Built in 1887, Huángxī Academy 磺溪書院 is one of dozens of Qing dynasty era schools of classical studies in Taiwan 台灣. Located in Dàdù 大肚, a small town in southwestern Taichung 台中, it provides a window into a time when scholarship was more closely interwoven with spirituality. Apart from classrooms and areas for quiet study the academy also has an altar to the Five Wénchāng 五文昌: Kuí Xīng 魁星, Zhū Xī 朱熹, Guān Yǔ 關羽, Lǚ Dòngbīn 呂洞賓, and, of course, Wénchāng 文昌 himself. Collectively these Taoist gods represent classical Chinese culture and several are commonly venerated by students prior to writing exams. Structurally the academy follows a plan similar to a traditional Taiwanese courtyard home or sanheyuan with the addition of a large gatehouse and pavilion.
Japan invaded Taiwan only a few short years after this academy was built so its history as a private institute of classical learning was short-lived. After a period of occupation by army personnel the academy was incorporated into the nascent public school system in some fashion1. From what I gather it survived most of the Japanese colonial era but was damaged by American bombers in the war. This is not unsurprising; Huangxi Academy is at the base of Dadushan 大肚山, an important defensive position in central Taiwan, as these anti-airborne fortifications can attest.
Huangxi Academy suffered numerous disasters after the war. Many of the academy’s cultural relics were stolen during the early years of the KMT authoritarian era after the last manager of the academy went into exile. The building itself was further damaged in a catastrophic flood (Chinese: 八七水災 on August 7th, 1959, which left 677 people dead2. Following this the academy was effectively abandoned for decades. These archival photos from 1984 show the academy in ruins prior to extensive restoration efforts that were completed in 1989. It was again damaged in the 921 Earthquake but repairs proceeded swiftly and the academy opened to the public only about a year later.
You won’t read much about the dark history of Huangxi Academy from official sources. Just as I discovered while writing about Daodong Academy 道東書院 in Héměi 和美—only 6 kilometers from Huangxi as the crow flies—there is much more to learn by peeling back the layers and taking a closer look at what has been left out of widely-available accounts. I understand this impulse to celebrate only those parts of history that elevate the spirit but utterly disagree with it in practice. Without knowing any better I am left wondering: were the Japanese occupiers were more faithful stewards of this cultural site than the KMT “liberators”? Amends have been made and Huangxi Academy now makes for a nice stopover on any road trip through the area but I concluded my visit without feeling particularly informed by what I read on site.
Many Chinese language blogs have been published about this academy; for additional reading and photos have a look here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. I also recommend taking a look at my post about Daodong Academy, another surprisingly dark tale with an unusual twist.
- Typical Taiwan: the official web site totally glosses over what happened in the Japanese colonial era and pretty much every relevant link on the Chinese Wikipedia entry is dead. Usually I enjoy sorting out small details like this but this one is probably more trouble than its worth. ↩
- Curiously this disaster doesn’t even merit the creation of an English language Wikipedia page. Watch vintage newsreel footage of the disaster and read a little more about it here. ↩