Tiexian Bridge, Tongji Temple
If you head out of Liuying on Route 70 and cross the Jiushui River, you’ll come to an area known as Ironbridge. Now around 15 kilometers inland, this quiet neighborhood was once a major port situated at the point where the Jiushui River estuary met Tainan’s inland sea. It was also an important transit point between Tainan and regions farther north. For this reason, a bridge was built across the river here during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722). The area was named for the bridge, and when a major temple dedicated to Mazu (especially important to arriving a departing sailors, since Mazu is charged with protecting people at sea) was constructed during the same period, it became known as the Tongji Temple in Ironbridge.
The story of Tongji Temple contrasts starkly with the tales of constant expansion and new construction that one usually hears about temples in Taiwan. Tongji Temple started out as a major place of worship—it was, and still is, the official Mazu temple to 26 administrative areas—but as the inland sea silted in and the port dried up, the ships and fishing boats no longer came, and the once thronging town slowly shrank to a small, tranquil agricultural community.
In 1931, a large earthquake shattered the front of the temple, and there were no funds to rebuild it in its original grand style. By 1938, the Japanification policy was in full swing, and local temples around Taiwan had to convert to Buddhism or potentially face closure. During this period, the back of Tongji Temple was torn down to make way for road construction. With no front hall to speak of and no back hall at all, worship at the temple basically came to a halt.
After the war, efforts were made to rebuild, but they were complicated by economic uncertainty and the fact that new housing had encroached on the old temple grounds, leaving very little space in which to build. Ultimately a new, much smaller temple was completed in 1950.
In spite of its small size and the other buildings crowding around it, Tongji Temple still served 26 administrative districts. Over the years, the population of the area grew once more, until the temple was simply no longer big enough to function. This resulted in a decision to build a second Tongji Temple, which opened nearby in 1995.
The old and new versions of the temple are a study in contrasts. The new temple is, of course, huge, with a triple-tiered roof, pagoda towers on each side, and mosaic dragons, lions, and phoenixes everywhere you look. It boasts a magnificent colored ceramic nine-dragon sculpture in front of the god entrance, gilded roof wells, gorgeous relief carving, and a cast temple bell with raised characters that’s tall enough to stand up in. There’s so much going on that it’s hard to know where to look, and you could spend a lot of time here just gawking.
But if peaceful contemplation is your aim, you will simply prefer the old temple. Located in a quiet, tree-shaded park in the center of the neighborhood, it is virtually unchanged from when it was completed in 1950. The temple consists of a front and back hall joined by a walled central courtyard. Everything here is on a small scale. Even the colors are subtle. The decoration on the swallowtail roof and under the roofline on the side gables is painted in muted reds, blues, and greens. The plain, whitewashed walls make the lines of the roof stand out all the more clearly. The eaves at the back are decorated in traditional ink-wash landscapes and plant designs.
You’ll find yourself noticing details here that are easy to miss at some of the larger temples. The two strongmen on the corner columns hold up the roof one-handed, as if it were effortless. The scenes on the painted interior frescoes are full of movement. The characters in the wall mural look as if they have come to life and are stepping out of the painting. Architecturally and artistically, everything about this small temple attracts the eye. One of the smallest places you will visit on any tour of Tainan, it is also one of the best. Plan to stay longer than you had intended.
No. 107-1, Tiexian Bridge, Xinying Dist., Tainan City
+886 6 6581088