English Service host John Van Trieste is curious. There’s nothing about Taiwan’s many cultures that he doesn’t want to know more about. Join him every week as he gets to the bottom of yet another question. What will he be curious about this time?
Each year in the early spring, most Taiwanese people head to the graveyards. The occasion isn’t morbid: it’s about remembering those who have passed on and celebrating family ties, in much the same way as similar holidays around the world like Mexico’s Day of the Dead. This is the Tomb Sweeping Festival, a chance for a long weekend, and a family gathering. But like many traditions, the Tomb Sweeping Festival in Taiwan is not static, and recent years have brought some big changes in the way actual people on the ground observe it. One recent tomb sweeper, Sam, is here with us this week to tell us about the holiday and the growing gap between tradition and how people actually observe the holiday today.
A few weeks ago in a Taipei park I had a bit of a surreal experience. Suddenly, standing in front of me was a group of people dressed in elaborate period costume—knights in armor, armed peasants, and a cloaked, sword-wielding man wearing a skeleton mask. Had I stumbled on some kind of weird Renaissance fair? Despite the Medieval-inspired garb and the period musical instruments being played, no. This was my introduction to the world of something called LARP—short for “live action role playing”. It’s a relatively new thing in Taiwan, but it seems to have taken root across the country. And it’s a bit of a difficult phenomenon to classify. People who take part in LARP games aren’t historical reenactors. Nor are they cosplayers, people who dress up as characters from their favorite works of fiction. To further complicate things, each LARP group has its own rules and aesthetic style. I was a bit confused at first, but the head of the group I happened upon in that Taipei park, Dennis Chou, is here with us today to explain what LARP is, what LARPers do, and why.
Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are famous for their gifts of song and dance. But fewer people outside their communities are quite as familiar with their traditions of instrumental music. As my guest today tells me, this is often quieter and more introspective music. It’s often intimate, not meant for grand public performances, but just for one or two listeners. The typical instruments from a range of indigenous groups are now on display in an exhibit at the Cahamu Museum, a museum of indigenous culture in the southern city of Tainan. Here to take us on a tour of the collection and teach us a bit about Taiwanese indigenous music is the museum’s Mukuwi Aniw.
Taiwan might not be a big place, but an awful lot has happened here, and if you wanted to tell Taiwan’s story in just a few objects, you’d have a hard time covering everything. Yet the National Taiwan Museum has managed to do exactly this with a newly opened permanent exhibit on how Taiwan as we know it came to be. Last week, museum curator Li Tsu-ning joined us for an introduction to how today’s Taiwan emerged. But with so many events and objects to discuss, we only made it part of the way through, exploring Taiwan’s indigenous cultures and its longstanding contacts with the outside world. This week, we’re picking up where we left off in the 19th century, a time when outside contacts became much more frequent, and intrusive, than ever before.
In the space of just one newly renovated wing, the National Taiwan Museum is attempting to do something difficult—present the history and culture of Taiwan through a relatively small number of objects. We’re not exactly big geographically or in terms of our population, but there is a lot to cover— dozens of cultural groups plus centuries of recorded history. It doesn’t help that the museum’s collection is huge, and only two or three items can stand in for a whole period or an entire people. Still, the museum has done pulled it off, sketching a complete picture of how Taiwan as we know it came to be. Today, museum curator Li Tzu-ning is here to give us an overview of what the museum decided to do for this, its latest long-term exhibit.