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A Story of Stone Lanterns

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

When my father was growing up, my A-kong insisted the family stop at Xǐnglíng Temple 醒靈寺 every time they visited his hometown Pǔlǐ 埔里. Xǐnglíng is modest as far as temples go, but it’s historic and significantly located on a hilltop overlooking the main entrance to Pǔlǐ. Founded in 1901, it was rebuilt and relocated several times until it arrived at its current site in 1949, just a year prior to my father’s birth. In 2020, I asked my father to take me to this temple. I was on a mission to see as many places of family significance as possible and find out what I could learn about our story.

Before arriving at Xǐnglíng Temple that October, I was interested to notice my father talking a lot about some Japanese stone lanterns he remembered from childhood. Driving up the temple’s hillside driveway, he was already scanning for those lanterns. Because the temple was badly damaged in the big 1999 earthquake and subsequently reconstructed, the grounds were fairly unrecognizable to my father now. But he was still determined to find the Japanese lanterns and walked all over the place looking for them. At last, he found some lining a stairway opposite from where we’d entered. He seemed satisfied.

Why did my father like these Japanese stone lanterns so much that the image of them stayed with him all these years? I think there’s something to be said about the vestiges of Taiwan’s colonial past that persist and how it’s those seeming minutiae that actually paint the big picture. My father often becomes sentimental and nostalgic about Japanese culture because it reminds him of his parents who grew up in Taiwan when it was a colony of Japan. My A-gong and A-má, as I’ve mentioned before, were subjects of Imperial Japan and fluent Japanese speakers.

Japanese lanterns or toro are traditionally made of stone, wood, or metal. They come in various shapes, sizes, and styles and are typically used in gardens or at the entrances of shrines and temples. Their structure, bottom to top, represents the five elements of Buddhist cosmology (earth, water, fire, wind, and void). Ishi-toro or stone lanterns are either buried, movable, on pedestals or on legs. Pedestals are the most common. Though stone lanterns actually originated in China, over time they have arguably become more associated with Japan and Japanese culture.

My husband's Japanese family at Taiwan Grand Shrine, pre-WWII

It’s telling that stone lanterns feature prominently in some of the Taiwan genealogical photos I’ve managed to collect. For instance, I have one treasured photo of my husband‘s Japanese settler family in Taiwan, pre-World War II, posing in front of Japanese stone lanterns and a torri gate. Given the age of the children, I would guess the image was taken circa late 1930s. At first, I had no idea where they were because the background was so Japanese. Even the Japanese auntie who gave me the photo had no idea. But my father was able to deduce the image was taken at Taiwan Grand Shrine, the highest ranking Shinto shrine during Japanese rule (which was later replaced by the Grand Hotel post-World War II and Japan’s surrender).

My A-tsóo in Taiwan, circa late 1940s or 1950s

I also recently stumbled across an old picture of my A-tsòo standing beside a tall stone lantern (very serious, as always). I’d say it was taken circa late 1940s or 1950s, when black and white photography was still the norm and A-tsòo was in the golden years of his life. The lantern seems unremarkable to me. But A-tsòo was clearly posing for the photo either because he wanted to or someone asked him to, as there’s no one and nothing else in the image. When I look at it, I often try to imagine the moments just prior. What conversation was had about this particular lantern being a good photo op? I think of A-tsòo positioning himself beside it, who might’ve taken the picture, and what they said before they snapped the shot. I wonder, what thoughts were going through A-tsòo’s head as he stood there?

I wanted to write this post because reclaiming my Taiwan family story as a Taiwanese American has been all about experiences like this: hunting down old photos and bits of stories; looking for clues, details, the meaning behind them; trying to fit those pieces together; ending up with an incomplete picture but at least a better one than I had before. Sometimes I get distracted with fantasies of writing a sweeping historical family novel that spans generations. But the more I do this, the more I think maybe it’s the small details – like the ones here – that actually have the most to say.


Feature image: Stone lanterns at Xǐnglíng Temple 醒靈寺, Pǔlǐ 埔里, photographed in 2020.

© 2022 Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫

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