Nationalist Treasure: Taipei's Streets Contain a Secret Map of China

Nationalist Treasure: Taipei's Streets Contain a Secret Map of China
REUTERS/Richard Chung
Why you need to know

Taipei's street names are rarely older than 50 years, but their story goes back another century.

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If you find yourself lost and wandering in Taipei, you may find that there is a secret navigational aide built into the city streets themselves – if you can make a mental map of China, you can (sort of) find your way home.

It wasn't always this way. During the Japanese era, Taipei’s streets weren’t even given a formal name, but the city was divided into neighborhoods known as ding (町). A few ding remain today, the most famous of which is Ximending. After Japan was defeated in World War II and the Nationalists took over Taiwan, the government looked to “eliminate all traces of Japanese rule,” including place names.

On Nov. 17, 1945, the nationalist government promulgated a “measure for the correction of street names in counties and cities in Taiwan province.” There were four criteria when renaming the streets: To “promote the ethnic Chinese spirit” in names such as Zhonghua Road, Xinyi road, or Heping road; to “spread the three principles of the people” in Sanmin Road, Minzu Road, Minsheng Road; to “commemorate nationalist heroes” in Zhongshan Road and Zhongzheng Road; or to “fit geography, customs or existing special meanings.”

Taipei City: a map of China

Taipei’s street names are related closely to the geography of China, and an invisible cross helps organize the map. The central point of this map is on top of the Executive Yuan at the corner of Zhongxiao and Zhongshan roads – this divides Taipei into four quadrants, and the names of roads within these quadrants loosely match their positions on a map of China.

For example the names “Ningxia” and “Taiyuan” are located in the northwestern part of the city, “Changchun” and “Jilin” roads in the northeast and “Guilin” and “Xizang” (Tibet) roads are in the Southwest of Taipei.

These four quadrants are based loosely on a cross created by two railway lines in China; the Longhai and Pinghan lines.

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There are a few street names that you can’t find on a modern map of China. “Dihua” is now Ürümqi in Xinjiang, while “Kulun” is now Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. Heijiang and Songjiang were two provinces of northeastern China that merged into others.

Shanghai’s Legacy

To Taiwanese people, these names seemed strange at the time. Why did so many of these roads appear?

It all came from a Shanghai-born architect, Zheng Ding-bang (鄭定邦). Zheng was appointed as the deputy general manager of civil affairs, and was given the heavy responsibility of renaming the roads in Taipei. Being from Shanghai, he went with a system he would be most familiar with.

Shanghai is one of the most important cities in modern China, one of the five treaty ports opened for trade then China signed the Treaty of Nanjing with Britain in 1842. In 1862, the British and American concessions agreed to merge, but couldn’t agree on the names of streets. British consul Walter Henry Medhurst came up with a solution; a “memorandum on Shanghai street names,” in which the east-west streets were named after Chinese cities, but the order had nothing to do with geographic location.

Zheng used this basic scheme when he first began to rename Taipei – Chongqing, Kunming and Jinhua streets were named during this period, and Confucian values also provided names for even more streets, such as Xinyi (virtue) and Renai (benevolence) roads.

It is often said that after the 228 Incident, the Nationalist government thought that Taiwan lacked “motherland awareness,” so they grafted many mainland names onto Taipei. However, this is a misconception: many of the name changes occurred before Feb. 28, 1947.

If you look carefully at a map of Chinese place names in Taipei, you’ll see that they are mostly concentrated in the western part of the city, due to a phenomenon known as “short roads in the west and long roads in the east.” This is something Zheng failed to pay attention to during his urban planning; When he renamed the city streets, the eastern parts of Taipei were largely farmland, and these country roads weren’t included in his master plan. Over time, Taipei expanded down to Jingmei, up past Yangmingshan, and east as far as Nangang.

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After the war, it was very common to use a name for Chiang Kai-shek, (Zhongzheng, 中正) on streets around Taiwan; there are 192 in total, according to the Ministry of the Interior. Almost all metropolitan areas have a Zhongzheng road of some sort, usually right in the center of town.

Taipei almost didn’t have a Zhongzheng road. There is now one short street in Shilin district, but Shilin only became a part of Taipei in 1968. Central Taipei had a Zhongzheng road, but it was split and renamed to Zhongxiao East Road and Bade Road when Eastern Taipei was merged into the city.

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This isn’t to say that Taipei is somehow less enthusiastic about Chiang than the rest of the country; the city still has a Zhongzheng district and a giant statue of the moustachioed man himself. With the passage of the Transitional Justice Act in Dec. 2017, these 192 Zhongzheng streets are likely to be renamed anyhow, but many of the Chinese cities on Taipei's streets are here to stay.

An unabridged Chinese-language version of this story can be found here.

Editor: Morley J Weston

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