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.