1999 / 10月
Laura Li /photos courtesy of Diago Chiu /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Literature is the reflection of poplars in a lake, conveying a reality apart from the poplars themselves. Philosophy consists of questions posed from a garden maze while looking skyward on a starry night. History is a rose blooming in the desert, behind which is a long story, with many twists and turns. The author Lung Ying-tai, head of the Taipei City Cultural Council Planning Office, used these metaphors in a speech she made to the political science department at National Taiwan University. Her hope was that over the course of their future careers in government and politics, the students in her audience would from time to time reflect upon the humanities' concerns.
Over the past half century, what has been the history of culture and education in Taiwan? What new understandings have been grasped in these realms?
By the end of World War II, Mrs. Chen, now 75, had graduated from normal school and was teaching at a public school. When the news came that the Japanese emperor had surrendered, all of the school's teachers and students broke down. Returning home teary-eyed, she was caught off guard when her grandfather gently chided her, "Foolish child, your own people won the war. What are you crying for?"
"Until that moment I hadn't realized I was Chinese and not Japanese." It was just the first in a series of cultural shocks. Fluent in Japanese, she now had to open a textbook and learn the rudiments of Mandarin. Fortunately, her parents' native tongue was Taiwanese, a Chinese dialect after all, and the traditions of her family of farmers and scholars made her no stranger to things Chinese. And so she moved in a short time from perusing a few thin standardized teachers' guides, to having a muddled understanding of Chinese grammar and history, to introducing China-that vast and distant land-to students who were even more ignorant of it than her. It was no easy feat.
Out with Japan, in with China
In 1950, only shortly after the central government had decamped to Taipei, it banned the use of Japanese in Taiwan and took a series of measures to erase the Japanese influence on Taiwanese culture. That same year the Ministry of Education issued "An Outline for the Implementation of Measures to Strengthen National Education during the Period of National Rebellion." For decades to come, all educational policy would revolve around two slogans: "Recover Mainland China" and "Support the Leadership." Apart from observing a flag-raising ceremony every day at school and reverently reading Sun Yat-sen's will, children were given as role models great Chinese patriots such as Yue Fei, Shi Gefa and Wen Tianxiang. They were taught that the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers of central China and even Mt. Changpai and the Amur River of Manchuria were salient geographical features of their supposed homeland. And over the some 40 years that the policies of mass education and indoctrination were firmly in place, radios and televisions would blare numerous heart-swelling television theme songs, each invoking the same patriotic themes: "The Everlasting Glory," "Changing Seasons on the Yangtze," "Descendants of the Dragon" . . . . Even today, they're quite stirring.
In the 1960s, the Communist authorities on the mainland knocked Confucius off his historical pedestal and hoisted Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of a united China, in his place. They also launched a campaign against the "four olds" (old ideas, culture, customs and habits), which was quickly followed by the momentous Cultural Revolution. While a 5,000-year-old cultural legacy was being smashed to smithereens on the mainland, the ROC's commitment to "revive classical Chinese culture and carry on traditional ways" represented a difficult burden for the small island of Taiwan to bear by itself. President Chiang Kai-shek would serve as head of the "Council for Chinese Cultural Renaissance." Peking opera and classical Chinese painting were deliberately promoted and local Taiwanese culture suppressed.
Yet along with a growing stress on the intellectual traditions of "Greater China," Taiwan started modernizing rapidly. During the 1960s, Taiwan began a smooth transformation from an agricultural to a light-industrial society. In 1968, to cultivate the high-quality personnel that modernization demanded, Taiwan, with a per capita income of less than US$300, grit its teeth and implemented compulsory education through ninth grade.
"At first, there weren't enough classrooms," says a Miss Chang, who is now 45 and was in the first class of compulsory junior high school students. The record was 80 pupils in one classroom. "Often, textbooks wouldn't be rushed to schools until classes had already been in session for a week or two. And what was even more of a joke, the teachers for just about every subject-be it English, math, physics, chemistry or whatever-were often just learning the subjects themselves!"
Nine-year compulsory education may have gotten off to a dismal start, but it did end up raising the overall level of education in Taiwan. The island's highly educated (as well as docile and hardworking) labor force is widely recognized as a key component in Taiwan's miraculous economic advance.
Democracy and educational freedom
At the beginning of the 1980s the political atmosphere began to loosen up. In society, consumer, environmental, women's, labor and other movements rose up one after another, and yet education, like an impregnable fortress, remained unchanged. Looking back today, it appears that just as the various social movements started to die down, the educational-reform movement-as if having a delayed reaction to the changing times-took off full steam.
Calls for educational reform began as early as 1981 with the founding of the Humanistic Education Foundation. Holding that "students should be the focus of the schools," the foundation advocated reforming education to make it more humanistic, diverse and flexible. Its proposals could only be tried outside of the educational structure under the guise of "experimentation," but these experiments caught hold. Eventually, when 10,000 demonstrators showed up to march for educational reform on April 10, 1994, they commanded the government's attention.
Chang Tze-chou, a forestry professor at National Taiwan University who was one of the organizers of the march, notes that the points emphasized in today's educational reform policy-"the loosening of central control," "small schools, small classes," and "broadening access to high schools and colleges"-were among the marchers' major demands. Their purpose was simple: to liberate education in Taiwan from its centralized, authoritarian structure that forced students to receive educations ill-suited to their individual needs and to cram for joint entrance exams in order to proceed to the next educational level. Not long after the demonstration, the government formed the Educational Reform Council and named Lee Yuan-tseh, president of the Academia Sinica, as its head. Since then the council has been hatching one educational reform proposal after another.
Minister of Education Kirby Yang points out that in order to attain the goal of small classes in small schools (so that by 2008 there are no junior high schools or elementary schools with more than 35 students in a classroom), the Ministry of Education plans to budget more than NT$100 billion. Year by year, they want to improve equipment and bolster teaching resources. To create more diversity in education, private publishers have been permitted to issue elementary school textbooks since 1997. (Previously, the National Institute for Compilation and Translation compiled them all.) In order to lessen the pressures associated with the joint entrance exams, various factors are now considered in high school admissions. The dreaded entrance examination for colleges and universities will also be eliminated in 2002.
Flexible, diverse, international
Educational reform is an important long-term goal. Nevertheless, perhaps society is overly concerned about it, resulting in it being carried out in a panicked, helter-skelter manner. The past five years have witnessed the loosening of central control, the use of recommendations and interviews in admissions, the adoption of self-study programs and the A-F grading method. . . . Amid a constant stream of new educational terms, teachers, students and parents are being asked to confront the newest reform measure before they have had a chance to adapt to the last. Originally an integrated curriculum spanning all the way from first- to ninth-grade was supposed to be in place next year. But as of yet no real curriculum content has been developed, and it is difficult to find any teaching resources regarding it. Teachers, as a result, are griping.
"The details of educational reform perhaps ought to be reconsidered," says Yang Chao-hsiang. "But the general direction is clear-toward something more flexible, diverse and international." He notes that starting next year, so as to better prepare students for the demands of global competition, English instruction will begin in fifth grade. And two trends expected in the 21st century-increased job mobility and an aging populace-have prodded the Ministry of Education to promote a concept of "lifelong learning" and to open community colleges in every county and city.
And yet the liberalization of education has had its unfortunate side effects. For the last half century, thanks to the government policy of subsidizing tuition, equality of educational opportunity has helped to create great upward mobility in Taiwan. Chen Shui-bian, the Democratic Progressive Party's candidate for president who came from a very impoverished family, is just one example of a poor boy who has made out well. One result of the relaxation of central control is that high schools and colleges are now free to set their own fees. It is a source of concern that student fees and textbook charges are climbing every term.
Knowledge does not equal culture
For Taiwan, which is just now confronting the knowledge-based competition of the information age, the educational reforms came at the perfect time. Currently, the country has more than 130 colleges and universities, more than twice as many as a decade ago. Over the same period, the rate of success on the joint entrance exams for universities and colleges jumped from only 30% to 60%. Even more surprising, last year graduate school programs received 60,000 applicants, which is equal to the number of people graduating from college that year! (Of course, many people applied to more than one program.)
"This shows that most people are no longer satisfied with just graduating from college," says Kung Peng-cheng, the president of Fokuang University. "Now they want to advance to the next educational level."
Nevertheless, Kung also stresses that educational reform should not get so bogged down with educational techniques that it gives short shrift to humanitarian thinking. He points out that 50 years of emphasis on education in Taiwan has produced no truly great thinkers. And while educational reform has been all the rage in recent years, the cultural realm has been quite listless. In many areas, including literature, philosophy, film, drama and painting, the term "regression" might not be inappropriate to describe the period.
Kung cites this example: In order to prevent the so-called "excess of humanities graduates" and "high unemployment among college graduates," over the last decade various universities have cut back or disbanded their literature, history and philosophy departments. Of the 530,000 undergraduate and graduate students at Taiwan's universities and colleges, 230,000 are majoring in computer science, chemical engineering or other engineering subjects. Only 36,000 students are studying the humanities-literature, philosophy, history and so forth.
"When the treasures from the National Palace Museum go overseas, which art expert is going to show up to negotiate?" asks Kung Peng-cheng. "There is no one, because in Taiwan there are no doctoral programs in classical art." According to cultural preservation law, archeological surveys by the Council for Cultural Planning and Development are required for large domestic construction projects. A question, please: How many archeologists are there in Taiwan qualified to carry out this important task? The answer: 12.
The native soil
The lack of emphasis placed on humanities within Taiwan's educational system reflects the practical and materialistic nature of society here. Yet before economic development twisted everything, Taiwan also experienced a short-lived cultural and artistic renaissance, whose effects are still in evidence today.
Kung recalls the hubbub unleashed by the "native soil" literary movement in 1977, when work by Huang Chun-ming, Wang Chen-ho and other writers of that school first began to appear. These works shifted the focus of literature in Taiwan from mainland China, the setting of most earlier novels such as Weiyang Song and The Green and the Black, to Taiwan itself and the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary people here.
The effects of the movement were deep and far-reaching. Literature began to carve out a unique identity for the island of Taiwan and its people. The movement also influenced the "new wave" of Taiwanese cinema in the 1980s, when Dust in the Wind, The Boy from Fengkwei and other films by Hou Hsiao-hsien offered glimpses of the true face of Taiwanese life to audiences at overseas film festivals.
The controversy about the Taiwanization of culture was later carried into the political debate on the question of unification versus independence. Still later it was a primary moving force behind the push for localized education and mother-tongue instruction. After the Council for Cultural Planning and Development proposed a plan for "integrated community development" in 1987, "literature and history workshops" were opened all across Taiwan. Old Dutch, Qing-dynasty and Japanese documents that had long been collecting dust once again saw the light of day, and bit by bit the history of the isle of Formosa was pieced together.
Just as Taiwan itself was becoming the focus of culture here, the government began in the 1980s to allow people to visit their relatives on the mainland, and this sparked an era of cultural exchange across the Taiwan Strait. While Hou Hsiao-hsien's City of Sadness was bringing tears the eyes of Taiwan audiences, so too was To Live, by the mainland director Chang Yimou. At the same time that the Minghua Garden Taiwanese opera company was riding a wave of popularity across the island, Peking opera from Beijing, Sichuan bianlian dramas and western Hunanese tan dramas were all playing to enthusiastic audiences at the National Theater in Taipei.
There was an awareness of the native soil, but at the same time there was a sense of shared borders with mainland China and the world. Why has this once vibrant cultural scene gradually grown silent?
Who can resist capitalism?
"The pressures of the box office are of course the principal reason for the cultural lull," argues Ping Lu, a critic who has taught drama at the National Institute of the Arts. Ping points out that not unlike other activities of the late 20th century, culture is struggling to survive under the dark shadow of capitalism. What has moneymaking potential is quickly appropriated by hawk-eyed capitalists to become an unending stream of freshly churned-out cultural consumer goods. What is unwilling or unable to make money is fated to have a small audience or even to die out altogether.
Ping Lu laments that political memoirs, which served as a record of the age, have been replaced by all manner of books by and about celebrities, which cater to readers' appetites for secrets and salacious detail. Purely literary works with serious topics and artistic content, moreover, have gradually been replaced by the pap and potboilers of "popular literature."
Behind the superficially flourishing publishing industry is a canny commercialism. No one now is willing to take the time to discover and cultivate a new generation of writers with potential. In this global age of advanced communications, it's just so much easier to publish bestsellers from overseas. The books that have sold well this year are mostly translations bearing the banner, "A New York Times bestseller." Even books are being sold like name-brand consumer goods!
Yang Chao, a cultural critic who has written several novels, argues that the strength of popular literature is a direct reflection upon the powerlessness of the educational system. For many years, the reading of books has been associated with school and the taking of tests, something that only students need do. Studying, moreover, is done to obtain practical, materialistic goals. Cultural and philosophical ideas, as far as readers are concerned, are superfluous. It should come as no surprise, then, that cultivating cultural depth in these times is not easy.
The performing arts, which were once causing quite a stir with the Cloud Gate dance troupe, the Ya-Yin opera company, and the Performance Workshop, now seem enervated. And the cutting-edge and subversive small-theater movement of a decade ago has lost its momentum.
"The focus of cultural groups has long since shifted from making artistic breakthroughs or raising the level of culture to getting a piece of the economic pie!" That's the frank assessment of Nan Fang Shuo, who has served as a judge for the National Culture and Arts Foundation. Popular culture has encroached upon the realm of pure art and now seems intent on squeezing it out altogether. For money, art groups have shifted their gaze to the Council for Cultural Planning and Development and other government agencies. And under the principle of giving everybody an even share of the pie, the mediocre survive on their last legs, whereas the truly first-rate have no way to get stronger. This represents a loss for all of us, and people who work in cultural fields ought to mull over its significance.
"Culture is a reflection of the collective consciousness of a society," Ping Lu says. "If culture is to have an independent existence and develop with dignity, then society needs to grow up and foster a capacity for deeper thinking." Can Taiwan, after experiencing a period of vulgar boom-time prosperity, calm down to reflect upon things thoughtfully? Ping Lu evinces little optimism.
Education and culture in Taiwan have cast off the shackles of authoritarianism and established their own basic frameworks while hungrily absorbing influences from abroad. Yet they still have a long road to go before their achievements bear any real meaning.
Lin Hwai-min established the Cloud Gate Dance Ensemble in 1971 when the dance scene in the ROC was virtually nonexistent. Now it is Taiwan's most important performing arts company. The photo shows Cloud Gate delivering the debut performance of "My Homesickness, My Song" in Hualien. (photo by Diago Chiu)
From time to time these billboard-lugging lads pause from walking, as one shouts through a megaphone and the other strikes a gong. This 1950s method of advertising movies in the countryside was quite effective at getting people's attention. (photo by Weng Ting-hua)
When the Hong Kong movie star Lin Dai came to Taiwan in 1959, Chang Hsiao-yen, then a child star, greeted him with flowers. Fans back then showed no less ardor than they do today. (Central News Agency)
In the early 1980s, the singing star Hou Teh-chien had a hit song with "Descendants of the Dragon," which gives voice to feelings of exile and abandonment. It captivated the Chinese world. The photo shows Hou visiting overseas Chinese at the Thailand-Burma border. (courtesy China Times Information Center)
The march on April 10, 1994 was the first public demonstration for comprehensive educational reform. (photo by Vincent Chang)
Shown here is a fair being held in Wenchou Park to promote the Taipei Community College. Counties and cities across Taiwan have established community colleges in recent years. They aim not only to provide all citizens with a chance to pursue lifelong learning but also to encourage people to turn their focus to their own communities and everyday lives. (photo by Diago Chiu)
A. The percentage of people with college or university degrees
B. The student-teacher ratio declines (No. of teachers per elementary school student)
C. Educational expenditures increase (figures show expenditures on education, technology and culture as a percentage of the central government budget)
D. Explosive growth in the number of book categories
E. Growth in the number of radio stations:
Sources: For Items A, B, and C, Ministry of Education; for Item D, Monthly Statistics of the Republic of China, for Item E, Ministry of Transportation and Communications.