December 26, 2019
Entering a dragon’s throat and coming out of a tiger’s mouth symbolizes turning bad luck into good fortune.
The Dragon and Tiger Pagodas at the southern shore of man-made Lotus Lake in Kaohsiung came with that written instruction. It was simple enough yet so fierce: Enter the Dragon and exit just below the Eye of the Tiger. I carbon-dated myself with those retro references, but I couldn’t help it. As products of their time, the pair of pagodas evoked the technicolor 1970s when they were built.
The offshore towers appeared to be afloat on the lake, rising as they were from a bed of green water plants blanketing the lake’s edge. Had it been summertime, the lotus in bloom would’ve matched the arresting saffron walls and red pillars – colors symbolizing transformation and perfection in Confucianism and Buddhism. But the pagodas themselves embodied the floating lotus, a symbol of purity out of the surrounding murk.
A zigzag bridge, designed with traditional scenes in bas-relief on the balustrades, connected the towers to shore. Inexplicably, life-size Disneyesque mascots lined the park out front, though they didn’t seem sacrilegious given the vividly-painted dragon and tiger imagery.
The corridors from the bridge leading to each of the pagodas took on the forms of a green dragon and a yellow tiger; the entrance and exit were their jaws agape. Duly instructed, Ki and I entered through the dragon and exited from the tiger, not so much for good luck as for good vibes. It was more a cultural experience for us than superstition.
Both walls of the narrow corridor through the hollow bodies of the dragon and tiger told traditional stories with paintings and figurines of Buddhist and Taoist characters. The Dragon Pagoda showcased vignettes on filial piety. One particular image jumped at me: a woman breastfeeding an elderly person whose gender I couldn’t tell at first. A tad too kinky, I must say, if that were a man. It called for a Google search and, consequently, I posted my findings along with the photo on Facebook:
Daughters-in-law, this is how you treat your mother-in-law! When Lady Tang’s mother-in-law became elderly and lost all her teeth, she could not chew any solid food. So Lady Tang decided to feed her her own breast milk, which nourished her mother-in-law for many more years. Be like Lady Tang, ladies!
Needless to say, my female friends were none too pleased with the suggestion.
Another figurine showed a son giving his elderly father a piggyback ride, apparently an oriental expression of love as Korean romantic couples did the same in modern K-dramas.
The Tiger Tower exhibited images of the Jade Emperor and Confucius, both of whom I would’ve have been able to identify if they stared me in the face. In Chinese culture, the tiger stood for righteousness and harmony – all quintessential Confucian virtues. The dragon, on the other hand, symbolized auspicious power. I would think this was the philosophical balance that the pagodas were built on.
The pagodas, in fact, belonged to the 17th-century Ciji Temple across the street. I imagined that a temple and a pagoda were akin to a church and a steeple. Being neither Buddhist nor Catholic, I was clueless about the difference. It was said that the temple’s patron saint, Baosheng Dadi, had ordered the construction of these extensions on the lake. For what reason, he failed to cascade the information to present-day tourists.
Both towers consisted of seven levels accessible by a double spiral staircase: one ascending, the other descending. We scaled the steeply dizzying steps and were rewarded by painterly views of distant pavilions and gentle mountains at the horizon. From this vantage point, the connection of the pagodas with Ciji Temple was clearly visible with the bridge zigzagging between them.
By nightfall, we walked by the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas once more on our way to the subway station. The twin towers had been wholly lit up, casting their silhouette of light in perfect symmetry on the placid lake. It was a visual form of auspicious power and harmony, the twin virtues of the dragon and the tiger. As luck would have it, Ki and I had the pleasure of seeing them both in the colors of day and the brilliance of night.