Tsai gives an example of how rural thinking works. A few years ago when TRF research members Lin Le-xin (林樂昕) and Hsu Po-jen (許博任) went to investigate the land seizure in Siangsihliao (相思寮) in Changhua County’s Erlin Township (二林), the villagers at first thought they were government “spies.” Then one day at a meeting with government officials, the two helped to serve lunchboxes to the participating villagers and overheard them saying: “They are good kids. They are fine.”
“The village grannies have their way of observing and understanding the world. They trust you not because you come from such and such universities, but because you are a good kid and bring lunchboxes. And they say things like ‘the bandit leaves us a mouthful of rice to eat, but the government breaks our bowl’ (土匪還會留口飯，政府來卻弄破碗). These are the grassroots language and images that we want to repeat, spread and build to make them heard and recognized,” Tsai says.
Tsai values labor, not only the kind that gets your hands dirty, but also the dedication to constantly writing, discussing and narrating “what is important to our time.” The genial scholar’s devotion to the land, however, inevitably leads to her clashes with authorities. One incident took place in 2009, when Tsai and several other advocates hoped to speak at a meeting attended by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Asking them to wait until he finished his talk, Ma left the meeting right after the speech. Irked, Tsai rushed to Ma to deliver their petition but was stopped by his security detail. Later that day, the image of Tsai as a “middle-aged woman charging at Ma” was broadcast on national television. She couldn’t bring herself to watch television for a week and wrote an article reflecting on what being polite means.
“It got me thinking that if our body is a medium of expression, then why do we only accept the elegant body? Why can’t we accept a body that clashes, makes noise and brawls?” Tsai muses. “When you are barred and held back for merely attempting to deliver a petition, you realize that state violence is not an abstract idea. It is concrete. I think that when it comes to social movements, the bodily experience suggests a completely different approach to that of the abstract, such as the law and language.”
REFORM FROM BELOW
When asked whether the government’s handling of public issues will change, Tsai appears pessimistic. When hundreds of Hualong Textile Co employees launched a four-day march last year to protest against salary and pension cuts and layoff payouts, Tsai says that she was shocked by the indifference shown by the Ma administration.
The Presidential Office later said Ma acknowledged the workers’ situation, but it was not within their power to handle the issue.
“It sent chills down my spine. I remember thinking, ‘how can there be no response?’ My feeling is that Ma has his political agenda and chooses to pay no attention to domestic affairs. It doesn’t really matter now how protesters and social movement groups interact with the government,” she says.