Tainan Confucian Temple – Taiwan’s first school

Tainan is one of the oldest cities in Taiwan.  It used to be the capital, before Taipei swiped that honour.  Being as such, it makes sense that Taiwan’s first organized school was started there.  So today’s poor, overworked Taiwanese students, that lug 50 lb bags to school everyday, can look to this edifice of higher learning and thank the minds behind it for their current academic woes.

The Tainan Confucian Temple was built in 1665 by Koxinga’s son, Cheng Jing.  The actual drive behind the temple was Cheng Jing’s military advisor Cheng Yonghwa.  Imagine that.  A military man pushing for a centre of higher learning.  They used to make them different back then I guess.  Cheng Yonghwa’s reasoning for this was simple – the long term survival and prosperity of the kingdom depended on having wise and learned officials.  Commendable for a military man – he put stock in civil leadership before military might – definitely not a jarhead!

The compound housing the school has a number of different “halls” for different purposes, as well as a temple dedicated to Confucius.  Here is a look at some of the things I found interesting.

Wenchang Pavilion

Wenchang Pavilion

This 3 storey structure has a unique design.  The first floor is square, the second is round and the third is octagonal.  I remember wondering whether this was just purely stylistic or if it held deeper meaning.

This tower is dedicated to Wenchang Dijun – the god of education.  While the entire temple/school attracted people to pray for intelligence and enlightenment, this was the place where students came specifically to pray for good luck during their exams.  Kind of a last minute devotion before walking into an academic firefight.

The Edification Hall

Ediification hall

Here’s where the magic happened.  The Edification hall was the study and learning area.  Students studied Confucian classics within these walls.  Only those who passed their Imperial exams (civil service exams designed to select those most capable to serve as officials in the government) were permitted to study here.  The most striking thing inside the Edification hall is a giant display of calligraphy:

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According to one of the info plaques, this is a copy of the writing of a 13th century calligrapher.  The actual material is from a Confucian book – “The Greater Learning” – which emphasizes development of “fine characteristics and virtues”.

Here is a view looking out from the Edification hall:

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Gate of Rite and Route of Righteousness

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The doorway symbolizes the “Gate” and the path to and through it, the “Route”.  According to a Confucian philosopher, Mencius (I know..it sounds more Roman, but he is a very well known Confucian philosopher), “Righteousness is a route and rite is a gate.  Only a person of noble character can take such a route and pass through such a gate.”

I’m guessing that after their studies and transformation into archetypes of morality, the students would gain the right to walk the path and through this gate.

The Dacheng Palace

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This is the main hall of the complex.  As you can see, there are  a number of plaques on and hanging from the walls.  There were given by Qing emperors and more recently each of the presidents of Taiwan to honour the memory of Confucius.  Here is a look at the center-piece:

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And some more plaques in a cabinet on the side wall:

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The Confucius Temple

Confucius Temple

The temple itself is not a very imposing or overly ornate structure, yet when I walked into the courtyard I felt a sense of awe.  Seeing the grounds and learning about this whole compound added a lot of heaviness to the temple itself – like the the weight of years and years of history was present here.  The temple is enclosed on all sides by rooms containing various different things.  The one I found most interesting was the room with traditional Chinese musical instruments.

These instruments were used in “Shi Dien” which is a ceremony to offer up obligations to Confucius with music and dance.  Some were familiar – like different types of drums:

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Some a little less known – like the Zheng – a traditional Chinese stringed instrument:

Zheng

And some were downright alien – like this one called the Yu:

Yu

This percussion tiger was struck 3 times on the head, then brushed 3 times on it’s back “teeth” at the end of an orchestra.  Cool looking instrument eh?

One of the things I really enjoyed was looking at the architecture.  It’s so different from the drab uniform crap that one usually sees on the streets of Taiwan.  The red brick, curving arches and graceful class of the buildings were a pleasure to be lost in.  Since you are surrounded by it, it also acts like a sort of time portal, allowing you to forget that a mere 100m away is a 7 -11 and betelnut shop – you can immerse yourself in the history of this place and imagine what it was like in it’s heyday.

Definitely recommend a visit if you are in Tainan – only 25NT (< $1)

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