Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Conclusion: Sacred Geography and the Definition/Redefinition of Space

This module's history of the overlap between, and conflict over, sacred and physical geographies reveals the formative connections between space, place, and identities. It also demonstrates the importance of movement, individuals, and institutions in the process of creating meaning for, and identification with, these different categories of territory.

When the Japanese empire began to colonize Taiwan in 1895, Jilong (Keelung) was a small town on the north coast, a place with a natural harbor that held the potential for transformation into a modern port, and with a small population that mostly traced its roots to counties in southeastern China. These residents had built a few temples as clearly defined sites that established specific deities and affiliated devotional practices—that is, elements of the sacred realm—in the physical realm. This linkage had helped to territorialize the island as Chinese (very broadly defined). The Japanese colonial regime and settlers began a lengthy, multi-faceted process of reterritorializing Jilong, and Taiwan, as Japanese space. They made the importation of Japanese Buddhist sects and Shinto one of their key methods, which included transferring Japanese kami to Taiwan and establishing new temples there. However, not all of these temples occupied new spaces: at the outset, a number of Japanese sects took over and reconsecrated the buildings of existing temples in Jilong.

Reconsecrating temples was the most obvious example of Japanese attempts to use sacred geography to transform Taiwan into a Japanese place. The islander residents of Jilong actively defended their sacred spaces by renovating their temples and by bringing their deities from the sacred into the profane with annual festivals, known as raojing or deity-welcoming festivals, in which they carried the deities through the city and demarcated the physical limits of their spiritual realms. During the 1930s, conflict over sacred geographies reached its nonviolent peak when the Japanese settlers renovated their key Shinto institution, the Jilong Shrine, and expanded the geographic footprint of its annual festival; Taiwanese residents combined three deity-welcoming festivals into one and paraded their deities through predominantly Japanese neighborhoods; and the colonial state and settlers both inserted themselves into the planning of future Taiwanese festivals and extended the shrine festival into Taiwanese neighborhoods in 1936. That soon proved to be a fleeting victory. The Japanese reterritorialization project failed. Instead of becoming a place infused with Japanese identity, Jilong became Taiwanese territory.

Physical, profane geography can be mapped with a geographic precision that potentially locates and fixes every structure, every roadway, every hill and stream in coordinate space. Imaginative, sacred geography, however, cannot be similarly mapped. It is flat space lacking fixed distances and coordinates. However, as the above summary of the content of this module demonstrates, when people link the sacred to the profane by building temples and inviting deities into the world and moving them from one place to another, they create both new identities and bind those identities (or imagined communities) to physical territory. Through their conflict with the Japanese colonial state and settlers, the islanders redefined themselves, their deities, and their festivals as Taiwanese. The physical manifestations of that process remain inscribed on the terrain of Taiwan, even as they continue to change and evolve. Sacred geography, like the identities it shapes, is never fixed.

(Header image: Jilong's Temple-Mouth Night Market. Photo by author.)

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