Culture and language are closely intertwined, and it is no different in Taiwan. Mandarin is the official national language on the island, but large segments of the population speak Hakka, Holo or indigenous languages.
In celebration of Holo language and culture, the first World Min-Nan Culture Festival was organized by the Taipei-based General Association of Chinese Culture. Chaired by former Premier Liu Chao-shiuan, the festival was held throughout Taiwan this April and May. In Tainan City (southern Taiwan) activities included academic forums and a film expo.
Holo people in Taiwan are descended from immigrants who moved from mainland China’s southern Fujian province from the17th to the 19th century. In Mandarin, Fujian province is also referred to as Min, while nan is the word for south, hence while it is officially called “Minnanese,” many local language proponents consider it more than just a Minnanese dialect and prefer to call it Taiwanese.
Regardless of how the language is written, Lin Fang-mei, a professor at National Taiwan Normal University, believes that the decision to term it Minnanese or Taiwanese is significant. “If you call the language Minnanese, it can be seen as a cultural force that crosses national boundaries,” she told Taiwan Review. “If you call it Taiwanese, then it represents local cultural development in its highest form. That’s because the nuanced expressiveness of Taiwanese makes it suitable for everything from grassroots to highly elitist cultural productions.” At the high end, Lin points to the language’s use in kua á hì, or Taiwanese opera, as well as in other performing arts that have ancient Chinese roots.
Nowadays, Taiwanese is frequently used in the more commercially oriented production of pop music and television shows. Lin says the language’s suitability for everything from highbrow art to mass-market fare has helped Taiwan develop a cultural complexity that stands out prominently among the world’s Minnanese-speaking societies. As language and culture are inseparable in film, a major part of the World Min-Nan Culture Festival was devoted to cinematic works from Taiwan and other Minnanese-speaking societies in mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
The festival’s film expo, featuring a mix of older and more recent movies, was organized by the College of Sound and Image Arts at Tainan National University of the Arts. According to Ray Jiing, dean of the college, the event was held to show the market potential and cultural reach of Minnanese films, as the language is spoken by around 60 million people worldwide, reported Taiwan Review. Jiing is the former director of the Chinese Taipei Film Archive (CTFA), which is now operated under the Ministry of Culture, which plans to turn the archive into a national film center.
The total number of Taiwanese-language films made to date is estimated to be around 1,000, of which about 10 percent still exist. In the late 1980s, Jiing began heading a project devoted to restoring Taiwanese-language films made in the genre’s heyday during the late 1950s and 1960s. Toward the end of 2006, the CTFA’s restoration efforts resulted in the screening of 25 Taiwanese films in conjunction with the Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s top prizes for films from Mandarin-speaking societies.
The restoration of Taiwanese-language films is aimed at recovering a largely forgotten piece of Taiwan’s cultural heritage, Lin said, pointing to the example of the horror movie The Bride from Hell (1965) by Xin Qi (1924–2010), a Taiwanese-language film director and Japanese-trained playwright. Xin was interviewed in the early 1990s as part of a CTFA project on Taiwanese-language filmmakers working in the late 1950s and 1960s and received the Golden Horse Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. The story of The Bride from Hell was adapted from Victoria Holt’s (1906–1993) novel Mistress of Mellyn (1960). Xin’s film version was made in the German expressionist style and evokes a subtle, mysterious ambience through techniques such as emphasizing the contrast of light and shadow, Lin notes.
Making Taiwanese-language films in the late 1950s and 1960s was difficult because the Chiang Kai-shek government focused its efforts on Mandarin. The then state-backed Central Motion Picture Corp. (CMPC), focused only on producing Mandarin movies. For instance, the Golden Horse Awards, founded in 1962, was established to honor and encourage the making of Mandarin films.
As such, Taiwanese-language films were forced to give way to Mandarin films. Director Lee Hsing, for example, made the hit 1959 Taiwanese-language film Brother Wang and Brother Liu Tour Taiwan—one of the restored movies screened at the recent Tainan exposition—before going on to become a heavyweight in Mandarin films. In 1964, Lee co-directed Oyster Girl and directed Beautiful Duckling, both of which used Mandarin dialogues, were filmed in color and became quite popular.
Taiwan Review noted hints of a renewed emphasis on Taiwan’s native roots began surfacing in the late 1970s in written works focusing on the lives of ordinary local people, said Ray Cheng, a film critic and university lecturer. That emphasis on Taiwanese grassroots extended beyond the literary domain when the New Wave Cinema movement began in the early 1980s. Many of the movement’s films were based on the locally oriented novels of the 1970s and some featured a mix of Taiwanese and Mandarin dialogue.
Oyster Girl and Beautiful Duckling were part of a drive by the CMPC to produce “healthy, realistic” Mandarin-language films, most of which centered on the themes of civic virtue and morality. Such films departed from reality, however, when they portrayed ordinary residents in rural communities speaking fluent standard Mandarin, which was highly improbable. Lin points out that true “language realism” did not take shape until the 1980s with the rise of Taiwanese identity when the Golden Horse Awards started recognizing films with dialogues that mixed Mandarin with local languages. That move encouraged the making of movies that reflect the everyday environment shared by many people in Taiwan today.
The dialogue in the old Taiwanese-language films was in a more formal or affected style, whereas the latest works speak colloquial, lively Taiwanese and present a much wider perspective on social reality,” Lin says, referring to hits like Cape No.7 (2008), Monga (2010), Seven Days in Heaven (2010), Night Market Hero (2011) and Din Tao: Leader of the Parade (2012).
Although speaking Taiwanese is back in style, Mandarin still plays the dominant role in Taiwan, both in the film industry and in Taiwanese society in general. To give Taiwanese its due, Lin calls for greater institutional support for the language and the culture behind it. One way of doing that, she says, would be by establishing a Cabinet-level unit charged with overseeing Holo affairs that would be parallel with the existing Hakka Affairs Council or the Council of Indigenous Peoples, reported Taiwan Review.