Kuíxīng Temple 魁星宮 in Tamsui 淡水 is nominally dedicated to the eponymous Kuíxīng 魁星, god of examinations and one of the Five Wénchāng 五文昌, a group of deities representative of classical Chinese culture. He typically takes the form of a man balanced on one foot with a writing brush in one hand, his body twisted in a pose suggestive of the strokes of Chinese calligraphy. But you didn’t come here to read about Kuixing—this temple is notable for being one of only a handful of sites in Taiwan venerating Chiang Kai-shek 蔣中正, president of the Republic of China until his death in 1975, as a god. For a time it was informally known as the Tamsui CKS Temple 淡水蔣中正廟.
Chinese folk religion as it is practiced in Taiwan is an evolving set of traditional practices with no central authority. The ranks of its seemingly limitless pantheon are swollen with mortals deified over thousands of years for innumerable reasons. How does a mere mortal become a god? From the origin stories I’ve read many deifications are spontaneous, a reflection of the will of the people, whereas others enjoy some degree of patronage or state sponsorship. Once idols are carved and enshrined their worship may be validated by results: improvements in various aspects of the quality of life or avoidance of misfortune. Most gods worshipped in Taiwan originate long ago—which is why it is so peculiar to stumble upon an actual 20th century god here on a hillside just north of Hongshulin Station 紅樹林站.
This particular statue was commissioned by Wáng Xìngcéng 王興曾, employed as a florist at the The Grand Hotel 圓山大飯店, to honour the generalissimo’s passing in 1975. Initially the statue was kept in a private residence but it wasn’t long before it was installed in the side altar of the Kuixing Temple the Wang family also managed. Formally known as Lord Chiang 蔣公中正天尊, he is depicted wearing a miǎnfú 冕服, a kind of formal wear for an emperor, and framed by a curtain bearing the chéngyǔ 成語 (idiomatic expression) Jīn Yù Mǎn Táng 金玉滿堂 (roughly: “fill your house with great wealth”). Beneath the mantle (and therefore unseen in these photographs) he bears a sword in his right hand. Previously he had a copy of the Three Principles of the People 三民主義 in his left hand but this disappeared years ago, apparently stolen.
Chiang Kai-shek is an extremely polarizing figure in Taiwanese society. The many soldiers and their kin evacuated from China during the Chinese Civil War often view him with reverence but this demographic is shrinking in population and influence year by year. Under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership Taiwan suffered one of the longest periods of martial law in modern history, a time known as the White Terror 白色恐怖 or KMT authoritarian era. Apart from a pervasive cult of personality, state propaganda in the education system, and strict limits on freedom of speech, tens of thousands of people were unjustly imprisoned for their political leanings or simply disappeared in this time. With democratization in the late 1980s Taiwanese attitudes toward Chiang Kai-shek underwent an enormous transformation1, reshaping the image he cultivated for himself as benevolent leader into that of an authoritarian dictator or even a brutal mass murderer. Unsurprisingly, this manifestation of Chiang as a god2 now attracts almost no pilgrims whatsoever, and the temple is thinking about sending the idol to the late dictator’s final resting place, the Cihu Mausoleum 慈湖陵寢 in Táoyuán 桃園, which is already home to hundreds of statues removed from schools and government building all around the nation. (Update: as of 2019 the former dictator has left the building! Nobody knows the whereabouts of the idol at present, but if he turns up somewhere else I’ll be sure to update this post.)
If you’re fluent in Chinese or don’t mind fiddling around with a translator I recommend reading this pair of articles from the China Times here and here. A little more information about this temple can be found on this blog and the temple also has a homepage and Facebook presence if you’re interested in learning more. Finally, for more general information about the curious phenomena of Chiang Kai-shek temples try searching for 蔣中正廟.