Shānxī Temple 山西宮 (often romanized as “Shansi Temple”) is a large historic temple in Guānmiào 關廟, a small town in southeastern Tainan 台南, dating back to the early 18th century, back when Taiwan was under Qing Dynasty rule. It has been expanded and renovated many times over the years, most recently in the 1970s, to the point where I noticed few traces of antiquity on two trips to the temple over the last couple of years.
Truth be told, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this temple—it feels much like any other big temple in rural Taiwan—but seeing as how I recently organized several of my posts into a new series about temple culture in Taiwan, I figured it might be useful to slip a somewhat more “normal” temple into the flow. Rifling through my photo library I realized I had set aside a bunch from this temple nice enough to share. Most were captured while on a short bicycle trip from Tainan 台南 to Qíshān 旗山 and Měinóng 美濃 and a few others were shot while visiting some ruins in the area at a later date. On both occasions I wandered through very casually, without intending to capture every little detail, so consider this tour a very broad overview of what you might find at Shanxi Temple.
The primary deity worshipped at Shanxi Temple is Guānyǔ 關羽, often styled as Guāngōng 關公 (literally “Lord Guan”), a historic figure from the time of the Three Kingdoms 三國時代 (AD 220–280). He is widely revered for embodying qualities like loyalty, bravery, and benevolence. I was intrigued to realize that the town actually derives its name from this temple; Guānmiào 關廟 literally means temple (廟) of Guan!
As with most other Taiwanese temples this one features a syncretic blend of Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion all under one roof. I’ve heard various explanations for this mix of religious traditions in Taiwan (including one somewhat cynical proposition that it makes good business sense to appeal to a broad spectrum of believers) but hardly anyone I speak with considers this situation worthy of elaboration. It’s just how things are around here.
One thing I really love about temple culture in Taiwan is how open and welcoming most temples are. Nobody seems to mind outsiders like myself wandering in, taking photos, inspecting murals and artifacts, and puzzling out what it is people do in these places. Often I am greeted with little knowing smiles or outright curiosity from the old people that typically hang out in the main temple hall. Of course, I always do my best to stay out of people’s way and never photograph the ceremonies I occasionally encounter or worshippers in meditation or supplication. That much seems like basic human decency to me.
Another thing worth remarking upon in this post is the tradition of “enter the dragon, exit the tiger”. Almost every temple you visit in Taiwan will have a dragon on the right and a tiger on the left. A third, much larger door is commonly found in the middle and has more of a ceremonial use (for instance, when conveying gods into or out of the temple). Proper temple etiquette demands that you enter the temple by way of the dragon door, conduct your business on the inside, and then leave by the tiger. In practice Taiwanese people are often very casual about this sort of thing and it’s not uncommon for visitors to pay no attention to this convention.
Part of the fun of living in Taiwan is learning to appreciate local culture, traditions, and sights, particularly those that are open and accessible to foreigners regardless of language ability and found nation-wide. Apart from abandoned buildings, night markets, and natural wonders, temples are also great to explore. There are more than ten thousand temples in Taiwan (with the lion’s share of them in Tainan 台南), each with their own history and traditions—some more than others, of course—so you’ll probably never run out of places to go if you get into checking out whatever temples you happen to chance upon, as I do.