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  • Pilgrimage As a Pedagogical Practice in Contemporary Taiwanese TheatreU Theatre and the Baishatun Ma-tsu Pilgrimage
  • Craig Quintero (bio)

In 1991, U Theatre Company became the first avantgarde performance group in Taiwan to participate in the annual Baishatun Ma-tsu pilgrimage.1 They joined 2,500 Taiwanese pilgrims in the religious procession devoted to the goddess Ma-tsu, walking 350 kilometers from Baishatun to Bei-gang in nine days. Since then, an increasing number of experimental theatre companies have incorporated this traditional ritual practice into their performer training. In the spring of 2001, members of six theatre groups walked in the pilgrimage: Chi Body, Golden Bough, Riverbed Theatre, Shakespeare's Sisters, Critical Point Theatre Phenomenon, and Sun's Son.2 In postcolonial Taiwan, pilgrimage has become a vital performative site and praxis in the native Taiwanese theatre community's struggle to reclaim indigenous histories and construct a contemporary Taiwanese identity. Pilgrims collectively confront and overcome the intense physical and mental challenge of the ritual procession as they eat, sleep, and walk as a unified body, dynamically crossing contemporary divisions separating urban from rural, modern from traditional, mainlander from Taiwanese. Taiwanese theatre practitioners do not walk in the pilgrimage to learn acting techniques; instead, they participate in this embodied, kinesthetic field research to relearn their land, culture, society, community, and own selves.

Although some theatre pilgrims have staged "secular processionals" after participating in the Ma-tsu pilgrimage, the pilgrimage normally does not have such a direct, quantifiable impact on their performances. Instead, pilgrimage functions more as a performative foundation, a paradoxical moment of total communion and total self-reliance. As Critical Point Theatre Phenomenon actress Yang Wan-yi stated after completing the pilgrimage, "Pilgrimage is what theatre should be: ritual, action, crisis, culture, and community" (2001). And it is in this dynamic [End Page 131] union, this momentary encounter with the transformative power of performance as embodied action, that pilgrimage flourishes as a pedagogical practice in Taiwan's avantgarde theatre community.

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The Baishatun Ma-tsu icon. (Photo by A-si)

Being Taiwanese in Taiwan

In a 1990 article in The Economist, Penelope Hartland-Thunberg commented that if Taiwan were a person she should be seeing a psychiatrist (in Hughes 1997:1). Her tongue-in-cheek remark highlights the cultural identity crisis permeating postcolonial Tiawan. Since the 1500s, inhabitants of Taiwan have existed as a hyphenated people and culture, living as Spanish-Taiwanese, Dutch Taiwanese, Chinese-Taiwanese, and Japanese-Taiwanese—but never being fully Taiwanese. With each shift between rulers, paradigms of nationalism and ethnicity also shifted, as the colonizing nation-state constructed its own dominant interpretation of history and collective memory (Chang 1997:49).

The signing of the Cairo Declaration in 1945 after the conclusion of World War II ended 50 years of Japanese colonial rule over Taiwan. But when the Nationalist Kuomindang (KMT) government fled to Taiwan from mainland China in 1949 after being defeated by the communists, it declared the island-nation a combat zone, paving the way for President Chiang Kai-shek to impose martial law and start a new colonial regime. The Nationalists enacted an elaborate policy of sinicizing the nation, branding a miniature version of mainland China onto the physical and cultural landscape of Taiwan. The KMT created a National Museum, National Language, National Opera, National Painting Style, and even [End Page 132] nationalized time by creating a calendar system that began with the formation of the Republic of China in 1912. As Taiwan scholar Ren Hai notes, the "KMT was living in displaced history, which nonetheless was the present for Taiwan" (1996:93).

Against this backdrop of political and ethnic subjugation, grassroots activists incited a cultural revolution in the late 1970s and accelerated the democratization and Taiwanization of Taiwan. Native Taiwanese formally established the first opposition party, the Tangwai, on 28 September 1986. Under intense public pressure, the KMT lifted martial law on 14 July 1987, opening a floodgate of formerly repressed political and artistic expression. And as Taiwanese political opposition ruptured the KMT's hegemonic construction of everyday social reality, the carefully structured state-sponsored social realism that had dominated the theatre stage for 30...


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