Monday, March 02, 2009

The Lin Family Complex in Wufeng

On Saturday we met up with friends at Mingtai High School in Wufeng to tour the extensive Lin family complex nearby.

The complex consists of several enormous homes/estates and other facilities in located along the southern border of Wufeng town. It is currently closed to the public as it is undergoing renovation. Some of it was knocked down in the 9/21 earthquake, but both the restored buildings and what remains of the original buildings offer a glimpse of life in the old days.

Our extremely animated guide, Mr. Hsieh, a local teacher.

Waiting to go in.

In the first alcove the walls are covered with information explaining the importance of the Lin family, which moved here in 1754 and became prominent from then on. Family scion Lin Shuang-wen led a revolt in 1788, while in the 1800s, the family became a key cog in the Qing dynasty system of rule by local gentry. Lin Hsien-tang, a major figure of the 1920s and 30s opposing Japanese rule, is also one of the Wufeng Lins.

A record of fame. As you enter, Chinese letters on a column proclaim: Three Generations of People's Heroes.

This section of the buildings, which took us three hours to tour, has been extensively restored.


This structure was rebuilt after a quake in the Japanese period. Note its western features, including the supporting columns.

You can get an idea of the accuracy of the color schemes and other facets of the restoration using these glimpses of the old structure that remain. The restoration produces what one of us called a "facsimile" of the old building. Apparently, western ideas of "historical accuracy" are not a factor in local assessments of what constitutes a "historical" presentation. My own sense is that a site becomes an acceptable historical site in Taiwan if it looks like other "restorations" in Taiwan, not if it makes an attempt to accurately reflect what the old site looked or felt like.

The women's quarters. There was no furniture -- the buildings were all owned by different Lin families, who all had different attitudes and levels of wealth.

In this post-1920 building, note the western-style windows.

Another view of the bright colors.

Our guide dramatizes.

Stonework, old and new, lies next to the site.

The view through a doorway.

In this house, the most fascinating area was the stage that the Lins erected for the entertainment of their retainers and servants.

Here the actors prepared for their appearances.

On the stage.

Where the audience sat.

The ceiling above the stage.

The stage, from the audience.

"Wherefore art thou, Romeo?"

The area around the stage was large enough to permit the hundreds of troops and servants to watch. Not only did the complex have quarters for several hundred troops, it had over 200 servants, and boasted stables, food processing, and storage areas, as well as workshops for the manufacture of guns and powder.

In some places old pillar bases remain.

Note the odd angle of the chairs....

...and the beautiful old wall paneling.

Taking a break.

We left that set of buildings and went to another, older set of structures next door that was not yet restored and still contained many old architectural elements.

The hexagon means "long life."

Note the old windows.

Another view of the old windows.

Tucked away in the corner was what appeared to be a Shinto shrine. Nothing that hinted of Japan was retained in the restored areas we had visited previously.

In many of the buildings could be seen old paintings, artwork, calligraphy, and woodwork.

Like this stuff.

There were interesting architectural elements, like the central window here....

...and this interior window.

Wondering about the pink and blue color scheme not really looking very Chinese? It's the kids' quarters.

Both the woodcarving and the painting were amazing.

Imagine it a century ago, filled with scurrying servants, children of all ages, pigs, dogs, plants....

Back and back it goes, never seeming to stop, revealing one house after another.

The building next to that one is closed, and we only saw the outside, which offered this roof barbarian....

...who wore glasses.

Our next stop was this house, dating from 1909. It is a private residence, so I am not showing any pictures here.

After that we visited the home of Lin Hsien-tang, the famous figure of the Home Rule movements during the 1920s and 1930s.

The impressive old gate...

..and courtyard.

Mr. Hsieh explains that the circles meant money, and if you look at the designs above the windows, you will realize that this was the accountant's house.

Much of the carving and painting remains.

Note the painted clock.

The walls were covered with paintings like these.

Japanese style buildings housed the servants.

This house was where Lin sheltered mainlanders during 2-28 from the Taichung mobs who were out to kill them.

Another view of the courtyard.

The Lin family school, now a wreck due to 9/21.

We ended where we started, at the Lin family facilities on the grounds of Mingtai.


Anonymous said...

They're not really Western; they're Japanese style. It's the Japanese interpretation, reinterpretation, fusion, and improvement on what they saw of the modern world. Just like you wouldn't really call English a Latin just because it borrowed a whole lot from it. In other words, it's a unique tradition that you wouldn't be able to find in any of the European architectural trends of the time.

While we're on this topic of what's really what, the documentary on the left bar you link to isn't Australian.

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting.

I hope viewers can step back and look beyond the superficial structure and see how the Lin Family home incorporated different elements into the design as the metaphors of cultural life changed in Taiwan. The symbols of the classical and the modern were readily employed by the Lin family to negotiate the unique changes in Taiwan's political economy and cultural life. These design elements tell us a lot about how Taiwan's unique experience shaped the people who lived here and how they viewed themselves.

The complex of buildings not only tells us how generations of Lins sought to project themselves or how they intended to incorporate themselves into the governing structures of the island, but it is also a glimpse into how today's Lins, Taiwan's government, the business community and the community of Wufeng, are all trying to claim a stake in symbolic local culture for their own goals (political, economic, cultural, social etc...) and how each interested group finds meaning in this old structure. Moreover, it is interesting to see how each group projects their meaning in a different way to outside visitors to achieve their goals.

Michael Turton said...

Yes, I know it is Japanese. I should have put "western" in quotes.

iroiro said...

Very nice photos, thank you very much.
It makes me happy to see Taiwan (I'm in France/Paris now). I visited the Lin An Tai house in Taipei, and the Lin family house in Taipei county, and I'd like to visit this also.
And that is good to forget politic just one short moment.
Thanks again :-)

Anonymous said...



I find the houses and their veneration to have become very political.

cfimages said...

Great photo essay Michael. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting pics. How do you find out about these places? The next time I have a chance to visit Taiwan I think I'll use your blog as a guidebook.

I'm curious about the restoration work. You showed some of the original stuff. But since there was no direct comparison to what was in the restored areas, it was hard for me to be sure what you were getting at. Was it more detail in the originals?

If that is the case, it may just be a matter of having enough funds for a proper restoration. If they simply left things until the money was available, the would would just rot. Hopefully they at least photographed everything before painting over it.

Yeah, I know, I'm probably being naive. But what are we without hope?

Michael Turton said...


People see that I am interested in such things, so they send me invitations to go see.

If you compare the woodwork that is left from before WWII with the painted crap going in, you can see that the restoration leaves out all the interesting old paintings and complex woodworking that adorned the original. It is probably, ultimately, a matter of the low budgets that determines the shape of the restoration, as you note.

The stage area is fantastic though. They did wonderful job with that.

Anonymous said...

The stage area is fantastic though. They did wonderful job with that.

The first picture reminded me of pictures of the rebuilt Globe theatre in London. I guess it was mostly the dark wooden columns around an open air viewing area.

Anonymous said...

I think they could have gotten a much more meaningful project out of this had they sought out expert artists in the various arts and used this as a chance to teach traditional techniques to students and get a more detailed work done in a more traditional manner. It would have been a great learning and community exercise. Some of it could have been done for free that way too.

Michael Turton said...

It reminded me of the Globe too.

I wish also that there were individual plaques and information in each individual house, and in some of the rooms where necessary.

D. Fedman said...

This is a great post. Have you read Johanna Meskill's "Chinese Pioneer Family: The Lin's of Wufeng"?

It is cleverly researched, well-written account of this very family.

If you havent read it, it would be a great supplement to your visit to the complex. Your pictures surely brought it to life for me.

Thanks for sharing.

Ken Wu said...

I used to date a girl who is one of the direct descendants of the Wufeng Lins.

Unknown said...

Great story, My great grandfather is Lin Hsien-tang older brother I'm a 22nd Generation Lin's family too bad I grow up in Anerica.

Jonathan Benda said...

I want to visit the Lin complex this winter when I visit Taiwan--I wonder how much it has changed since you wrote this piece. Also, what do you think of Johanna Meskill's book on the Lin family? I just read it and thought it was fascinating. I haven't seen much discussion of it online.