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Taiwan's Culture and Art

By mixing traditional and contemporary, Eastern and Western, local and international, Taiwan's artists in both the visual and performing arts are exploring different approaches and developing their own unique styles.  Writes, similarly, are drawing on both global and nativist cultural codes to create new modes of literary expression, and explore issues of national concern.

Indigenous Arts

Eleven rich veins in Taiwan's web of cultures are those of its 11 indigenous groups: the Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Thao, Tsou, and Yami.


Arts such as woodcarving, weaving ,wickerwork, and pottery, as well as ceremonial dance and song, have always played central roles in indigenous life, and have strong traditions of individuality, innovation, and creativity.

The Paiwan and Rukai peoples of southern Taiwan, for example, are especially known for their woodcarvings of stylized human figures, geometric patterns, and images of the hundred-pacer snake.  The Yami of Orchid Island are best known for their sturdy, hand-built boats made without nails or glue; and Atayal women use simple back-strap looms to create rectilinear patterns of squares diamonds and triangles.

Dance and music are among the richest legacies of Taiwan's indigenous peoples.  Group dances that are performed at a wide variety of ceremonies and rituals consist mostly of simple but harmonious walking and foot-stomping movements.  They are usually performed in unison and accompanied by melodic choruses.  Indigenous musical instruments include drums, simple stringed instruments, woodwind instruments (such as flutes), and other percussion instruments (rattles, wooden mortars and pestles).

In addition to traditional buildings scattered around Taiwan, two of the best places to view indigenous peoples' architecture are at the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village near Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan, and the Taiwan Aboriginal Culture Park in Pingtung County.  The Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in Taipei offers detailed information on native cultures and histories.

Taiwan Folk Arts

Traditional handicrafts such as paper cutting, knotting, and dough figuring sculpture continue to be fairly common in Taiwan.  Other apprentice-oriented folk arts are struggling to survive.  Traditional performing arts such as puppetry, dragon and lion dancing, folk opera and dance, and traditional acrobatic have a tough time competing with TV, movies and other modern-day activities.

Many folk arts have benefited from a revival of interest in recent years, however.  The Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA) support numerous folk art festivals covering everything from paper umbrellas and lanterns, to Hakka "mountain songs," drum dances, and comedy skits.  The CCA also sponsors the Folk Art Heritage Awards and the prestigious title of Folk Arts Master.  In 2002, the National Center for Traditional Arts was established in Yilan for the promotion and research of traditional arts.

Woodcarving and other temple crafts have also advanced in recent years; one significant project is the extensive renovation of the 200-year-old Zushih Temple in Sansia by some of Taiwan's craftspeople over the past four decades.

Woodblock printing is also experiencing a renewal of interest.  Used especially for New Year hangings, woodcut prints are of a simply, rural style and commonly depict folk deities.  Other traditional and modern printmaking techniques include lithography, silk-screening and etching.


Three styles of puppetry are common in Taiwan: glove puppets, shadow puppets, and marionettes.  Glove puppets with finely embroidered costumes, exquisite headdresses, and delicately carved faces perform on elaborate stages covered with intricate gold carvings.  Shadow puppets cut out of leather and painted in bright colors are larger; lit from behind and with joint allowing movement, the puppets throw a colorful and lively performance onto the white screen viewed by audiences.  Marionette puppets are usually about two feet high and, manipulated by up to 14 strings, are usually presented in front of simple backdrops.  Many of the stories used in puppet shows are adapted from classical literature or ancient legends.


A new generation of Taiwan painters appeared during the period of Japanese rule (1895-1945) whose subject matter, like that of the Impressionists, centered on daily life or local landscapes.  Through their Nativist Art, characterized by a conscious desire to depict images evoking Taiwan's unique identity, these oil painter had an important influence on Taiwan's artistic development.

As Nativist Art as reaching its peak, relocation of the ROC government to Taipei in 1949 brought a sudden influx of traditional ink painters.  By the late 195-s and early 1960s, however, many young artists, disillusioned with traditional styles but unable to connect with Japanese-trained Impressionism, were drawn to contemporary Western trends, Abstract Art in particular.  The late 1960s and the 1970s saw a new nativist movement emerge, as artists once again painted local scenery and architecture, and explored folk art traditions.

Recent trends since the 1980s and 1990s have seen artists employ a much broader variety of styles and subject matters, and use their Taiwan consciousness as an important starting point for the expression of ideas relating to identity and filled with symbolic or metaphorical images.


Before the 1920s, the only forms of sculpture flourishing in Taiwan were those used in temple and folk arts.  It was not until the 1970s, however, that sculpture was widely accepted as a fine-art genre, becoming a regular feature at galleries and museums in the 1980s. As in the West, Taiwan's sculpture has also evolved into avant-garde forms of installation and performance art. 


Taiwan contemporary ceramic art emerged in the late 1940s in Miaoli City and Yingge Township in Taipei County.  In the early 1950s, it broke out of ceramic factories into artistic workshops, experimenting with shapes and glazes, while remaining largely within traditional functional frameworks.

Exhibitions at the National Museum of History in the late 1960s and at private galleries in the 1970s led to creative ceramists gaining wide recognition, with a major boost coming with the opening of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 1983.  The Chinese Ceramics Association was formed in 1992., and held its first festival the following year.  The Yingge Ceramic Museum, Taiwan's first, opened in 2000 to present the latest developments in Taiwan's ceramics and to promote cultural exchanges with overseas artists.

Seal Carving

Carving names or other inscriptions onto chops was once a requisite skill for an well-rounded literati, along with painting and calligraphy.  Nowadays, chops used for daily business transactions are generally machine carved; only a small number of artists still specialize in the art of engraving name chops by hand.

Typically made of wood, jade, or soft previous stones, the body of a name chop may be left plain or be sculpted into symbolic images such as lions or dragons.  In addition to their use in business transactions, chops are imprinted onto traditional paintings and calligraphy to identify the artist and add aesthetic feeling.


The four main professional Chinese music groups in Taiwan are the Taipei Municipal Chinese Classical Orchestra, National Chinese Orchestra, Kaohsiung Chinese Orchestra, and Chinese Orchestra of the Broadcasting Corporation of China.  At least another ten smaller ensembles perform regularly around the island.  These musicians play mostly traditional Chinese instruments, but sometimes perform Western compositions or Chinese works that incorporate Western-style rhythms or harmonies.

There has also been renewed interest in preserving various types of traditional music including bei guan (a fast-tempo music that commonly accompanies operas and traditional puppet shows) and, especially, nan guan (a more delicate and soothing sound).  The Changhua County Cultural Center houses the Nan Guan and Bei Guan Center.

Despite the important position of traditional Chinese music in Taiwan, Western classical music predominates.  Many young classical musicians, having succeeded in international circles, have now returned to Taiwan as either visiting musicians or regular members of orchestras and chamber groups.  The main Western-style orchestras are the National Symphony Orchestra, Taipei Symphony Orchestra, and National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra.  Private orchestras and ensembles include the Taipei Sinfonietta and Philharmonic Orchestra and Ju Percussion Group.


Taiwanese opera features colorful makeup and costumes, stage props, and stylized gestures.  It was initially performed on outdoor stages; often in front of temples.  Best-known is the Ming Hwa Yuan Theater Troupe and the most celebrated actress is Yang Lihua.  Television performances of Taiwanese opera have also been important to its development since the 1960s.

Taiwan's theater scene exploded in the 1960s with the so-called Little Theater Movement.  Private mini-theaters proliferated in the 1970s and directors experimented freely with stage techniques and imaginative interpretations of both local and Western plays.  Pioneers included the Lan-ling Drama Workshop and New Aspect Art Center.  Several leading theater companies date from the mid-1980s; these include the Performance Workshop (which introduces collective improvisational theater) and Ping Fong Acting Troupe (which presents slapstick comedies satirizing Taiwan society).  The Godot Theater Company combines theater, music, and dance in its performances, while the U Theater is dedicated to creating a form of contemporary theater expressing Taiwan's unique identity.


Dance in Taiwan has become increasingly diverse since the late 1960s.  Early pioneers of modern dance including Cai Ruei-yue and Li Cai-e began performing in the 1940s after studying European-influenced modern dance in Japan.

Other key figures who introduced modern dance to Taiwan include Liu Feng- shueh who formed the Neo=Classic Dance Company, and Lin Hwai-min who founded the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre to express local identity, and which has gained a devoted local audience and deserved international reputation.

A number of smaller dance companies, many founded by former Cloud Gate members, have started up since the 1980's.  These include Lin Siou-wei's Taigu Tales Dance Theater (known for its meditative dances based on Asian philosophy), Lious Shao-lu and his Taipei Dance Circle (using innovative choreography to create peotic displays of motion), Dance Forum Taipei founded by Ping Heng (mixing postmodernism with an Asia frame of reference), and the Legend Lin Dance Theater, founded and directed Lin Li-jhen (taking inspiration from Taiwanese folk traditions).


Taiwan's film industry was one of the healthiest in Asia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, though syrupy romances, grade-B kung fu movies, and moralistic or propaganda-oriented dramas predominated.  The real breakthrough for Taiwan cinema came in 1982 with In Our Time, featuring four talented young directors, Edward Yang, Tao De-chen, Ke I-jheng, and Jhang Yi.  By replacing earlier melodrama and escapism with a realistic take on Taiwanese life, the film won over audiences and paved the way for New Wave Cinema.  Inspired initially by nativist literature of the 1960s and 1970s, New Wave directors, such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, and Wang Tong, created a cinema with a unique Taiwanese flavor focusing on realistic and sympathetic portrayals of both rural and urban life, and examining the effects of the political, social, and economic developments in Taiwan.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a Second New Wave emerged with even greater variety of content and style, although the strong commitment to portraying Taiwan's unique perspective continued.  Important figures include Tsai Ming-liang, Stan Lai, Lee Ang, Wu Nien-chen, Lin Cheng-sheng.

Indigenous Literature

Indigenous intellectuals have been trying to recreate their cultural histories since the 1980s by re-expressing oral traditions.  Stories of creation myths and tribal heroes have been transcribed by romanizing indigenous languages, and are published with Chinese translations.  Such texts constitute a belated effort in the struggle for cultural survival and the preservation of languages and traditions, as even indigenous children resist using their native tongues.

Literature in Taiwan

In the 1950s, Taiwanese intellectuals emulated Western cultural and liberal-humanist traditions, favoring rationalism, scientism, and philosophical contemplation in their exploration of new spheres of human experience.  In the 1960s and 1970s, young modernist writers broke ground with bold analyses of nontraditional interpersonal relationships, and present challenges to the conservative middle-class mentality that had been the backbone of Taiwan's dominant culture until that time.  Their conscious exploration of language and voice brought fundamental changes in rhetorical conventions of modern narrative.  The early 1970s witnessed a reaction to modernism's dominance of the literary scene.  In the Modern Poetry Debate of 1972, for example, critics advocated advocated a nativist, socially- responsible literature.   Using the Taiwanese language to depict the plight of rural or small town dweller caught in economic difficulties, nativists attacked the government's economic dependence on Western countries, expressed indignation on behalf of the farmers and workers who paid a high economic price for urban expansion, and attempted to draw public attention to the adverse effects of economic development.  Such a regionalist sentiment touched on the "provincial heritage problem," that is, tensions between native Taiwanese and mainlanders.  Excessive ideological concerns are considered to have detracted from their literary achievement.  In any case, the trend declined suddenly in 1979 when several key Nativists exited the literary scene to become directly involved in political protests.  Annual fiction contests sponsored by major newspapers from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s gave creative writing a solid boost, indeed, most baby-boom generation writers rose to prominence by winning such contests.

The cultural environment became largely consumer-oriented in the 1980s, with the literary scene dominated by baby-boomers concerned predominantly with their own popularity, their unique cultural identities, and various problems affecting Taiwan's middle-class urbanites.  They displayed an abundance of local color but little ideological content.  However, literature of the 1980s was increasingly pluralist.

From the mid-1980s onwards, as indigenous began to replace foreign as the primary source of exotic imagination, and as cultural identity began to occupy a more prominent place in the public consciousness, postmodernism became fashionable again. Issues about Western influence on contemporary Taiwanese literature were also discussed.

Like Taiwan, which had undergone great changes in national identity and multicultural diversification, Taiwan's literature of the 1990s tended to mix genres and multilingual devices, drawing on a wide range of global and local cultural codes, idioms, and traditions, to express a fluid, albeit disoriented, structure of feelings.  Many writers used reportage, science fiction and biography to explore everyday political subjects and issues associated with Taiwan's independence movement, minority discourse, political feminism, and environmental protection.  It was in the Little Theater movement that serious political satire truly intermingled with comic relief.  The stages used for mini plays could be in real theaters, or on the street, at city hall, or even in front of the Legislature.

Another important trend in the 1990s was the revival of the local vernacular tradition.  Taiwanese, Hakka and even indigenous languages became alternative linguistic mediums for literary expression.  This diversity of languages and customs is still enriching the literary expression of the people of Taiwan.

Information provided by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office

Diversity makes up Taiwan's culture and arts.  Modern art, as well as traditional art, aboriginal art, and folk art can be found.  The traditional Chinese fine arts are mainly comprised of calligraphy and tradition painting.  Flower arranging, sculpture, cloisonne, jade carving and ceramics are other art forms in Taiwan.

The film industry in Taiwan thrives and produces over 100 movies each year, some with international acclaim.  Other performing arts include drama, Taiwanese and Chinese opera.


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