Monday, July 07, 2014

Performing the Taiwan Identity

A bike path near Dahu in Miaoli.

My friend Mark Roche, who is one of the most knowledgeable and active foreigners on cycling, camping, and hiking on Taiwan, was observing on Facebook that it was difficult for him to get information on the upcoming Sun Moon Lake swim. This Sunday event, a single day, consists of a swim across the lake which now has 27,000 participants and surges in growth every year. What used to be a fun athletic event is now an exercise in mass stupidity. The obvious solution to the burgeoning population of swimmers is to conduct multiple swims over a month or several months, spread out that surge of wealth and tourists for the lake, and reduce the possibility of deaths. Because that would be the intelligent way to do it, the authorities probably won't adopt it.

One reason the S and M Lake swim has become so popular is sociopolitical: it has now become one of the defining activities of the emerging Taiwan Identity. Other activities involved in this include cycling round the island (the premier activity of the Taiwan Identity, which many of the young engage in), cycling over Wuling, and climbing Yushan. Many locals have explained this to me.

Here is an interesting and I think neglected aspect of the emerging Taiwan Identity: a portion of this identity can be created and displayed to others through the performance of outdoor activities, through group or mass participation. My perception is that this is quite unusual in the Chinese cultural sphere, and shows how Taiwanese are different from Chinese. It also shows how Taiwanese have incorporated many aspects of modernity -- in this case exercise and outdoor exploration -- into their new identity, which is, like so many social identities, experienced and displayed via acts of consumption (in this case, outdoor tourism). It also has an aspect of "claiming" -- becoming or taking control of a place by physical performance. I'm sure there's a PHD thesis in here somewhere...
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. That'd be a (literally) healthy dose of natinoal identity.

Since the Taiwanese cannot wave their flag (which?) and cannot call out their country's name internationally, they naturally need an emotional outlet for self-expression. Using streams of outdoor activities as a constant symbolic group hug is totally in order.

And this bunch of creative and peace loving people has been being scorned as "troublemakers" whenver the Chinese claim to have their feelings "hurt"?

Chapeau to the Taiwanese!

Pekingese said...

There is already a film made about Cycling and Taiwanese identity, Island Etude (2006).

Michael Turton said...

Yes, Island Etude sparked the current craze.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Chairman Mao inspire masses of Chinese to swim across rivers (or drown halfway)?

Mike Fagan said...

Not a criticism of the activities themselves or the people doing them, but it is circular reasoning isn't it? If you're Taiwanese and you do cycling and other outdoor stuff, then... you're Taiwanese?

Actually I suspect that, to the extent there is this collective identity thing going on, then it may be largely incidental. I suspect that outdoor tourism is driven largely by outdoor aesthetics that draw more on environmental and health values, with Taiwanese nationalism an add-on. Similar to how firearm practice at the range is driven primarily by practical and aesthetic values and is only secondarily, if at all, an affirmation of collective identity ('Murrica!).

Yesterday I drove past scores of cyclists on my way up to Shih Lin weir in Miaoli County and I observed many of the stronger ones literally pushing the weaker ones up some of the rises by what can only be described as the "hand-on-arse" method. That's a practical aspect to group cycling I'd never seen that before. Also the gorge for the Da'an river up into the mountains of southern Miaoli is breathtaking in places.

Michael Turton said...

If you think identity processes are rational, then you're the first.

Pekingese said...

Personally, I think that Island Etude (2006) is only one of the fruits of the "bentuhua" cultural/political movement that has altered Taiwanese aesthetics and sensibilities. The more recent Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above (2013) also performs a similar trope in observing Taiwan. Essentially these films espouse love for the homeland, as you correctly observed, in "consuming," not only products but also images of Taiwan. Thematically, we could call the above films, "love films", where the lens lovingly captures the minutiae of Taiwan's landscape, and more importantly, re-invoking Taiwan's ancestral relationship with the ocean and sea (with the majority as descendents of migrants).

I would venture to argue that young Taiwanese are not only "consuming" Taiwan, but also reinventing and creating new images and products to share with each other through social media- the Sunflower movement certainly produced an explosion of content in cyberspace. We are still exploring and redefining what it means to be Taiwanese...

Mike Fagan said...

But I don't; I pointed out that the reasoning is circular and thus irrational.

Aspen said...

Long time reader and first time poster. I left Taiwan in '07 to study in the States. I discovered your blog earlier in the year and have since depended on it often to keep me updated about the island. Thank you so much for regularly sharing the news and your perspectives.

Back to the rise of outdoor activities, I can't help but think this is recent. As someone who had gone camping often in the nineties and the early aughts, I actually often felt like an outlier in my cohort. Now every time I make visits back home, it surprises how popular outdoor activities have become. I suppose Island Etude as well as improved infrastructure/institutions really helped foster this wave of change.

But then again it can all be generational. While outdoor activities weren't "the thing" during my youth (I was born in the late 70s), college students in my parents' generation actually had spent their summers attending camps and hikes held by KMT's China Youth Corps.

Michael Turton said...

ain it can all be generational. While outdoor activities weren't "the thing" during my youth (I was born in the late 70s), college students in my parents' generation actually had spent their summers attending camps and hikes held by KMT's China Youth Corps.

That's an interesting and useful observation.


Readin said...

"you're Taiwanese and you do cycling and other outdoor stuff, then... you're Taiwanese? "


A cultural identity is like that. You're Taiwanese if you practice Taiwanese culture, and Taiwanese culture is defined by what Taiwanese do.

If one group of Taiwanese start to do one thing different than the rest, then you have individuals within a culture. If one group of Taiwanese start to do many things different, then you have a subculture. If they start to do nearly everything different, then you have a strong case for saying you have two cultures instead of one. But if most Taiwanese start doing very different, then what you have is a change in the culture.

In this case it's even more subtle - its not just what the people within the culture are doing, it's what they are doing that separates them from other cultures that matters. Like geishas in Japan, a small group of people performing an activity can help define a culture even if most people in the culture never get involved in that activity so long as the activity is sufficiently different from what other cultures do.

Embracing an outdoor lifestyle, with a special emphasis on biking around the country, may not be unique to Taiwan, but it does help distinguish Taiwan from China. And certainly the "around the island" trip is something few other c0untries have.

Mike Fagan said...

My comment about circularity seems to have gone misunderstood. Rather than being a form of "collective" identity qua Taiwanese nationalism, the participation in cycling and other outdoor activities (if it is not largely due to intrinsic motivations and health values) may in fact be little more than an affirmation of "status" hiding behind the pretense of collective identity, and as such it is what the PC bobbies would call "exclusionary" (that is, if it were being done by people other than themselves).

After all, are the Taiwanese people who don't bother with the outdoors somehow not Taiwanese, or less Taiwanese? Of course not. So there you go... at the end of the day, it may just be a bunch of well-off tossers playing dressy-up, and in this case the "clothes" just happen to be Taiwanese nationalism.