Ilha Formosa: An apocryphal tale

1596 map included in a book by Dutchman Jan Huygen van Linschoten. Early depiction of Taiwan, labeled I. Formosa
Early map depicting Taiwan (red box, labeled I. Formosa). Included in a 1596 book by Dutchman Jan Huygen van Linschoten. Linschoten popularized the name “Formosa.” (Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, p. 23).

A 16th century mariner spotted a verdant, uncharted island and was so overcome by its natural beauty that he exclaimed, “Ilha formosa!” (beautiful island in Portuguese). Thus the island of acquired a name. Thus it would be known for the next 400 years.

You will encounter some version of this story should you pick up a guidebook on Taiwan.

To illustrate:

In the 16th century, Portuguese explorers were so impressed by the towering, green mountainous island they saw from the decks of their ships that they called the placed Ilha Formosa, meaning “beautiful island.”

National Geographic Traveler Guide to Taiwan (p. 14)

1544: Passing Portuguese sailors became the first European to lay eyes on Taiwan; they are so enchanted they name the island Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island).

From a timeline in The Lonely Planet’s Guide to Taiwan (p. 325)

In 1517, the Portuguese Admiral Andrade sailed to Taiwan and became so enchanted by the place he named it Ilha Formosa, or the ‘Beautiful Island’. The Portuguese established a small but important trading presence there.

Culture Shock: Taiwan (p. 14)

It is not just guidebooks. Here is story as told a trusted by Britannica, an online encyclopedia:

In 1517 a Portuguese ship sailed through the Taiwan Strait, and the ship’s log recorded the words “Ilha Formosa,” meaning “Beautiful Island” in Portuguese. Formosa subsequently became the Western term for Taiwan. But the ship did not stop, and the Portuguese did not lay claim to Taiwan.

Under a section on Taiwanese history found here.

Here’s an account I copied from an online exhibit titled “Ilha Formosa: The Emergence of Taiwan on the World Scene” found on Taiwan’s National Palace Museum website:

In 1542, Portuguese sailors on their way to Japan came across an island not identified on their maps. Amazed at the forest-cloaked land, they shouted, “Ihla Formosa,” meaning “Beautiful Island.” The island had thus come to be known as Formosa, which was to become what we know today as Taiwan.

You’ll have to trust me on the sourcing. The webpage is no longer available.

By now, you might see what I was seeing.

  1. There are different dates for when this sighting supposedly occurred. Is it 1517, 1542, 1544, or some other date?
  2. Was it an anonymous Portuguese sailor who exclaimed those famous words, or was it the “Portuguese Admiral Andrade”? (I’m assuming the reference is to Fernão Pires de Andrade, who led a trade mission to China in 1517.)
  3. Were they passing by the island, or were they standing on it? Did the Portuguese claim the island at the time or not?

Other questions I have: When and how was this event first recorded? Was it written in a ship’s log? How do we know these words were spoken aloud? Is it possible that different people were inspired to say more or less the same thing on different occasions?

Or is it a tall-tale repeated so often it has acquired a veneer of truth, a irresistible anecdote too good not to be true, or at least not to include a guidebook?

Jonathan Manthorpe, author of Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, had this to say: “…it is a pleasant story, but it may be no more than that.” That’s a nice, tempered way to put it.

Let me be more intemperate: I call bullshit on this story.

Temple of the dog

The “New” Temple of the Eighteen Lords (that is 17 humans, one dog)

The legend goes: Over a hundred years ago, a boat containing the bodies of 17 fisherman washed ashore after a storm. In the boat was a dog, who somehow survived. The dog guarded the remains of the fisherman until people a nearby village arrived. Funeral rites were performed and the fishermen were buried. The dog was offered food, but refused to eat it. Instead he jumped into the open grave “committing suicide,” i.e. was buried alive with the fisherman. In this way, the dog showed his undying loyalty to his masters (ironic word choice deliberate).

I couldn’t resist a temple dedicated to the memory of a faithful dog. And there was this intriguing sentence in the Lonely Planet guidebook: “[The temple is] associated with Taiwan’s underworld and it’s not uncommon to see tattooed gangsters and prostitutes about at night.”

The Dog of Destiny posing, sort of

We didn’t see any gangsters or prostitutes lurking about. We didn’t see anyone other than a couple of construction workers taking a nap during their lunch break.

The temple was dingy, dark, and spare, more or less deserted. There wasn’t much there, other than a 30ft dog statue in the parking lot (which was worth seeing).

It turns out we visited the “new” Temple of the Eighteen Lords, which was built to capitalize on the popularity of the original (making it a sort of copycat or counterfeit). We passed right by the old one without even knowing it. It was sandwiched between the wall of a nuclear power plant and the main highway. I’m not even sure it was open.

The original temple has an interesting history. It began as a shrine built atop the resting place of the fishermen, and their dog. In the early 1970s, the shrine faced an existential threat when the Taiwan Power Company built a nuclear reactor next door. Rather than be bulldozed, the spirits of the shrine fought back. Rumors circulated that construction equipment mysteriously failed whenever it came near the shrine. The builders were ultimately forced to change their original plans. The shrine was left untouched, and a what was a local tradition suddenly went viral. Soon busloads of tourists were visiting the shrine, which was upgraded to a temple in 1975.

The Temple of the Eighteen Lords was a popular pilgrimage site in the 80s and early 90s, attracting large crowds late at night, allegedly when the spirits are at the height of their powers. The temple had a reputation of attracting gamblers, gangsters, and prostitutes—and other marginal peoples. The temple spirits purportedly granted any wish—they were apparently unbound by moral conviction, unlike the traditional gods of Taiwanese folk religion. Interestingly, the spirits of the fishermen accepted lit cigarettes as offerings, rather than incense. (But what about the dog spirit, I wonder. He was one of the eighteen lords, after all. Was he a smoker too?)

Not many people go to the original temple anymore. So I read. Reasons are given, but they seem (to me) inadequate to explain the temple’s decline. Then again, why was the temple so popular in the first place? It attracted busloads of tourists, caused traffic jams late in the evening. The temple legend inspired a TV serial and a movie. Why exactly? What unseen, dark forces conspired to produce this cultural phenomenon?

I’d like to see it the Temple of the Eighteen Lords, the real one, in the wee hours of the morning this time. I’d like to know whether it still attracts tattooed gangsters and other archetypes of the criminal underworld. Does any remnant of that seedy, carnival funhouse atmosphere still exist? Regardless, I would like to offer the temple spirits a cigarette, if they still smoke. I will bring some kibble or a dog bone for their faithful companion.