Written by Chieh Hsiang Wu.

Image credit: Cihu Memorial Sculpture Garden (Chiang Kai-shek) by Rutger van der Maar /Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

After years of discussions, Taiwan’s congress has finally this year passed the Basic Law of Culture, which aims to strengthen the equal cultural rights of every individual and motivate citizens to participate in cultural affairs and policy making. Before the enactment of the law, a series of National Cultural Congress toured Taiwan to collect opinions on issues such as cultural identities, preservation of public and private cultural heritages, empowerment of marginal communities, etc. The forums were far from harmonious and representatives from the Ministry of Culture and local authorities of cultural affairs had to confront critics from time to time. However, different opinions and ardent debates are exactly what we hoped to see in cultural affairs, and the Law now requires the National Cultural Congress to take place every four years to facilitate networking public institutions with civil society.

Despite comprising a relatively small part of people’s social lives, cultural affairs are increasingly influential in public policy making in Taiwan. Since the abolition of Martial Law in 1987, civil organisations have contributed more than the government has to cultural development. Taiwan has a dual system of cultural policies, namely the National Cultural and Arts Foundation established in 1996 and the Ministry of Culture inaugurated in 2012 (previously the Council for Cultural Affairs). The former is in charge of awarding grants to applicants, the latter policy making. The Foundation supports cultural activities, while the Ministry constructs cultural infrastructure, as the Minister of Culture Cheng Li-Chun (鄭麗君) clarified when she took the position in 2016.

Thanks to Taiwan’s freedom of speech and cultural diversity, the public is no longer afraid of these controversial discourses

Although public sector resources hardly meet all applicant needs, the system offers basic support for a great diversity of cultural activities. Unlike European countries where art events are sponsored substantially by corporations, expenditure on culture in Taiwan heavily relies on the public sector. Cultural workers and artists have adapted to develop their careers with enthusiasm despite very limited budgets. And with the arm’s-length principle of state funding, artists are endowed with complete freedom of expression.

As everyday public lives are increasingly democratised, policy-making becomes a bottom-up process instead of one monopolised by elites. It becomes necessary to formulate a mechanism of policy-making that is enables broader public participation with a wider range of cultural perspectives. Voices from all levels, including individual artists and grassroots groups, are now steering our society toward a deliberative democracy. Since 2017, the Ministry of Culture has organised through the Civil Culture Forums more than 30 panels for diverse cultural issues ranging from the preservation of private cultural heritages, the Fixed Book Price policy, to the accessibility of cultural facilities, etc. The theme of each forum is decided by contributing bodies from all over Taiwan. The Martial Law era and how cultural workers can negotiate this history has become of the forum’s most discussed issues.

Deliberative democracy is also practiced through the transformation of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and the penitentiary on Green Island. These two institutions are the most iconic landmarks of the Martial Law era.

The Act on Promoting Transitional Justice, a law to rectify damages caused by the White Terror, came into effect in 2017 and states:

Symbols appearing in public buildings or places that commemorate or express nostalgia for authoritarian rulers shall be removed, renamed, or dealt with in some other way. Places where the rulers engaged in large-scale human rights abuses during the period of authoritarian rule shall be preserved or rebuilt, and plans shall be made for their designation as historic sites.

Without comprehensive legal measures of Transitional Justice, consensus cannot be reached as to how to reshape the Hall or the penitentiary. Chiang Kai-Shek is still seen by many in Taiwan as the national saviour and many others think the CKS Memorial Hall is a harmless symbol undeserving of controversy. In 2018 the Ministry of Culture commissioned the civil organisation Watchout to hold forums for open discussions about the transformation of CKS Memorial Hall. During this time an art exhibition Imaging Memorial (後解嚴:想像紀念堂) curated by Wu Dar-Kuen (吳達坤) was taking place in the Hall. Imaging Memorial reflected the totalitarianism of the past as well as the history and the possible future of the Hall. While Watchout’s forums evoked great tension between people of different political standings, Imaging Memorial provided an alternative approach to such extremely sensitive issues. Thanks to Taiwan’s freedom of speech and cultural diversity, the public is no longer afraid of these controversial discourses and artists can demonstrate their creativity through representations of Chiang Kai-Shek’s tyranny without falling into ideological banality.

Visiting No. 15 Liumagou (拜訪流麻溝十五號) was a 2019 art exhibition curated by Lo Hsiu-Chih (羅秀芝) and held in the former prison for political dissidents on Green Island. This exhibition was the first attempt to use an art event to replace ritualistic ceremonies in memorial of victims. Before the exhibition, artists conducted field investigations, archival research and local interviews to collect materials for their projects, in the process shedding light on the past. Artist Tsai Hairu (蔡海如) installed at the ground of the penitentiary a big Chinese character Ching 清 (Image 1), which could suggest Taiwan’s history of political cleansing launched with anti-communism propaganda. Ching could also suggest leaving the past behind. Artist Kao Jun-Honn (高俊宏) erected a mound of dirt outside of the buildings (Image 2), intending to remind the public that the first prisoners were made to build their own shelters. The dirt pile, symbolising a mountain, implies the oppressive power of rulers.

Image 1: Ching by Tsai Hairu

Figure 2
Image credit: Courtesy of Wu Chieh-Hsianger


Image 2: Sumeru: Caving is Orogeny by Kao Jun-Honn 須彌:挖洞即造山

Figure 3
Image credit: Courtesy of Kao Jun-Honn

Displayed in open space and actively interacting with the public, artworks like Tsai and Kao’s pieces on Green Island may offer a different way to communicate with the visitors of the historical site. All these events help open wide the door to public participation in public affairs. Although there is still a long way to go for Taiwanese society to completely realise deliberative policy-making, art, with its critical perspective of historical legacy, provides a starting point for the civil society development and the consolidation of a deliberative democracy in Taiwan.

Dr. Chieh-Hsiang Wu  is an Associate Professor of National Changhua University of Education, Department of Art, Board Member and Executive Director of Taiwan Association of Cultural Policy Studies (TACPS). She was previously Research Head of Taipei Art Economy Research Center, Assistant Professor of University Nanhua, Assistant Professor of University Yuanzhi and Chief of Association of the Visual Arts in Taiwan.

This article is part of the special issue on Taiwan’s cultural policy.

*Vienna Center for Taiwan Studies will be holding a conference on Taiwan’s Cultural Diplomacy – A Decade of Intercultural Discovery on 25-27th October 2019 at University of Vienna, Campus, Austria. If you wish to participate in this conference, please register here.

This article is part of the special issue on Taiwans foreign relations, as featured in Taiwan Insight.

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