Taiwan Culture Day, celebrated every Oct. 17, commemorates democracy pioneer Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水), who with Lin Hsien-tang (林獻堂) established the Taiwanese Culture Association on Oct. 17, 1921, setting in motion national movements and cultural enlightenment.
Among the many activities that were organized to commemorate the centennial, a lot of attention was paid to the cultural progress of the past 100 years and how far the nation has traveled to fulfill the spirit of “Taiwan for Taiwanese” and “Taiwan for the world,” slogans that the association used in their advocacy.
The association’s establishment was a product of its times. Taiwan went through modernization during the Japanese colonial era, as the authorities conducted basic surveys, promoted universal education, improved public health, built infrastructure, and reformed customs and practices.
During this time, the influence of Taisho Japan — the reign of Emperor Taisho from 1912 to 1926 — made its way to Taiwan. After World War I, then-US president Woodrow Wilson advocated national self-determination, which triggered national movements in many places around the world.
Taiwan, a Japanese colony at the time, was led by educated men and women who forged modern Taiwan through cultural, political and social efforts. Part of these efforts was the association’s goal to create “a self-help enlightenment movement for the social liberation and cultural advancement of Taiwanese,” as Japanese academic Tadao Yanaihara, known as the “conscience of Japan,” described it.
The association also inspired farmers’ and youth movements, and its members traveled to Tokyo to petition for the establishment of a local Taiwanese parliament, an event that led to 1923’s fierce crackdown under the Peace Order and Police Act of the time. Chiang and others were imprisoned upon their return to Taiwan from Tokyo.
The association later split due to divisions between left and right-leaning factions. Regardless, the association’s main influence was the cultural reform and liberation of thinking that it ignited.
Among these influences, Chiang’s Clinical Notes lecture, later published as an essay, was critical of Taiwanese society, while Tsai Pei-huo (蔡培火) advocated that “we are pioneers, not stupid slaves.”
The association’s anthem included the lines: “Develop culture and raise morality/be a happy citizen of the world/Taiwan has an excellent reputation,” highlighting its good intentions, ideals and broad-mindedness.
Chiang’s 100-year-old Clinical Notes has the strongest cultural criticisms, and it still deserves to be read and studied today.
Chiang, a physician, criticized the “disease” of Taiwanese society and culture. “The Taiwanese patient” suffered from “intellectual malnutrition” and was “the imbecilic child of world culture,” he said.
Taiwanese were sick from “a moral decay, decadence of the human heart, exuberant materialism, a poor spiritual life, ugly customs, deep-rooted superstitions, stubbornness, lack of understanding, careless regarding hygiene, shallow intellect, an inability to make permanent plans, only thinking of immediate profit, and being degenerate and lazy,” he said.
He stressed that the cultural movement was the only way to treat the disease’s underlying cause and that the association had a treatment.
Chiang’s prescriptions included “the maximum quantity of formal education, tutorial training, kindergartens, libraries and newspaper reading clubs.”
“If these doses are mixed and taken continuously, the condition can be cured within 20 years,” he said.
The association published a newspaper, the Taiwan Minpao (台灣民報), organized cultural schools free of cost — as well as cultural lecture groups and seminars — set up newspaper reading clubs, organized and performed cultural plays, and opened bookstores to promote the enlightenment movement in the hope of introducing the seeds of world civilization and reforming Taiwanese culture.
The emancipation of the mind initiated by the association began in the 1920s and flourished in the 1930s.
Today, Taiwanese society has made great progress, its economy is flourishing and it is a democracy with cultural pluralism.
Still, many of the sociocultural and national illnesses identified by Chiang remain in place, and this is the main challenge society faces as it commemorates the association.
Although Chiang’s cultural prescriptions — education, libraries and news media — have reached “maximum quantity,” there remains a need to improve the quality. The progress from a low literacy rate to today’s high levels is of limited value if “life education” is not instilled to improve the overall quality of schooling.
Furthermore, after World War II, the Chinese Communist Party worked vigorously to “de-Taiwanize” and “fully Sinicize” the nation, and the party-state authorities used their tight control of education and the media to suppress cultural diversity, stagnating identity development.
The result is that transitional justice has not yet been accomplished, and Taiwanese cultural self-confidence and refinement have often met resistance.
The mother tongues of ethnic groups have declined or even become extinct. “Taiwan for Taiwanese” is yet to be realized.
More fundamentally, changing the culture or national character requires a lot of time. The national characteristics that Chiang diagnosed — ugly customs, deep-rooted superstition, shallow intellect, an inability to make permanent plans and only thinking of immediate profit — remain in today’s political society.
It is clear that the cultural symptoms identified by our forebears 100 years ago still require effort to reverse.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther, the father of the Christian reformation, said: “The prosperity of a city-state does not lie in its possession of wealth, high walls and huge buildings, but in the presence of intelligent, competent, wise, honorable and well-educated citizens. They can acquire, hold and make good use of every resource.”
Raising the social and cultural quality of Taiwanese society, gaining the world’s respect in the process, was the ideal that Chiang and the other pioneers of the association aimed for.
When Taiwanese commemorate the founders of today’s society, they should not simply pay them their respects. Rather, a pragmatic plan to address this unfinished business must be designed and efforts must continue to make it a reality.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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