubbed Damao (打貓, ‘hit the cat’), the colonial regime selected the current set of characters, which mean ‘citizen’s hero’. Endearing place names can still be found throughout the countryside. One neighbourhood on the outskirts of Tainan is still marked on maps as Gourou (狗肉, ‘dog meat’ – perhaps its first resident was a butcher selling canine steaks). In tea-growing country not far from Alishan, there's a Niushihu (牛屎湖,‘cow-dung lake’) and near Jiaxian in rural Kaohsiung, one small valley is known as Goushikeng (狗屎坑, ‘dog-faeces hole’). Kaohsiung has another of my favourite toponyms: Agongdian (阿公店), literally 'grandpa's shop'.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Formosan macaque

The Formosan rock macaque (Macaca cyclopis) is Taiwan's only monkey species. It isn't difficult to find. An estimated 250,000 macaques roam the foothills and mountains; troupes vary in size from around 20 to 50 or more individuals. Females outnumber males but the ratio is usually less than two to one. These creatures, which weigh between five and 18kg and measure 35 to 45cm long (body only; the tail is another 30-odd cm) prefer mixed forest to bamboo or grasslands.

Occasionally they're hunted for meat. Many farmers consider macaques a pest because they steal fruit, sweet potatoes and other foods. In captivity - some people keep them as pets - they live up to 30 years.

The photo here was taken by Rich J. Matheson. More photos and information can be found here.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Paragliding in Taiwan

At first glance, Taiwan should be an excellent place for paragliding because it's covered in hills. However, as this website points out, much of the airspace is restricted for military reasons and power lines get in the way at several other promising sites. There's more about the sport here and here, and a map with paragliding sites in Taiwan here.

I took this photo from Tigerhead Mountain, near Puli in Nantou, three or four years ago.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Local colour II

This is the morning fruit and vegetable market at the base of Liyu Mountain in Taitung City. A lot of senior citizens go to the mountain (which is only 75m high) to exercise and then do some shopping on the way home. In addition to the usual cabbages (a Taiwanese staple), carrots (which in Mandarin are called 紅蘿蔔 hóng luó bó, literally 'red turnips'), onions, turnips and various leafy greens I also spotted several people selling the vegetables pictured below. Never before seen by me!