The Power of Culture in the Fight for Taiwan

Taiwan has many powerful stories that need telling


Anime. K-pop. Korean soap operas. The Seven Samurai, Train to Busan, Rashomon, Old Boy. Cultural products from Korea and Japan are popular and influential the world over. Cultural products from Taiwan? Not so much.

Taiwanese food products have done much to raise awareness of Taiwan, as chefs in North America and Europe are learning how to make “Taiwanese pork belly sliders” (gua bao) while Taiwanese pearl milk tea is a hit in many countries. Government cultural agencies in Taiwan have put great effort into promoting Taiwan as a food destination. But because of disagreements between the pro-Taiwan and the pro-China side in Taiwan’s politics over what “Taiwan” means, and from the lack of domestic markets and infrastructure to support them, cultural products such as film and music remain unexplored realms of soft power.

Two recent movies, Seediq Bale and Kano, told interesting stories, but failed to reach global audiences — they merely scratched the surface of possibility. The vast potential for telling Taiwan’s story through film remains almost completely untapped. With a pro-Taiwan Administration in Taipei, the time to start telling Taiwan-centered stories on the big screen is now.

Available from Amazon

Several books, old and new, offer good stories for the big screen. In my opinion, leading the pack is Joyce Bergvelt’s Lord of Formosa (Amazon, Camphor Press), a historical novel that tells the story of the 17th century buccaneer and war leader Chen Cheng-gong (Koxinga) and how he took Taiwan from the Dutch. Bergvelt’s novel is highly cinematic, offering accounts of love, battles, and a vast panorama of Asia from Japan to China to Taiwan. The story it tells presents an interesting and attractive reversal of Hollywood tropes. Instead of centering on the white man who saves non-whites from some evil — typically other whites — it offers the refreshing view of an Asian who saves other Asians from European colonialism. Thus, there’d be plenty of white faces to reassure American viewers, but all on the losing side.

Formosa Betrayed — Official Theatrical Trailer

Although the White Terror was presented in 2009’s Formosa Betrayed, the story of Taiwan’s formative postwar experience, the 2–28 massacre, remains untold on the big screen. Vern Sneider’s moving A Pail of Oysters tells the story of two Taiwanese young people whose lives and impending execution by the KMT government draw the attention of Ralph Barton, an American journalist in Taiwan. The novel paints a vivid picture of the brutality and venality of the early years of KMT rule, and because it could have a white male lead, could easily be well received by American audiences.

Shawna Yang Ryan (Photo: Anna Wu)

Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island is also a promising candidate for the big screen. It offers a broad story that sprawls across five decades of Taiwan history, from 2–28 through the White Terror to the modern era. The main characters are all Taiwanese, but the success of the recent rom-com Crazy Rich Asians suggests that a film with Asian leads may do well at the box office.

Another idea might be a biopic about Americans who have interacted significantly with Taiwan. The life of George Kerr, the US consul in Taiwan before and after World War II would make an excellent story that would enable the filmmaker to highlight the differences between Japanese and KMT rule, and end with the story of the 2–28 massacre as witnessed by Kerr. Another good candidate for a story would be the life of Charles Le Gendre, whose influence on Taiwan’s 19th century history was immense. The Taiwan experiences of James Wheeler Davidson, the American correspondent who came with the Japanese on their invasion of Taiwan in 1895 and later wrote The Island of Formosa Past and Present, a foundational text of Taiwan history, would be filled with dramatic scenes of battle, exploration, and encounters with Taiwan.

The Taiwan government and pro-Taiwan groups in America need to put their heads together and get some of these stories out on the big screen using the talent and infrastructure that America’s vast film industry offers. Today millions of people believe Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Edelweiss” is the Austrian national anthem because of the popularity of The Sound of Music, or think that ancient battles were melees of individuals slashing at each other with swords because that is what they saw in Braveheart and 300, instead of trained soldiers actively maintaining orderly, slow-moving formations (a winning strategy in real life, but boring on the big screen). Movies offer a powerful way to shape the way people think about history. It is time Taiwan made hard investments in their soft power.

Movies offer a powerful way to shape the way people think about history. It is time Taiwan made hard investments in their soft power.

My thanks to Catie Lilly (Twitter) and @trickytaipei whose very informed discussion on Twitter inspired this piece

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Michael Turton

Michael Turton


Michael Turton is a longtime expat in Taiwan, who operates the well known blog The View from Taiwan on Taiwan politics, history, and culture.