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A Historical Parasite: A Story of Kaiwang Temple

post: 2015/01/21

In Tainan, one can easily find a temple within a few steps. No matter what deities they have, all those temples are extremely magnificent and splendid, with various modern colorful lights, and are the most vigorous places in a city. I can only find this in Tainan – faiths play such important roles in people’s daily lives, and even in a city.

But Kaiwang Temple in Kaohsiung is another story.

We arrived at Kaiwang Temple in Kaohsiung on a sunny morning. A “national” historic site, Former Tangrong Brick Kiln, was near the temple. Between the two buildings was a wasteland with all buildings there being demolished and removed, and wild plants found it was a paradise for them to grow freely. Kaiwang Temple did not have an impressive appearance like temples in Tainan did. It did not have a colorful gate, but only a small opened entrance leading to a small hall. All objects in the temple were old, like old people who willingly stayed there to guard it.

Knowing we would visit the temple, several old people and Professor Yang of National University of Kaohsiung welcomed us there and introduced the history of Kaiwang Temple to us. Former Tangrong Brick Kiln was built in 1899 by Japanese. With Love River’s advantages of convenient transportation and rich natural resources of clay from the riverside and wood from Chaishan, the kiln was a boom to attract numerous immigrants from Penghu and Tainan. Later, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and KMT government moving to Taiwan, the owner of the kiln was changed. But the demand of its bricks was increasing rapidly. The kiln even supplied people in Hong Kong to build several schools. One old man who welcomed us warmly was a child labor in the kiln then.

Kaiwang Temple was built with the kiln. At that time, people who moved to this place and earned their living by making bricks worked around the clock without any medical care or protection. They did not have a doctor. Therefore, workers built Kaiwang temple with bricks they made and started to worship their gods from their hometown. Professor Yang said that in those harsh days, without any doctor nor any medicine, Kaiwang Temple was not only people’s center of religion, but also their sanctum of cure and protection. An old woman brought a record book of Kaiwang Temple in that time from her home. Inside the book, numerous stories of asking helps from the gods during almost hundred years were recorded in detail – someone’s wife lost her mind, someone was sick seriously or someone suddenly could not speak… And after descriptions of illnesses, solutions were wrote by the host of the temple. Unintentionally, these records of asking gods for cures were also a history record of extremely hard days of people with limited resources for both their bodies and minds. The old woman helped us in identifying texts on the book, and she kept telling us that how powerful those gods in Kaiwang Temple were, and how many people were attracted to worship them. The old man welcomed us said that the reason behind the gods’ great power was because they were directly moved from mainland China to here by immigrants, and were in higher ranks among gods in Taiwan. Many deities of other temples were replicated from Kaiwang Temple, and staff members of those temples would come back to Kaiwang Temple to find solutions if their replicated gods did not have enough powers.

As someone who had not grown up with any form of divinity, I could not easily understand relationships among these gods and emotions or feelings of these old people toward Kaiwang Temple. Even so, the old and small Kaiwang Temple and the kiln near the temple still formed a vivid picture in my mind. It was said that when the kiln had been built, the most advanced technology of making bricks of that time was also introduced. The forsaken kiln still looked somehow majestic. Yet, via gods from worker’s hometown, it was this small and old Kaiwang Temple that protected, blessed, purified and cured those hard-working workers to keep the kiln smoothly producing bricks to make profits.

It was obvious that at that time, this “modern” kiln was a parasitic figure on Kaohsiung’s natural resources, efforts of workers, and Kaiwang Temple with a variety of its “superstitious and out-of-date” gods.

However, people in power do not, and cannot seem to understand this parasitic aspect in modern history. I read these reasons to certify the kiln being a “historic site” on a website:

“1. Former Tangrong Brick Kiln is an important example of brick production of Taiwan in 20th century. Its well-kept Hoffmann kiln and chimneys are historic and exquisite.

2. Bricks had been the most important building material before technologies of cement, steel and iron were developed. The kiln’s existing Hoffmann kiln and two chimneys are worth preservation because of its high historical and cultural values.

3. Similar brick producing facilities are rare in Taiwan. Former Tangrong Brick Kiln is the biggest kiln in Taiwan. Several brick producing facilities were added in the kiln during its later period, and thus a track of developed technologies was showed.

4. With its various producing facilities, Former Tangrong Brick Kiln has its unique, representative and comprehensive values in presenting cultures of an industry.

5. From an aspect of industry, Former Tangrong Brick Kiln is important in presenting developments of industries of Kaohsiung. As a part of building material producing facility, it also plays an important role to show its historical value and meaning in the developments of Taiwan’s industries and economy.”

It seems that authorities who camouflage themselves to be respectful to the history are actually ones that only see and appreciate “economic” and “modern” issues. In their eyes, a valuable history has to describe a modern fairy tale of “an economic takeoff” or “a developed technology.” And they completely ignore what parasitic lives may have occurred in this land, with all its development and glory.

Even today, forsaking, deleting or denying those parasitic modern history is still a common idea of developmentalists around the world. Therefore, with a new wave of land developments and newly built expensive houses on the riverside of Love River, Former Tangrong Brick Kiln was preserved as an embodiment of “being modern,” but the village surrounding Kaiwang Temple which supported kiln’s production was removed.1

When Takahashi Tetsuya discussing the Fukusima disaster, he define “a system of sacrifice” as below: “In a system of sacrifice, some people sacrifice other people’s lives (life, health, daily routines, properties, dignities, hopes, etc.) and produce profits from doing so. Without sacrifice of sacrificial victims, ones that seek sacrifices cannot have nor maintain any profit. However, this form of sacrifice is usually hidden, legitimized or glorified as a “noble sacrifice” for a community (of nation, people, society, company, etc.).”2

If Takahashi Tetsuya’s point is to describe how the sacrifices are legitimized and glorified under the name of community in Japanese culture, then a more interesting part to me is: how systems of sacrifice for special ideas of development continue to hide themselves in Asian countries and areas which have been through various forms of colonialism and developed themselves? If, to Western people, this system of sacrifice can be slightly perceived more in a “heart of darkness” or in orientalism, then, to people in Asian countries and areas, sacrifices and parasitic colonizers are the most powerful experiences to resist discourses of systems of sacrifice and escape from simpleminded modern delusion. However, what actually happened is not like this. Asian countries which have been through colonization do not seem to have any special invulnerability for it, instead, they tend to alter history via the use of economism. Thus I wonder: how a sacrificed history is hidden by a series of manipulations of cultural aspects of economism? How the ideological structure of accepting or ignoring this sacrifice/parasite is formed? To those modernized urban people who think themselves being just, how could they easily accept such systems of sacrifice of similar structures with their high moral standards?

To answer those questions, the story of Kaiwang Temple seems to provide a solution: all imaginations and education toward modern history by the government should be responsible for those issues. If so-called “historic sites” that present modern developments are economic growth symbols like “Former Tangrong Brick Kiln” and needed to be preserved, while social lives that actually hold this economic growth like “Kaiwang Temple” have to be deleted, then a growth without any sacrifice or a self-explained modernity becomes a way for people to interpret concepts of developments via historical education. In such a way, people cannot see sacrifice/parasite anymore, and naively or arrogantly think that modern history is able to cut itself from sacrificed victims of sacrifices or soils of parasites to finish its forming progress.

Before we left, one of our members humorously said: “If gods in Kaiwang Temple are that powerful, how come they cannot protect the temple form being removed by Kaohsiung City Government and its development plan?” Which reminded me of what that old man who had worked in the kiln since he was a child commented on preservation works toward “historic sites.” He said that all repair works excluded old people who knew the kiln well from joining in the project, and they knew nothing about the structure of the kiln. It might seemed to be an excellent enhancement. But in fact, all they did was to increase burdens to the building, and made it easier to collapse.

So it seems that no matter in what period of the history, the kiln and Kaiwang Temple are a combination of a parasite and a host. If the kiln is considered as a “national historic site,” Kaiwang Temple and old people who love it should also be kept and preserved. If we keep ignoring its wholeness, disregarding respect and understanding toward hosts, and continue being possessed with self-formed modern delusions, then the day that all modern “historic sites” collapse will not be far.

Maybe this is a power of gods. Or one could say, this is a judgment from the history itself.

2014/10/27 Shanghai