Puli was my home base for several days of road tripping and adventure around Nantou in October 2015. Recently I decided to publish my findings and impressions from this trip despite not knowing much about what I was seeing at that time. Most of the other posts in this series document trips from one place to another but in this post I’m focusing on some of what I found within city limits, starting with some history to put everything in context.
For much of the 19th century Puli was known as Po-sia 埔社 or Po-li-sia 埔裏社. Both of these Hokkien names derive from now-extinct languages formerly spoken by the Taiwanese Plains Indigenous people 平埔族群 of the western coast, likely Pazeh 巴宰語 or Babuza 巴布薩語. Plains Indigenous people migrated to Puli Basin 埔里盆地 in large numbers to escape Chinese aggression in the late 17th century, an episode briefly mentioned in the first part of this series, and paid tribute to the Atayal and Bunun people already living in the region.
Puli was quarantined for much of the Qing dynasty era; subjects of the Chinese emperor were forbidden passage into the interior and trade with its inhabitants1, although this did not stop occasional incursions by the burgeoning settler population of the island2. Chinese settlement began in earnest in the 1850s, with Christian missionaries visiting the basin shortly thereafter3. In 1875 the Qing authorities adopted a policy of Kāishān Fǔfān 開山撫番 (literally “open the mountains and pacify the savages”), largely in response to the Rover and Mudan incidents, which exacerbated fears of foreign intervention in those parts of Taiwan that the Qing had heretofore expressed no particular interest in governing. Thus Puli was incorporated into Qing-administered Taiwan and the basin was officially opened to Chinese settlement.
In 1877 work began on Polisia Walled City 埔里社廳城 (also known as Dàpù City 大埔城), a gated enclave surrounded by a thorny bamboo palisade and a system of moats. But, as with many other efforts to more actively govern and develop Taiwan, this one was cut short by the Japanese invasion in 1895. The gated enclosure was completely destroyed by 1914, part of an island-wide urban redevelopment campaign, but traces of it remain in the naming of streets and administrative divisions around central Puli4.
Puli was once home to three Shinto shrines: two shrines at Hǔtóushān 虎頭山, on the northeast side of town, and a third one5 next to the old sugar factory. Nōkō Shrine 能高社 was built on Hǔtóushān 虎頭山 in 1925 and is now part of a public park and monument, the Geographic Center of Taiwan 台灣地理中心. In 1940, not long after the introduction of the Kōminka Movement 皇民化運動 (a policy of accelerated assimilation and Japanization), another much larger and more elaborate Shinto shrine with almost the same name (能高神社) was constructed at the base of the mountain on what is now the running track for a vocational high school. Apart from the broad stairway leading up the mountainside hardly any trace remains of either shrine.
Head due west from Hutuoshan to the other side of town and you’ll find Àilán Village 愛蘭里, one of the earliest Chinese settlements in Puli Basin. Historically this area was known as Wūniúlán 烏牛欄, typically romanized as Ougulan in 19th century English language accounts. This settlement curls around the northwestern side of a modest hill guarding the main entrance to Puli proper, site of the Battle of Wuniulan 烏牛欄之役, the last major conflict of the February 28 Massacre 二二八事件 in 1947. At that time an impressive suspension bridge6 spanned the river but nowadays an unremarkable concrete structure facilitates passage into the city.
Founded in 1901, Xǐnglíng Temple 醒靈寺 is a historic temple perched on the hill overlooking the entrance to Puli. I stopped here to take some photos since it was obviously a local attraction—but with such a dizzying variety of lions and lanterns I did not manage to locate any of those salvaged from the destruction of the Shinto shrines on the opposite side of town. From what I’ve read this temple also has a pair of guardian lions dating back to the Qing dynasty era but I wasn’t able to verify whether those lions guard the entrance to the temple, or if they’re located somewhere else.
This visit to Puli coincided with a growing interest in documenting the legacy of the Taiwanese cinema industry, a project that has since become one of the focal points of my studies in Taiwan. After exploring Datong Theater earlier that same year I became interested in predicting where more theaters might be found. I hypothesized that you might find one theater for every 25,000 residents or so, which turned out to be an underestimate in the case of Puli, which was once home to something like seven or eight movie theaters. Only three remain—and Huáguó Theater 華國戲院, the most photogenic of the lot, is already the subject of a full-length post with plenty of photographs.
Next up: a brief inspection of Yínghǎi City God Temple 瀛海城隍廟, allegedly the oldest temple in Puli. I stopped for a look after noticing red cloth wrapped around the stone guardian lions out front. Naturally I was quite curious about the use of red cloth in this temple, which was evidently undergoing a massive reconstruction project. Some research revealed that the statues, censer, and other religious artifacts covered with cloth will be unwrapped during a ritual known as kāiguāng 開光, literally “open to light”, and until then are wèikāiguāng 未開光, or not open to light. The doors of the temple were open so I went inside to take a look—and found all of the gods gathered into a cramped space behind towering stone columns still wrapped in plastic from the factory. Behind a curtain I caught a glimpse of some impressive woodwork surrounding an altar that hadn’t yet been finished7.
I am fascinated by the history and lore of the City God but won’t go into great depth in this post as I’d rather save my commentary for a temple for which I have better photos. But I will mention that these temples are organized along bureaucratic lines, much as you would find in any city, with divisions overseeing various matters of import to underworld affairs. I’ve included pictures of two members of this bureaucracy: Horse-Face 馬面 and Bā Yé 八爺, one of the Eight Generals 八家將, both charged with escorting dead souls into the underworld for judgement, rounding up ghosts and spirits, and otherwise enforcing supernatural justice.
That’s all for this post about a brief, uninformed stay in Puli in 2015. This series will continue with photos and commentary from a trip to Sun Moon Lake, one of Taiwan’s most popular attractions.
- If you’re interested in reading more about Puli’s pre-Qing history I suggest perusing these English language travelogues available from the Reed Institute’s online library: T.L. Bullock, J.B. Steere, and H.J. Allen, all published in the 1870s. ↩
- This quarantine was violated many times, as was often the case along the nearly lawless frontiers of Taiwan. One of the more significant transgressions, the Guō Bǎinián Incident 郭百年事件, began in 1814 with the arrival of around a thousand Chinese settlers in Puli Basin. They founded their own village but soon massacred many of the Indigenous people already residing there. Word got back to the Qing authorities and they soon intervened, recalling the settlers and punishing the leader of the expedition. The Taipei Times has an informative article about this element of local history. ↩
- The oldest church in the region is probably the Àilán Presbyterian Church 愛蘭基督長老教會, which traces its history back to 1865. ↩
- Additional reshaping of the urban landscape occurred following a series of earthquakes that struck in 1916 and 1917. From what I’ve read modern Puli closely follows the plan laid down in the aftermath of these disasters. ↩
- Not much is written about the shrine next to the old sugar factory but it was known as Horisha Shrine 埔裏社, which is the old Hokkien name for Puli transliterated into Japanese. I don’t think anything remains of the original shrine but in the last couple years a Japanese-themed restaurant has opened on the site and a picturesque wooden torii has been erected, obviously paying tribute to this lost history. I haven’t visited it yet but you can find it on Gōngchéng Road 公誠路 just across from the entrance to the derelict sugar factory on the northwest side of the downtown core. ↩
- Only the nameplate for Wuniulan Suspension Bridge 烏牛欄吊橋 remains—and recently it was damaged by the installation of a tacky signboard welcoming people to Puli, yet another story of official disregard for historical assets in Taiwan. ↩
- Oddly enough this temple looked to be in the same state when I swung through in 2017. Apparently this temple was damaged beyond repair in the devastating 921 Earthquake in 1999. I find it surprising that such a historic and important temple wasn’t able to raise sufficient funds to complete the project in the intervening years—so I suspect there’s a much more complicated version of this story to tell some day. ↩