Robert Schrader in Taipei, Taiwan

The Real China?

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When your five-minute walk to the MRT station turns into a two-hour photoshoot, you know it’s going to be a good day.

Case in point: Last Friday morning in Taipei, Taiwan. I had a loose itinerary for the day in mind. After an early morning stop at Longshan Temple, I would get a crash course in Taiwanese history at the Chiang Kai Shek Museum, then gorge myself on the best xiaolongbao in town at Hangzhou Xiaolong Tangbao, before heading up Xiangshan Mountain to watch Taipei’s glittering skyline – namely, Taipei 101 – come to life as night fell on the city.

But Taipei had other ideas.

 
 
 

You see, as I was walking along Minsheng Road toward Shuanglian station, I began to notice the small streets and alleyways I was passing were extraordinarily photogenic. Think random temple facades, colorful paper lanterns, food stalls as far as the eye can see – and nary another laowai.

For lack of a better word, Taipei was far more Chinese than I expected such a huge, cosmopolitan city would be. And a great deal more Chinese than anywhere I visited during my extensive stays in mainland China. But more on that in a second.

To be sure, although I ended up accomplishing all of my stated aims of my day, it was ultimately my subconscious decision to get lost in the bowels of the neighborhood where I was staying that made me so immediately decisively in love with Taipei. Or perhaps it was Taipei’s otherworldly, magical magnetism that took me so far off course for so long.

Chicken or egg – there are plenty of both to go around here.

 
 
 

I mentioned earlier that I find Taipei to be a great deal more Chinese than anywhere I’ve visited in mainland China, which is to say that Taipei corresponds more closely with the images I had of China before I ever traveled there, from its architecture, to it culture, to its cuisine.

This makes sense, of course, given Chiang Kai-Shek’s goal of Chinese national restoration in Taiwan following the exile of the Republic of China there, to say nothing of Mao’s goal of destroying most things traditionally Chinese during the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China.

(Incidentally, I was almost fired from my job teaching English in Shanghai – and deported from the PRC – upon attempting to confer upon my students that Taiwan was a sovereign nation, but I digress.)

I use the word “Chinese” here in a decidedly positive sense but unfortunately, having lived and traveled in mainland China for as long as I have, I can unfortunately say that contemporary associations of Chinese ethnicity, particularly in the travel sphere, are not entirely good ones.

 
 
 

At the advisement of a local I met during my first adventurous day in Taipei, I decided to spend my second at the fisherman’s wharf in Tamsui, at the northern terminus of MRT Line 2 – the San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf it is not.

Here’s where the potentially pejorative connotation of the term “Chinese” comes in: I’m obviously not talking about racial or even behavioral issues here.

I’m talking about questionably (but seemingly lauded) architecture and design. I’m talking about fried food and sugary beverages of a magnitude that make McDonald’s look macrobiotic. I’m talking about a sickening disregard for the natural environment and an unbelievable array of plastic products in places you would never want to see plastic.

I suppose you can’t restore the good things without restoring the bad ones. (See also: Fulong Beach.)

 
 
 

Of course, this is not to say Taipei – and certainly, not Taiwan on a larger scale – is as ecologically devastated as mainland China, where I quite literally saw streams flowing fluorescent green. And, as you can see from the photos of both Fulong Beach and the Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf above, both boast more than their fair share of natural beauty.

Indeed, the whole of Yangmingshan National Park, which is only a short bus ride from central Taipei, is a lush, unspoiled wilderness of hiking trails, volcanic vents and hillsides covered in bushes covered in butterflies.

 
 
 

Right within the city, the Taipei Botanical Garden is an utter oasis, even if it does need some TLC. If anything, the less than ideal funding (and, thus, marketing) the garden receives ends up enhancing the rejuvenating effects of strolling past its lotus ponds and under its towering palms.

 

And again, Taipei is so much more than meets the eye – I would argue, in some ways, that it exists exclusively of what meets the eye: The morning market by Shuanglian Station and the Raohe Night Market, near Songshan Station; Tianhougong Temple, which is quite literally sandwiched between a coffee shop and a women’s clothing store on busy Chengdu Road in the heart of the modern city.

Watching the steps of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial transform into a waterfall, which also transformed the ordeal of being trapped in a monsoon thundershower into an exhilarating adventure; serendipitously meeting a local man while passing through a crowded MRT station my first day and being treated like a lifelong friend every moment we spent together.

 
 
 

The magnificent paifang I stumbled upon wandering just north of the underwhelming sands of the aforementioned Fulong Beach, on my last full day in Taiwan.

It was almost too perfect, the scene playing out in front of my eyes: A towering Chinese gate; an old man in a paddy hat drying seaweed in front of it; his trusty dog and his motorbike on opposite sides of him. It was a perfect photo and as I crossed the street to walk into it, I also assumed it would be the perfect opportunity to continue the sort of playful exploration that had made my time in Taiwan so enchanting up to that point.

 

The old man’s dog, however, had different ideas.

I backed away from the snarling animal, but he refused to place his teeth back inside his mouth, no matter how unthreatening I attempted to make myself seem – I wasn’t welcome off this particular stretch of the beaten path.

I guess there’s always next time, I conceded, and walked back toward the train station, dreams of my next trip swirling through my head like motorbikes in the narrow alleys of the city and country I’ve grown to love so much – the real China, in so many ways. Zài jiàn, Tái Wān.

Leave Your Daily Hell   Filed under: Taiwan

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is the author of 711 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!

 

informs, inspires, entertains and empowers travelers like you. My name is Robert and I'm happy you're here!

 
 
 

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Chandra Holt July 1, 2015 at 3:41 am

I’m so happy to see this article about one of my favourite Asian countries I’ve visited thus far. And to see pictures of the places I saw as well was a refreshing reminder of why I must return ASAP! Thanks for this!

Robert Schrader July 1, 2015 at 9:43 am

Thanks for reading! Isn’t Taiwan great?

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Natalie Kalinitschenko June 2, 2016 at 9:28 am

I am not sure what to say about the article.. it is wrong in so many ways, I can not find words to describe it. Taiwan is fighting for its independence from China, they are even people who call themselves Taiwanese for real and claim to have nothing in common with China and the Chinese culture. (they do not even share the same characters) And then there are ignorant tourists like you who just write articles like this one. Maybe you should get yourself new eyes, because you seem to be blind to reality. The real China… sure, the Chinese came and destroyed everything that was not Chinese, so now you have all these Chinese gates.
But seriously, WHAT exactly is your problem with mainland China? Yes, Shanghai is no traditional city – but it never was, it is a harbor city, they always evolve differently and are not very traditional. Maybe you should have seen the rest of the country. Anyhow you got Taiwan totally wrong. And your article is full of emotional nonsense and instead taking pictures of yourself all the time maybe you should have opened your eyes to the reality. By the way, Taipei is no cosmopolitan city, it is not even large. It has only about 3,5 million people, most of them are not even able to speak English.

GOD369 DiongGong Si June 3, 2016 at 8:47 am

not able to speak English… and then? hahaha but both of u should learn that majority Taiwanese are HoLoh the common ancestry of all Far East Asian cultures,,, thus real Chinese Japanese, Korean etc…

Natalie Kalinitschenko June 3, 2016 at 11:12 am

what the hell? Drinking and posting comments are not a good combination, you know 😉

Godfrey__Daniel June 3, 2016 at 11:27 pm

Nice article and pix. I lived in Taipei 3 years and this brought back a lot of good memories, especially Fulong. Wonderful people, beautiful country. Thanks!

Professional Human June 4, 2016 at 2:42 am

Beautiful post about Formosa. One of the hidden gems of Asia. No, the world.

Jenna June 6, 2016 at 7:17 am

Great pictures and I’m happy you love Taiwan, but be super careful with “Taiwan is the real China”…because the Taiwanese don’t identify as Chinese in any sense, really, in any great majority, beyond perhaps language and ethnicity (and even the language was an import by the KMT, it is not traditional or native to Taiwan – Taiwanese, Hakka and the various aboriginal languages are), but not in culture. I would actually say Taiwan reminds me as much of Japan as it does of China, with unique local culture mixed in, too.

Also, you may wish to read a contemporary history of the KMT’s brutal dictatorial regime in Taiwan and reconsider your glowing words about the ROC. They did not benevolently set out to create a shining Free China for the benefit of all – they sought out to take over an island for themselves. They did not build the economy, they destroyed what had been a very prosperous economy before WWII and their invasion and then rebuilt it only when they realized they wouldn’t be retaking China any time soon. They were a straight-up dictatorship responsible for the mass murder of 2/28 and the White Terror. They did not voluntarily give democracy to the Taiwanese people – the Taiwanese fought for it, and died for it, at times setting themselves on fire for it. They got democracy because they insisted on it from the ROC, at a time when the KMT was more interested in being Chinese than becoming Taiwanese.

Don’t think you will learn this at the museum at CKS memorial hall (now aptly called Freedom Square – CKS doesn’t deserve a memorial) – you’ll get a skewed version that makes the KMT and ROC look far better than it is. I suggest the Jingmei Human Rights museum or the 228 museum instead.

Sylvia Cheng June 6, 2016 at 10:55 am

Please be noted that Mandarin, Hakka, Cantonese, Fukien/Taiwanese are dialects of Chinese. People have been using Chinese for centuries here.

Jenna June 6, 2016 at 11:38 am

Dialects are mutually intelligible – any good linguist will tell you that. Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese and Hakka are not mutually intelligible therefore they are not dialects, they are languages. I realize the Chinese word for them translates to “dialect” but it goes against pretty much every tenet of linguistics to refer to them that way. I also realize China has spread the propaganda that they are dialects and can be understood through writing, but this is not the case (do you really think a Mandarin speaker who did not know Taiwanese could read something like 恁祖媽係大員郎? No). They really, really want to spread the idea that “Chinese” is a unified culture and language, when it isn’t.

Besides, *Mandarin* has not been spoken in Taiwan for centuries. It’s only been spoken in Taiwan for less than a century, and was forced on the people already in Taiwan in 1949 by the KMT. Nobody locally was asked if they wanted to switch languages – they were just told they had to. Then the KMT wonders why they are so disliked…

Sylvia Cheng June 6, 2016 at 3:10 pm

Each dialect has its own specialty, so it’s called dialect. Otherwise it can be only accents. Don’t you know why India, Singapore and Philippines chose English which are not their mother language to be their national language? Please remember that mandarin was not the mother language to KMT’s leaders either, but it has been the national language of ROC since 1912, and then Taiwan became part of ROC in 1945, No one can deny that most people in Taiwan are still living with Chinese culture (manners, festivals, belief, rituals, food, arts…And here comes Dragon Boat festival this weekend). That has nothing to do with politics or KMT.

Astroboy888 June 7, 2016 at 6:45 pm

To be fair ROC history is not solely defined by the years of CKS usurping of KMT and forming a de-facto ‘s Dictatorship by instituting the martial law. Also you can not ignored the fact of then governor Chen Yi’s betrayal of KMT and the Taiwanese people for his role in the 228 massacre (for which he was executed byCKS) . You have to look at ROC history in its totality to get a sense of how Taiwan came to be today.

One can argue that Taiwan today is what Dr. Sun Yat-Sen vision for mainland China is back when he started the revolution in the late 1800s – in terms of establishing an society with American styled Democracy and Human Rights. SYS as many of you may recall is a graduate of Punanho High School in Hawaii (Yes the same high school that produced Barak Obama). The spirit of the Taiwanese Constitution is largely inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s (who heavily influenced a teen-aged SYS) Gettysburg address in 1865. The Taiwanese Constitutional concept of universal equal-rights and citizenship is modeled after Lincoln’s philosophy and adopted for a multi-cultural mainland China in the early 1900s. The point is If you allow democracy to flourish in a Han culture, Taiwan today might be an outcome.

Astroboy888 June 7, 2016 at 7:40 pm

I think the view today even by linguists in mainland China is that Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, ( and Wu language: Shanghainese … Zhe-jian ..etc.) can be argued to be separate independent languages. Today in mainland geneticist have separate Han people into Northern and Southern Han, thus dispelling the myth that Han is a single ethnicity. Rather Han is a culture where other cultures including Taiwanese culture is derived from.

It is probably not true Mandarin had not been spoken in Taiwan prior to 1949 (or 1895 before Japanese Occupation). For one thing, Mandarin itself did not become the ROC National Language until 1932 (Cantonese lost by 6 votes). So it wasn’t only Taiwan, but most other region in the mainland did speak primarily in Mandarin either only until 1930s and 40s. There are multiple times in history where Qin Dynasty government sent either officials or military to Taiwan from Beijing (particular war between Quanzhou and Zhangzhou immigrants in the 1700s). So the Qin government official sent to Taiwan and the educated elites probably knew how to speak some early form of Mandarin.

michaelturton June 8, 2016 at 12:03 am

Taiwanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, etc are languages with their own literature, culture, etc. “Dialect” is a political term used to denigrate languages other than Mandarin and reduce their social and political status. It has nothing to do with reality.

michaelturton June 8, 2016 at 12:05 am

I think he was trying to be clear that Taiwan represented his idea of what the real China should look like, and was not itself, China, or the real China.

michaelturton June 8, 2016 at 12:05 am

Great pictures, but sadly, you didn’t get out of the north, which is faux China. The Real Taiwan waits to be discovered!

Astroboy888 June 8, 2016 at 4:11 am

To be fair ROC history is not solely defined by the years of CKS usurping of KMT and forming a de-facto dictatorship by instituting the martial law. Also you can not ignored the fact of then governor Chen Yi’s betrayal of KMT and the Taiwanese people for his role in the 228 massacre (for which he was executed by CKS). You have to look at ROC history in its totality to get a sense of how Taiwan came to be today.

One can argue that Taiwan today is what Dr. Sun Yat-Sen vision for mainland China. His goal was to establishing an American styled democracy, in China. SYS as many of you may recall is a graduate of Punanho High School in Hawaii (Yes the same high school that produced Barak Obama). As a teenager, SYS was heavily by the Abraham Lincoln’s progressive politics. Particularly, the ROC Constitutions, three People’s Doctrine was based on the Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in 1865. This was essentially ROC Constitution in 1911 and the basis of Taiwanese ROC Constitution today.

For example, SYS’s constitution brought in by KMT in 1949 had a profound political and social impact on women’s right. The Article 64 of the ROC Constitutions establish that women had to be re-presented in the parliament by using a formula which works out to roughly 25% of seats in the parliament. A later constitutional amendment in the 1990s that tries to formalize the 25% failed to pass. Today women represents 33% of seats in the Taiwanese parliament, the most in the world. These laws in the Taiwanese Constitutions was result of Asia’s first Women’s Liberation Movement in mainland China in late 1800s and 1900s. The impact of feminist writer and political activists such as Qiu Jin (1875-1907), were written directly into law to ensure rights of women to be educated, to own / inherit property, to vote, and to be elected to the government.

http://www.idea.int/gender/quotas_special_areas.cfm?country=226
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qiu_Jin

This is in stark contrast with roles of women in Japanese Patriarchal Confucian society and Minnan/Hakka traditional culture where women were considered property and not a human being before 1949.

Robert Schrader June 14, 2016 at 7:10 am

Thank you Michael 🙂

GOD369 DiongGong Si December 6, 2016 at 8:50 pm

Drinking and posting comments are not a good combination, cant agree with you more, you know…. ;). Taiwan is not fighting for our independence from anyone, cuz, we have been independent since day we came out of the water, now we are kicking down the fake regime built by the refugees from China after WWII on our Homeland.

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