There has been an uproar these past few days over the Taiwan Railways Administration’s new Hello Kitty-themed Taroko Express service. Passengers have apparently stolen hundreds of Hello Kitty seat headrest covers, taking them home as souvenirs. Where has public spirit gone?
Public-spiritedness has been in short supply in Taiwan since the end of World War II. In 1963, a US student, Don Baron, wrote an article called “Public Warmth and Morality” (人情味與公德心), decrying the lack of the latter among Taiwanese, despite the abundance of the former. It was not calmly received, and yet, here we are, more than five decades later.
Although it is difficult to argue that Taiwanese society has not progressed at all, the fact is public-spiritedness is a cultural issue. The Chinese culture that was grafted atop Taiwan after the war is sadly lacking in this virtue, and that gaping lack is something that needs to be addressed.
It has not always been like this. The generation who grew up during the Japanese colonial period, the “Doosan” generation (多桑世代), were instructed in manners and deportment from elementary school. This education taught students not to spit in public, to observe proper hygiene, comport themselves in a respectful manner, refrain from being loud or vexatious and avoid bringing trouble to others.
They were also taught the importance of punctuality, hard work, honesty, trustworthiness and discipline, and to obey the law. This was life education, as everyday life meant having high expectations of oneself and of thinking of others. People do not live in isolation and have to integrate with society, and this starts with self-discipline and public-spiritedness.
During the Meiji Restoration period, Japan, with its highly integrated social structure that valued the group over the individual, used education to instil morality and public spirit in everyday life. Taiwan under Japanese rule was influenced by this, and it was under this influence that the Doosan generation, and the special characteristics of the individual and group dynamics therein, was formed.
What happened? Chinese culture happened, and the public-spiritedness so widespread in Taiwan under Japanese rule was eroded. When democracy pioneer Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) returned from studying in Japan to Taiwan six months after the end of World War II, he bemoaned the disappearance of the “Japanese Taiwan” he knew and how it had turned into a “Chinese Taiwan.” Boarding a train at Keelung, he witnessed the chaos at the train station, with passengers fighting each other to get onboard and claim the best seats, and the terrible state the carriage was in.
Public morality regressed in Taiwan during the post-war period, and we still see the same kind of behavior Peng witnessed in the parents and teachers that form the post-war generation who did not receive the life education the Doosan generation had. People yelling into their mobile phones, drivers cutting others off, parking where they please and not giving way to pedestrians, people riding on sidewalks, pedestrians throwing garbage on the street, and temple-goers burning incense and spirit money without any thought about pollution.
We can compare ourselves favorably with China, but when it comes to living in a civilized, advanced society, we are far behind Japan and the West. So, yes, people have stolen Hello Kitty covers from a train, but not before, and as a direct consequence of, Chinese culture stealing the sense of public morality and spiritedness that Taiwan enjoyed under the Japanese. This, together with the 228 Massacre, are the legacies we have of the Chinese regime taking over Taiwan.
Lu Shih-hsiang is an adviser to the Taipei Times.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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