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Qing Dynasty Taipei – A Forgotten City

Qing Dynasty Taipei is a city enshrouded in mystery. Little has remained of what used to be the capital of Taiwan Province. However, the old city is still visible in the urban structure of contemporary Taipei City, and some interesting historic sites date back to the Qing era. 


Ximen (西門), or ‘West Gate’; later demolished by the Japanese

Beimen (北門), or ‘North Gate’, still stands, but now in the
middle of Taipei’s concrete jungle

Taiwan and Imperial China


It is hard to tell when Han settlers began to migrate to Taiwan. What is certain is that for a long time Taiwan was not included in the maps of the Chinese Empire and it remained beyond the scope of imperial expansion (Davison 2003, chapter 2).

By the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), however, Han settlements were already numerous, and Taiwan played an important role in imperial politics. In fact, Taiwan became the last stronghold of Ming Dynasty loyalists who resisted Qing rule. Zheng Chenggong, a supporter of the Ming, established a family dynasty on Taiwan that lasted until 1683. By the end of the Zheng era, the Han population of Taiwan is estimated to have stood at 150,000-200,000 (Davison, chapter 2).

When the Qing Dynasty incorporated Taiwan into the Empire (1684), the Beijing court placed it under the jurisdiction of Fujian Province. Taiwan had the title of a prefecture, subordinate to the governor of Fujian. Taiwan’s population continued to increase, reaching around 900,000 by the end of the 18th century, and 2,500,000 by the end of the 19th century (ibid., chapter 3). At that time Taiwan was relatively isolated from the mainland, and Qing rule was rather weak, given that the governor lived so faraway from the island. However, economic and international developments would soon change the role of Taiwan within the Qing Empire.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the influence of foreign powers on China grew considerably. When China was defeated by the British and the French during the Opium Wars, the port of Danshui, near Taipei, was opened to foreign trade. In the following years, Taiwan’s trade increased steadily and by 1874 the island had favourable trade balances (ibid., chapter 3). Tea and sugar were the most important goods that Taiwan exported at that time. British merchant John Dodd established a flourishing trade of oolong tea, which he had brought to Taiwan from Amoy. Another Westerner, Robert H. Bruce, founded a company for the export of tea, soon followed by other merchants (ibid. chapter 3).    

As foreign pressure increased, the Qing Empire started to worry about the integrity of its frontiers. It became necessary to guard Taiwan against foreign penetration. That’s why the Beijing government set about developing Taiwan’s infrastructure and security. Thanks to the work of able administrators like Shen Baozhen, Ding Richang, and Liu Mingchuan, Taiwan became one of the most advanced areas in the whole of China. They introduced the study of Western subjects, improved the infrastructure and the defence system. 

Liu Mingchuan also successfully defended Taiwan against the attacks of the French during the Sino-French War of 1884-1885. Now that Taiwan was directly threatened by Western powers and was also increasingly coveted by the rising Empire of Japan, Beijing granted Taiwan the status of a province in 1887 (ibid., chapter 3). 

The Rise of Taipei 


It was around this period that Taipei was transformed into a provincial capital. The city walls and the gates were built between the eighth and the tenth year of the reign of emperor Guangxu (光緒), 1882-1884. In the subsequent decade, the city was expanded: Official buildings, shops and houses were built, streets were made, and even electric lamps made their appearance. Within a period of ten years, many areas were transformed from wasteland to urban districts (Zhuang Zhanpeng / Huang Jingyi et al.:  Comprehensive Guide to Old Taipei [莊展鵬 / 黃靜宜 et al.: 台北古城深度旅遊]. Taipei 2000, p. 20). 

Despite all this, Taipei was still a small and underdeveloped city. 19th century maps (see below) show that only about 50% of Taipei’s total area was built, and the rest was occupied by farmland or wasteland (Joseph R. Allen: Taipei. City of Displacements. Seattle / London 2012, p. 29). 


Map of Qing Dynasty Taipei


The city gates (東門, 西門, 北門, 南門 etc.) are still part of the topography of modern Taipei, and they show us where the city ended. So, for example, the site of present-day Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall was outside the wall, and therefore countryside. Nowadays, one can basically walk from one gate to the other, circling the whole Qing Dynasty Taipei, within perhaps one or two hours.  

The most densely populated areas were in the northern part of Taipei. The central part contained temples and government buildings, while the southern and south-eastern parts were scarcely built. This structure shapes to this day the urban landscape of Taipei city. Present-day government district was built on the foundations of Qing Taipei’s administrative and religious centre. The main boulevards run along the former city walls (Zhongxiao Road, Zhongshan Road, Aiguo Road etc.). Also the East-West divide dates back to this period. 

All around Taipei walled city (台北城) there were many settlements that are now part of Taipei City (台北市) and New Taipei City (新北市), for example Bangka, Dadaocheng, Danshui etc. (Zhuang / Huang 2000, p. 18). 

By 1894, Taipei was at the same time provincial capital, seat of the prefecture and seat of the county administration, and its urban structure reflected its political role. Qing Taipei buildings can be divided into five main categories:

– Religion: Town God’s Temple (城隍廟), Tianhou Temple (天后宮), Confucius Temple (文廟), Temple of the War God (武廟) etc., mostly located in present-day government district.

– Education: Academies of Classical Learning (登瀛書院, 明道書院), an examination hall for imperial examinations (考棚), a study hall of ‘Western’ studies (西學堂), a study hall for aborigines (畨學堂) etc.

– Administration: Office of the Provincial Governor (巡撫衙門), Provincial Administration Hall (布政使司衙門) etc.

– Business

– Housing      

The Provincial Administration Hall, 1901


The Town God’s temple was an important place of worship. Every month government officials had to perform rites and offer sacrifices to the gods on designated days (ibid., p. 26).

The provincial administration hall was located where now Zhongshan Hall stands. The Xixuetang, ‘Western’ Study Hall’ was mainly a place where people could learn English and other Western subjects (ibid., p. 27). This shows late-Qing attempts to introduce Western knowledge.

One of the most remarkable buildings is the Fanxuetang (番學堂). It’s really hard to translate this word. I would suggest ‘Aboriginal Study Hall’. It was a place where Taiwanese aborigines could learn Mandarin and then teach the language to their relatives when they returned to their villages in the mountains. The first part of the word, 番, is the Chinese character that meant ‘foreign’, ‘barbarian’. This study hall reflects the policy of Sinicisation of the imperial administration.

From 1897 on the Japanese began to tear down important buildings such as the Confucius Temple, Dengying academy, Tianhou Temple, the Office of the Provincial Administration, etc. In 1900 they started to demolish the walls and remodel Taipei according to their colonial modernisation project (ibid., p. 30).
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