Saturday, December 17, 2005

Dragon Mountain and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial

Every trip to Taipei there are certain sites that I just have to visit; these requisite pilgrimages have been made easier by the completion of the MRT lines, which has made it possible to bipass the once terrible traffic. Walk underground and zip you are in another part of the city--one of the worlds most convenient. Well, two of my pilgrimage stops (and my last trip to Taipei in November was no exception) are Longshan (Dragon Mountain) Temple and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. I lived near both sites during my initial two year stay in Taipei from 1996 to 1998. When I first moved to Taipei I lived with a brother and sister on Yongkang Street--a great place to live--behind the infamous Mandarin Training Center, and would frequently walk to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, and occasionally go to hear traditional Chinese Music concerts there. Usually I would just walk around the grounds or find somewhere to sit, and just meditate.

Then, after about six months, the brother got married and it was too crowded for an extra guest; I was asked to leave.

I was fortunate to have a friend who lived in Wanhua, the oldest neighborhood in Taipei, near the even more infamous Snake Alley (Huaxi jie), and what I had already discovered was one of the most fascinating scenes in Taipei: Longshan Temple. He invited me to live in the apartment where he grew up; he was the only one in his family who still lived there, though, after getting married, he has since moved nearby 101, now the tallest building in the world. After moving in, I began to visit Longshan Temple every evening to observe and participate in the sutra recitation that took place there every evening at 7:30.

These two sites provide an amazing contrast. Behold Dragon Mountain:

Yes, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial and Longshan Temple provide an amazing contrast: One is the image of imperial order, modelled on Tiananmen Square, the abode of emperors, even though it was built fairly recently, and supposedly commemorating a post-imperial leader. The other was built during imperial times, but to me, is somewhat wild (and I don't mean this in a pejorative sense) and disorderly. One is imperial China; the other frontier Taiwan. Center and Periphery, all in the same place, the same island. One, a longing to re-unify. The other, a desire to remain apart. In general, different people visit the two sites, and many of those who go to the one rarely go to the other. It is perhaps a question of identity. Longshan Temple is a Taiwanese place--a place for bendi ren: people whose families came to Taiwan at least a hundred years ago, if not earlier (I will talk about these distinctions in more depth in a later post). Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, as the name suggests, is a place inhabited by the spirit of waishengren (lit. outside born people)--mainlanders who came to the island around 1949 with the KMT. The distinctions break down even more, but this is where it stands right now in this post.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial

Let me first walk you through. The Memorial is really more than the hall itself, but a square with the Memorial Hall at one end and the Gate of Great Centrality and Perfect Uprightness at the other, and two almost identical buildings--the National Concert Hall and the National Theater--face each other as one walks from the main gate to the Memorial Hall. There are other smaller gates--the Gate of Great Loyalty and the Gate of Great Filiality--but I prefer to enter from the main gate; that is where the effect is strongest. Here, take a look:

This is the view from the National Library, across the street; it is roughly the way I saw it the first time, though I believe I was on a bus going the other way. I used to sit in the National Library and gaze upon the gate and the four characters which grace its facade: 大中至正 (Great Centrality and Perfect Uprightness). Go take a look. It's right across the street:

I believe the whole complex itself is a visual--and physical--representation of the four characters on this gate. This may appear as obvious to some and ridiculous to others. However, I have exerted too much mental energy on this thought, as I've walked about the memorial complex on numerous occasions, for it to go to waste. Must it forever circulate around the nebulous of my brain? No, write it down.

After all, one of the names by which Chiang Kai-shek is known is Chiang Chung-cheng (Jiang Zhongzheng)--that is, Central and Upright Chiang, oh and how he was, so they say. There is Chung-cheng chi-ch'ang (Zhongzheng jichang)--Chiang Kai-shek airport. There's a university with the same name. And many other official titles in Taiwan that begin: Central and Upright.

Was Chiang Kai-shek really Central and Upright? I don't know and that's not really what I'm addressing here, but feel free to express your thoughts in the comments (or better yer, take a trip to Taiwan or Mainland China and ask what people there think). What I am interested in here is how Chiang Kai-shek--an ideal of Chiang Kai-shek--is represented in a name and in a place, a structure, a design.

I remember thinking to myself as I walked more than once from the main gate towards the memorial hall: "Down to the very structure of the characters--chung/zhong中 and cheng/zheng正--what is implied is a circle (or something round) and a square (or something straight), and that is what is represented here." You may disagree, and feel free to comment, but these are just impressions, and anyway, I am no longer in an academic setting and lack most of my tools of investigation--dictionaries and the like. I am not an architectural historian, either. When I'm in my academic habitat, I generally deal with texts, ancient ones, but when I do, I tend to incorporate my life experience in Chinese societies. And sometimes, I just speculate. Why? Because it's fun, and this is just a blog, not an academic journal (If I really wanted to do this topic justice, I would first provide the reader with an etymology of the two characters in question. Then, I would discuss all of their philosophical and religious implications, from the oracle bone inscriptions through their usage in the texts of the Warring States period. I could not fail to explore the Neo-Confucian philosophies of the Song Dynasty. I would hunt down all of the writings of the architect who conceived the memorial hall, and would attempt to detect all of the intellectual and artistic influences on his worldview). But, for now, let the mind wander. See for yourself. Take a walk across the square, yourself:

What do you see? I see squares over circles, at least straight and angular lines over rounded archways. Sorry, I lack the structural vocabulary, but this is what I see. And then you walk through the archway and you see the memorial hall in the distance:

And you are in the square, like Tiananmen Square, but not nearly as vast. As you walk down the center in the direction of the memorial hall you can't help but notice the two giant, identical (or seemingly so) buildings on either side. Yes, the National Concert Hall and the National Theater. You will see what I mean when we get to the top of the stairs of the memorial hall, turn around, and see the whole square from the perspective of the idealized, mythologized, heroicized philosopher emperor, promoter of democracy and science: Central and Upright Jiang.

But first, the memorial hall, an almost circular structure, kind of like the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Interestingly, that structure is described in terms of a circle and square, as well:
The Temple of Heaven is enclosed with a long wall. The northern part within the wall is semicircular symbolizing the heavens and the southern part is square symbolizing the earth. The northern part is higher than the southern part. This design shows that the heaven is high and the earth is low and the design reflected an ancient Chinese thought of "The heaven is round and the earth is square."
And the building itself is of course also circular. The Chiang kai-shek Memorial Hall, on the other hand, is not quite circular, not really a circle at all, though it appears as circular, probably because of the octagonal roof, which rests on a square--or trapezoidal--base. Check that out:

And then I ascended the stairs; I made my pilgrimage to envision the form of Central and Upright Chiang; it was like ascending the steps of Heaven. Follow me. Unfortunately, none of my pictures from within the hall came out. It was very dark inside. But, as you enter, what you see is Chiang Kai-shek sitting on his throne, almost like Old Abe at the Lincoln Memorial. He is timelessly fixed in his Central and Upright state, unwavering, always following the right and orthodox path. The only ritual that takes place in this hall, besides the daily activities carried out by tourists from afar, is the ceremony performed by military guards who appear as automatons--their every movement trained to be in accord with the military man himself; they exude martial spirit as they move about like clockwork.

But it was at that time on my last trip to the site, as I stood directly in front of Central and Upright Chiang, and slowly turned around in the motion of the guards themselves, and caught a glimpse of the square below, that I was reminded of an earlier memory--actually a realization--of what the square represents: the enlightened consciousness of the sage. Turn around and look directly across the middle of the square, just like the line passing through the middle of the character chung/zhong中; everything around you is perfectly cheng/zheng正, a perfect symmetry. You now see from the perspective of Central and Upright Chiang:

Just as I recognize the symmetrical design, I notice something else. Remember walking from the main gate, the two buildings on either side appeared exactly the same. Now, hopefully, as you stare from Chiang's perspective, can you detect the difference in these two structures. What does it mean? I don't know. Please, someone tell me. That is all for now.

Originally, when I conceived of this post, while it percolated for so many moons, I meant to compare two sites in Taipei, and at first there was comparison. Following this discussion of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, I was going to walk underground and hop on the MRT, only to emerge on Dragon Mountain. However, this post is already long, and much time has already passed us by. It is now high time to publish the post. Publish the post!

Next stop------>Dragon Mountain Temple.