Anthony Shelton, director of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, posed this question on Friday (May 9) at the launch of the institution’s four-year exploration of Taiwanese culture.
Dubbed Spotlight Taiwan, the initiative seeks to highlight various expressions of Taiwanese identity, one that is shaped by the Asian nation’s history of migration and colonization, and enhanced by its current relationship with the wider world.
In his introductory remarks at a forum at MOA’s Michael M. Ames Theatre, Shelton said that Taiwan is an important link in understanding the ancient ties among peoples in Asia and the Pacific. According to him, they share one of the world’s largest and most geographically spread language families: the Austronesian languages.
Shelton noted that aboriginal people in Taiwan continue to speak some Austronesian languages, linking them to others elsewhere.
"Taiwan is an important pivotal point, it seems to me, in articulating the relationship between mainland Asia and the Pacific, and also other countries such as Korea and Japan," Shelton said.
From an anthropologist’s point of view, that association is important, more so because the study of humankind has evolved into an examination of how the world is interconnected.
"Anthropology is no longer the studying of specifically isolated cultural communities," Shelton said.
One of the guests at the forum was William Chuang, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vancouver.
In his remarks, Chuang underscored that Taiwan "represents a diverse, open-minded society".
Although the country officially called Republic of China has formal diplomatic ties with only 22 nations as most of the world officially recognize only the more powerful People’s Republic of China or mainland China, Chuang stressed that Taiwan has deep international connections.
Chuang said that this is demonstrated through various cultural activities, such as Spotlight Taiwan, a project supported by Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, and Taipei-based benefactor Dr. Samuel Yin.
Film is one medium that examines Taiwanese identity, and it was the subject of a presentation by Chris Rea, a UBC professor of Asian studies.
Rea showed clips from three contemporary Taiwanese films: 1895 in Formosa (2008), Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011), and Cape No. 7 (2008), which he said feature two major elements.
One is Japanese colonization, a history that has "left a very ambivalent legacy" in the Taiwanese psyche.
The second is Taiwan’s "rediscovery" of its aboriginal peoples, according to Rea.
After Rea’s presentation, forum emcee Jill Baird, curator of education and public programs at the MOA, introduced Robin Ruizendaal, director of the Taipei-based Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum.
Ruizendaal, a Dutch academic, has studied Taiwan’s fascination with puppetry, an art form brought over by early Chinese settlers.
"Puppets never die. They always stay the same, from generation to generation," Ruizendaal said.
During early times, according to Ruizendaal, puppet theatre "represented the history, the ethics, love and dance. You could learn it all from the puppet theatre."
The love of puppets is so ingrained that it has permeated politics. According to Ruizendaal, puppets are sometimes used by members of Taiwan’s national legislative assembly to present their ideas.
Puppets are a necessary prop among politicians on the campaign trail. Taiwan president Ma Ying-Jeou had one made like him, and an image of the two was shown at the forum.
Taiwan-born Vancouverite Charlie Wu spoke in part about how his work helped him rediscover his unique identity as a Taiwanese.
Wu is the managing director of the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association, which organizes the Telus TaiwanFest and CIBC LunarFest celebrations.
Wu noted that he left Taiwan as a 15-year-old, and lived in San Francisco until 1996 before eventually settling in Canada.
Through TaiwanFest, he has come in contact with many Taiwan-based performing artists and groups that delve into social issues through songs.
"I have to say back then, when we were curating for the programs, we were only curating for the artistic merit; we weren’t really paying attention to their social values," Wu recalled.