A Solemn Tiger General in the Zhushan Mazu Temple

Postcards From Zhushan 竹山明信片

Zhúshān 竹山 (literally “Bamboo Mountain”) is a historic yet obscure township in southwestern Nántóu 南投 mainly known for cultivating tea and bamboo. The town itself is one of the oldest in central Taiwan but it hardly feels that way. Many of Zhushan’s most historic structures were destroyed or damaged beyond repair in the devastating 921 Earthquake that struck in 1999, which is why its “old street” is lined with modern buildings. Most travellers pass through Zhushan on the way to attractions deeper into the rugged interior of Taiwan without sparing it a second glance—but I stopped for a closer look in the summer of 2017 while on an impromptu road trip. After staying the night in a sleazy love motel never meant for sleep (there was no way to switch off the lights) I wandered around in the morning haze, capturing traces of Zhushan’s history as it disappears into memory.

Zhushan enters recorded history not long after Koxinga 國姓爺, a Ming dynasty loyalist, expelled the Dutch and established the Kingdom of Tungning 東寧王國 in southwestern Taiwan. Koxinga planned to regroup and eventually launch a counterattack against Qing forces in China, but in the meantime his troops needed supplies and something to keep them occupied1. With this in mind the fledgling kingdom decreed the establishment of military-agricultural outposts along the “savage lands” of the frontier, adapting the ancient Chinese túntián system 屯田制 to develop conquered land under military leadership for use in Taiwan2.

In the mid-1660s Lín Qǐ 林杞3, one of the newly-founded kingdom’s generals, and approximately 200 soldiers set out from modern-day Dǒuliù 斗六 to establish an outpost in the interior. They marched east-northeast to the low hills at the edge of the coastal plains—part of the Ālǐshān Mountain Range 阿里山山脈—and rounded a gap carved by the wide and sluggish Zhuóshuǐ River 濁水溪 (中文), the longest on the island. After crossing the Qīngshuǐ River 清水溪, one of the tributaries of the Zhoushui, the expedition settled in an area of broad, fertile grasslands surrounded by mountains on three sides.

Chongben Hall, Zhushan
Chóngběn Hall 崇本堂, also known as the Lín Family Ancestral Hall 林氏宗祠, was founded in 1788 to venerate the general conventionally regarded as the founder of Zhushan. It was extensively remodelled in the 1980s and was apparently unscathed in the earthquake of 1999.

Soon they encountered the indigenous inhabitants of the area, the Luhtu branch 魯富都社 of the Tsou People 鄒族4, who customarily used the grasslands for hunting, but apparently had no permanent settlement there. The inevitable conflict between the invaders and local indigenous people prompted Lin Qi to construct a bamboo stockade to defend the outpost, but the Tsou whittled their strength down over the course of several seasons, and eventually defeated the Chinese interlopers. General Li perished in the final battle and the remaining survivors fled westward, carrying with them the memory of his sacrifice to the cause of Han Chinese settler colonialism.

Zhushan Bulding Methods Exposed 1
Zhushan Bulding Methods Exposed 3
Zhushan Bulding Methods Exposed 2
Zhushan Bulding Methods Exposed 4

Sometime in the next several decades ethnic Chinese established a market town not far from the site of General Lin’s ill-fated colony. In 1750 the town was brought under Qing administration under the name of Lîm-kí-poo 林圯埔5 (or Línyípù in Mandarin Chinese), which literally means “land developed by Lin Qi”. It prospered as an important trading post on the Qing frontier, which was formally demarcated by the Tǔniú Boundary Line 土牛界線. Ungoverned indigenous territory was only about a dozen kilometers from the edge of town6.

Zhushan’s Shuhuang Clinic 庶煌診所
Shùhuáng Old Clinic 庶煌古診所 (also known as the Red Brick Cypress House 紅磚檜木屋) was originally a rice mill constructed in 1925, but it was converted into a doctor’s office in 1938 after Lín Shùhuáng 林庶煌 returned from studying medicine in Tokyo.
Detail of a Neo-Baroque Shophouse in Zhushan
Perhaps the most interesting neo-Baroque shophouse still standing on the eponymous Zhushan Road 竹山路.
An Austere Shophouse in Zhushan, Nantou
A pebble-washed Modernist shophouse on Càiyuán Road 菜園路, likely built at the very end of the colonial period or immediately after the war.

Prior to Japanese conquest of Taiwan the Qing authorities made an ill-fated attempt to build a walled city on a low hill next to Zhushan, but the project was aborted due to lack of funding and challenging logistics, and nothing remains of what would have become Yunlin City7. In 1920, halfway through the Japanese colonial era, the name was officially changed to Zhushan as part of a massive administrative reorganization and name rectification campaign8. In Japanese times Zhushan continued to prosper as an important center of production for lumber, bamboo, and camphor. Eventually sugar, tobacco, and tea industries were also developed.

Zhushan Farmers Association
The Zhushan Farmer’s Association 竹山鎮農會 still operates out of the town’s first western-style building 東洋樓, a three-storey colonial structure dating back to 1936.
A Hundred Year-Old Blacksmith in Zhushan
A blacksmith still at work in a century-old shop in back alley Zhushan.

Much of this history is invisible while wandering around the streets of modern Zhushan. Indeed, it is not immediately obvious what distinguishes this place from any of the other small cities scattered around central Taiwan, but there are places where traces of the past are more visible. Nowhere is this more obvious than along Dǎtiě Lane 打鐵巷 (literally “Strike Iron Lane”), immediately opposite the Farmer’s Association. Here the main attraction is Lai Far Blacksmith Shop 來發鋨店9, founded 1881 and still in operation today. It is the last of six or seven blacksmiths that used to ply their trade on this small street, serving the needs of Zhushan’s many farmers.

A Room Inside an Old Zhushan Guesthouse
Inside an old house converted into a boutique hotel in back alley Zhushan.

At the end of the blacksmith laneway is an old two-storey residence recently converted into a guesthouse (mínsù 民宿) and gallery space by the name of Zhùgāo Yìlǎng 筑高亦朗. The owner saw me snap a photo of the exterior as I walked by and invited me inside for a closer look. He was passionate about preserving something of the old Zhushan for future generations to see and experience. If you’re considering a stay in Zhushan, definitely look him up!

A Solemn Tiger General in the Zhushan Mazu Temple
A solemn tiger general on the floor of the primary Mazu temple in Zhushan.
Zhushan City God Temple
Life-sized puppets inside a small chamber next to the Zhushan City God Temple.

I visited two temples that were interesting enough to warrant including a picture. The first of these was Liánxìng Temple 連興宮, which venerates the Māzǔ 媽祖, patron of sailors, fishermen, and other seafarers. You might wonder about the utility of revering a sea goddess this far inland—but Mazu’s popularity in Taiwan is readily understood as a debt of gratitude for ensuring the safe passage of their ancestors across the treacherous black ditch (hēishuǐgōu 黑水溝, namely the Taiwan Strait). I also had a look at the Língdé City God Temple 靈德城隍廟 to scope out their manifestations of various underworld gods. A chamber next to the main hall caught my eye with its many life-sized puppets depicting Qī Yé 七爺, Bā Yé 八爺, Ox-Head 牛頭, and Horse-Face 馬面.

Zhushan Bus Station
The functional modernism of Zhushan Bus Station 竹山站 isn’t something you see very often these days. Most bus stations of its vintage have been demolished and replaced by more modern structures. Today this station is still in use by the Yuanlin Bus Company 員林客運.
An Abandoned Food Processing Factory in Zhushan
A mysterious modernist building on Jíshān 集山路. It was rumoured to be a small factory for producing edible bamboo shoots 筍乾行.
Peering Inside an Abandoned Factory in Zhushan
The entrance to the food processing factory is emblazoned with the character for “pine”. This building was demolished in 2018.

Zhushan Shinto Shrine 竹山神社 was constructed on a low outcrop on the northwest side of town in 1938 and dismantled in the decades after the war. The original shrine and several associated structures are long gone but many artifacts remain scattered across Zhushan Park 竹山公園 and the surrounding area. The most prominent of these is the torii (鳥居) spanning the road leading to the park—although I’m not sure this is the original or a copy. Inside the park you’ll find numerous stone lanterns (their inscriptions defaced, of course) and a pair of guardian lions.

Torii Gateway to the Former Zhushan Shinto Shrine
The gateway to Zhushan Park, site of the former Zhushan Shinto shrine and ill-fated walled city of Yunlin.
Stone Lanterns at the Former Zhushan Shinto Shrine
Stone lanterns at the site of the former Shinto shrine in Zhushan. There would be quite a nice view from this hilltop if it weren’t for all the haze.
Stone Lion at the Former Zhushan Shinto Shrine
One of the original stone sentinels from Japanese colonial times guarding the former Shinto shrine.

After visiting the Shinto shrine I made a brief, half-hearted attempt to find some trace of the walled fortification built in this area in Qing dynasty times but soon gave up—there’s probably nothing left of it. Heading west and out of town, I went to investigate a poorly-planned subdevelopment near the former Zhushan Sugar Factory 竹山製糖, and soon continued west into Línnèi 林內 in neighbouring Yúnlín 雲林.

Zhushan Bamboo Harvest 2
Green bamboo harvest on the outskirts of Zhushan, not far from the site of the old sugar factory.
Zhushan Bamboo Harvest 1
One last glance at the mighty bamboo that gives Zhushan its name.

Thus ends a morning of exploration in an under-appreciated part of Nantou County. If you’re curious about the long and surprisingly rich history of the area I encourage you to browse this Chinese language blog for more information. This series will continue into southeastern Changhua 彰化 before heading south into Yunlin, Chiayi, Tainan, and Kaohsiung, so stay tuned.


  1. Koxinga, or Zhèng Chénggōng 鄭成功 as he is known to Taiwanese, perished only six months into his reign, which is formally known as the Ming-Zheng era. The decree mentioned in the text, formally known as “屯田之制,以拓番地” (and sometimes referred to as “寓兵於農,兵農合一”), was made in 1665 by Zhèng Jīng 鄭經, Koxinga’s eldest son and successor. 
  2. The “tun” in tuntian appears in several Taiwanese place names. Cǎotún 草屯, also in Nantou, is one example, and Taichung 台中, traditionally known as Dàtún 大屯, contains several more: Běitún 北屯, Xītún 西屯, and Nántún 南屯
  3. Lin Qi’s name is written in a variety of different ways depending on the source—林圮, 林屺, and 林杞, among them. For reasons I don’t yet understand the second character of the town named in his honour is similar to but not one of those variations. Perhaps it is worth noting that Zhushan was a frontier town and not many of its inhabitants would have been literate for much of its early history. 
  4. As with anything to do with Taiwanese indigenous people there are numerous ways to write the names of the people, their subgroups, and their various settlements. Luhtu also appears as Duhtu in some texts, and the displaced descendants now reside in Wàngměi Village 望美村 as part of the Jiǔměi community 久美部落 in neighbouring Xinyi Township. Jiumei is also written as Mahavun or Mamahavana, presumably variations based on differences between the Tsou and Bunun languages spoken in the community. The Tsou people were once plentiful in Nantou but those residing in Jiumei are the only ones who remain after centuries of colonization, conflict, and displacement. 
  5. Linyipu is a modern Mandarin Chinese reading of the relevant characters; it would be been known as Lîm-kí-poo in the Hokkien of the majority for much of its history. I’ve encountered several other romanizations in my research, for example: Limkepo, Lim Kepeau, Lin Pi Pu, Lin-chi-po, and Lim-ki-pou. 
  6. The boundary system and quarantine policy were established in 1722. At that time the border ran along the break in the hills where the Zhoushui River enters the coastal plains. In 1750 much of modern-day Zhushan came under Qing control. The boundary was amended in 1760 but not until 1782 did it surge east to encompass what is now Lùgǔ 鹿谷 and Jíjí 集集. There it languished for a century; it wasn’t until 1875 that Shuǐlǐ 水里 and Pǔlǐ 埔里 were incorporated into Qing Taiwan. 
  7. Qing governance of Taiwan became much more proactive following the Bāyáowān Incident 八瑤灣事件 (or Mudan Incident in English) (1871) and subsequent Japanese reprisals (1874). Liú Míngchuán 劉銘傳, governor of Taiwan from 1884 to 1891, attempted to modernize Taiwan and shore up its defences, but his projects were chronically underfunded due to a lack of support from the Qing court, and many of them were never completed. What is now known to historians as Yunlin County Old City 雲林縣舊城 was partly constructed on a hilltop northwest of town but doesn’t seem to have been put to any use before it was abandoned. It also sounds as if the Qing realized there were too many logistical challenges involved in supplying the new city due to seasonal flooding along the Zhoushui River. In 1893 a decision was made to relocated the project to Yunlin County New City 雲林縣新城 in modern Douliu, now the capital of Yunlin. Interesting trivia: Yunlin is the only county on mainland Taiwan without an eponymous city—and in an alternate timeline, Zhushan would now be known as Yunlin City! Also worth noting: the vanished city also marks the beginning of the Bātōngguān Old Road, built in 1875 to facilitate passage across the rugged interior to Eastern Taiwan. For a full history of the aborted city in Zhushan check out this post
  8. Most names changed in 1920 were considered “indecent” in polite society, with Kaohsiung (formerly Takao) being an obvious example. In this case I wonder if an anti-Japanese incident in 1912 had anything to do with erasing Zhushan’s original name. 
  9. This official spelling is derived from gwoyeu romatzyh, a peculiar romanization scheme that uses letters to represent tone. It was in official use for much of the mid-20th century but fell out of use in the 1970s.