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  • Refracted Modernity: Visual Culture and Identity in Colonial Taiwan
  • Lingchei Letty Chen (bio)
Yuko Kikuchi , editor. Refracted Modernity: Visual Culture and Identity in Colonial Taiwan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007. viii, 285 pp. Hardcover $62.00, ISBN 978-0-8248-3050-2.

A bona fide book on visual culture, Refracted Modernity: Visual Culture and Identity in Colonial Taiwan brings to its reader a rich collection of paintings, illustrations, and photographs of architecture, artifacts, and crafts. All are beautifully printed on heavyweight semi-gloss paper. This book is an excellent source book worth owning. Its impressive physical and visual quality is, however, not the only reason why Refracted Modernity should catch a reader's attention. The nine essays present solid scholarship, demonstrating a complex historical process from an array of visual cultural perspectives. Together they articulate the ambiguity inherent in the identity politics of colonialism for both the colonizer and the colonized. Equally significant is that Refracted Modernity deals with an area of research that has not been sufficiently explored, namely, the Taiwanese colonial visual arts developed during the Japanese colonization of the island.

The book is divided into three sections: "Images of Taiwan and the Discovery of Taiwanese Landscape," "Images by and about Women," and "Construction of Taiwan's Vernacular Landscape." The first section contains four essays that investigate Japanese writers' and artists' representations of the Taiwanese landscape with a common purpose of establishing a new Japanese national identity vis-à-vis its expansionism in East Asia. Section 2, with its two essays, contrasts the Japanese and the Taiwanese artists' representation of women in their separate attempt to reflect modernity, with the former from a "refracted" Orientalist perspective and the latter a colonial perspective. The final section collects three essays that investigate how Taiwanese artists synthesize local cultural forms and the Japanese modern design concepts inspired by the West. This section also demonstrates the incorporation of Taiwanese aboriginal art and artifacts by Japanese artists as evidence of the empire's successful colonial policy in its "enlightenment" of the natives.

As Japan tested its military might with the Qing dynasty in the late nineteenth century and defeated its former big brother in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), Taiwan was ceded to Japan and became this new East Asian imperial power's first colony. Taiwan played an important role in Japan's newly established identity as a rising empire. In travelogues and paintings by the Japanese artists and writers who visited Taiwan, this colony is depicted as an exotic and dangerous virgin land whose unspoiled and primitive nature provides the necessary contrast with Japan, the center of East Asian civilization and modernity. Taiwan, thus, is the Japanese empire's other in the same way the mysterious East functions as the Western imperial powers' other—a refracted Orientalist mentality that Japan adopted in its effort to establish a new national identity. Such is the theoretical notion of refraction that links up the nine investigations in this book.

Japan's refracted Orientalism toward Taiwan is best seen in the binary system that elite Japanese travelers, such as Tokutomi Sohō, set up in relating themselves to the local Taiwanese. Interestingly, among the local population, a two-tier racial hierarchy already existed: the Chinese settlers and the aborigines. However, to [End Page 134] Tokutomi, the real, authentic other is not the Taiwanese of Chinese descent or the hontōjin, but rather the noble savage, the banjin, because they best suggest the moral superiority of the Japanese race. However, to other Japanese travelers, such as Satō Haruo, the cultural distance maintained by the hontōjin was welcomed by Japanese travelers who tended to view Taiwan as a "dangerous" island. As Naoko Shimazu concludes in his essay, what is revealed in some of the travelogues is the elite Japanese's realization that it is not so much "civilization" that gives Japan its superior standing as it is the relative notion of modernization, which puts the Japanese above the Han Chinese in Taiwan (p. 35).

Visual representations, such as paintings of Taiwan's natural landscape, also serve to project cultural difference. Japanese painters traveled to dangerously mountainous areas to capture the untamed beauty of this...


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