Ko Wen-je and Taiwan’s political theatre

The following article appeared on UnHerd’s website on January 3, 2024

Theatre and politics have a long history in Taiwan. During the Japanese colonial era (1895-1945), lookouts were posted outside Taiwanese opera performances to warn of approaching police patrols. These raids were part of a Japanisation policy known as kominka, designed to transform the Formosans, as they were then known, into loyal imperial subjects. Alert to the impending swoop, actors switched language and costume from Taiwanese to Japanese. Thus reassured of the show’s cultural propriety, the inspectors moved on.

Later, after the Second World War, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) dictatorship used theatre as a political tool, while politics itself became a ritualised performance to a captive audience. Throughout Taiwan’s martial law era (1949-1987), moviegoers stood before each cinematic presentation to sing the Republic of China’s national anthem, set to footage of President Chiang Kai-shek performing stately duties.

Yet, politics as performance truly came into its own with Taiwan’s democratisation during the Nineties. Since then, its theatrics have been most evident in parliamentary brawls, which have featured lawmakers bashing each other with mobile phones, spraying tear gas, and hurling pig offal.

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