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History of The Keelung Martyr’s Shrine

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Have you ever wondered what happened to the Shinto shrines built by the Japanese colonial regime in Taiwan after World War II?

Why were there Shinto shrines in Taiwan?

Keelung Shrine
Keelung Shrine (kiirun jinja) in 1937
Source: Open Museum Taiwan

There existed a de facto state religion in the Japanese Empire, the so-called State Shinto 国家 神道 (kokka shintou). In Japanese colonies, as well as areas occupied by Japan during the Second World War, numerous Shinto shrines 神社 (jinja) were built. In part, especially during the war, locals in the Japanese occupied areas were forced to participate in rituals in Shinto shrines. One can say, that Japanese Shinto shrines were a symbol of Japanese imperialism. Of course Japan built numerous  shrines in Taiwan as well since it was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945.

What happened to those shrines after the Second World War?

After World War II, the government of the Republic of China repurposed numerous former Shinto Japanese shrines into Martyrs’ Shrines 忠烈祠 (zhonglieci). The shrines that are still existing today, are administered by government agencies. They are dedicated to persons who have given their lives in service to the Republic of China or in the fight against Japan. This includes for example soldiers killed in action, participants in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, civilians supporting the Republic of China’s armed forces, policemen, firefighters and spies.

The Keelung Martyr’s shrine: Historical background

Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa
Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa
Source: Wikipedia

One of these martyr’s shrines is located in Keelung. The Keelung Martyr’s shrine 基隆忠烈祠 (jilong zhonglieci) is located at the entrance to Chung Cheng Park a few minutes walk east of the harbor. Like many other martyr shrines in Taiwan, this one is a converted former Japanese Shinto shrine. The Shinto shrine, called Keelung Shrine 基隆神社 (kiirun jinja), was founded in 1912 and in it the most important deity being worshiped was Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa 北白川宮能久親王 (1847-1895).

Kitashirakawa was a member of the Japanese imperial family, who studied in Germany during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and became a general in the Japanese army. As a general during the Taiwan campaign of 1895 he fell victim to malaria. Thereafter the Japanese colonial administration elevated him to be the guardian deity of Taiwan and he was worshiped in most Shinto shrines of Taiwan.

“Reading” Taiwanese history through the Keelung Martyr’s shrine

The Keelung Martyr’s Shrine’s spacial construction is still very reminiscent of a Japanese Shinto shrine. On closer inspection, you can also find the historic stone lion dogs and stone lanterns dating back to the Japanese era. Otherwise, little of the shrine is still reminiscent of the Japanese rule.

Japanese-style lion-dog statue
Japanese-style lion-dog statue

Striking is the bust of Chiang Kai-shek, the former dictator of Taiwan, standing at the entrance to the shrine, bearing the inscription “In Eternal Memory of Our Leader”. Such statues are very controversial in Taiwan today. It is surprising that you can still find them in many public places and even within schools. Since many Taiwanese blame Chiang Kai-shek personally for the policy of “White Terror” under his rule, many statues have been dismantled since Taiwan democratized during the 1990s. The existing statues and monuments are still occasionally targets of the protest.

What can we learn from this?

Statue of Chiang Kai-shek at the Keelung Martyr's Shrine
Statue of Chiang Kai-shek at the Keelung Martyr’s Shrine

It is interesting how this place reflects several phases of Taiwan’s history and the contradictory way Taiwanese people relate to their history. While the Japanese past of Taiwan was systematically wiped out after 1945, dealing with the past under military rule is still very difficult topic for the Taiwanese society, today. Unfortunately, there are no easy or “correct” answers to how one should treat such monuments.

The reader is invited to think briefly about how this is done in your home country and how you, personally, would deal with the statues of Chiang Kai-shek. If you are interested in Taiwan’s handling of its history or you feel like exploring Keelung yourself, then check out our website at keelung-for-a-walk.com/tours.


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