In order to make effective use of National Taiwan University’s spring break, I went to the city of Tainan. Tainan was the former capital of Taiwan in former times, and I heard that it managed to hold on to a lot of Taiwan’s cultural identity. Although living in Taipei has given me a better understanding of the Taiwanese people and their culture, I felt that going to Tainan would be able to show me perhaps another perspective on Taiwanese culture and help me see its form in an older time period.
In many ways, Tainan did not disappoint my expectations. There was a certain air about it that gave it the impression of a city less affected by the unavoidable transformational qualities of time. The streets were rugged and less ordered and there were no modern looking skyscrapers or apartment buildings. The result was a relatively flat city which was spread across a large area. As Tainan did not have a subway system, I was glad to be able to borrow bicycles from the hostel, as it would have been a lot of distance to cover on foot. So on the chaotic streets of Tainan, I was put under constant anxiety trying to avoid nearly colliding cars, rushing motorcycles and other cyclists. This was worth it in the end, as I was able to see more of the essence of Tainan by cycling through numerous roads and alleyways while going from destination to destination. I felt that I was able to see more than the average tourist.
The most impressionable sight on the trip was a Taiwanese burial rite. Passing by an alleyway I saw many people dressed up in unusual attire and heard the sound of firecrackers. Of course I decided to go through to explore. The alleyway led to a fairly remote, medium sized temple with around 8 people holding onto an elaborately decorated carriage with several more attendants around. I saw several ceremonies, and each was different in its own way, from the attire of the attendants to their activity to the number of attendants. The largest was one which was made of almost a hundred attendants for the procession, and thus filled up the temple courtyard. Each procession was accompanied by loud and abrupt firecrackers, which seemed to welcome to procession and signal their departure. Being a spectator in these unfamiliar rites along with the antiquity of the temple area made the experience seem surreal and transported me to a Taiwan of several decades ago.
One thing that was noticeable was the age of the attendants to each procession. None of them were young. Even the ones holding to the substantial carriage were wizened. They were the preservers of their failing generation and protectors to their special hue of Taiwanese culture. With their passing the realities of the former present would diminish.
Previously, I always felt a certain animosity to the drivers of this change. This loss of cultural identity and cultural diversity for a more one dimensional Westernized cultural environment seemed to be a great tragedy. All of the rites and ceremonies, the way of thinking and the physical landscape (architecture) were at stake. I felt sorry to see all of the organic growth that took over a time period centuries collapsing in a matter of one or two generations.
The country that reflected this ordeal the most for me is China. Suffering a tumultuous recent history, with several wars, revolutions and movements, there was hardly a moment of repose for the Middle Kingdom. With the rise of Mao came a single political authority in the country, but came the Cultural Revolution which created an upheaval in Chinese thinking. In that age also came the destruction of architecture for the sake of modernization, an example being Mao’s destruction of a large part of old Beijing to create the Tiananmen Square. From my media influenced knowledge, this is a constant reality in China, as older areas are destroyed for the sake of modernization. With this physical destruction comes the loss of the inhabitants’ lifestyles and loss of a direct connection and physical representation with a people’s history. (Note: I am not an expert on Chinese history, as I have only read a few books, please let me know if I wrote any nonsense)
However, there really is no way to deal with change except to accept it. Over a long period of time, as situations change, challenges appear and new generations with new beliefs arise, and change happens. We may be affected and emotionally have a difficult time facing new realities, but objectively, there is little we can do except observe and ride along with the inescapable currents of transformation.
In a way, I am a hypocrite when it comes to this topic of change. Born into a Korean family with specific (and in my opinion, outdated) beliefs about the world, a large part of my late teen years was spent rebelling against my parent’s worldviews and the worldviews of the previous Korean generation. If some sort of cultural purity was retained, and my beliefs were a mirror image of the previous generation, it would be difficult to adapt to a quickly changing globalized world, in which different ideas are continuously pitted against each other. If we were to take this idea a bit further and suppose that there was no change in the Korean culture for the last 100 years, I would have most likely been a farmer or studying to become a scholar and suffering from a much lower quality of life.
The changes that are happening in China may be the same way. China’s rapid modernization and cultural ‘destruction’ is one which I find particularly regretful about because of my plans to do a large, encompassing trip to see with my own eyes the land with the “5000 years of history,” which the Chinese people claim. Personally, I do not want to be late to the party and see a country stripped of its time tested organic cultural growth and diversity. However, if this is the China I see, then it is the China I have to accept. As a traveller it is more exciting to see cultural variety. Perhaps if I was an inhabitant of a modernizing city, it would be better for me if creative destruction led to modern conveniences.
Furthermore, it just may be that our modernizing world will bring new areas for organic cultural diversity. An increasingly globalizing world connecting people from all around the world, who previously would never had the opportunity to meet can create new dimensions of cultural variety. Only the future will tell, and this is the future we will see.