aiwan is a “noisy, cheerful island” locked in a constant struggle just to survive, said Andrew Jefford in the Financial Times. During the past century, the Japanese occupied it for 45 years. Then came the Chinese civil war, after which the island became the last refuge for the overthrown Nationalist government. “Every decade brings a couple of earthquakes,” and typhoons regularly buffet Taiwan’s coasts in late summer. Yet, until recently, it “produced half the world’s laptops.” And offsetting its industrious image are the forests and mountains that cover more than half the island’s landmass.
The eastern mountains of Taiwan are terrifyingly inhospitable, retaining an “almost brutal grandeur.” Rushing rivers course through cliff sides of pure marble, whose shapes rival “the sublime figurative chiseling of Bernini or Canova.” Isolated mountain hamlets, such as Tiansiang in the Taroko Gorge, are refuges of remarkable beauty: In the morning, butterflies dance, swallows dip, and the clouds part to reveal “the grand, gilded statue of the goddess of mercy at the Buddhist convent.” By contrast, the lush slopes of Alishan, in the country’s southwest, have none of the “spine-tingling” beauty of Taroko. But “walks through the bird-haunted forest are restorative,” and the island’s loveliest tea gardens are in Alishan National Park, near the town of Fenchihu.
Visitors will notice one big cultural difference between Taiwan and mainland China: the role of religion. There’s a profusion of temples and gleaming Buddha statuary on the island, and Taiwan’s “main spiritual gift to the world” may be a pragmatic, humanistic Buddhism known as Tzu Chi (Compassionate Relief). In 1966, a Buddhist nun named Cheng Yen was pained by an encounter with Catholic nuns
who “gently criticized Buddhism as being overly contemplative.” The movement she founded in response has accomplished “extensive aid work” in the decades since. More generally, Taiwan’s religious tolerance is evident in places such as Taipei’s Longshan Temple, where depictions of “fiercely hairy Taoist deities” commingle with “smoothly Buddhist ones.” Visitors make offerings, prostrate themselves, “or simply sit and chant” as incense rises into the warm night.
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