Two awards for contribution to the study of Sinology were announced on Monday.
The first was for British art historian Jessica Rawson, named this year’s winner of the Tang Prize in Sinology. The Tang Prize was established in 2012 by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin (尹衍樑).
The second was for Slovenian Sinologist Jana Rosker, who won the Taiwan-France Cultural Award — established by the Ministry of Culture and the Institut de France’s Academy of Moral and Political Sciences — for her work introducing Taiwanese philosophy to Europe. Rosker said that Taiwan has integrated Western philosophy and Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism into a “unique” philosophy that keeps Chinese culture and philosophy alive.
Observers unaware of Taiwan’s past might wonder why a Taiwanese entrepreneur and Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture were recognizing contributions to Sinology, the study of all things Chinese. Does Taiwan not have its own distinct culture worth celebrating?
When tourists come to Taiwan, they will probably visit the National Palace Museum (NPM), home to the imperial collection of China and brought to Taiwan by the Chinese National Party (KMT) government fleeing the Chinese communists after World War II.
To experience local religious culture, they might visit temples or join a Matsu pilgrimage, both of which are Chinese in origin.
Taiwan’s renowned tea culture is a combination of Chinese and Japanese tea traditions, introduced to Taiwan over time, starting three centuries ago with the arrival of Chinese immigrants and merchants.
Tourists might also visit Yingge (鶯歌) to buy ceramics. Many of the potters originally came from China following the KMT in exile, having learned their craft and their techniques in various regions of China, and training the next generation of potters in Taiwan.
Painted ceramics produced in Yingge until China opened up its markets in the late 1980s were in many cases imitation Chinese imperial wares for export.
The presence in Taiwan of the NPM collection is a direct result of the war and the KMT’s exile. Matsu culture evolved over time; tea culture, too, comes from a more long-standing evolution, with hodgepodge collections of treasured tea-related paraphernalia gradually accumulated by merchants and recent immigrants, an example of a distinctly Taiwanese bent on an essentially imported culture. The aftermath of the war and the immigration of skilled potters simply sped up a process that had been evolving naturally.
There is nothing unusual about a nation absorbing elements of other cultures, fertilizing cultural hybridization over time. However, Taiwan’s fragmented and complicated colonial past has meant that culture has been forced upon the local populace for ideological reasons, and all but eradicated the traditional culture of the indigenous communities that existed in Taiwan for millennia prior to successive waves of immigration from China.
This happened with the Kominka movement (皇民化運動) of assimilation during the Japanese colonial period and the de-Japanization and Sinicization of Taiwan under the KMT, which not only wanted to transplant Chinese culture and identity on Taiwan, but also to forge identification with and loyalty to the Republic of China (ROC).
The Sinicization gave Taiwan a legitimate claim to be the world’s representative of traditional Chinese culture and therefore an important tool for developing soft power that the KMT and the pro-localization Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have used for their own benefit.
Taiwan does, of course, have its own culture, but a distinct culture requires time and space to evolve. Taiwanese writers and artists have expressed their lived experiences through their works, but past KMT governments had a vested interest in suppressing those elements and emphasizing traditional Chinese culture.
Pro-localization means allowing Taiwanese to evolve their own culture, unconstrained by ideological demands, while simultaneously interpreting absorbed Chinese cultural elements such as tea, ceramics, art and philosophy.
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