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Taipei Diary No. 2. History and Transculturality

Veröffentlicht am 14.05.2018

The first time I came to Taiwan was in 2005. I spent several weeks on the campus of the National Taiwan University and traveled the entire island plus the Matsu islands. In 2016 I came back to give a lecture at the Taipei National University of the Arts and to mentor students in a Swiss-Asian collaboration program. For reasons I am only now beginning to grasp, I fell in love with Taiwan from the very start. I tend to romanticize in-between, ambivalent, liminal, hybrid phenomena but I daresay nonetheless: precisely the in-betweenness and the liminality of Taiwan contribute to its uniqueness. Traditionally, uniqueness was linked to a strong, clear identity. Taiwan is genuinely hybrid — and unique in its hybridity.

The history of Taiwan shows that the island has always been a contested territory on which also the notorious Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch settlers and colonizers have left their marks. A crucial year in this history is 1949. In the Chinese Civil War (1927–49) the troops of the right-wing nationalist Kuomintag government were defeated by the communist People's Liberation Army. As a consequence, roughly 1'000'000 people fled from mainland China to the island of Taiwan. This is when the "Republic of China" (ROC) was invented. It experienced a staggering economic development under Chiang Kai-shek's authoritarian rule (38 years of martial law) and strong support from the United States of America.

The foundations for the economic "Taiwan miracle", however, had already been laid by the Japanese colonizers who modernized the then slumberous island between 1895 and 1945. The proclamation of the "Republic of Formosa" in 1895 was a desperate and futile attempt to avoid submission under Japanese rule. It lasted only five months. Around 1900, imperial Japan had crushed most further resistance movements. Some of them continued, however, particularly on the part of the Aborigenes. The portrait of tribe leader Mona Rudao is on today's 20 New Taiwan dollar coin.

Post builing from Japanese colonial times in TaipeiPost builing from Japanese colonial times in Taipei

Only in the 1990s, economic and social progress started to align. Today, Taiwan's hard working society is among the most open and liberal ones in Asia. The LGBT community in Taipei, for instance, is anything but confined to the underground, and the immensely popular extreme metal band Chthonic has raised awareness for issues such as human rights or Taiwanese Aborigine culture. Democracy is doing fairly well and the press is remarkably free. At the same time, since there has been no Maoist "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" in Taiwan, traditional Chinese culture has persisted in many ways.

The ROC is a non-recognized state. Economic competition is fierce, wages are still comparably low while costs of living are rising and pressure from China is growing — the Communist party ultimately strives for reunification under the authoritarian mainland system whereas the Taiwanese favor non-declared independence. Nevertheless I have experienced Taiwanese people as open, relaxed, friendly, mild-tempered, positive, and supportive. In a way, the island combines the best of the East and the best of the West, thus opening a third space of transculturality.

Somewhat atypical guardian lion on the campus of the Taipei National University of the ArtsSomewhat atypical guardian lion on the campus of the Taipei National University of the Arts

As Wolfgang Welsch has aptly stated, transculturality is not about globalist homogenization or a post-modernist "anything goes". Transculturality does not mean overall harmony either. Transcultural spaces are rather replacing the old illusion of the 'real other' with the more realistic 'close other'. They expose the illusion of 'absolute difference' by making the global reality of singularities and similarities, of similar singularities tangible: connected, related, but not the same. This is exactly what I felt back in 2005. What was a feeling then, has, in the course of my studies, turned into a theory. But theories can be felt and experienced as well. In 2018, feeling and theory are converging like East and West in Taiwan.