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Monday, January 17, 2011

Facing The Rising Sun: Biking Through Taiwan's Japanese Legacy

Martial Arts Dojo (Taichung City)

Anywhere I go riding in Taiwan it is not too uncommon to discover hidden fragments of a built environment that has been actively obscured, defaced, replaced and recovered, not through the ravages of time, as much as through the clash of ideologies and identities. These fragments, and I call them fragments, as they are often just a few remaining structures that were once woven together comprising a whole of a much larger structure (and I mean this in the physical and metaphorical sense of symbols and meaning), despite appearing silent and dead, scream with meaning and insight into the dialectic between the state, ideologies, cultures, identities, coloniality and modernity, history and place. As fragments they simultaneously beg the questions, “Why are they still here?” and “Why aren’t they still here?” I am talking about the buildings and structures dating from the period when Taiwan was included within the realm of the Japanese Empire.

Martial Arts Center (Changhua City, Bagua Shan)

Let me first take a moment to explain the verbose language of that final sentence. The period of Japanese colonialism is often referred to by the politically and ideologically loaded term, “Japanese Occupation”. I disagree with this term as it masks the nature of the 50 years of Japanese control of Taiwan as a colonial project. An “occupation” suggests territory occupied by a foreign invader, which wasn’t the case as Taiwan was ceded by the Qing Empire to the Empire of Japan in 1895, “in perpetuity”. I chose to avoid simply using “Japan” to avoid conflating the cosmology of the former Japanese Imperial state apparatus with the current constitutional monarchy established after WWII. I think a definite acknowledgement of the discontinuity of state ideology needs to be made. Lastly, I feel the entire Japanese Empire was a dynamic structure that followed a particular trajectory of change throughout its existence beginning with the colonization of Hokkaido in the 1870’s and therefore the meaning of the terms “Japan” and “Japanese” took on different meanings in relation to space and temporality. We often imagine past structures, like Japan, based on their contemporary form and thus lose much of the meaning from past imaginings of our subject, therefore meanings of the past get easily confused with the sentiments of the present. From this point forward I will use the term “Japanese colonial period”, to refer to Taiwan’s experience between 1895 and 1945.

Bank (Changhua)

The salience in these structures comes from understanding Taiwan’s colonial and problematic post-colonial experience.
During the period prior to WWII, the Chinese nationalists embarked on a bifurcated culturalization and nationalization campaign that sought to validate Chinese nationalist elites claims to power trough their beliefs and expressions of modernism. Much like the Japanese, the Chinese Nationalists incorporated “western: concepts of modernity into a highly centralized ideology. Modernism provided the Nationalist elites with a basis from which they could claim legitimacy and the legitimacy of their program.

Modernist Architecture (Hsiluo, Yunlin)

On the other hand, as Chiang Kai-sheck sought to consolidate his power over the entire territory formerly governed by the Qing Empire, he sought to impose a highly centralized national culture on the citizenry. Much of Chiang’s claims to legitimize state culture were rooted in traditionalism, or imagined traditionalism. It was during this period of consolidation that Chiang codified these beliefs in the New Life ideology, which served to construct and for the first time codify the meaning of Chinese culture. Nationalist scholars and officials were tasked with identifying and selecting “guji 古蹟”, or “the vestiges of ancient times”. Under the Nationalist government these guji were to represent links to an unbroken “Chinese” past and symbolize the conflation of Han ethnic nationalism into Chinese state culturalism. The term was specifically used during the early Republican period to identify, establish and protect structures, sites and relics that could be deployed as memes of nationhood between the fractious territories that currently comprises the modern Chinese nation state. This was a dire task as much of the former Qing Empire was not interested in becoming incorporated into a single centrality and many regions sought independence or political autonomy from the central government.

Taisho Era School (Ching Shui)

Although the term “guji 古蹟”was used in an official capacity during the consolidation of the Republic and later enshrined in the 1946 R.O.C. Constitution, it was finally codified in 1982 under the Cultural Property Preservation Ordinance 文化資產保存法 and the Cultural Property Preservation Executive Act 文化資產保存法施行細則 as part of the greater Chinese Cultural Renaissance Movement; an unofficial program of state defined “Chinese” culturalism that sought to rein in growing cosmopolitan attitudes and better challenge the People’s Republic of China for cultural legitimacy of the Chinese nation. Another emphasis of the program was to promote and enforce KMT/Chinese cultural nationalism programs, which had primarily failed over the 40 years of Nationalist rule. Taiwanese attitudes were ambivalent at most toward the symbolism, imagery and more importantly, the Chinese nostalgia the Kuomintang and their followers hoped to promote and instill in mainstream Taiwanese society. On the contrary, beginning with the Chung-li incident in 1977, Taiwanese felt emboldened to reject KMT/Chinese cultural nationalism and explore alternative cultural and national narratives that were not China-centric and that included Japanese, Dutch and other cultural influences on Taiwanese histories, cultures and attitudes.

Ku Family Residence (Lukang)

As it was applied, the term guji served to officially signify buildings protected as historical treasures by the government. The term guji and its application has been closely associated with the ideals of Sunism and the Chinese nation-state. Jeremy Taylor points out that the stated goal of the Chinese Property Preservation Executive Act was “to preserve cultural property, to embody the spirit of the nation’s citizens, and to promote Chinese culture”1. The formulation of these goals fits closely with the KMT’s social project of civilizing and transforming Taiwanese people from something “degraded” into something “improved”—a form of colonization. The values embodied in these and similar acts of legislating culture were very specifically aimed at promoting a Chinese nationalist vision of the past, or more accurately, the Chinese nationalist’s imagination of an anachronous historical Chinese nation to better enforce Chinese Nationalist concepts of patriotism. The value of guji, heavy with themes of “patriotism”, martyrdom” and “nationalism” demonstrate the purposeful framing of the ancient to suit the contemporary ideological tropes of the Chinese Nationalist state and draw Taiwanese in from the periphery through a new set of socializing memes.

Lukang Train Station

One major development to emerge from the codification of guji in the 1980’s was an official definition of the “ancient” on Taiwan. The formulation conceived by the framers of the guji legislation was that the simple criterion that guji structures had to be “over one century old”, which not only adopts earlier formulations of pre-Republican structures, but integrates and imagines concepts of “ancient Taiwan” in the wider trope of “five thousand years of Chinese civilization”, which became a mainstay of Chinese nationalist ideology. The “century” clause not only integrated into Chinese nationalist imaginings of cultural inheritance, it also positioned Taiwan on the far periphery of Chinese authenticity in relation to the imagined authenticity of a mythic 5000 year-old center, degrading the historical significance of Taiwan in place of the glorious center of China. Furthermore, the “century clause” acted to dislocate Taiwan’s experience as a Japanese colony from being authenticated by official state recognition. It is for this reason that the Japanese colonial period is frequently misidentified as an “occupation”.

Art Deco in Hsiluo

This overt use of cultural relics to promote Chinese nationalism and nationalist ideology while denying Taiwan’s unique historical trajectory has inevitably led to a situation where a Taiwanese history and culture exists in a problematic post colonial world in which the ROC government has simply replaced prior colonial structures with its own model, but serving the same purpose. The amount of social engineering that has both propped up and encumbered the ROC state has also prevented Taiwan from truly entering the post colonial era.

Huwei Train Station and Administrative Building (Huwei, Yunlin)

Taiwan’s rapid democratization in the 1990’s led to a radical reinterpretation of Taiwanese history and cultural heritage as social and political actors sought alternatives to the schemes kept in place by authoritarian rule. The power of local memories directed against the monolithic state constructs pushed for a reinterpretation of Taiwan’s historical experience and a shift to viewing Taiwan, not as a periphery, but as a cultural and historical centrality.

Great Hsiluo Bridge (Designed by Japanese 1937)

Since the post authoritarian era ushered in by Lee Teng-hui, there has been a growing space for alternative histories to be debated in the public sphere. Taiwan’s Japanese colonial experience has since been continually reexamined and renegotiated against the backdrop of the Chinese nationalist orthodoxy as professional and amateur historians have assailed the grand national narratives preferred by the pro-nationalist elite; narratives which favor the Chinese nationalist status as social and cultural elites.

Jinguashi Mining Industrial Complex (Jinguashi, Taipei County)

The remnants of the built environment under Japanese colonial rule has emerged as a major battleground in the fight between these forces, which favor Taiwan as either a Chinese periphery or a Taiwanese centrality. With Taiwan maintaining its own government and social structures for the past half century, the rise in “local”/indigenous or people’s histories in opposition to the Chinese nationalist historical activism was almost inevitable. The structures remaining from the Japanese colonial era serve as a constant reminder of the juxtaposition between the shared Taiwanese historical memory and the official ROC history that is reified through public ritualization.

Rin Nei Shinto Shrine (Lin Nei)

Over the past two decades, Taiwanese academics and intellectuals, with the help of local governments, have actively sought to preserve and restore the dilapidated structures built during Taiwan’s fifty-year span as a Japanese colony. Structures marked for preservation no longer have to serve the purpose of promoting Chinese nationalism or a Han-centric culture.

Shrine For War Dead (Tanzih/Fengyuan)

It is impossible to avoid the Japanese imprint on the Taiwanese landscape. Taiwan’s modern cities owe their shape and structure to the Japanese imperial values of rationalized modernity. It takes little to imagine the tectonic shift that occurred in Taiwanese society as a modernist infrastructure project marked by grid-style city streets, public utilities, electric lighting and art-deco facades replaced the randomized Qing era red brick sprawl that centered around former plains aborigine villages. Not only did this new built environment constitute a new ideology, but it also brought with it new expectations as Taiwanese gained self-awareness as a collectivity in contrast to their Japanese rulers.

Shrine For Taiwanese War Dead (Fengyuan)

The growing interest to preserve the symbols of the emergence or recognition of a separate Taiwanese identity has put the built environment at the fore of the discussion regarding Taiwan’s cultural and historical space and future.
Taiwan’s Shinto shrines have become a popular subject for this debate. Many of the original shrines have been destroyed and replaced by gaudy symbols of the ROC, such as the Tse En Pagoda at Sun Moon Lake, or transformed into Buddhist monasteries like Ba Gua Shan in Changhua. Other shrines were simply defaced and turned into martyr’s shrines for the war dead of the ROC. For many of these remaining shrines, only lack of funding provided for their rescue.

Immorod Shinto Shrine (Orchid Island)

The local interest in preserving and restoring these relics and shrines has also provided an opportunity for Taiwanese to craft their own historical meanings at the community level and provoke discussion; an act that was discouraged and often illegal in the government paranoia in the decades before 1988.

Tong Xiao Shinto Shrine/Martyr's Shrine (Tong Xiao, Miaoli)

In many instances communities have not only readily embraced the reconstruction and renovation of Japanese symbolism in the built environment, but they have also embraced the reconstruction of historical memory from the perspective of the local. The preservation of these remnants of Taiwan’s colonial past are serving to help Taiwanese offer up a counterweight to the tropes and narratives thrust upon them from a non-Taiwanese state structure and therefore continue to be filled with symbolic meaning that finds salience today, especially as we consider the current drive to observe the centenary of the ROC.

Tong Xiao Shinto Shrine/Martyr's Shrine (Tong Xiao, Miaoli)

While riding through Taiwan it is quite common to locate these remnants of Taiwan’s colonial past. Just as it is important to stop and consider why they still remain and why the local community has kept these structures, it is also important to reflect on the places where there is lack. Why are they missing and for whom have they been obscured. Therein lies the riddle of Taiwan’s problematic post coloniality.

Lantern of Former Dahu Shinto Shrine (Dahu, Miaoli)

1. Taylor. Jeremy E.2005.Reading History Through The Built Environment in Eds. John Makeham and A-chin Hsiao, Cultural, Ethnic, And Political Nationalism In Contemporary Taiwan: Bentuhua. Palgrave Macmillan


  1. Excellent post, Drew. One of the most interesting Japanese era sights I have seen recently is the Ciaotou sugar factory north of Kaohsiung. The factory was the first modern industrial complex to open in Taiwan. The mix of buildings is fascinating, in particular the Dutch-Colonial houses with Japanese features. Of course for restored Japanese era sites one can hardly top the 95km Batonguan Trail, with its numerous stele commemorating battles against the Bunun, and the remains of forts, police stations, and even telephone lines. Btw, can I ask where you bought or borrowed "Cultural, Ethnic, And Political Nationalism In Contemporary Taiwan: Bentuhua." Sounds like a great read.

  2. Thanks for reading. This post took a lot of time and thought, but went largely unnoticed.

    I agree... there are so many of these old sites that mean a lot locally, but were razed or left to rot for decades. I would love to ride more in the south and I don't know why we don't. Next time we go down we'll look you up.

    I bought that book online. I think the editor has written some fantastic stuff on Taiwan. You are welcome to borrow it.

  3. Great work. I just have a query about a photo "Rin Nei Shinto Shrine (Lin Nei)". The string(竹山鎮公所) on the Torii says it is "Jhushan Town Hall". This picture might be took in the Jhushan, Nantou County instead of Lin Nei, Yulin County.

  4. Lin nei is right across the way. During the Japanese era it was administered slightly differently. Now the site is owned by the KMT.

  5. A great post, with a great set of photos to match! However, the pictures "Shrine For War Dead (Tanzih/Fengyuan)" and "Shrine For Taiwanese War Dead (Fengyuan)" look as though they were shot at Paochueh (Baojue) Temple in Taichung (the one with the giant Laughing Buddha).

  6. You're probably right. I couldn't remember where that was.

  7. I love your blog Drew. I am really glad that you are writing this stuff, in English, so that a wider audience can have insight into Taiwan. Bravo! And kudos for the hard work it must have taken to put this together.

  8. Thanks Dom!

    I'll try to do do better. I still have a lot of ideas, but not enough free time.

  9. Great post! Have to fix one error though, you say Japan is a "democratic republic" a factor which is not the case. It has a constitutional monarchy (Emperor of Japan in charge) with a Prime Minister as head of parliament, exact same to the Westminster system. So Japan isn't a republic like the United States since it has a monarchy.

  10. You're right. I guess the poetics of writing took over. I'll get that.