ABSTRACT

Colonial, postcolonial, and agricultural Taiwan In homes and culture centers throughout Taiwan as well as metro stations in Taipei, the douli bamboo hat and the water buffalo serve as metonyms for rural Taiwan and, by extension, an imagined authenticity. Millions of Taiwanese, tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of whom have never been on a farm, continue identifying nostalgically or romantically with the douli-wearing farmers, not unlike idealistic American longings stirred by the windmills of the high plains that at one time represented countless family farms. Family farms and agrarian Taiwan with them were brought sharply into focus by the 2004 documentary film Let It Be (Wu mi le). The film is an acute study of rural Taiwan that also reveals a far less idyllic pastoral than many might otherwise imagine. Directed by Yen Lan-chuan (Yan Lanquan) and Juang Yi-tseng (Zhuang Yizeng), the film brought rural Taiwan to urban cinema with a catalog of sounds and images representing a timeless, folkloric Taiwan. But their chronicle of quotidian farm life also unveiled a world of agricultural chemicals and invasive species, Daoism and Buddhism, and both domestic policy and global politics; in short, it depicted a complex world, both exploited and vanishing. However, the traditional rice farmers in southern Taiwan, the social actors represented in Yen and Juang’s documentary film, are not the only subject at hand in Let It Be. Equally important is the Taiwanese viewing subject, as well as the community for which their film was produced and which their film produces. In other words, the Taiwanese cultivated by Let It Be deserve as much scrutiny as the cultivating Taiwanese projected onto the screen. Let It Be met with box office and critical accolades when first released, but beyond its public reception the film represented a new moment in the conception and projection of what it means to be Taiwanese, a significant development in the longstanding effort to establish an identity or consciousness and represent or create a community beyond those of colonial subject or a second-class citizenry. Taiwanese identity or consciousness, and its concomitant community, has been an urgent issue in Taiwan since at least 1895, when the island was ceded to Japan by the Qing court as part of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which brought an end to the Sino-Japanese War of the same year. Prior to this historic milestone,

Taiwan had been largely administered by Han Chinese settlers following Southern Min and Hakka ethnic practices, who arrived en masse in the seventeenth century during what Tonio Andrade calls co-colonization.1 Between those earliest Han settler arrivals and the late nineteenth century, there were incursions by French and Spanish colonists as well as putatively official annexations by the Ming loyalist Zheng Chengong (Koxinga) and eventually the Qing court, but Japanese colonization and modernization likely crystallized an island-wide Taiwanese identity or consciousness, which until then had probably been largely understood separately and individually as Yuanzhumin, Han Chinese, and European. Such crystallization stemmed not only from the encounter with Japanese culture but also from the emphasis on the modern nation-state that grew throughout the colonial era and peaked in the early 1940s. As Leo Ching has argued elsewhere, “Japanese or Japaneseness, Taiwanese or Taiwaneseness, aborigines or aboriginality, and Chinese or Chineseness-as embodied in compartmentalized national, racial, or cultural categories-do not exist outside the temporality and spatiality of colonial modernity, but are instead enabled by it.”2 But if Taiwaneseness, the state or quality of being Taiwanese, is enabled by colonial modernity, why then is it so relevant to contemporary, postcolonial Taiwan and the subject implied by Let It Be? One answer is that unlike other former colonies such as Algeria or India, Taiwan did not attain independence following its colonization; instead, it was retroceded to the Republic of China at the conclusion of World War II. Commenting on this situation in an often-cited essay, the public intellectual Chen Fangming suggests that the retrocession and the reeducation of former subjects of the Japanese Empire as citizens of a young republic was a de facto recolonization; accordingly, the process of Japanization was merely replaced by Sinicization.3 Chen’s definition of colonization may be problematic, but it remains true that, marginalized by their unfamiliarity with Mandarin Chinese and modern China, the Taiwanese essentially became secondclass citizens in their own home after the war. In 1949, the situation was further exacerbated when the Republican, Nationalist Chinese (KMT, GMD) government retreated to Taiwan while Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established the People’s Republic of China on the Mainland. After a brief four years together, Taiwan and China again were separate political entities. Finally, since the late 1970s, when the People’s Republic of China began gaining recognition in international affairs, Taiwan has been increasingly excluded from the international community, at times even struggling to participate in humanitarian undertakings such as the World Health Organization. For the Taiwanese, those who had been denied nationhood as a Japanese colony or exile government, identity, consciousness, and community become particularly nuanced issues in a world so often defined by the nation. How then does one share a collective consciousness, participate in a community, achieve a sense of belonging, and construct an identity? In the documentary film Let It Be, agricultural history offers a communal memory tangential rather than aligned to the discourse of nation, an identity that is ultimately grounded, quite literally, on the island, the land, rice fields.