After decades of political turmoil and international isolation, Taiwan has managed to build a democratic system and a free society that form the basis for a vibrant culture, Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) yesterday told the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei (AmCham Taipei).
“Some of you may see performances by Cloud Gate or watch movies by Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢) and Ang Lee (李安), and some of you may know that Taiwan’s public intellectuals are widely read in China, Hong Kong and Singapore,” Lung said. “What is behind this cultural velocity? [To answer,] let me get into a bit of history.”
Lung began her speech with a recollection of her childhood under martial law. Lung said her generation learned to write calligraphy and know Confucius’ Analects by heart. They read poems from the Tang and Sung dynasties.
“During that time of political constraint, people were jailed for reading the wrong book,” Lung said, adding that Taiwanese youngsters read Zola, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Sartre.
“In the 1970s, when a guy wanted to get a girl’s attention, he carried under his arm a book to reveal his intellectual status. Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov was a popular choice,” she said.
Decades later, when her then six-year-old son came home from school with a big map, Lung said she was surprised to find that it was a map detailing each river, forest and hill of the small German village in which they lived at the time.
“We as children in Taiwan never learned about our own villages. We only studied the map of China,” Lung said.
The country’s soul-searching began in the 1970s after Taiwan lost its UN seat, followed by a series of diplomatic setbacks, Lung said.
“When the US broke diplomatic relations with us, we were devastated. Some thought the island would sink,” she said. “Meanwhile, a very fundamental question has been asked: If the world community does not think we are Chinese, who are we then?”
What Lung dubbed the “Our Movement” swept the nation during the 1980s as students went to fishing and farming villages and Aboriginal hamlets to do voluntary work, while artists, writers and intellectuals started to ask: “What are our own songs, dances and literature?”
Now the country is thought to be a “small, robust cultural powerhouse,” she said. “So the next time you see a performance of Cloud Gate or U-Theatre and feel inspired, please think about how they have come so far and why Taiwanese people seem so passionate about this place they call home.”