Sānqīng Sānyuán Temple 三清三元宮 is an unusual attraction in Fuxing, immediately to the south of Lukang in Changhua, Taiwan. It was constructed over the course of nearly two decades by Huang Chi-Chun 黃奇春, a former soldier who moved here in the late 1970s. This otherwise modest structure is adorned with thousands of seashells, pieces of coral, and other oceanic oddments—which is why it is more commonly known as the Changhua Shell Temple 彰化貝殼廟.
What would possess a man to build such a unique1 and fantastical temple? The explanation is supernatural, of course. Huang’s parcel of land is inauspiciously located next to the historic yet neglected Xiùcuò Cemetery 秀厝公墓, generally believed to emanate a form of dark energy2. Not long after moving here Huang began to experience vivid dreams his friends and family attributed to his proximity to the old cemetery. As he developed the land for aquaculture these dreams became more frequent, and Huang soon interpreted them as directives from from the Three Pure Ones of Taoist lore to construct the temple seen in these photographs.
Despite his lack of training in architecture and design Huang applied himself to this divine task, enlisting the help of outsiders only to pour a concrete foundation and erect the bare walls and ceiling of the temple. Apart from some readymade ceramic figurines most of the rest is entirely his work, the product of decades of single-minded dedication and learning on the job. When the temple reached its current state of completion around 1996 the dreams stopped, indicating that Huang had satisfied the will of the gods. The final result makes numerous references to Taoist iconography and myth, from the many representations of the Bāguà 八卦 and Tàijítú 太極圖 symbols, to the Eighteen Arhats 十八羅漢 that line the temple forecourt and Lóngfèng Lane 龍鳳巷, a peculiar tunnel connecting the main hall to a small market area around back.
The market area sells seashells, handicrafts, religious curios, and tropical fish, among other things. Much of the rest of the sprawling property is still in active use for fish farming. Visitors are welcome to feed the carp in several enclosures—and they’ve also got dozens of turtles and a pair of lazy crocodiles in the areas open to the public. I also seem to recall seeing golden pheasants, which might not have been only for show3.
This temple is far from unknown in the Taiwanese blogosphere but hasn’t been widely exposed in English until recently. Josh Ellis recently published this article about the Changhua Shell Temple, prompting me to dust off photos I captured on two separate visits in 2015 and finally finish my own piece about this curious place. This still ranks highly as one of my favourite temples to visit in Taiwan for its uncommon folksy charm, and it also happens to be a great place for a photo or video shoot4. Finding it isn’t difficult; just enter the Chinese name into Google Maps. If you’re curious to see more of this temple, try this video walkthrough on YouTube.
- There is another shell temple in Taiwan: Fùfú Dǐngshān Temple 富福頂山寺, generally known as the Sanzhi Shell Temple 三芝貝殼廟, for it is located in the mountains near the northern tip of the island in Sanzhi. It is much larger than this temple, more well-known, and constructed by what I would assume are professionals, so it lacks the folksy, offbeat charm of this older, and much stranger shell temple. Josh Ellis has more information and many photos of this other shell temple on his blog. ↩
- This dark energy is the yin you probably known from yīn and yáng 陰陽, a foundational concept in Taoist philosophy. Certain temples in Taiwan are also known as yīnmiào 陰廟, or yin temple, due to their association with the deceased, but this is not actually one of those. ↩
- I seem to recall there being a dining area, but now I’m not so sure about that. None of the sources I referenced while drafting this article alluded to eating exotic animals, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were on the menu. ↩
- One of the more creative features I’ve seen taken at this temple is this fashion collection and the accompanying video. ↩