‘Why does this place have that name?’ This is a question every tour guide should prepare for, especially in Taiwan where a lot of interesting stories can be told about place names and their origins.
Some are very straightforward. Taipei (pictured top left) means ‘North Taiwan’ and Tainan is ‘South Taiwan’ (for more about place names in the southern half of Taiwan, return to this website soon to see Part 2 of this article). Between Taipei and Tainan, we find Taichung (‘Central Taiwan’).
Several place names are derived, directly or indirectly, from the languages of Taiwan’s indigenous people. Wanhua (the name of Taipei’s oldest district, location of the historic Longshan Temple and where the photo at the very top was taken) is the Mandarin version of a pair of characters chosen by the Japanese colonial authorities because, when pronounced in standard Japanese, they were close to the name actually used by the area’s inhabitants, Mangka (alternatively spelled Manka, Monga or Bangkah). Mangka was itself a rendering of an aboriginal term meaning ‘canoe’, as back in the 18th century tribesmen would paddle their boats downstream and barter vegetables and charcoal for cloth, needles and other products.
The gorgeously mountainous district of Wulai (pictured below) lies just outside Taipei. Its name comes from an Atayal phrase meaning ‘hot and noxious’, and refers to the sulphurous hot springs which attract tourists every day of the year.
In the Taiwan of yore, rivers were a key part of the transport system. Shallow-draught boats carrying goods and people sailed several kilometres inland to places like Daxi (‘Big River’), once an important transshipment point for tea, camphor and other commodities. Since the 1960s, the waterway at Daxi hasn’t been navigable to anything larger than a kayak due to the construction of a dam upriver. Fortunately, the town’s old quarter still reflects the good old days. The dozens of century-old Baroque-style merchant houses incorporate Greek, Roman and Taiwanese elements, and make for excellent photographs.
Animals feature in certain place names, including one not far from Daxi. Guishan (‘Turtle Mountain’), a district less than 20 km west of central Taipei, gained its name because a hill there is shaped somewhat like a turtle, not because there was any significant chelonian population. When seen from certain points along Taiwan’s northeast coast, Guishan Island (a popular day-trip for ecotourists) looks even more turtle-like.
Unfortunately, along the way some beautifully vivid place names have been replaced with prosaic toponyms. For instance, Taoyuan – a major municipality which includes Taiwan’s principal international airport – means ‘Peach Garden’. More than 200 years ago, when Han settlers were struggling to establish themselves in this region, they called this place Humaozhuang, ‘the terrace covered by plants with leaves as sharp as tigers’ teeth’!