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The Quirky Temples of Lotus Pond 蓮池潭

Lotus Pond 蓮池潭 is a manmade lake in Zuǒyíng 左營, Kaohsiung 高雄, widely known for its quirky assortment of pagodas, pavilions, and temples. Earlier this year I made a short stop at Lotus Pond on the way to the old walled city of Zuoying a little further south. I like exploring temples in Taiwan 台灣 but was mildly concerned Lotus Pond would be a bit too touristy for my liking. Turns out I had nothing to worry about—and my brief tour of the southwest side of the lake was memorable and fun.

My first stop was the Běijí Pavilion 北極亭, literally “North Pole Pavilion”, which features the likeness of the Běijí Xuántiān God 北極玄天上帝, better known as the dark and mysterious warrior Xuánwǔ 玄武. Like Hengwen Temple 衡文宮 in Yuánlín 員林 you can actually walk inside the body of the god (which contains a number of shrines on several floors). On the outside Xuanwu is depicted with a sword, a coil of intestines, and a demonic snake and turtle underfoot, references to his origin story (the details of which are interesting—but I’ll have you scope out my write-up about Hengwen Temple for more).

Next up are the Spring and Autumn Pavilions 春秋閣, a wild display of traditional architecture on the lakeside in front of Qiming Temple dating back to 1953. You can pass through the gullet of the dragon and see a wide variety of murals depicting various scenes out of Chinese folklore. The pavilions themselves are quite beautiful and afford nice views of the surrounding lake.

Qǐmíng Temple 啟明堂, meanwhile, is adorned with some of the cutest guardian lions I have seen anywhere in Taiwan, as well as a number of interesting sculptured murals on the interior. The staff at the temple were super friendly and curious about why I was there. Perhaps they don’t see many non-Asian visitors? I figured that as popular as Lotus Lake is that there’d be some white faces in the crowds but, much to my surprise, I didn’t see any at all the entire time I was there. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that westerners make up no more than about 10% of the tourists in Taiwan (and I’d guess not as many westerners get out of Taipei 台北).

The most iconic sight on Lotus Pond would have to be the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas 龍虎塔, built in 1976. Here you are invited to enter the dragon and exit the tiger, as is the custom in Chinese culture. As with the dragon at the previous pavilion this one also contains scenes from Chinese folklore.

This time around the sculptured murals depict the 18 levels of Chinese hell. Apparently this is meant to motivate visitors to refrain from various sins and maintain upstanding moral conduct. I had a few scenes explained to me an found the whole thing rather bizarre. Most peculiar was the presence of what looks to be a white foreigner about to be gored by an ox.

Initially I thought this might be a reference to the Dutch, who briefly ruled Taiwan in the 1600s before being voted off the island by Koxinga, a Ming dynasty loyalist. He came to Taiwan with dreams of retaking the mainland—sound familiar?—and is regularly depicted as a folk hero in the deep south for ousting the European colonial power.

Now I don’t think that’s right. After posting the story on Reddit an interesting discussion ensued and Roygbiv0415 pointed out that this is a depiction of the tenth circle, the bull pit of hell 牛坑地獄. This hell is reserved for those who kill animals indiscriminately—including recreational hunters, of which aren’t any in Taiwan (from what I’m told). This would explain the mullet and the jeans: this here might be a redneck in Chinese hell!

Overall I was pleasantly surprised by what I found at Lotus Pond—and I didn’t even see more than a quarter of it. These days I suppose I am somewhat wary of tourist traps in Taiwan but everything was free and it wasn’t too crowded. It is also easily accessible from the nearby high-speed rail station at Xinzuoying. Technically you could be there within about two hours of leaving Taipei 台北 (which is kind of incredible when you think about it). Once you’re done it’s just a short walk to the old walled city of Zuoying for a more subdued dose of history.

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