Historic TAINAN (台南; táinán), just a few kilometres from the southwest coast, is a city of ancient monuments, delicious food and, above all, temples: there are more gods worshipped and more festivals and rituals observed in Tainan than in any other place in Taiwan. Much of this is a legacy of its former status as capital city, a title it enjoyed for more than two hundred years, and particularly of the seventeenth century, when it was the last independent outpost of China’s Ming dynasty.
The oldest and most absorbing parts of Tainan are historic Anping, on the west side of town by the sea, and the cultural zones in the heart of the old city; the latter were created specifically to make things easier for visitors, with city information, signs and maps tailored to each zone and well marked in English. The Chihkan, Dong-an Fang, Five Canals and Confucius Temple cultural zones contain the richest concentration of sights – reckon on spending at least two days to do them justice.
The ancestral home of the Siraya píngpŭ tribe, Tainan began its modern history with the Dutch, who established Fort Zeelandia in 1624 on a sand bar off the coast. At that time, the site of the modern city’s western half was under water, part of a huge lagoon ringed by a chain of sandy islets. The Dutch called the area “Tayouan” and made it the capital of their colony. In 1662, however, they surrendered to the vastly superior forces of Ming general Zheng Chenggong, also known as Koxinga after a nine-month siege. During the period of Zheng family rule that followed (1662–83) Tainan prospered, and many of its finest temples were constructed to befit its status as an independent Chinese kingdom. In 1664 one of the last descendants of the Ming royal family, the Prince of Ningjing, moved to the city. When the Zhengs surrendered to Chinese admiral Shi Lang in 1683, the city became known as Taiwan-Fu and was made prefectural capital of the island.
In 1823 a devastating storm led to the silting up of the lagoon, and Anping (the site of Fort Zeelandia) became permanently joined to the mainland. The Treaty of Beijing (1860) paved the way for a small community of foreign merchants to trade camphor, tea and opium in Anping, but after the Japanese occupied Taiwan in 1895 the sale of opium and camphor became a government franchise and, with the port silting up further, by 1911 most merchants had left. When Taiwan became a province in 1885, the city became known as Tainan-Fu, or “South Taiwan” and lost its capital status to Taipei. Today it is Taiwan’s fourth-largest city, with a population of around 770,000.