Taiwan Stories – What is in a name? The etymology of Taiwan’s towns

28 Sep
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When I first arrived in Taipei I had a terrible time with place names, often a complete inability to pronounce certain places in a way that a Mandarin speaker could understand. Many places have very similar names (Shulin 樹林 and Shilin 士林 confused me for a long time) and the complete mess that is the Romanization system makes it a nightmare for many a new arrival. But, of course, after a while I got used to the names and now the likes of Ximending or Zhongxiao Dunhua are as familiar to me as Piccadilly or Greenwich.

A few years after I arrived as I begun to push my Chinese studies beyond being able to order a bacon danbing (a kind of bacon and egg pancake) for breakfast, I began to become quite intrigued by the names given to towns and cities. Most people here have probably pondered why there is a Taipei 台北 (North), Taidong 台東 (East) and a Tainan 台南 (South) but no Taixi 台西 (West).  Well, actually there is a Taixi (in Yunlin County) it is just not as big or famous as it’s brothers.

At the time I was living in Xindian, which means new store in Mandarin and this seemed a really bizarre choice of name for a city. So I asked my Chinese teacher and a few local friends without much luck, so I decided to do some research. At first, I was a little disappointed to find out that the name Xindian was actually because a new store was built where the city is now and the name just stuck. However I kept looking through for other place names and what I found was fascinating, and I ended up spending hours on end reading up about these stories. Whenever I found somewhere new that had an interesting name I would go back and check up to see where the name originated.

Here are a few of the more interesting ones that I have come across…

Wulai 烏來

One of my favourite places in Taipei is the hot spring town of Wulai located in the mountains just south of Taipei. The story has it that an aboriginal hunter was passing through the area and noticed the steam gushing out from the river banks. Upon seeing this sight he cried out “Wulai, Wulai” which is the Atayal tribe‘s word for ‘hot spring’ or ‘hot water’.

Guting 古亭

Many foreign residents will spend a lot of time in the Guting area of Taipei and I myself, spent a couple of years there when I was a student at NTNU. When the Han Chinese from the mainland began settling in Taipei, the area now know as Guting was an major border between the immigrants and the native people. In order to warn people of attacks from the natives, the Han people built a pavilion with a huge drum inside that they would bang to let everyone know of an impending assault. The area soon became known as 鼓亭 (Guting – Gu meaning drum and ting pavilion). Years later the original Gu character was replaced by the character that we see today.

Yingge 鶯歌

Yingge, the small town outside of Taipei famous for it’s ceramics has a particularly intriguing legend behind it’s name. One day this small peaceful village was struck by fierce winds, the villagers were panic-stricken. After a while the winds subsided and the villagers noticed that there were now two enormous rocks at either end of the village. One was shaped like a giant warbler(鶯)and the other like a black kite(鳶)spreading it’s wings about to fly. That very night, the two rocks began spouting out thick smoke, the smoke got worse and worse until the villagers fled screaming for their lives. Those not fast enough to escape were all killed and not a trace was found of them in the village. Later, when Koxinga‘s army were passing through the village, the rocks once again began spouting smoke. The soldiers unable to escape, suffered the same fate as the villagers. When Koxinga found out he was furious and sent soldiers to the village to blow the rocks to pieces with their largest artillery. The promptly did and the rocks were destroyed, never again to kill people with their poisonous smoke. The village quickly returned to the peaceful place it once was and gradually began to prosper. The two stones, now destroyed, still remain and can be seen today as the mountains Yingge shan (鶯歌山)and Sanxia’s Yuan shan (鳶山)

Maolin 茂林

The Rukai tribe that resides in Maolin County originally named the area Mosquito-ville ( 蚊子社) but then was later given the name Duona County (多納鄉 ). During the Japanese Occupation Era, as was the case in many areas of Taiwan, the local indigenous people often fought with the oppressive Japanese forces. In the area now known as Duona, the indigenous tribes joined forces and killed many Japanese police. Incensed, the Japanese ordered a siege of the village and even built a barbed wire fence around the whole area hoping they would run out of food and surrender. The name Duona comes from a Chinese transliteration of the Japanese word to describe this. However, after the handing over of Taiwan to the R.O.C the name was changed to Maolin County, named after an offical TaoMaolin (陶茂林)

Dagou 打狗

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Gaoxiong City is the former British Consulate at Dagou. It is a really relaxing place to while away an afternoon, set high above the port, you can enjoy some afternoon tea whilst watching the constant influx of the colossal container ships. But why is it called Dagou (打狗)? Or hit-dog as the translation would be in English. Did the former British ambassador have a penchant for abusing animals? Possibly, but I prefer this story. Many years ago, the port in Gaoxiong was regularly the scene of attacks by pirates. In order to protect the area, the Pingpu tribe built a defense of thorny bamboo, a forest to defend the port. Dagou (打狗) is the word in Pingpu tribe’s language for bamboo forest.


2 Responses to “Taiwan Stories – What is in a name? The etymology of Taiwan’s towns”

  1. Steven Crook March 2, 2011 at 6:12 am #

    Good post. I dug up a few strange place names for my guidebook (Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide), and also blogged about them here:


    • Phil March 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

      Thanks! Is there anywhere in Taipei I can get hold of your book? I’ve looked in a couple of book stores, but had no luck so far.

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