[Fragriver in Taiwan] The artistic side of Taipei – “文青”臺北

  1. Why 文青? Why “the artistic side”?

Warning: This part acts as a disclaimer (Well, disclaimer is an inevitable part of my current work as a tax consultant) for my use of these terms. As a part of my daily life in Taipei now, I try to participate in cultural activities held in Taipei as much as possible with a view to enriching my understanding of this city as well as strengthening my Chinese proficiency. I am really impressed by the wide range of cultural activities offered in Taipei and dedicated this post to reflect my personal thoughts on this artistic side of Taipei which were inspired by some cultural activities in Taipei recently. I decided to use the term “文青”臺北 to describe the aesthetic side of Taipei in my mind. As the term “文青” and “Hipster” should be used with caution, I did a research, consulting my friends as well as wrote a lengthy note as below for your ease of understanding. You may skip to the second part if you are not interested in investigating in the “linguistic” explanation.

On the first day of my elective class of “Selected readings in Modern Chinese Literature”, my teacher introduced us a term named “文青”, which is translated by Google Translate as “hipster”. “Hipster”, as defined in Cambridge Dictionary, is used to refer to someone who is very influenced by the most recent ideas and fashions. As a habit of learning languages, I forced myself to read the detailed explanation of the terms in both English and Chinese for better understanding and sometimes, I did find the terms in Chinese and English, which seemed to refer to one united idea on Wikipedia, sometimes representing totally different ideas or meanings due to difference in the cultural background that helps coin the terms. However, it is interesting as well to see that in some cases that the ideas underlying the term in the two languages somehow intersect with each other. Let’s have a look at the introduction of these terms on Wikipedia:

Hipster: The hipster subculture is composed of affluent or middle class youth who reside primarily in gentrifying neighbourhoods. It is broadly associated with indie and alternative music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility, vintage and thrift store-bought clothing, generally progressive political views, organic and artisanal foods, and alternative lifestyles. The subculture typically consists of white millennials living in urban areas. It has been described as a “mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behaviour”.

The term in its current usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the late 2000s and early 2010s, being derived from the term used to describe earlier movements in the 1940s. Members of the subculture typically do not self-identify as hipsters, and the word hipster is often used as a pejorative to describe someone who is pretentious, overly trendy or effete. Some scholars contend that the contemporary hipster is a “marketplace myth” that has a complex, two-way relationship with the worldview and value system of indie-oriented consumers.

: 文藝青年,簡稱文青,又稱文學青年,原指喜愛文學(文化、文創)藝術的青年,21世纪后用法发生变化,主要指拒绝随大流,标志自己与众不同的志向与品味的青年,有时英语中被译成“hipster”.

1990年代前,「文藝青年」一詞是在社會文學運動當中被運用;1990年代後,則是演變成網路流行語的運用;同時也受到網路爆紅的影響,文青一詞開始在台灣大眾媒體廣為流傳,最初的詞義也逐漸模糊,網路上衍生出各自主觀的論述,例如用來形容一個人的穿著、行為、個性、嗜好、文章寫作風格;另外還有假文青(偽文青)、微文青的稱謂;目前文青常有嘲笑性質或成為自嘲用語。

English translation (My own translation): 文青(Pinyin: Wenqing) is derived from 文藝青年 (Pinyin: Wenshuqingnian, which means the artistic youth) or 文學青年 (Pinyin: Wenxueqingnian, which means the literary youth), originally used to refer to the young people who love artistic works (cultural or creative works). In the 21th century, the term, however, is used to refer to the ones who are against the mainstream or appear to have unique taste which is not commonly shared by most of young people. It is sometimes translated into English as “hipster”.

Prior to the 1990s, “The artistic youth” is often used in the context of literary movement. From the 1990s, this term is widely used on the Internet. Subject to massive effect of Internet, the term is widely spread in Taiwanese media, which gradually undermined its original meaning. On the Internet, there exists a wide variety of different interpretation for this term; for example, this term is used to describe one’s way of dressing, behaviors, personality, or hobby. At present, there even exists term to refer to the pseudo-文青. Therefore, “文青”may be used with some senses of sarcasm or self-deprecation.

It seems that the two terms “hipster” or “文青”, though established in different cultures and having different histories of establishment (of course), align with each other when it comes to its usage in the modern times. However, in this post, I prefer not to use the term “hipster” to refer to “文青” as I thought that these two terms could not be interchangeably used. I then decided to keep it as “文青”throughout the post.

When my teacher described “文青”, she showed us with a “checklist” of what makes a “文青”, which was widely spread on the Internet. Well, the list is quite long with 45 criteria and some of which are like文青is one who love Harumi Mukarami, who loves photography and even some ridiculous items such as wearing Converse or using Mac.

(Source: http://www.ettoday.net/news/20121026/118383.htm#ixzz4LwfvZWfc)

As I once said that I detest checklist of all kinds so I feel a little bit weird if ones use a checklist to define someone that belongs to a specific group of people, especially when some criteria are more likely to be just external characteristics. After doing a quick research, reading some related articles and finding some articles referring “文青”with not-so-positive attitude, I consulted Evelyn, a Taiwanese friend of mine to seek for further insights relating to this term. Evelyn shared with me that the term was not that negative and it was fine to refer to ones who were real “文青” or ones who were really interested in fine arts. However, not all people will be comfortable at being called “文青” as they may feel that they are not that “geeky” (which means difference from other people) or “crazy” (perhaps artistic people are often a little bit abnormal) or simply because they think they do not deserve this title. I also asked her if I could employ this term to describe Taipei as “文青臺北”. She said that this term may be specifically used to refer to “subculture” or a small group of young people in Taiwan only. Therefore, it may be not appropriate to use this term to describe the complicated culture of Taipei. However, “文青”, as Evelyn said, may be refer to one who loves arts and who are cool at the same time, therefore, I think that it may be fine to use this term to reflect the aesthetic side of Taipei as one of many ways to catch the vibe of this beautiful city.

  1. The artistic side of Taipei – Taking aesthetics as guiding principle (以美學為師)

Before coming to Taiwan, I remember reading somewhere on the Internet where Taipei is described as a laid-back and artistic city. My favourite  Taiwanese TV series “In Time With You” (我可能不會愛你) (starring Ariel Lin and Chen Bolin) was referred as one of the most artistic idol movies for its depiction of some aspects in Taipei’s cultural activities (i.e. performing theatre, exhibition, etc.). I have also had some ideas related to the indie music of the young Taiwanese people. Therefore, when I was still in Vietnam, Taiwan’s image (especially Taipei) has long been conjured up in my mind as an artistic land, which made me decide that Taiwan should not be a place for tourism purpose only but it should be a place where I must try living in and experience for a time of my life.

Before writing in more details about the artistic side of Taipei, for avoidance of doubt, I must admit that I am not that interested in arts or cultural activities when I was in Vietnam. Some of you may think that I should be so interested in arts that I could be that interested in the cultural activities in Taipei. There may be some reasons leading for my ignorance of cultural activities when I was in Vietnam. First and foremost, I should not have any excuse for such ignorance. I was too lazy to search for information related to cultural activities in Hanoi. Day by day, such inactive search for cultural activities will make the upcoming events become less accessible for me. The second reason should be my heavy workload when I was in Hanoi that alienated me from almost every cultural actitivity in Hanoi. During my time in Taipei, with a view to utilizing my time here, I proactively search for cultural actitivies in Taipei to participate. For these above personal reasons, I must admit that I am not kind of “文青”or I am a little bit ignorant of cultural activities in Hanoi.

Ignorant as I may be, I do think that the objective factors (I mean the factors from the outside like cultural ecosystem, government’s efforts to engage people in cultural or artistic activities) weigh much more in such ignorance of mine. I would like to list out some reasons as follows which may account for the active engagement of young people in Taiwan (and at the same time account for my inactive engagement in cultural or artistic activities when I was in Vietnam).

When I walked around College of Social Sciences and International Affairs in NCCU, I found a statue of “Spatial Fruit” with a message like that:

“Spatial Fruit

The Universe – Starting out as a “seed”, it has been transformed into a steadily growing “tree”, with the stars as its “fruit”. What are Taiwan’s “fruits”? Its GDP? Its stock market? Its night markets? Its real estate? Alishan? Giant trees? There are just visible aspects of Taiwan…

“Spatial fruits” have found a home at National Chengchi University, where the azaleas will now be in flower for evermore. The mirror-surface work draws into itself the dreams and aspirations of the University’s students and faculty members, past and present. Taking aesthetics as its guiding principle, it soars up and away, spreading its message of love.”

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What made me impressed at the first place was the key work “taking aesthetics as its guiding principle” (以美學為師). I do not want to jump into any conclusion like Taiwanese puts great emphasis on aesthetics as I feel it should be better to leave such conclusion for the local when it comes to determine the identity of their own community. What impressed me here was that they made a statement out of it while in Vietnam we still are arguing about our economic guiding principles, our idealism towards development or the idea of Gross National Happiness of Bhutan has just introduced to Vietnamese people. In Vietnam, lots of people still think of arts as something far-fetched or unbelievable and materialism still dominates our lives. And here Taiwanese people made a statement out of it and in the eyes of a foreigner like me, they have been successful in conveying such message in various aspects of their life. For example, in NCCU, which is not a school of arts, they even built an 8-story building for arts (NCCU Art & Culture Center – 政大藝文中心) and this Center’s capacity in rendering artistic and cultural activities is really admirable.

But NCCU’s Art Center is not a rare case in Taipei. There are around 60 museums or memorial houses in Taipei and as I have written in my previous post relating to Taipei’s museums, Taiwanese people know how to make an exhibition out of almost everything. Big universities like NTU or NCCU dedicated buildings for art centers and it is not difficult to find many creative parks in Taipei like Huashan 1914 Creative Park, Songshan Creative Park, etc. And it is not too difficult for you to participate in any street cultural activities when you get by Tamsui area, Xinyi District, Bopiliao, etc. There are also lots of cultural houses in different districts in Taipei and elementary schools, middle schools, coffee shops, bookstores are actively employed as places for cultural activities taking place as well. (When I am writing this post, I read an article relating to “Fighting fake culture” movement set out by the current Taipei Mayor since 2014, in which the authority stated its harsh critique to the ones who currently run the creative parks for their lack of intention of fostering real creative industries. You may read the full article here. I am not sure if the situation is that serious or has been improved for my lack of insights into this industry but from my experience to Huashan 1914 Creative Park yesterday, I am totally blown out by the artistic and creative atmosphere here.)

At the same time, information related to cultural activities are made accessible to people here as every month, Department of Culture Affairs of Taipei issues a detailed pamphlet of cultural activities of all kinds (Performing Arts, Exhibition, Lectures, etc.) and made it available in every MRT station or museums, creative parks or arts centers in Taipei, let alone detailed booklets issued by each cultural center for activities taking place on a monthly or quarterly basis. The convenience of Taipei’s transportation system should attribute to the widespread of cultural activities among young people in Taipei as well.

Yesterday, I went to Huashan 1914 Creative Park to attend a speaking event, which is a part of the 華文朗讀節 Wordwave Festival. When I came here, I was impressed at the architecture or the arrangement of the park as a whole with some old buildings covered with ivy, skylights formed by the winding corridors which were then employed as outdoor performance stage for street artists, the indoor arrangement with artificial grassland for people sitting to attend speaking events. The idea behind the festival is really meaningful, especially for ones love reading and writing at the same time, the words of the program initiator would touch your heart:

“Reading to me is a way of broadening my horizons. It broadens my horizons because my own life is so limited but by reading I can access the life experiences and specializations of hundred of thousands of representative individuals. But reading goes with writing. There shouldn’t be a division of the labor of reading and writing. For writing refines thought, forces one to choose the exact word and grammatical formulation. Writing makes one a more sensitive reader.

Reading out loud is a kind of ritual modern people can engage in to ritualize their lives. In the past people’s daily lives were full of collective rituals. Now we sit in front of the television or computer, and do things when we feel like it and how we want. Maybe in deritualizing our lives, we’ve lost something. So I often read aloud , as a way of  appreciating what others have written, and as a way of checking what I have written.”

The program initiator is a Canadian, who teaches English and settled in Taiwan. The idea of reading out loud creating the word wave, helping relish the well-wrought writing and motivating the original creative works is really cool. I found some groups of young people making a small circle and reading out loud a book in turn. The circle was open and I was invited to join the reading circle as well. The idea was simple yet amazing for its ability of motivating people to read more and to get connected.

On my way back to the dormitory, I thought a lot about the youth of Taipei, their involvement in arts as well as the ecosystem of arts fostered by its government. It may be not strange for lots of my friends who have already studied abroad in developed countries, who have evidenced how arts are put much emphasis on as well as for friends of mine who already had some ideas about how the arts are paid attention abroad. However, I still feel the urge of writing something to keep a detailed account of what I have seen here in Taipei, to contribute personal insight into the cultural activities of Taipei and for my friends who love arts and hope that there would be someday when arts are made accessible to every people in the world.

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