Taiwan Festival

The Culture of Taiwan

Chen Shih-sian’s “Love and Hatred” (2003) demonstrates the creative power of Chinese calligraphy. (Courtesy of Chen Shih-sian)
Taiwan is blessed with wonderful cultural diversity reflecting a free and open spirit molded by a complex set of historical circumstances and human migrations. For many millennia up until four centuries ago, it was home exclusively to a variety of Malayo-Polynesian groups, each with its own distinctive Austronesian language and customs. Since the early 17th century, the island has been a magnet for immigrants from all over China, bringing with them a wealth of linguistic, musical, dramatic and artistic traditions. 

Further, Taiwan was influenced by Japanese culture as the consequence of its being under Japanese colonial rule between 1895 and 1945 and by its close post-war ties with Japan. Taiwan’s people have also enthusiastically embraced Western culture, while recent years have witnessed an infusion of new influences from Southeast Asia introduced by immigrants primarily from Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. 

This confluence of currents of humanity has helped create an open-hearted, forward-looking society that has assimilated elements of civilization from around the world in a distinctive manner. The Taiwanese people’s adaptability to changing circumstances has been a crucial factor in the evolution of their effervescent artistic culture. In this realm, we find single-minded dedication to the preservation of the essence of old traditions combined with courage to strike out in new directions and charge past heritage with new vitality.
“Cape No. 7,” a film by Taiwanese director Wei Te-sheng, dramatizes the power of love to prevail over war and cultural prejudices. (Courtesy of Ars Film Production)
Take, for example, Taiwanese film director Ang Lee. His cinematic works—including “Sense and Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”—have won high acclaim, including two Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Awards, seven Academy Awards and eight Golden Globe Awards. Although “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is a Chinese-language film with a story based in China, its universal appeal has made it a hit in cinemas everywhere.

An up-and-coming Taiwanese movie director who has likewise demonstrated a breadth of vision that transcends narrow cultural mindsets is Wei Te-sheng, creator of the film “Cape No. 7.” Poignantly dramatizing the power of human love to prevail over the tragedy of war and the stupidity of ethnic prejudice, it has deeply moved the hearts of millions of moviegoers not only in Taiwan but in Japan, Korea and other countries.
Members of the Yami community celebrate the launch of a newly built boat on Orchid Island, off Taiwan’s southeast coast. (Wang Shun-hsiu, courtesy of the Tourism Bureau)
Meanwhile, Taiwan has produced a steady stream of talented documentary filmmakers whose works, though sadly not often commercially successful, are well worth seeing to anyone anywhere who wishes to appreciate Taiwan or contemplate the meaning of life. Documentaries such as “Let It Be,” which looks at the plight of some of Taiwan’s farming communities, have been of particularly great service in helping Taiwanese understand themselves and their cultural heritage. Among Taiwan-made documentaries that have been widely circulated abroad are those specially produced for the National Geographic Channel and the Discovery Channel.

In the realm of dance, Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai-min exemplifies the cross-cultural marriage of artistic sensibilities and themes. In his youth, he studied modern dance with the legendary Martha Graham. Over the past several decades, the Taipei-based Cloud Gate Dance Theatre he founded has yearly staged performances to rave reviews in New York City, Paris, London, Tokyo and other capitals of the arts.
Increasingly, museums utilize digital technology to enliven their educational displays. (GA Photos Group)
Playwright and stage director Lai Sheng-chuan (Stanley Lai) is another brilliant star in Taiwan’s arts firmament. After spending his early years in the United States, he returned to finish his secondary schooling in Taiwan during its authoritarian era. His insights into the human soul, garnered through his firsthand experiencing of greatly contrasting societies and reflection on philosophical and religious themes, have empowered him to create dramas of extraordinary depth. They have served as magical mirrors of self-understanding, at first for the people of Taiwan, later for wider audiences abroad. Critics around the globe concur with the BBC’s judgment that Lai is “the best Chinese-language playwright and director in the world.”

Among virtuoso performers who have given Taiwan’s traditional arts a modern mien are the members of U-Theatre, founded in 1988 by its artistic director, Liu Ruo-yu, who works in close cooperation with drumming master and star performer Huang Chih-chun, originally from Malaysia. U-Theatre’s dazzling displays of drumming in combination with martial arts-inspired acrobatic dancing movements have stunned international audiences. The performers’ verve derives not just from their finely honed technical skills, but from their daily practice of meditation, to put them in the clear and focused state of mind necessary to fully release their power.
U-Theatre’s marriage of acrobatic dancing and drumming dazzles audiences the world over. (Jimmy Lin)
A performing group that has made a tremendous contribution not only to Taiwan but to global civilization is the Han-Tang Yuefu Music Ensemble. Its members are exemplars of love and respect for age-old traditions wedded to a vitalizing sense of the here and now. To witness their performances, based on extensive, constant research, is to discover that Han Chinese musical traditions stretching back thousands of years are as fresh and vital today as ever. 

Love of Mother Nature, a passion for ceramics and an instinct for blending Eastern and Western artistic elements have inspired Francis Chen, founder of Franz Collection Inc., to devote his life to producing exquisite porcelain ware featuring delicately sculpted animal and flower motifs common to Chinese tradition while manifesting the spirit and style of Western Art Nouveau. Franz Collection’s porcelains are collectors’ items internationally. Accounting in part for this success is the guidance provided by the legendary ceramic artist Chao Sun, whose works are treasured by museums and art collectors in many nations.
The Franz Collection’s “Papillon” series received the “Best in Show” award at the 2002 New York International Gift Show. (Jimmy Lin)
In the case of Chang Mei-yun, it was a passion for needlework that put her in the international limelight. As a consequence of her peripatetic studies, she has become the master of some 1,600 stitching techniques as well as a wealth of weaving and dyeing techniques. Chang is the only Taiwanese certified by the Japanese government to restore embroidered artifacts. And when the Russian government wanted to restore a priceless centuries-old tsar’s crown and other ancient embroidered apparel while preserving their antique character, it was Chang they turned to. Between bouts of working on restoration projects for world-class museums, she is busy passing on her knowledge to the next generation as director of the Embroidery Research and Development Center at the Tainan University of Technology.

These are just a few of the many inspiring stories of Taiwanese whose quests for inner visions of beauty and outward expressions of excellence have enriched humanity. For the past half century, for example, Taiwan has been the overwhelming trendsetter in the Chinese-language popular music scene. Taiwanese singers such as Chang Huei-mei (“A-mei,” who belongs to the Amis indigenous group) and Chou Chieh-lun (Jay Chou) have become superstars beloved throughout East Asia and beyond. 

With more and more Taiwanese people awakening to the primacy of cultural quality over material quantity and technological power, Taiwan’s cultural and creative industries can look forward with confidence to an ever-brighter future.

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