Sun Moon Lake, so called because prior to the CE 921 earthquake that sunk most of the island at its center, the size and shape of the lake was considerably different compared to today, with its one side suggestive of the moon (i.e., crescent-shaped) and its other side suggestive of the sun (and adding to the changed shape of the lake is the fact that during the Japanese rule (1895-1945) over Taiwan, rivers were diverted to the lake for the purpose of hydroelectric production, thus raising the level of the lake), is located in the north-south, east-west, geographical center of the island of Taiwan. Sun Moon Lake is also centred between the island's mountainous region to the east and its plains region to the west. More locally, the lake is situated near the town of Yuchi, at the foot of Taiwan's Chungyang Mountain Range, aka the Central Mountain Range.
Sun Moon Lake has other names, among them the lake's older, Thao name (the Thao being the most numerous aboriginal tribe that lived near the lake when the first mainland Chinese people arrived), Shuishalian (alternatively, Shuisheli), meaning "where water and sand meet", and its first European name, Lake Candidius, a name given to the lake by the late 19th century Scottish missionary, William Campbell, in honor of the 17th century Dutch missionary, Georgius Candidius. Sun Moon Lake is also called Taiwan's "Number One Pearl", which is partly a reference to the beauty of the lake itself and partly a reference to the now very small island at its center, Guanghua Island (called "Lalu" in the Thao language) which is to today's Sun Moon Lake like a pearl nestled in the center of an oyster.
Sun Moon Lake originated from the runoff and the seepage from neighboring Mount Yu and Mount Ali (the latter more commonly known by both tourists and the natives alike as "Alishan"). To give an idea of the relative size of the lake, which has a circumference of 35 kilometers (21 ¾ mi) and covers over 900 hectares (2224 acres), it is a third larger than Hanghou's famous West Lake. Present-day Sun Moon Lake, thanks in part to the raised water level as a result of the rivers which now also feed it, is a rather deep lake, averaging 50 meters (55 yards) in depth. It is also Taiwan's largest naturally-occurring freshwater lake, and held this status even before the Japanese diverted rivers into the lake.
Sun Moon Lake Tourist Area comprises 6 theme parks, which include a nature park, a peacock park, a butterfly park, a bird park, a religious park and a scenic-view park, the latter with 8 special vantage points for viewing the surrounding terrain. Part of the beauty of Sun Moon Lake is its changing nature, which varies both with the times of the day and with the different seasons. For example, in early morning, before the birds begin to stir, the lake is deathly quiet, it is a din of noise during the middle of the day, while at sunset only the larger birds remain and quiet again settles over the lake, with the fiery red, orange, pink and purple clouds of sunset reflected on its unbroken surface. Sun Moon Lake adopts a completely different enchanting character during misty weather, and in drizzling rain, the deep green of the surrounding mountains is reflected in the lake, imparting yet another mystical character to the lake. But perhaps the most picturesque view of Sun Moon Lake can be had on a clear, calm night during a full moon, when the small island at the center of the lake's unbroken surface takes on the image of a pearl set in an oyster - or, as a poet once put it, when "clear lake embraces pearl".
As suggested above, the terrain around Sun Moon Lake is a large part of the lake's attraction, which is why the tourist area includes a the park devoted to special vantage points from which to view these majestic sights. In addition to the area's beautiful natural scenery, there are two prominent temples near Sun Moon Lake: Syuanzang Temple and Wen Wu ("Civil & Military") Temple. [Note that on the mainland, the "sy" sound is typically represented by the single letter "x"... accordingly, the name of the somewhat helpless monk in the famous 16th century Chinese novel, Pilgrimage to the West (aka Journey to the West), who travelled to India to learn about Buddhism first-hand - and for whom Syuanzang Temple is named - is spelled "Xuanzang" on the mainland, not "Syuanzang". (Because Xuanzang was somewhat helpless, Buddha found him the following three admirably suited - albeit, all of rather unlikely appearance - helpers, or disciples:
Sun Wukong, aka Monkey King, a fearless, powerful but enlightened monkey and devout Buddhist who caused a lot of stir in Heaven and who therefore was banished to earth... he is kept in check by a band around his head that he cannot himself remove (note that the nickname of the famous novel in question - and in fact the name most commonly used to refer to it - is Monkey);
Zhu Bajie ("Pig of the Eight Prohibitions") cum Zhu Wuneng ("Pig Awakened to Power"), aka Pig, a fallen immortal who was sent back to earth to be born into the human cycle again, but who accidentally ended up in the womb of a sow, hence his suggestive appearance; and
Sha Wujing ("Sand Awakened to Purity"), aka Sandy, another fallen immortal who was sent back to earth to be born as a monster because he clumsily dropped (and smashed) one of the Heavenly Queen Mother's crystal goblets during the annual Peach Banquet).
Xuanzang is claimed to have died on Guanghua Island, the small island in the center of Sun Moon Lake.]
Syuanzang Temple is located on the piedmont called Dark Green Dragon situated south of Sun Moon Lake, while Civil & Military Temple is located on the mountain slope situated north of Sun Moon Lake. Another well-known Buddhist temple located on the mountain slope north of Sun Moon Lake is Syuanzhuang Temple, which features a statue of Syuanzhuang Rabbit, a saint who was consacrated during the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty. The characters, "National Rabbit", appear on a stele above the temple's entrance. An adjacent building with quintessentially Chinese upturned eaves ("flying eaves") contains many paintings and calligraphic works devoted to the history of the temple. On the third floor of Syuanzhuang Temple is a small pagoda that contains the relics of the Syuanzhuang Rabbit.
A third edifice in the Syuanzhuang Temple complex is a 9-storey building located behind the temple called Charity Pagoda and which possibly predates the temple itself. It is a copy of an old, Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty pagoda. Chimes hang from its eaves on every storey, creating a symphony of music that visitors find fascinating. Charity Pagoda's upper section also offers an excellent view of Sun Moon Lake and its environs. Inside Civil & Military Temple is a statue of Confucius (BCE 551-479), one of China's most influential thinkers and educators of all time (Confucius would most likely be called a philosopher today). The temple houses statues of various other religious and philosophical figures throughout China's illustrious history. There is a stone pathway that leads from Sun Moon Lake to the temple which contains exactly 365 steps, and which has been dubbed 'the pathway to heaven'.
Other attractions in the immediate vicinity of Sun Moon Lake include a number of villages belonging to the Gaoshan Clans, who comprise the following subgroups: the Ami, the Atayal, the Bunun, the Kavalan, the Paiwan, the Puyuma, the Saisiyat, the Sakizaya, the Rukai, the Tao (formerly the Yami), the Taroko, the Tsou and of course the Thao. Ever since the reunification of Taiwan with China following the end of Japanese rule at the close of WWII, these aboriginal subgroups have been collectively known as the Gaoshan, or the "Mountain People". The Gaoshan Clans are quite proficient at dancing and singing, and perform a rice harvest dance that is very popular among tourists.
Beginning in 1919, Taiwan's Japanese rulers built hydroelectric power plants on Sun Moon Lake. The power plant that was constructed on the lake in 1934 was considered one of the major international infrastructure projects of its time. The Japanese also built a railroad line, the Jiji Line, to be used in the construction of the 1934 hydroelectric power plant, just as the Japanese similarly built a railroad on Alishan for the purpose of mining the mountain's vast coal reserves.
There is an annual, mid-Autumn Festival on Sun Moon Lake, where a special swimming event is held, though swimming is not otherwise permitted on the lake - at least not for the public at large. In connection with the mid-Autumn Festival, a fireworks show and a laser show are staged, just as various music concerts are also an important feature of the festival. Though in recent years Sun Moon Lake has been primed, as it were, as a major tourist attraction, it has in fact been regarded as a national natural and cultural treasure ever since the late 17th century, when the then Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty government recognized the beauty of the lake, and a later Qing government conferred on it the status of 'one of the eight famous scenic sights of Taiwan'. Today, with many other tourist attractions on Taiwan competing for popularity, Sun Moon Lake is considered one of the thirteen most important tourist sites on Taiwan.