Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

2019.3: Richard Kagan, A Review of Sophie McIntyre’s Imagining Taiwan: The Role of Art in Taiwan’s Quest for Identity (1987-2010). Brill Press, 2018.

This study cracks open a new perception of Taiwan and its artistic contribution to the public.  Its readership should include artists, students, politicians, entrepreneurs, and museum directors.  The reason for this declaration is a response to the need to recognize that Taiwan is more than an issue in the geopolitical struggles of China and the United States.  News about Taiwan in America and Asia spouts out from the charges and counter charges of Taiwan’s status and legitimacy:  is it an independent country or a renegade province of China?  Is it Chinese?  Or a so-called maritime nation of immigrants and a melting pot of cultures?  Should it be still considered as a part of Chinese civilization or has it moved into a cosmopolitan track of its own?  

Sophie McIntyre is an independent Australian scholar who has dovetailed her vocations in museum studies with a fine appreciation for art and an enviable ability to create friendships with and understanding of a vast array of artists.  These admirable endeavors have been enhanced by a fine writing style which has weaved stories of artistic evolution through fifty years of endeavors. 

Besides a life of curating art exhibitions, university teaching, learning Chinese, interviewing artists, and publishing many articles on Taiwanese art, she has spent twenty-five years studying and following Taiwan’s most productive and famous modern museum—The Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM).  Organized initially in 1983, it has been a pioneer in promoting the energies and accomplishments of modern art on the island, including performance and participatory exhibitions, sometimes satire and criticism of the Chinese historical traditions as well as current political leaders, a profusion of artistic varieties of sound, sensations, film, interactive and international expressions.  She records in detail the lives of artists who are engaged in gender and feminist issues, local culture, personal and social identity issues, and radically innovative artistic alternatives to the traditional Chinese emphases on painting—flowers, landscapes, portraits, dynastic treasures, and restrictions on emotional or magical intensity. 

Ms. McIntyre’s theme is how Taiwan artists have continuously reconceptualized Taiwan’s identity.  The original context for this project was dropped on Taiwan by the PRC and its political supporters in Taiwan (the Kuomintang and other Chinese nationalists) and their claim that Taiwan is both a part of China and a product of Chinese civilization.  During the rule of Chiang Kai-shek, the Republic of China government on the island forbade the public speaking of the Taiwanese language and the study of Taiwanese history, and viewed as traitors Taiwanese who advocated for independence.  When Taiwan was evicted from its seat on the UN Security Council in favor of the People’s Republic of China and withdrew from the UN, the PRC instituted policies to recover the island—either through peaceful means or invasion.

Until martial law in Taiwan was rescinded in 1987, it was illegal to study or publish Taiwan’s true history.  It is not surprising that the first changes in artistic content after 1987 focused on local culture and the authentic history of Taiwan.  Artists focused on two forms of local art:  the indigenous tribes that had lived in Taiwan for many centuries, and the Taiwanese who had ancestors under the foreign rulers of Taiwan (Manchus, Japanese).  An explosion of publications, art exhibits, talk shows, educational opportunities, and political advocacy and human rights organizations changed the public discussion of Taiwan’s origins and identity: Taiwanese were different from the citizens and rulers of the PRC. They also attacked politicians in Taiwan who supported a one China policy.  Statues of Chiang Kai-shek on college campuses and in town squares were torn down.  A new set of national heroes arose who had been jailed, exiled, or murdered by the Chinese ruling class in Taiwan. 

The popularity of this cultural reaction, which still exists today, was slowly eroded by other concerns.  Painting as the main form of artistic expression was replaced by performance and installation art focused on current issues as well as international themes.  The old emphasis on the value of Chinese culture was either downplayed or absent.  This art often engages in emotions, mystical feelings, private fears, and the human consequences of living under the rules of the Nationalist Chinese regime and threats from mainland China. There is a feeling of European Dadaism, a sense of flight from political and historical icons of the past.  For instance, the nearly sacred idol of calligraphy has been turned over with new forms and absurd characters. The Chinese language is manipulated and undermined by the weird juxtaposition of its characters with meanings and purposes that are iconoclastic.  Additionally, there has been a return to localism.  Artists have gone into rural areas to learn about the lives and values of people. Children and families have been given the opportunity to make walls with tiles that represent their lives.  Entrepreneurs have organized community gardens for the poor. 

With the thawing of relations between China and Taiwan during the Ma administration, Taiwanese artists had opportunities to exhibit their work in Chinese cities.  At times there were cooperative shows between Chinese and Taiwanese artists. These experiences were not always happy or productive.  For some Taiwanese, these overseas activities of their compatriots were somewhat anti-Taiwan.  Chinese hosts often did not treat their guest artists well:  they would change the titles of the Taiwanese artwork and sometimes did not treat their colleagues from Taiwan equitably.  And, of course, hanging over all was the (Chinese) expectation that Taiwanese artists would accept the idea that they, too, were Chinese and that Taiwan was part of the motherland.

Since then, the emphasis in Taiwan has shifted from the issue of Taiwan’s separate history to cosmopolitanism.  Taiwanese see themselves as members of a civilization that draws its strength not from its past but from its connection with the rest of the world.  The dramatically crafted ceiling of the Kaohsiung subway combines the coloration of a European-style cathedral with symbols of the solar system, universe, and Taiwan’s history.  Taiwanese are not termed “bigrants.”  This new identity collapses the actions of emigration and immigration and replaces it with someone who is comfortably living in two or more places.  This “bigrant” absorbs the identity of both habitats.   The individual or family learns the local language, decorates their living area with cultural artifacts from each culture, raises their children with the learning of multiple pasts and presents, and becomes acculturated in the clothing fashions, the cuisine, and the habits of their locale.

For Taiwanese engaged in these artistic, social, and economic activities, the key to their political beliefs is a commitment to democracy, human rights, and social justice.  These attitudes were born out of the struggle for Taiwanese identity.  And they gathered strength through the achievements of new art forms.   

Ms. McIntyre avoids trying to give a larger meaning to her study.  She does not predict how the claims and counter claims about Taiwan’s diplomatic existence will work out.  So, I feel it necessary to draw a conclusion on my own about the macro significance of her work.  The major problem with the debate between Taiwan and China’s positions is that it deals only with the statements of the political leadership in both countries.  Just as important as documentation about the historical roots and the current policies of these two contenders is the realization and acceptance that general attitudes in both countries is more determined by artistic culture than by resolutions issued by the UN or the governments of the United States, China, Taiwan, or Japan.  The people themselves are no longer under the authoritarian mental hammer that forms their mentality about their identity.  True, China has not yet reached this terrain of freedom of thought and movement.  But it can if we begin to recognize that culture based on freedom will create the world of the future. 


Asians, Americans, Europeans and the citizens of the world need to turn their attention to Taiwan’s art world in order to absorb how culture and artistic vision needs to be protected, expanded, and used as a standard for our political system and the creation of a cosmopolitan world. It is clear (to me) that Taiwanese are creating a new civilization through its fusion of international culture.  To demand that Taiwan should be ruled by a government that bases its legitimacy on a discredited and rejected past would lead to massive repression and conflict that would fester for many decades. This result would burden not only the Taiwanese, but the Chinese who would be forced to impose it, and the rest of the world that would witness it. 

robert shepherdComment