Taiwan and Europe: Past Interactions and Future Pursuits

by on Monday, 21 May 2007 Comments
Much of what we understand of the world, and what we know about the world, derives primarily from what we learn at school. In Taiwan we have known from a very young age about humanity’s four great ancient civilizations, Egyptian, Mesopotamia, Indian and Chinese respectively; later on we also learnt about the development and expansion of the Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and finally the rise of Europe during the Renaissance. Intense creative activity began in Italy, and it soon spread all over Europe, progressively leading to an unprecedented full scale reform. Europe had stepped on to a well-paved road for development. From then its strength and power dominated the world for several hundred years. Europeans invaded the whole of Asia, coercing many to submit to their power, changing the collective lives and destinies of Asians, the effects of which went far and deep.
Our knowledge of Europe for the most part comes from fact. However it is difficult not to mix in an element of imagination. In my opinion, and I believe that many would share my thoughts on this; in terms of technology Europeans are without question superior, with their weapons, power and wealth, they exceed every country. Europeans utilized technology and developed powerful military force. It colonized and controlled vast areas of the world, and coerced many countries into abiding by their laws, and accepting their political hegemony and cultural influence that would be imposed on them and would change their lives.
The very first contact between Taiwan and Europe occurred during what can be referred to as an important stage in the history of mankind; the age of discovery. In 1544 a Portuguese fleet on their voyage east-ward along the seas of South-Eastern China, passed through the Taiwan Straits and arrived in Taiwan. As they looked into the distant vast emerald green ranges of Chong Mountain, they shouted ‘Ilha Formosa’. Not long after one after the other, the Spanish, Dutch landed on these shores and established political power, later British and French troops also arrived, and with trading and armed forces came European missionaries, explorers, naturalists. Western buildings, religion also began to appear in Taiwan. Furthermore Europeans began to recognize that Taiwan had its own distinctive Taiwanese local customs and practices.
Taiwan is unlike other Asian regions in that it has not been subjected to any direct long tern Western colonialist or Imperialist rule. It was unable however to escape 50 years of Japanese Colonialist rule. The Meiji Restoration saw the end of the Shoguanate Era, the Japenese not only learnt how to build boats and guns from Europe, they also followed Europe’s example in bringing together a democratic system, legislative politics. The Japanese even gathered information about European city infrastructure, art culture and many other areas of new knowledge and values.
The 50 years of Japanese rule thoroughly transformed Taiwan and left a profound impact on the lives of Taiwanese people. In other words, in many respects we adopted much of Western Culture through the Japanese, much like how the Japanese adopted Western culture. My father was a painter, he passed the entrance exam to the Tokyo Art School, and was greatly inspired by the Impressionist school; he loved Western art, especially French paintings and French art. I was greatly influenced by my father from quite a young age, and because of this I began to understand another important dimension of European art; artistic creation, in a more narrow sense of the term; culture.
The impact of European culture on people was immense. People glorified it, worshipped it. European culture drew people to want to learn more, to gain more knowledge. We are all too familiar with famous European literary works; these have even found their way into Chinese translated versions. Even works of famous European artists have also had their albums published in Chinese (although the quality of the print are not all good); I myself am deeply in love with European classical music and have even done an intensive study in this field. We in many respects want to pursue European popular fashion; we feel that it is an ultimate expression of elegance, luxury, modernism. This kind of mainstream culture dominates our tastes, and often just lap it all up.
Whether it was direct or indirect contact, interaction between Taiwan and Europe goes back three to four hundred years. After the Second World War, the Kuomintang government came to Taiwan and the Republic of China firmly took root and exercised its political power on Taiwanese soil. In 1964 France began to establish diplomatic relations with Mainland China, this created a domino effect and shortly after led to all other European countries ending diplomatic relations with Taiwan, leaving Taiwan to turn to the United States. And thus a barrier gradually formed between Taiwan and Europe. Under the ‘Kiss America’ policy American culture began to enter Taiwan in a big way. What is more, faced with the plight of international isolation most young Taiwanese students choose to go to America to study; thus only a very small amount of students would choose to go to Europe for higher education.
During the Age of Discovery Taiwan was in fact an important East-Asian stronghold. The mutual surge of interaction and exchange between its own internal culture and external foreign cultures created rich and diversified cultural developments. This was originally a big turning point in the making of ‘New Taiwanese culture’, however the realities at the international stage combined with the autocratic rule of the Kuomintang party greatly influenced any opportunity for a second dialogue between Taiwan and Europe. Another factor being to do with the central principles of Confucius Orthodoxy, inhibiting local native language and culture, making the younger generation uncertain of their own homeland. In fact their knowledge and understanding of the relations between Taiwan and the world can be said to me extremely limited.
Under my father’s influence, when I was 16 years old I chose to go to Europe to study music. I passed the entrance exam into a music school in Paris, France. In the place where my idols, great musicians Debussy and Hector Berlioz had resided and learnt, I realized my childhood musical dream. However this so-called musical fantasy was quite unexpectedly crushed on my first day in class by a mean teacher.
The majority of the students in my class were French. I still remember when my teacher asked me about my knowledge of music from where I come from, and even asked me to sing a few songs. I was stunned; apart from a catchy Taiwanese traditional folk ballad ‘look forward to love’ I couldn’t think of anything else, my mind had gone completely blank. That was a sharp warning for me. I gradually came to realize that learning things from other people no matter how outstanding they, you can never win. I had no way of being like any of the other students as I had no knowledge of my own country, my motherland Taiwan and therefore felt extremely ashamed. This experience made me go back to Taiwan in 1975, and it led to a process of Taiwanese cultural soul searching.
Several years later, due to a job posting and because of my experiences whilst being in Europe, I was able to look at Europe in quite a different light, one outside the sphere of culture and arts. In the past, people had it in their heads this idea of a great, glorious Europe. This later changed, with the rise of America. People began to have quite a dim, bleak impression of Europe. In its endeavor to integrate, the EU once again wanted to demonstrate on the world stage its endeavors to create civilization, and this time Taiwan noticed.
By the 25th of March 2007, the European Union had been established for 50 years. In the 50 years Europe has developed from a common market to a European organization made up of different countries seeking similar goals, with a desire to realize common aspirations of the European people; freedom, peace and anti-war. At the same time the organization gradually became a common entity for the development of politics, economics, defense and environmental protection. After consolidation of the so-called ‘inflexible debate’ partnership, in the recent 20 years Taiwan has once again slowly drifted into educational, cultural ‘soft power’ policies. By 1992 the Maastricht Treaty fully endowed the EU with many new powers, one of which included ‘cultural policies.’ In fact a ‘cultural’ law (Article 128) was devised and became a basis for countries within the European Community to recognize and follow as a common goal in all aspects of arts and cultural collaboration.
Consequently we can regard the European Cultural partnership in terms of molding a ‘European label,’ Firstly, an annual proposal must be firmly established. Since 1985 the European Council have held ‘European Capital of Culture’ event. That is to say every year one or two cities with cultural touristic appeal is chosen, and performances, exhibitions and other cultural activities are held in that city. Later the EU supported and took over coordinating the entire campaign, letting these cities come to life through a colorful array of cultural and artistic activities, and as far as annual traveling goes, it became the best selling point.
Secondly, in the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, Article 128 was revised and re-documented as Article 151. It emphasized the role of the EU in supporting all activities that are based on respecting and promoting European culture, this is also a legal obligation. From then on ‘culture’ became a very important issue for the EU. According to Article 151, a series of guiding cultural principals and schemes were initiated, including the 1996-1999 ‘kaleodoscope’ which was aimed at encouraging artistic and cultural creation and teamwork, the 1997-1999 ‘Ariane’ plan of book publishing and reading translations, and finally in 1997-1999 the ‘Raphael’ plan of initiating policies related to world heritage and European distinctiveness. All these activities achieved the peak of its objective by the Millennium, that is the ‘2000 Culture’ plan to reach a budget of 230 million Euros within 7 years. It provided sponsorship funds to all related cultural projects, and through advocating the sharing of different cultures, build and construct a big common cultural circle.
In the construction and convergence of European space for higher education, the so called ‘Bologna declaration’ received the most attention and was also the most ambitious. In 1998, Heads of educational departments in France, Germany, Britain, and Italy signed the Paris University declaration and decided on ‘academic diploma standardization’; and then in 1999 the heads of educational departments in 29 countries announced the Bologna declaration and established a common consensus for the establishment of a ‘European space for higher education.’ Later in 2000 in light of the challenges brought on by globalization and the intellectual society, EU heads of state, collectively announced in a summit their hope of completing the ideas set out in the Bologna declaration by 2010. Hence in 2001 leaders of the EU educational world discussed ways in which to initiate these plans. Not long after, heads of educational departments at the Jan Assembly made several resolutions, these include; carrying out and integrating a higher level education system, having mutual acknowledgement of each country’s academic diploma and placing special emphasis on the importance of a ‘European label’ and European dimension - in the hopes that the curriculum, and the culture on school campus can preserve and carry forward each country’s educational and strong points in learning, further demonstrating an overall distinctive nature of European culture.
This year March 2007, EU’s latest ‘Cultural plan: 2007-2013’ has already formally been put into action, with the slogan ‘Leap over boundaries, connect cultures’. At the same time it appropriated a budget of 400 million Euros, allowing European citizens to unite unanimously in the concept of Europeanism, and identify in each others cultures, and sharing the fruits of development.
The EU, in setting into motion cultural activities, most recently the inauguration of the Musee du Quai Branly in June 2006, has left a deep impression on many Taiwanese people, in other words ‘the importance and value of respecting and carrying forward diversified culture.’ There is in fact no good or bad culture, I used to say, when faced with cultural matters or related constructions one must use ‘addition’ and ‘multiplication’ to think. It is only in this way that the ‘soil of culture’ is not left barren and that ‘culture’s flower’ can bloom and flourish.
At the time when Taiwan ended the worlds longest martial law rule in 1987 (it lasted for 38 years), it still carried on its ‘Nativist movement’ of the 70s and the democratic human rights movement of the 80s, and did so to its full capacity. The development of Taiwanese society and Taiwanese culture created a huge upheaval; it was as if Taiwan wanted to let it all out, express all kinds of emotions and feelings concerning the past. This of course led to many conflicts, but I sincerely believe that if we have the right direction and a grasp of our core values then Taiwan can attain a positive leading force to guide it.
In terms of Cultural development 2000 was an important year for Taiwan. The Democratic Progressive party won the people’s support and ended Kuomintang’s 50 year long rule. Through this event the value and importance of cultural diversification became apparent. The four main ethnic groups began to have more equal treatment. In comparison Europe, in the recent ten years or so, has been in the process of seeking to share culture diversity while identifying with an integration process, I can see that Taiwan is also moving in a similar direction and I can’t help but feel very excited about this.
Many of those who are passionate and love this country have gone and unearthed, sorted out and rebuilt many things that were valued in the past. The government has also in terms of native language education, in national education, in developing ethnicity, and cultural activities done much for making up for all the sorrow and pain the former party had caused. Take my post as head of the Commission of Cultural Affairs of the Executive Yuan as an example. During my term there I supervised the establishment of approximately 200 local cultural centers in every county. The publications included history, literature, plays, fine arts, music etc. there were up to about 600 different kinds of historical and biographical books. These and building up Taiwan’s National literary centre, traditional art centers and Taiwanese historical museums allow Taiwan’s valuable cultural, historical relics, and archives to never again be lost, as we can preserve, protect and study them.
I myself feel lucky that I have the opportunity to go from a past where any discussion of ‘Taiwan’ was taboo, to the present where ‘studying Taiwan’ has now become a popular and international topic of discussion.
In the 80s, local historians and historical researchers in the scholarly and academic world set out to reorganize and establish a foundation for ‘Taiwanese research.’ Afterwards; elementary schools began to add native language education and native teaching materials on to the curriculum. Up until today, higher level education organizations have about 17 departments linked with the study and research of Taiwan. And I myself in 1995 wrote and published ‘100 years of Taiwanese music 1985-1995” and in 2004 after leaving a strenuous job as head of the cultural division I began to develop the discussion on “Diamond Taiwan”:
Taiwan only takes up 0.023% of the earth’s total area; despite this however 10 percent of the world’s distinct and diverse species reside on the island. Its unique geographic location creates wonderful natural landscapes and ecosystems. Wildlife habitat and climatic zone is first rate. Apart from that, Taiwan is home to Austronesian aborigines, who have developed their own Taiwanese mountain and sea cultures, in the past 100 years, due to a few accidental occurrences in history, they began to develop predominantly Chinese based cultural characteristics, and a blend of Western and Japanese features is also evident. This all makes Taiwan very much like a diamond, small yet beautiful and sparkly, an island not to be overlooked.
At the end of May 2006, the national cultural association organized a ‘the whole world loves Taiwan’ historical international seminar. Over 3 hundred years ago Taiwan was Holland’s colony, now her representative sits amongst other international scholars as an honored guest to share amongst themselves the ‘study of Taiwan.’
I have a French friend, she is quite an ardent student of Taiwanese anthropology, she came to Taiwan 20 years ago under the guidance of her professor. She spent years and months on a field study about the belief and social organizations and practices amongst people of Southern Taiwan. She told me things about Taiwanese religion, customs and ceremonies that I had no idea about; this made me feel deeply ashamed, and I was determined to understand and learn more about my birthplace The National Cultural organization published ‘new life water magazine’, in Jan and March 2007 also saw the publication of ’10 major Taiwanese folk rituals’ ’The 10 major rituals of Taiwanese Aborigines” This enabled me to look at Taiwan in a different light and allowed me to appreciate, understand the beauty and allure of Taiwanese culture on a more deeper and meaningful level.
Due to political imprisonment in the past I was unable to complete compulsory classroom ‘Taiwanese credits.’ But these past several years, private and public efforts have given me a good opportunity to make up for the loss I had incurred, and have also made me value and cherish Taiwan even more - a rare gem, a country exceptionally rich in natural resources, and a diverse cultural history.
To start off with I had said that Europe’s contributions to the development and rise of civilization is exceptional, from philosophy, literature, the arts, science and even the influence of most recent history’s democratic stream of thought. Europe has always been the vanguard in writing history. The EU had exerted greater efforts in recognizing and valuing the importance of cultural diversification, and has even created a new magnificent vision and plan of action, in the attempt to once again head start a new era of convergence of European values.
However at the same time, I deeply believe that Europeans and their knowledge and understanding of Asia, especially Taiwan is not enough. When I was young, studying in France, many classmates the same age as me told me, when they were in middle school they had never studied anything to do with Asian history, Asian thought, religion, art or ancient civilizations, it was simply not a part of their curriculum. If they wanted to know about it they had to find a way to get a hold of information. We of course know that over a half of the world’s population live in Asia, The fact that teaching materials in European schools neglect to mention Asia, means that at the time the education bureau were neglecting any dialogue between other civilizations and cultures. What is more in October 2004, I followed the Taiwanese foreign office to Britain, France, Germany, Belgium to call on governments and congressmen, and discovered that a lot of people have a very hazy impression and lack of understanding about Taiwan. But I also found that if we use the subject of culture and art to initiate communication and sharing, we would very quickly draw in the distance between us, and perhaps at the same time leave an impression and an interest in Taiwan.
When Europe, through education and culture reached a common understanding, established a sense of cohesiveness and identification amongst its citizens, Miles away in Taiwan; the world’s tiniest island, after experiencing political and economic reform was also seeking similar goals, and in the major process of integrating a national identity, at the same time it was also utilizing its rich cultural and artistic treasures to internally mould a common vision amongst its people, and externally to open up to the world.
In 2008 Taiwan will once again be electing a new president; I would like to use this opportunity to sincerely express my expectations and deepest hope that Taiwan’s future development will place culture as its core value and the importance of education as its main project. Through these elements a new vision of Taiwan can be created. In this respect we must follow in America’s footsteps and establish our own developments. At the same time we must pay attention to and observe the methods and practices that the EU take, and examine carefully not only their strategies but the philosophical background and thought, the logic and procedures that are needed to carry through their major projects, and what is more recognize its everlasting values.
I also deeply hope and wish that Taiwan, which has already set an example amongst the world’s overseas Chinese societies in its ability for democratic reform and cultural coherence, will be able to have more active and substantial interactions with Europe and generate greater accomplishments on the world’s cultural atlas!
Speech pronounced at the International Conference on "Cultural Diversity and Sustainable Development, a Dialogue between Taiwan and Europe", Kaohsiung, 25, 26 may 2007

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