The politics of Beautiful Taiwan

Taiwan’s excellent public broadcaster PTS (公視 gōngshì) has a four-part series on YouTube called ‘Island of Mountains’ (群山之島與不去會死的他們). Thanks to its bilingual English/Mandarin subtitles it is a great way to practice your Chinese. It is also a nice example of a certain stream in Taiwanese politics that is about treasuring and caring for the Ilha Formosa, the Beautiful Island (美麗島 měilì dǎo).

People who have watched aerial photography film ‘Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above’ (看見台灣) by Chi Po-lin (齊柏林 Qí Bólín) might have recognised the same political message on the need to care for a vulnerable Taiwan. ‘Island of Mountains’ also follows a conservationist in its third episode. But the series also portrays mountaineers back from abroad who get emotional over the realisation that Taiwan too contains magnificent sights.

Getting to know the Taiwanese landscape is a salving experience for the people presented in the movie. It is also a journey with a long political pedigree. Formosa or the Beautiful Island is not only a common name invoked by pro-Taiwan groups in a show of nationalism. Its discourse is also a political act of breaking with the impositions of orthodox Republic of China (ROC) nationalism that forced Taiwanese to care about China and neglect their own island.

During the martial law era, state-sanctioned education, literature, and media forced Taiwanese to imagine themselves on a map of China, memorise the sights and wonders of China, appreciate poetry on the natural beauty of China, and care about the suffering caused by the communists in China. Under such circumstances, appreciating the beauty of Taiwan became a radical act. Caring about Taiwan, its people, culture, history, and nature became a way to express one’s opposition to ROC nationalism when open political fights were banned.

Even now Taiwan still faces the legacy of decades of forced Chinese nationalism, the lingering cultural power of elite Mainlanders from the Blue Camp, and distortions forced on Taiwan by Beijing and other, misunderstanding foreigners. Putting Taiwan front and centre continues to be a political act of defiance against these pressures. Documentaries such as the one by PTS do not only provide us outsiders with an opportunity to practice Mandarin listening skills, but also to practice discerning Taiwanese political history.

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