Sanxiantai is one of Taiwan’s most evocative natural religious landscapes. It is an important place for the study of coastal plant ecology; moreover, the island’s unique landforms, created by coastal erosion, have also inspired rich religious narratives told by the Amis indigenous people and imaginative legends of the Han Chinese people. These tales illustrate the very different histories, religions, and cultures of these two ethnic groups. Among Taiwanese adherents of Taoism, it is said that Sanxiantai (literally the Terrace of the Three Immortals) got its name because three of the Eight Immortals of Chinese mythology once stopped on the island. This is one example which illustrates just how pervasive the Taoist religious canon is in Taiwan.
The islet of Sanxiantai is located on the northeast edge of Taitung’s Chenggong Township. It has an area of twenty-two hectares, with its highest point reaching seventy-seven meters above sea level. It was formed by Tuluanshan Formation volcanic breccia agglomerates. It was originally a headland, but the sea gradually eroded the neck of the promontory, creating an offshore island. The most eye-catching feature of the landscape is its three large tors, or rocky prominences. The island was originally called Diaoyutai, the Fishing Terrace, but the name was later changed to Sanxiantai, or Terrace of the Three Immortals, because of a Taoist belief that three of the Eight Immortals—Li Tieguai, Lü Dongbing, and He Xiangu—once stopped to rest on the island. The Amis people call the island Nuwalian, which means the eastern-most land. Amis tradition holds that a sea dragon living in a cave on the seabed is the protector of the island. In the past, it could only be accessed by wading through the sea at low tide, but in 1987, the eight-arched Sanxiantai Footbridge was completed, linking the island with mainland Taiwan. Sanxiantai has since become one of the east coast’s most famous landmarks. The bridge was reopened at the end of 2015 after a temporary closure to repair damage due to erosion.
1The Three Immortals: A Chinese Legend
The Eight Immortals are a group of legendary immortals in Chinese mythology that are revered by Taoists. The earliest references to the legend were made in the Tang and Song dynasties (618 – 1279), when the first depictions of the Eight Immortals appeared in art. However, they weren’t fully fleshed out as individual characters until the late Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), when writer Wu Yuantai penned the novel The Eight Immortals Depart and Travel to the East. Wu gave them names (Li Tieguai, Zhongli Quan, Lü Dongbing, Zhang Guolao, He Xiangu, Cao Guojiu, Han Xiangzi, and Lan Caihe), backstories, and personalities. In his tale, they represented a cross-section of society—men and women, the young and the old, the poor and the rich. Local legend adds that Li Tieguai, Lü Dongbing, and He Xiangu stopped at Sanxiantai on their journey to rest. The island’s natural sea caves are believed to be the footprints they left behind. Another legend holds that the island’s three rocky prominences are the three immortals themselves. The positioning of Hehuan Cave and the Xianjian Gap between two of the rocks has been interpreted as the disastrous result of Li Tieguai interrupting a tryst between Lü Dongbing and He Xiangu.
2The Sea Dragon Legend of the Amis Tribe
Sanxiantai was once a popular fishing, hunting, and foraging spot for the Amis people, and is known by them Nuwalian—the eastern-most land. In Amis legend, the island was protected by a sea dragon named Cifawuan. The Amis people’s hunting and fishing practices emphasize the maintenance of ecological balance, and it was believed that the sea dragon would mete out punishment to fishermen and hunters who exceeded their needs. It was thanks to this belief that Amis people ruled that anyone who overfished or overhunted would have to pay a penalty of one cow to the tribe. Later, Sanxiantai became known for its abundance of sea snails, whose shells were sought after by businesses to be sold as souvenirs. As a result, the Amis people began scrambling to catch and sell the large shells. Upon seeing this behavior, the sea dragon let out a mournful cry and shook the land as a warning sign. His fury and indignation was so great that he died and was never seen again.
3Hehuan Cave (Eroded Cave), Xianjian Gap (Eroded Cliff)
Hehuan Cave and the Xianjian Gap are located between the Lü Dongbing prominence and the He Xiangu prominence. It is said that after these two immortals, together with Li Tieguai, arrived at Sanxiantai, Lü and He had a tryst inside Hehuan Cave. The meddlesome Li tried to peep, but was discovered by the deity guarding the Southern Heavenly Gate. The deity threw a double-edged sword from heaven, chopping the promontory in half to form the Xianjian Gap. Hehuan Cave was created by erosion. It has a maximum height of around ten meters, and its width and length are sufficient to hold a ten-meter-long wooden walkway. The Xianjian Gap was also carved out by the sea, and sea breezes often roar through the towering, craggy rocks. The beautiful landscape adds to the mystique of the island.
4The Sanxiantai Bridge
In the past, Sanxiantai was only accessible by wading through the water at low tide. To resolve this access problem, a 400-meter-long bridge connecting the island with Taiwan was built in 1987. Sanxiantai Bridge is composed of eight arches and is painted red and gray. From the side, it looks like a giant dragon leaping across the water. It is the most famous landmark in the Sanxiantai scenic area.
5The Sanxiantai Lighthouse
The Sanxiantai Lighthouse is located on top of the the Lü Dongbing prominence. It was built in 1915 by the Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan to serve as a navigation aid for ships sailing along the east coast. The white lighthouse is seven meters tall, and is situated 61.5 meters above sea level. In 1999, rechargeable solar batteries were installed to power the lighthouse’s lamp. Visitors must climb a winding staircase of over one hundred steps to reach the top of the lighthouse. It offers spectacular views of the terrain, including a marine trough, potholes, and wave-cut platforms, as well as magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean and the sky.
Sanxiantai is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Visitors are advised to pay close attention to weather conditions when scheduling their trip, and reminded to be careful of their safety and protect the natural ecology of the local environment.