Making New Images, Making New History: Images of Woman in Colonial Taiwan under Japan

Yun-Chiahn C. Sena, Wesleyan University


The desire to create a historical narrative for the arts of Taiwan separate from that of China following the Nativist literary movement in the 1970s led to abundant studies in subsequent decades.  Previously taboo in the mainstream discourse controlled by the Nationalist government, topics from the Japanese colonial period (1895–1945) sparked great interest among Taiwanese audiences.  Part of the reason for the enthusiasm was the importance of this period in formulating a cultural identity for Taiwan, reflecting the island’s recent historical divergence from China.  Among the artists during this period, woman artists, such as Chen Jin 陳進 (1907‒1998), Xu Yuyan 許玉燕 (1910‒2012) and Huang Hehua 黃荷華 (1914–2007), first-generation woman artists with elite family backgrounds and modern education, were hailed for their contributions in representing Taiwanese women.   Chen was renowned for her portrayal of cultured Taiwanese women of traditional gentility, while Xu and Huang applied modern idioms of the Western avant-garde to domestic settings.  Characterizing Taiwanese women with a refreshing combination of tradition and modernity, decisively different from the time-worn stereotype of gentry women in Chinese art, their works have been praised as critical highlights in the genesis of modern Taiwanese art.

Although such a view fulfilled the need for a historical narrative centered on Taiwan, it did not provide insights into the island’s contextual connections to the two regional powers, Japan and China, with which Taiwan had vibrant cultural exchanges and political tension.  Adopting broader regional context that includes Japan and China, this paper analyzes the impact of overarching social and cultural factors on Taiwanese art produced during this period.  Focusing on Japan’s colonial policies and the modernist movements in Japan and China, this paper examines works by important artists, such as aforementioned Chen, who adopted the Japanese colonial view of Taiwan and portrayed Taiwanese women in the tradition of Nihonga 日本画 (Japanese-style painting) as culturally distinctive others, and by Xu and Huang, who, under the influence of the modernist art movement in Japan and China, represented Taiwanese woman as modern intelligentsia in the style of Western avant-garde.  Rather than seeing in these works a conscientious and concerted effort to create new images to represent Taiwanese women, this paper argues that the works were largely resulted from different yet intersecting historical factors which converged in Taiwan during the colonial period.  This paper further concludes that the images of Taiwanese women created during the colonial period were uniquely tied to the social and historical conditions of Taiwan, thus providing the symbolism needed to construct cultural identity and a new narrative for Taiwanese history.