Backed by the tantalizing peaks of Taiwan’s mighty central mountain ranges, CHIAYI (嘉義; jiāyì) is the gateway to the Alishan National Scenic Area and Yushan National Park, as well as one of the country’s most famous Mazu temples at Beigang. Just north of the Tropic of Cancer, it also marks the beginning of Taiwan’s tropical south and, as one of the island’s earliest cities, has plenty of historic temples and lively markets tucked in between the usual neon and concrete.
Immigrant farmers from Fujian established the first settlement in the area in 1621, though the city formally dates its creation from 1704 when the county government was moved here and the first wooden city walls were constructed. The area was originally called Chu-lô-san in Taiwanese, a transliteration of Tirosen, a Hoanya word (one of the píngpŭtribes). Following the Lin Shuangwen Rebellion of 1787–89, Emperor Qianlong renamed the town Chiayi, an honorific title meaning “praising them for their loyalty” to reward the inhabitants for resisting the rebels. During the Japanese occupation, it gained the more creative epithet “city of painting” when masters such as Wu Meiling and Chen Cheng-po spearheaded the first Nativist art movement. With a population of around 270,000 Chiayi is now the largest city and commercial centre of Chiayi county, though the county government is located in Taibao (太保; tàibǎo), 15km to the west.Read More
The otherwise unexceptional town of BEIGANG (北港; běigǎng), a short bus ride northwest of Chiayi, is worth a visit for the Chaotian Temple, 178 Zhongshan Rd (朝天宮; cháotiāngōng), one of Taiwan’s most significant religious sites. Dating back to 1694 (it’s been expanded many times since then) to enshrine what many consider the country’s most powerful Mazu image, the temple is one of the island’s greatest mother temples. As such, it’s constantly filled with worshippers, making it arguably the best place in Taiwan to grasp the fundamental importance of Mazu to the Taiwanese, as well as featuring some of the most exuberant temple art on the island.
The most dramatic time to visit is during one of the weekends preceding Mazu’s birthday, on the twenty-third day of the third lunar month, when hundreds of thousands of devotees besiege Beigang for the goddess’s annual inspection tour; the image is paraded around town to a chaotic backdrop of fireworks, lion dances and stilt performers.