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From 'Silent' to 'Authentic' Local Culture: transformation in local society and the construction of nationalism in contemporary Taiwan

With Ms Yi-Fang Chen (University of Edinburgh)

Series:  London Taiwan Seminar|

Date: Thursday 8 November 2007, 6pm-8pm

Venue: Room 116, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

Chair: Mr Stuart Thompson (Taiwan Culture Research Programme)

Abstract

Between 2002 and 2006, there were 255 museums of local culture established in Taiwan. All of a sudden 'local culture' has become a ubiquitous phenomenon. However, in the 1960s, when Taiwan was under the administration of the Chinese Nationalist Party, Chinese culture was the only recognised cultural expression; Taiwanese culture was forbidden and silenced. Not until the 1990s was Taiwanese culture relieved from oppression.

This paper is based on my fieldwork conducted in rural Taiwan. Research methods including participant observation and interview were employed, andYuan-Li Township, the 'Museum of Grass-weaving Culture' was chosen as the most representative example. For many inhabitants, it is crucial to prove that Yuan-Li has the most 'authentic' culture of grass-weaving, but no substantial definition of either grass-weaving culture or Yuan-Li culture could be obtained.

Consequently, this paper deals with a number of questions. Firstly, local culture was silent in the past whereas at present its 'authenticity' is significant. What is the process of this transformation? Secondly, to what extent does this process involve cooperation and contest between local society and the state? Thirdly, is the (re)construction of local culture successful, or is it a failure? I argue the phenomenon of local culture emerges from the interplay of local society and the ongoing construction of national identity in contemporary Taiwan. However, the nature of his emerging identity is still obscure and contested, and the eras of Japanese colonial rule and of Chinese Nationalism are still being confronted.

About the speaker

Ms Yi-Fang Chen's research interests include craft, aesthetics, material culture, and museums and exhibitions. Her field research was undertaken in Yuan-Li Township, Taiwan, and encompassed craft production and consumption, museum operations and exhibitions, and locality and identity. She is currently researching her PhD thesis, which explores the relationship between local craft production and economic globalization. Her study of Yuan-Li grass-weaving in rural Taiwan will be a contribution to the anthropological study of production and consumption, aesthetics, museums and heritage, tourism, and locality and identity. Yuan-Li grass-weaving, as a handcraft and a subsistence activity, has played an important role in local economics for more than one hundred years. Transitions in this industry from 1895 to the present parallel the shifting developments of colonisation, industrialisation, and contemporary globalisation. The thesis considers several questions: how the production and consumption of a local craft continues, what happens when it encounters tourism, the significance of the establishment of museums and heritage, and how a sense of locality and of local identity are formed. All of these issues, she argues, are embedded in the dynamic interaction of local society and contemporary globalisation, and a fading craft production has become a chance for future local economic development.

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