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Jian Temple: a Library of Story and Mural

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Jian Temple: an unassuming temple, found in Keelung, nestled deep into the beautiful ecosystem of Hope Hills. Such a temple is often overlooked, though, especially being in the presence of the iconic Big Buddha Temple. This does nothing to detract from its beauty; instead, to those curious few, Jian Temple opens its doors, reciting age-old stories from within, and in its tile-paved walls.

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Ji’an Temple on a Foggy Day

 

My biggest sin as a tourist in Taiwan is my ignorance toward just how fascinating the temples of Taiwan can be. Unfortunately, my 15 minute visits wouldn’t suffice if I wanted to see beyond just the vibrant architecture; and with Ji’an Temple having so much mystery on display, this was a perfect opportunity to play detective.

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The Big Buddha Statue can be seen out in the distance

The History of the Allusive Jian Temple

Here we follow the story of He Xiangu, one of the Eight Immortals of the Taoist religion, and the only female amongst them. She had said to have graced Keelung, preceding any construction, through manifesting miracles, and touching the hearts of the local people. In the year of 1962, she descended to the place of ‘Ji’an Tang’ in the Zhongzhen district (translating as Ji’an hall, which refers to a section of a larger temple complex).

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A 16th Century Painting of He Xiangu on a swan

13 years later, in the year 1975, Ji’an Temple was constructed; Being relocated to the more secluded and quiet Zhongzhen park. Now, He Xiangu resides, in the company of other notable Gods, in Ji’an Temple.

The Mysteries of Jian Temple

From the outside, the detective in you might already notice that Ji’an Temple wears a more traditional aesthetic, with it’s roofing missing the intense, yet vibrant, mosaic-like creatures (known as Jiannian/剪黏 or ‘cut and stick’) common to many Taiwanese temples.

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More traditional styling of a Taoist roof; using orange glazed roof tiles
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Taiwanese temple with the iconic Jiannian, mosaic creatures

This restraint of external colour, opting for something more minimalist, helps establishes an atmosphere of learning and growth within the temple, as the focus steers away from purely spectacle.

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Kids lego replication of a Taiwanese Temple structures. Jian Temple creates a welcoming atmosphere to both adults and kids, perfect for learning and imparting wisdom.

The magnetic-tile murals

Upon entering the temple, you’ll encounter the winding gallery of ‘magnetic-tile murals.’ These artworks depict scenes of Peace, Love, War, and Self Discovery, drawing from traditional Chinese novels and narrating moments from Buddha’s life.

With their simple yet captivating colour and detail, they draw you into the drama, inviting you to seek the meaning embedded in these timeless scenes. The meaning unique to each scene, reflect back the culture of the Taiwanese people, regarding their values, morals, and religious belief. The variety of stories also reflects the syncretism of Taiwanese culture; Jian Temple doesn’t exclusively feature Taoist stories but borrows wisdom from all aspects of the culture: from Chinese myth to Buddhism, to ancient novels, such as Journey to the West.

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Mural of the traditional chinese novel ‘Journey to the West’
This scene depicts sun Wukong fighting, and friends, fighting against the Bull Demon King. The mirror (top right) and the flaming wheels were both used to defeat him

For many locals, the murals draw up childhood memories, providing a visual recounting of narratives once traditionally shared in schools and families. Sharing in the tradition, one such local drew my attention to the following story.

The unexpected story of The Ghost King

The mural was of Zhong Kui, the Ghost King. Zhong Kui was an extremely talented and virtuous man who happened to be very ugly. This unfortunate fate caused him much trouble, culminating in his suicide when Emperor Gaozu failed him in the martial arts exam due to his appearances. However, the Gods of the afterlife saw past his looks, recognizing Zhong Kui’s extraordinary talent, and appointed him the Ghost King.

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Zhong Kui standing amidst a winter forest, being accompanied by 2 demons holding vases.

Zhong Kui would now serve the people, fighting off evil spirits. You can even see Zhong Kui in action during the Keelung Ghost Festival, as he demands the Ghosts to return back to the afterlife at festival’s conclusion.

Knowing all this, this mural defies my expectations. Despite his notoriety as The Ghost King, the mural depicts a familial and tender-hearted man. Seeing past his turbulent life, the mural centres around his reunion with his sister, and highlighting that, in spite of the turmoil, he never forgot about family – a key element of Taiwanese Culture.

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Mural of Zhong Kui welcoming his sister back home. In this story, Zhong Kui had married his sister to his best friend – a sign of high respect and trust for his best friend, Du Ping

In total, Jian Temple hosts a collection of 280 murals, developed by local artists from Jingyang Painting Studio, Yilan. Perhaps the distinguishing feature of Jian Temple, it’s murals certainly make it worth a visit to see such rare collage of art.

The Residents of Jian Temple

The residents of Ji’an Temple aren’t limited to Taoist deities, also incorporating venerable figures within the Buddhist Religion, as well. Both Taoist and Buddhist figures are worshipped, side-by-side.

The Main Hall

In the main hall of the Temple, the primary Deity is Guan Sheng Di Jun (aka Guan Yu), who was a real person, venerated for his martial and tactical prowess during the Three Kingdoms period. The auxiliary deities, also worshiped at this shrine (also featuring Zhong Kui), all personify some core values, namely: integrity, justice, courage, and strength, and some embracing stronger themes of honour and loyalty, a moral purity.

 

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The main altar

The Rear Hall

Moving out of the main hall of the Temple, into the rear, you can find a combination of Taoist and Buddhist characters. At the main altar, our protagonist, He Xiangu, takes center-stage amongst her friends, collectively known as The 8 Immortals, and the Heavenly Empress, in which themes of femininity, longevity, health, and protection manifest here.

In right-most section of the hall, Guanyin, a woman who had foregone reaching enlightenment for the sake of helping others (known as a bodhisattva), is a Buddhist figure who shares similar themes of health, healing, and protection; a great person to call on in times of distress.

Finally, I must mention Ji Gong, who resides in the left-most hall at the rear.

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Altar commemorating Ji Gong. He sits with his fan in one hand (and potentially hiding his Gourd of alcohol in his other)

Ji Gong is a beloved deity in both Chinese and Taiwanese culture, as his unconventional, yet virtuous character is a rare and curious one. Titles such as The Living Buddha and The Drunken Monk, summarise the polarity of such a character. In his life, he went against monastic tradition, being a friend of meat, alcohol, and breaking the rules. Despite this, he remained a practitioner of Buddhism, and was an aide of the poor and victims of injustice.

Sharing similarities with the western ‘Robin Hood’, it is obvious to see why he remains popular among the Taiwanese people. Those seeking well-being, through joy and humour, or his spiritual aid, come to Ji Gong for guidance.

Conclusion

Ji’an Temple is special artefact of Keelung, and much of it’s beauty remains undiscovered, hidden behind a veil of architectural simplicity; but for those looking to delve deeper into the cultural sphere of Taiwan, Ji’an Temple hosts a trove of story that guides you deep into the history of the culture, and captivates your eyes while doing so.

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Therefore, Ji’an Temple is a perfect addition to any itinerary ascending into the lush of Hope Hills, and being just off the main road going through the hills, it’s certainly worth a visit!

 

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Follow Diarmaid:
A traveler of sorts, going through my 'finding yourself' phase; Big fan of people, conversations, humour, and the occasional book; Optimisitic and a generally good spirited guy (I hope)

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