Dancing shadows of film exhibition: Taiwan and the Japanese influence

(with Penny Lin, Kelly Chu-Chun Fan, and Lucia Tai-Yun Cheng)

Uploaded 1 November 2000

1.Taiwan and the world

The world’s first cinematic performance took place in the Grand Café of Paris in 1895. During the same year, in Asia, the Chinese Qing Dynasty signed the treaty of Shimonoseki, ceding Taiwan to Japan and starting a Japanese rule that lasted to 1945. [1] During this time of Japanese colonisation, the international community progressively abandoned the foreign naming of the island (Formosa), and adopted its Asian name (Taiwan). This was the first step in a long quest for recognition of Taiwan’s own intrinsic identity.

Both Taiwan and Japan are archipelagos, isolated from the rest of the world. So Taiwan’s early film history was quite removed from that of mainland China: the first films distributed in Taiwan came through the Japanese islands, at first from France, and later from other western countries and from Japan. By the time the first Chinese film arrived in Taiwan, the electric shadowplay had evolved within Japanese exhibition practices for more than twenty years: a whole generation of Taiwanese film audiences had become accustomed to cinema without seeing a single Chinese production.

Two Japanese attributes characterized early Taiwanese film history: the benshi, and the rengasi-kowairo. The benshi is the Asian version of the silent film commentator, typically different from elsewhere in the world. In Taiwan, they became the cornerstone of film performances. Marketing fashioned a glamorous aura around the benshi masters, and the trade evolved a benshi star system. Chained drama consisted of inserting a short film exhibition in one act of an opera performance (rengasi). The actors would then step behind the screen, lending their voices to their characters (kowairo). Then, in the next scene, the story would continue as a stage play, thus live opera performances were “chained” to film as a mode of narration. Both the benshi and chained drama derived from Japanese culture, which was the strongest influence on early film practices in Taiwan.

While Japanese traditions were influencing early film projection in Taiwan, colonial Taiwan was in search of its own identity. Some of it was to be found in traditional opera. The Taiwanese enjoyed ancestral legends and at the beginning of the Japanese colonial rule, in the early 1900s, many Beijing opera companies were touring Taiwan. The Taiwanese borrowed elements from the traditional Beijing opera and the local Luan-tan opera, to perform an opera in their own dialect. So if the colonial legacy pertained mainly to film exhibition, in parallel, a form of cultural dissent surfaced with the emergence of Taiwanese opera blossoming from the Chinese operatic tradition.

Half a century of Japanese rule (1895-1945), including two World Wars, will be covered in this article. At first, in the 1910s to 1920s, Japanese policy was magnanimous, allowing the development of Taiwanese cultural traditions, but this was followed by the Japanisation movement, in the late 1930s. After the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937, an integral Japanese lifestyle was imposed, so Taiwan became hostage to Japanese ambition.

Taiwan has been profoundly scarred by the imperialist interests of numerous nations. It was successively occupied by Holland, Spain, Japan and China, before Japan’s fifty years tenure, which ended at the end of World War II with Taiwan returned to China. This very last period of Taiwan history was not considered to be an occupation, but the situation was nevertheless that of a Chinese army ruling over a Taiwanese majority (70%).

To better understand the disconnection between the Taiwanese and their history, it is necessary to understand that recent return to China. [2] When the Kuomintang Nationalist government (KMT) refused to recognise the communist government in China, they fled to Taiwan. The KMT regime resolutely insisted that the Republic of China in Taiwan was the only China: Taiwan became Taiwan R.O.C., an appellation that still prevails today. However, on the island the authority of the new KMT government, under Chiang Kai-shek, was soon contested. On 28 February 1947 a major rebellion arose against the KMT regime: the army killed more than 20,000 Taiwanese, and Martial Law was imposed. The Emergency Decree, as KMT rulers originally called it, lasted forty years (1947-1987). During this period, the Taiwanese were forbidden to teach their local dialect in the schools, they could not travel to China, nor could they study their own history. [3]

In the late 1980s, Taiwan tentatively ventured toward democracy. In 1989, Chen Nan-rong, the publisher of Free Time magazine, publicly burned himself to death demanding more freedom for the press. [4] In 1991 came the nation’s first “democratic” elections, and, with the defeat of the KMT and election of the Democratic Progressive Party in 2000, Taiwan’s metamorphosis into a pluralist and democratic nation with a distinct identity was complete.

It has only recently become possible to peer into Taiwanese history, so there has been an abrupt increase in historical publications in the past few years, despite the difficulty of searching for the pertinent historical documents, and the consequent wide margin for error. For instance, different sources date the Portuguese naming of Taiwan as Formosa to have happened in 1517, 1544, 1590 and 1592. [5] The little information already published in English is continually being challenged and updated and Taiwan’s history will need time to be re-written with greater accuracy.

Because there is so little written on Taiwanese history, one is constantly faced with having to choose from conflicting dates. In this paper, when a source was provided the earliest date has been kept, but when contradictory information has been provided this has been mentioned. To add to the confusion, Taiwan adopted a different calendar: in 1911, they went back to year zero so the year 2000 would read as year 89 on the local calendar. [6] The present work uses the usual universal time frame but readers need to remember that the local year reference is specific to Taiwan.

There is so much that Taiwan has striven to change. Adopting the new calendar was a symbolic gesture to protest against the refusal of the Chinese government to go along with scientific advancements when they came from the West. Going back to year zero was a symbolic gesture, an assertion that scientific laws are universal.

Taiwan has proven it can walk out of colonial history and still unite change and tradition. In its attempt to keep the best of both East and West, the finest of modernity and tradition, Taiwan has sometimes had to choose between native tradition and colonial influences. In summary, searching into Taiwan’s colonial past, this paper will try to strike a balance between the Japanese influence and Taiwan’s own identity. It will discuss Japan’s influence on Taiwanese early film history through both the benshi and chained drama, how Taiwanese opera developed from traditional opera, and finally how Taiwanese opera contributed to the development of a strong national cultural identity.

2. The historic context: the electric shadowplay

The colonisation of Taiwan by Japan was an awakening to modernisation, as the Japanese were curious about all novel western wonders. After nearly three hundred years of self-imposed seclusion, Japan had opened its doors to the rest of the world and had begun a program of industrial modernization. Taiwan was thus escorted by Japan into the modern age. For instance Japan and Taiwan were the first throughout Asia to introduce the Kinetoscope peepshow, which used film, but not a projector: the viewer had to look through a small window to see the action unfold. For instance Japan and Taiwan were the first throughout Asia to introduce the Kinetoscope peepshow (which used film, but not a projector: the viewer had to look through a small window to see the action unfold). In August 1898, the Kinetoscope was brought to Taipei at the Tamsui Goan Teahouse, presenting short films which lasted an average of one minute: Acrobat Performance, Barber Shop, Scottish Dance, etc. [7] Film projected onto screens, what the Taiwanese called “the electric shadow play”, came a few years later.

Although the Lumière Cinématographe and the Edison Vitascope both made their Osaka debuts in June 1897, [8] in Taiwan the first performance occurred three years later, when a Japanese businessman, Mr. Matuho, gave the first film presentation in Taipei’s Cross theatre on 21 June 1900. [9] The first films were very short, usually one-reelers, but since the Japanese were used to lengthy traditional theatre, film programmes in Japan would combine many short subjects, played successively without any pause, to form a longer program. [10] It can therefore be assumed that the first performances in Taiwan, by and for the Japanese, would feature these lengthy programs. Another typical custom in subtropical Taiwan was to pour water on the screen during long programmes, in order to prevent its catching fire from the hot light of the projection booth. [11] In Taiwan, the projector used was the LumièreCinématographe and the films shown were Hai shui yu (Bathing women), Jun dui chu fa (Military march), Gong ren xuan hua (Noise of the workers), Bu lai ke xian sheng mao zi xi fa (Magic hat or The hat tricks of Mr. Brike). [12] The program played for a week and the audience was mainly composed of Japanese women. [13]

After one week in Taipei, the same program toured the island during the months of July and August. [14]  But film screenings remained rare: the next only took place the following year, in 1901. Until recently, this 1901 screening was thought to be the first in Taiwan’s history: Yeh lately found evidence of the 1900 performance, thus setting the coming of the electric shadowplay a year earlier than had previously been thought. [15]

While film exhibitions were still itinerant, European films poured in, especially from the French Pathé empire. Pathé’s studio had as their motto: “Cinema is tomorrow’s newspaper, school and theatre.” [16] Portraying fiction realistically, with the specific purpose of teaching a moral lesson, was seen as both entertaining and educational, as well as in conformity with Confucianist teachings, which conceived culture as a learning experience. Thus Pathé’s motto (and the films that exemplified it) fulfilled an Asian expectation, and the French trend of social realist films was successful with Asian audiences: Yin jiu yu jia ting (Drunkard and family), Ai di cheng gong (Success of love) and comedies such as Shi mao di nang lie (Fashion for tramps), Jiu si xiang di jiao yu (Education of traditional doctrines) and Zi fu di shi bai (Failure of arrogance) [17] . Between 1904 and 1907, the Pathé films found wide acceptance in Taiwan.

By then, a few ventures into colour films had happened, as silent films were often tinted for mood. In western films the accepted code for night scenes was blue, so the entire screen would have a bluish hue as an indication that the sequence was happening at night. The Japanese also tinted their films, but their code was different: night scenes were coloured orange. In the same way, spring was symbolised by a pink tint, the right colour to emphasise cherry blossoms. [18] Taiwan saw both the eastern and western conventions for tinted colour in film, so a blue tint in a film from the West and an orange tint in a film from Japan both indicated a night scene.

Many of the Japanese productions had been tinted for mood. But tinting was not the exclusive method used to bring about colour. Delicate hand painting was a highly developed skill in Japan and such labour was cheap. Just as the French magician and film maker, Georges Méliès, had hand-painted some of his films, [19]  so some Japanese films distributed in Taiwan were painted, each frame coloured individually.

Before long came the British invention – Kinemacolor. This colour process, invented by Charles Urban and Albert Smith, was designed to photograph scenes with a special effect which resembled natural colour:

The color effect was obtained by two synchronized color filters rotating in front of both camera and projector. By the rapid alternation of red and green filters, coupled with the corresponding alternation of individual frames photographed with equivalent filters on the camera, a wide variety of colors was possible. [20]

Ordinary black-and-white film stock was used, so the colour effect, relying on persistence of vision, [21] required a change in film speed of both camera and projector. For the two primary colours to combine properly, the film had to pass through at twice the normal speed, so twice as much stock was needed. This British invention was used in the French studios and Kinemacolor came to Taiwan through Pathé: Yeh lists eighteen colour films distributed in Taiwan in 1908, all coming from France and all relying on the Kinemacolor system. [22] The Pathé Empire struck gold once again. The natural Asian curiosity for new technology caused great enthusiasm for colour films. [23]

In June 1911, Taiwan’s first movie theatre opened in Taipei. Established by a Japanese businessman, the Fang Nai Ting Theatre was located in the Hsi-men Ting district which, nowadays, is still a movie theatre district. [24] A competitor came a few years later, in 1914, with the opening of the Shin Gau Gan. Both establishments presented Japanese and European features like Na Po Lun sheng li zhi xi sheng (Victory of Napoleon), Zui yu fa (Crime and punishment perhaps: Russia, 1906, dir. Drankov) and Nuo wei di bu yu shi kuang (Fishing in Norway) [25] .

In the 1910’s, Japanese audiences had access to permanent movie theatres but Taiwanese distribution enterprises kept touring around the island with their film programmes. The first film commentator for Taiwanese audiences was Mr. Liaw-hwang, in 1903. The programme he toured with in central Taiwan was a blend of American, European and Japanese films. He purchased his films in Japan and he presented the electric shadowplay in teahouses or in the anteroom of local temples. [26]

A decade after the first permanent movie theatre was established in Taipei, a movie theatre opened nearby, for Taiwanese audiences. The language barrier made movie theatres exclusive to either Taiwanese dialect [27] audiences or Japanese: even though the films were silent, the benshi master would comment in one language or the other. Most Taiwanese did not speak Japanese and could not possibly follow the Fang Nai Ting Theatre program. The first movie theatre with a benshi master commenting in Taiwanese opened in the 1920s. The World III Theatre (Shi Jie San Guan) aimed exclusively at the Taiwanese audience and was closely monitored by the Japanese authorities. [28] Its program featured few Japanese films, but more features from the West, such as The Gold Rush (USA, 1925, dir. Charlie Chaplin), Gu xing lei (Les misérables, France, 1925, dir. Fescourt or 1912 dir. Capellani), [29] An Andalusian Dog (Spain, 1928, dir. Luis Bunuel) and Battleship Potemkin (USSR, 1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein). [30] In 1923, the World III Theatre programmed the first Chinese film ever shown in Taiwan. Coming from Shanghai, the focal point of China’s film industry, Gu jing chong bo ji (The Revival of an Old Well, China, 1923, dir. Dan Duyu) was, like all other foreign films, required to bear Japanese subtitles in order to be distributed in Taiwan. [31]

By the mid-twenties, motion picture distribution in Taiwan was still based mainly on touring exhibition. There were three movie theatres in Taipei (in the north), one in Tainan (in the central district) and one in Kaohsiung (in the south). [32] Four of them had Japanese benshi masters and only the World III theatre played silent films with a Taiwanese benshi master.

In the 1920s, Taiwan desired to resume connections with China, and from the first Shanghai-made film to arrive in Taiwan in 1923 until 1945, more than 300 Chinese films were distributed in Taiwan. [33] World War 1 (1914-1918) dislodged European films from the Asian market, while American films were still pouring in. [34] In 1926, Paramount and Universal opened a distribution office in Japan and, by 1928, all the majors (Paramount, Universal, MGM, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, United Artist, Columbia and Walt Disney) had local representatives. For the majors, Taiwan was a “junk” market: they merely distributed frayed copies and B productions. [35]  By 1930, Japanese films were still dominant in Taiwan, with the Japanese comprising up to 70% of the film audience: for each Chinese or American film shown in Taiwan, eight Japanese films were viewed. [36]

The first film produced in Taiwan was a documentary in 1907, shot by the Japanese and concerning Japan’s rule over Taiwan. [37]  An official film department was formed in 1914 when the governor of Taiwan established a mobile film production unit under the Culture and Education Bureau, with the aim of spreading Japanese culture among the Taiwanese and teaching them the Japanese language. The first program was a free showing of a film depicting the Japanese governor’s investiture[38] .

In 1923, the government-run newspaper, Taiwan Daily News press, also opened a film department, following the example of the Japanese News Agency in Japan, which was shooting newsreels and short fiction. The Taiwanese company shot a short fiction initially called Kan niu han(Cowherd), and praising the Japanese invasion of Taiwan. [39] The original title must have raised a controversy because they then changed it to Lao tian wu qing (An unfeeling God).

By 1911, the average length of the films produced locally was increasing. At first, few productions were more than one reel long, but as two-, three- and four-reel pictures arrived from Europe, the Japanese lengthened theirs too. [40]  By then, Japan had put together a strong film industry and they were ready to start producing longer feature films.

The first feature film shot in the colony was a film directed by Tanaka King in 1922 as a production of the Japanese mobile film production unit. [41] ]The original title Da fo de tong kong has been translated as either The Pupil of the Buddha [42] or Eyes of the Buddha [43] . It told the story of a Chinese official who tries to force a Taiwanese girl to marry him, until a handsome young Japanese man comes to the rescue. According to Lu, this feature film is the first one made in Taiwan. [44] Yet, Yeh’s latest publication considers an earlier production as the first feature, a story about discrimination against aboriginals in Taiwan shot in 1919. [45] This feature was shot partly in Taiwan and partly in Japan and this is probably why Lu discounted it as the first feature film made in Taiwan.

The Shanghai influence later lead to the establishment of the first Taiwanese organisation aspiring to produce feature films. The first production of the Taiwan Motion Picture Study Society was a hero-saves-the-beauty movie. Shei zhi guo (Whose fault is this, Taiwan, 1925, dir. Liu Siyang) was a market failure. The following production, Xie he (Bloodstain, Taiwan, 1929, dir. Zhang Yunhe), was an enormous success. It told the story of a heroine and her lover searching a mountain to exact revenge upon her father’s killer. [46] These two films were Taiwanese productions, produced by Taiwanese and with a Taiwanese cast, but relying on a Japanese director, cameraman, lighting technician and editor.

The same division applied later on, with other Taiwanese production companies: they had to depend on a Japanese crew. Japan was a co-producer but the business bond was biased: the capital came from Taiwan sources and all the professionals were Japanese. So the films were produced in Taiwanese language, but the entire creative power over the film was held by the Japanese, reflecting the unequal association between the Japanese coloniser and colonial Taiwan.

In summary, the late 1920’s context, in both film exhibition and production, was twofold in character: the Japanese had permanent movie theatres and a strong film industry at home to back up their film production in Taiwan, while Taiwanese film exhibition was still mainly itinerant, with the exception of one permanent movie theatre in Taipei, while the film production industry was still dependent on Japan’s specialised skills. During Japanese rule, Taiwan never managed to set up an independent film industry.

2.Traditional Japanese theatre: the benshi

In Japan, the educational potential of films was recognised within the Japanese tradition of pictorial and narrative arts. A tenet of the traditional ideology is that “no form of art may be separated from the written or spoken word” [47] : painting, dance and music all have to be accompanied by a text which shall be read or heard, as the word gives a work of art its authenticity. Early films – being silent – were regarded as lacking a soul, which could be revealed by the voice of the benshi.

Just as around the globe the first film performances called for a live commentator, an authoritative voice was all the more necessary in Asia. Films coming from foreign country required a commentary for audience comprehension: “If there had been no explanation during, say, The Czar’s Arrival in Paris, the audience would have had no way of knowing that the ruler was the man inside the carriage and not one in the superior position up on the roof.” [48] But overall, even when the films spoke for themselves, the Japanese audience enjoyed being instructed.

Japanese commentators, however, differed from other silent era film commentators, because within Japanese tradition a story must have a narrator. The noh play has its chorus, the bunraku doll-drama its joruri singer, and the kabuki its gidayuchanter. [49]  The benshi narrator was a part of this Japanese story-telling tradition, standing or sitting to the left of the movie screen and interpreting the film to the audience.

A standard film program would begin with the entrance of the benshi master, greeted by an ovation: he made an opening statement about both himself and the movie and then the projection could start. The benshi masters were respected characters; they were sharp and entertaining. They usually spoke many languages and they could explain all the subtleties of the plot, as well as the locations, when it was a foreign film. The benshi masters were the cornerstone of film projections, providing the spoken word which gave a soul to the motion picture.

Benshi worked best with films based on stage conventions, with the actor distant from the camera and no editing except in a simple connective sense. Minimalist narrative codes suited the benshi more than the more overtly cinematic aesthetic. When Japan began to produce films, the critics declared that they were mere illustrations for the benshi. Indeed, Japanese films kept cinematic narrative devices to a minimum, giving the responsibility of the narration to the benshi.

In the cinema field, expressionism is usually associated with Germany in the 1920s, but, before the Germans, the Japanese had also conceived the motion picture as a medium related to painting, where symbolism could play a major role. The expressionist quest for symbolic images blossomed within a long-shot aesthetic, with the camera filming the characters from far away so as to centre them in a context, [50]  the environment acting as a metaphor for mood. In this kind of image, composition carried more meaning than did simple narrative message. [51]

In the very beginning of film history, the camera was always kept at a distance. In the West, the convention developed of bringing the camera closer to the actor. Film became then progressively articulated through narrative devices such as the medium shot, the flashback and the jump cut. Narrative codes gave autonomy to the films, which could be understood without the need of a commentator.

In Japan, there was no such quest to explore narrative devices, largely because the benshi was in charge of the narration, expressing the subtle nuances of expressionist films and creating narrative and chronological links. As the soul of the motion picture, the benshi master was very much part of the performance and central to Japanese film exhibition.

But there was also another reason for the Japanese reluctance to put the camera closer to the action. The onnogata was still a current practice in Japanese films: all the female roles were played by men in the manner of the noh and the kabuki plays. [52]  Closer shots were thus inconceivable, as they would ruin the onnagata illusion. Later on, in the 1915s, the shimpa school started to cast female actors, but by then, Taiwanese audiences preferred the foreign films from the West, which had real female actresses and even kissing scenes. [53]

The first Taiwanese benshi master was a musician and composer named Wang Yung-feng, who had played on a regular basis for the orchestra at the Fang Nai Ting Theatre in Taipei. Working with the Japanese benshi every day, he observed many benshi performances and thus learned the trade. He was the first Taiwanese benshi master hired at the World III Theatre in the 1920s, and subsequently training many apprentices in his art. He was also the composer of the music for the Chinese film Tao hua qi xue ji(China, Peach Girl[[54] , 1921) in Shanghai. [55]

Other famous Taiwanese benshi masters were Lu Su-Shang and Zhan Tian-Ma. Lu Su-shang, will not be primarily remembered for his benshi performances, but mainly because he wrote the inestimable History of Cinema and Drama in Taiwan, the bible of Taiwanese film history. [56] The most famous of all was Zhan Tian-ma, whose story is told in a recent Taiwanese biographical film, March of Happiness (Taiwan, 1999, dir: Lin Sheng-shing). [57]

Benshi masters were intellectuals: they spoke Japanese, had often travelled to Japan and/or China, and were poets writing their own libretto for each film. Since 1910, films had been distributed with a script, but these poets of the darkness would rather explore their personal style, so they were not very faithful to the supplied dialogue, [58] and might even modify elements of the plot. Some benshi were famous for comedy, others for tragedy, and watching the same picture with a different benshi master was always a new experience.

Nevertheless, when audiences came to see a foreign film, one aspect remained the same: the names of the characters. The benshi did not bother to use the original names of the characters in the film. For any given foreign film, the heroine was invariably called Mary; the hero was Jim and the villain, Robert. The benshi baptized them as such. In historical films, the hero might come riding in shining armour, but the benshi introduced the chivalrous knight to the audience as “Jim” just the same. [59]

The benshi master gave an often redundant description of the action, offered an explanation of motive and elucidated the setting of the film, putting the picture into its foreign context. As the electric shadowplay evolved into a narrative art, fiction emerged and the benshi master then tendered a moralistic commentary. Taiwanese benshi masters, trained by the Japanese, emulated the storytelling and moral instruction tradition of Japan.

At first, the Japanese benshi performances were usually accompanied by piano, violin, cornet or shamisen (Japanese stringed instrument). [60] By the 1920s, a band of five people played in small movie theatres, with an additional violin, a shamisenor a sheng (Taiwanese wind instrument) in larger locations. [61]

The trade of the benshi made film production more economical and shortened the distribution delay which would have been required for writing titles. However by the mid-twenties, in Taiwan, the benshi were not a mere economy, but a major attraction. The public rarely chose to see a specific film star, or even a specific film: they wanted to be entertained by their favourite benshi master.

The benshi performances rapidly evolved into a star system, and potentially a means to defeat competition. The competitors were not only the other touring film exhibitors, but also – amongst Taiwanese audiences – the traditional opera. The benshi performances in the Taiwanese dialect brought a local flavour to foreign films, allowing motion pictures to be competitive even during the golden age of Taiwanese opera. So, in much the same way as Hollywood promoted the actors of the film or chose a famous actor to guarantee the film’s success at the box office, benshi masters were elevated to star status. Their billing was above the star of the picture and their names were shown in larger print than the stars, the director or even the title of the movie. The Japanese version of the film narrator had developed into a weighty character. [62]

In 1927 the coming of sound made film commentary superfluous. Japanese narrative conventions had, by then, evolved toward a less expressionist and more cinematic aesthetic. Nevertheless, the star system kept the most famous benshi in the limelight for a few more years. Unfortunately for the benshi, in the 1930s Japan started to produce sound films and the idea of economising by eliminating the payment of the highly-remunerated benshi masters was attractive to the movie theatre managers. In 1932, after the benshi went on strike, the theatre managers granted them a retirement bonus and the Japanese benshi masters withdrew from the Taiwan-based movie theatres.

The Taiwanese benshi, however, remained active. The coming of sound in Taiwan did not alter the coloniser’s language specification: all films still had to be subtitled in Japanese. So, while the Japanese benshi masters were forced to retire, the Taiwanese poets of the silver screen kept going, giving cues to famous stars, with the advantage of knowing in advance what they would retort.
As the benshi masters were intellectuals, spoke Japanese and maintained strong ideas about the Japanese coloniser, there was a potential political dimension to their art. The benshi being part of such an influential medium, the cinema, the Japanese were conscious of their subversive power, and took control of the management of the profession in the mid-1920s, by granting licences dependent upon passing an annual state police exam. [63] The Japanese police closely monitored benshi performances, and had the power to stop the film if they sensed any subversive undertone, or to lay charges, which could result in sentencing the benshi to imprisonment.

Along with the management of the benshi performances came censorship. Japanese officials established two definite principles: a moral criterion and a public safety criterion. The moral standard forbade kissing scenes, which had to be deleted, though talk and hugs were morally acceptable. The public safety standard proscribed any plot or images potentially leading to the development of a Taiwanese sense of community. [64] Systematically, all images of China’s national flag, or of leaders such as Dr. Sun Yat-sen (1899-1925) or Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) were censored. [65] In 1929, of the 1550 films shown in Taiwan, three were banned: two from Japan and one from America. The coming of American films to Japan had led to an emerging desire for democracy, and some Japanese productions expressed an opposition to feudalistic Japan: such films were never distributed in Taiwan.

Despite the Japanese attempt to control film distribution through censorship and licences for the benshi masters, the Taiwanese still strongly identified with China and programmed as many Chinese and American films as possible. In the 1920s the Taiwanese desire to resume connection with China intensified, even though China had provided little education to the Taiwanese and Japan had educated the Taiwanese and encouraged them to learn the Japanese language. Back in 1901, Taiwanese students had started to study in Japan, their number increasing rapidly to more than 300 in 1912 and more than 2,400 by 1922. [66] Of course, education was a priority for the Japanese programme of assimilation, but overseas students learned more than they were taught in class: they also learned about the Chinese and Russian revolutions where feudalism and imperialism were contested. Another influence came from theTaisho democracy in Japan itself, and overseas students became aware of racial movements in the colonies of various countries. The fullness of education cultivated Taiwanese racial consciousness.

Japan had also isolated Taiwan from China and the Taiwanese simply resisted that segregation. As Taiwanese consciousness grew stronger, a movement rose advocating racial independence and the liberation of colonial Taiwan. Overseas students became activists, and their most important achievement was probably the petition for the establishment of a Taiwan Parliament. [67]

The first petition, requesting self-government for Taiwan, was submitted to the Imperial Diet in Japan in 1921. But since political associations were forbidden on Taiwanese soil, the outcome was that the League for Carrying Out the Taiwan Parliament Plan was banned. The League terminated its activity in Taiwan and was immediately reorganised in Tokyo under the same name, with the same purpose and the same membership: there, it was approved by the minister of the interior, and the activism continued.

In 1923, the Governor’s Office in Taiwan mobilised the police force to arrest the organisers of the Taiwan Cultural Association and the League on the suspicion of violating the Peace Police Law. Ninety-nine persons were summoned and their houses searched: forty-one were retained in custody, and eighteen of them were indicted in January 1924. In the first trial, all were acquitted for “lack of evidence”, however, in a second trial in 1925, eight men were sentenced for three to four months imprisonment. [68] The activists and advocates of non-violent resistance continued until 1934, by which time the petition had been presented to the Imperial Diet fifteen times. [69]

Japan drew great benefits from Taiwan, which they were not disposed to lose. Censorship, the assimilation program and legal procedures had proven unsuccessful in convincing the colonised country to give up the struggle for freedom. Japan consequently went one step further: at the beginning of World War II, they imposed the Japanisation policy.

Back in the 1910s to 1920s, the Japanese colonial government’s policy allowed the development of the Taiwanese cultural tradition. [70] Puppet shows and Taiwanese opera blossomed. However, after the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937, those magnanimous days were gone, as Japan needed many resources from Taiwan, including the manpower to fight for the Japanese. [71] The Japanese colonial government in Taiwan tried to “transform” the Taiwanese people into Japanese subjects of the Crown by the policy of Japanisation (kouminka,which literally means “becoming children of the Emperor”).[72] This policy was based on three basic principles:

(1) […] Japanese and the Taiwanese were one and, accordingly, joining the battle was an obligation of Taiwanese people;
(2) religious revolution: no more folk belief and celebration of local god/goddess was allowed; […]
(3) requirements for complete Japanisation in daily life, including language, names, food, clothing, living styles, festivals, and even the Japanese calendar. Therefore, all folk activities were strictly banned; that also means no more Taiwanese opera was allowed. [73]
Benshi performances, too, were no longer permitted. Japanisation lasted until the end of World War II when Japan lost the colony to China. [74]

During the period of Japanisation (1937-1945) the benshi trade disappeared, to briefly return after the war, but by then Japanese rule had ended as well as Japanese language policy and licence control, so anybody could claim himself a benshi. Liberated movie-goers would rather attend a performance with Taiwanese subtitles then a second-rate benshi performance, so the ending of the war also signalled the demise of the benshi art.

4. Traditional Japanese theatre: the chained drama 

The first film exhibitions in Japan lead to the development of chained drama. For a decade following 1908, chained drama was a powerful commercial rival of both film exhibition and conventional live theatre in Japan, [75] but in Taiwan the concept did not spread until the golden age of Taiwanese opera (1920s).

Chained drama developed concurrently with both Taiwanese opera and benshi film performances. It was an amalgam of live drama and film, blending one into the other by using short films to complement a stage play. When live theatre performances on the stage reached a point where they required an elaborate exterior setting, a river for instance, the stage backdrops would be replaced with a white screen featuring a short film of the characters taking a ferry or swimming across the river (rengasi). The actors would step behind the screen lending their voices to their characters and doing their best to lip synch their lines (kowairo). Then, in the next scene, the story would continue as a stage play. Thus, live performance was “chained” to film as a mode of narration. These short films were shot in one long take, with no camera movement. It was pure theatre on film. Thus theatre was suddenly given the power to step into exterior settings, while keeping its traditional attributes.

In 1928, the Jiang Yun Shen opera troupe toured Taiwan with a chained drama performance. [76] There were two reasons for this late arrival: it was a means to compete with the new sound technology and it was a vehicle for propaganda.

When chained drama arrived in Taiwan, the sound era had begun with the Vitaphone technology and the trendy Taiwan audiences could see Don Juan (USA, 1927), The Jazz Singer(USA, 1927, dir. Alan Crosland), The Lights of New York (USA, 1927), [77] though still usually with the assistance of a benshi. By 1928, touring film exhibition had adapted to the Taiwanese lifestyle and found a niche in the lunar festival celebrations, which traditionally welcomed puppet shows and/or Chinese opera twice every lunar month. Progressively, film exhibitions became another form of entertainment during these ritual celebrations, making film a competitor of drama. The Taiwanese had a tremendous curiosity for new technologies, and once movie stars could talk, it was not surprising that chained drama would appear to compete with the new sound technology. By adding film interludes to stage performances, chained drama was a marketing challenge to the new film technology; the curious audiences would be just as tempted to discover the mechanism for chained drama as for the talkies.

The second reason motivating the coming of chained drama in the late twenties is political. At that time, the Taiwanese elite, influenced by the world-wide movement toward democracy, had started to introduce modern political drama into the island as part of their anti-colonial action. [78] Because no overtly political association was allowed in the colony, all the activist associations were cultural: film and drama presentations, followed by conferences and/or discussions, were the methods used to stir up criticism of Japanese colonial rule and to arouse Taiwanese nationalism.

Drama performances rapidly evolved into two different factions: on one side the modern politically engaged dramas, and, on the other, traditional Taiwanese opera which kept representing the conventional legends. In the Taiwanese newspapers, from 1928 to 1932, the new school of theatre harshly denounced the apolitical stance of Taiwanese opera, even regarding it as corrupting because its thematic was apolitical.

However, the radical attitude of the modern political theatre was soon undermined by the imposition of Japanisation. Chained drama, Taiwanese opera, puppet shows, benshi performances and any form of folk activities were forbidden. From then on, the Taiwanese theatre troupe could only stage drama in Japanese and this, until the end of World War II, gave Taiwan back to Japan. [79]

5. Local production: Taiwanese opera 

In France and the United States – the cradles of cinema – the new medium had little prestige. Early on, in America, cinema became a cheap entertainment while in France film was hardly considered an art form by the artistic milieu: it was ironically called “art d’ilote“, an art for uneducated crowds. In Japan, however, the new technology was granted a prestigious place in society, and attending a silent film screening was considered an intellectually respectable form of activity for the literate population: “Dignity had been conferred on the new entertainment by a showing at the Kabuki-za, graced by the Crowned Prince” in 1897. [80] Taiwan, mirroring Japan, also hallowed cinema, and as a result the price of admittance to a movie theatre was exorbitant. [81]

When movies were first introduced to Taiwan, three types of opera existed, and puppet shows were also very popular. [82] Opera and puppet shows were both an essential part of religious rituals, with performances usually taking place either in front of temples for the celebration of a specific god (such as Matsu, goddess of the sea or Lao-tien Yeh, ruler of the universe), or else on each of the twenty-four ritual celebrations of the lunar calendar. Opera performances and puppet shows could happen side by side and sometimes more than one troupe performed one straight after the other, over several days. They performed on a stage in the open air and admission was free, as the purpose was to entertain the gods. As part of the ritual, a specific god or goddess was invited to attend the performance, as well as his or her heavenly friends. The ritual therefore implied a communication between human beings and the gods, as well as among audience members. Hence, these rituals also had the social function of bringing the community together and asserting a collective consciousness. [83]

On some special occasions, traditional opera would celebrate a wedding or a birthday in a wealthy family or even seal the reconciliation between two groups in a village. To resolve such a conflict, the group who wished to amend itself would invite an opera troupe to play. The performance would not take place in the temple of the group who issued the invitation, but rather in front of the temple of the offended group, as an apology for the offence. [84] Puppet shows and Taiwanese opera were an intrinsic part of the religious and social rituals in Taiwan.

At the early stage of Japanese occupation, Luan-tan was the most popular type of opera. The Luan-tan opera was performed in a classic dialect no longer spoken in either Taiwan or China. But the Luan-tan opera’s celebrity was compromised when, during the Japanese occupation, a new form of opera emerged. At first, people simply gathered to hear Taiwanese folk songs in the north-eastern Yi-Lan county where a farmer gifted in playing sheng and singing ballads performed. Soon he became so much in demand that he developed his skills to fit dramatic storytelling, [85] [85]and that was how Taiwanese opera was born. It borrowed from both Luan-tan and Beijing opera. From Luan-tan opera it kept the stage style and body movement; from Beijing opera it appropriated props, characters, music and dramatic techniques.

Local folk songs played a major role in Taiwanese opera. The new trend had the characteristic of using the local dialect instead of the different classic dialects used in the traditional Chinese operas. The Taiwanese opera soon attracted tremendous audiences because its story line was easy to understand and it accessed the cultural and national identity of the colonised people. [86]

When the electric shadowplay first arrived, the Taiwanese were not as eager to see images from around the world as they were to attend the newborn Taiwanese opera, which was a collective entertainment rooted in the religious rituals of Taiwanese agricultural society and so a part of every day life. [87] Film exhibition had to compete against an established institution and find a public in a rural clientele who were busy in the field during long days. The electric shadowplay therefore adapted to the lifestyle of agricultural communities and progressively became a form of entertainment for gods and goddesses during the lunar festivals. The Taiwanese actors were very famous so the movie theatre and tour exhibitors brought fame to the benshi, by adopting the benshi star system. In the 1920’s the benshi became popular and the first films from Shanghai were presented, while amongst the Taiwanese a desire to resume connection with their Chinese heritage had young people searching into China’s culture for their roots. They went to Shanghai to learn the film trade and started to wear Chinese fashion. Furthermore, in cultural activities, such as modern theatre and chained drama, a movement of anti-colonialism was spreading.

At first, the Japanese had allowed Taiwanese opera to develop naturally and it reached its golden age within twenty years (1911-1930). [88] But by the late 1930s, the policy of Japanisation was controlling the lifestyle of Taiwan. The only theatre allowed was performed in Japanese so, as a means of survival, a few drama companies began to stage modern Japanese drama. At first, they simply played in Japanese, but later on they became more daring. Because it was a strenuous task for the Japanese police to control each small village temple, over time, underground performances of Taiwanese opera took place defying the ruler’s policy. Liao Jun-zhi, then a famous actress, describes her experience:

During our performance, when the Japanese police were approaching, two of our messengers would pass the message by whistles from one stop to another. Immediately, on the stage, the role of a general became a manager, traditional costumes changed into modern ones – which were put under the former. Dialogue also changed from Taiwanese to Japanese. All these actions were done within one minute! [89]

Disobedience to the Japanisation policy not only allowed the occasional performance, but actually made it possible for Taiwanese opera to survive. Without these few underground performances, the tradition would most probably have been forgotten. Taiwanese opera asserted the cultural identity of the segregated country. Through popular opera, colonial Taiwan managed to preserve its distinct culture during the Japanisation movement, and to a greater extent, during the fifty years of Japanese occupation.


In Taiwan, the first decades of film exhibition relied exclusively on the Japanese coloniser. All the films distributed in Taiwan from 1901 to 1923 came through Japan; the first Chinese films came relatively late. By the time the first Chinese films became accessible a complete generation of Taiwanese audiences had become accustomed to cinema within the Japanese convention of the benshi.

Japan and China by different channels both managed to influence Taiwan: Japan’s influence was modern while China’s was ancestral. The impact of the Japanese coloniser’s influence on culture resided mainly in its modern practice of storytelling. As explained above, in Japan, every different art medium required endorsement of a text. Because of that no single art form could distinguish itself, no art could free itself from the bond of the other art forms. All of them were hybrids and no absolute art existed. This conception of different art forms blending into one another made it quite natural for theatre to include films as it did with chained dramas. In a similar way, films embraced theatre practice in the person of the benshi. Both benshi performances and chained drama were the outcome of a direct influence from Japan’s drama aesthetic.

As for the Chinese influence, it fulfilled a quest for identity. China inspired Taiwan in a traditional way, through the creation of a new form of opera in the Taiwanese dialect. The new opera practice merged with the cultural identity of the segregated colony and was to become a significant aspect of the island’s cultural heritage. However, Taiwanese opera dwells in the margin of both ancient operatic tradition and modern theatre. Being deprived of the long tradition pertaining to Beijing opera, Taiwanese opera was never revered, but was always considered a pale imitation of the original form. Until very recently, Beijing opera was taught in Taiwanese schools, but Taiwanese opera was considered merely popular and so had no respect in the education system. Taiwanese opera had too short a past to be considered ancestral but, on the other hand, because Taiwanese opera never participated in claiming anti-colonial stances, it could not be labelled modern either. It performed traditional legends, yet it was not ancestral ; it was created at the dawn of modern time, yet it was not modern. Taiwanese opera did not belong anywhere except perhaps in the heart of the people.

Though never venerated, Taiwanese opera was so popular that it kept alive colonial disobedience during the Japanisation era. These occasional insubordinations allowed this type of opera to survive, and nowadays it is still popular on television where many soap operas emulate traditional Taiwanese opera: it is so popular indeed that one television channel is devoted to these broadcast operatic programs.

The coloniser made it difficult for Taiwanese to express their identity otherwise than with opera. In film making for instance, the Taiwanese started to produce their own films early on, but they could not do so without Japanese assistance. However, in Taiwan there was a real fascination for the new technologies. The popularity of the Kinemacolor system exemplifies how new inventions enchanted local audiences. But conversely, film technology was not accessible on the island, so the need to assert Taiwan’s native tradition developed first within traditional opera and later on, the Taiwanese went to Shanghai to learn about film production.

In the 1980s, the New Taiwanese Cinema produced artistic films: this was the first conscious attempt to build a serious film culture in Taiwan, [90] and the themes of the films opened up a discourse about a history that had been concealed for a long time. [91] The prestigious awards the films obtained proved that there was a creative film industry in Taiwan in spite of America, Hong-Kong and Shanghai overwhelming film production. But, although these films gained recognition in various film festivals, they were not particularly popular in Taiwan.

Recently, film production has changed: it still talks about Taiwanese identity but is more tuned to the popular taste. For instance, the amazingly popular production Sheng shi shuan shuo (The Legend of the Sacred Stone, 2000, dir. Huang brothers) is a film in Taiwanese dialect, with puppet characters instead of comedians. [92] www.pilimovie.com.tw Puppet shows already have their own program on television where they are achieving success. Their origin – like that of Taiwanese opera – is in religion, a religion that has no sacred text but only a few scriptures and plenty of traditional legends to entertain the gods. The Legend of the Sacred Stone is a convergence of ancestral and modern, bringing together traditional mythology and present-day special effects possibilities of cinema. Peripheral in nature, it dwells at the border of East and West, challenging the boundaries of ancestral and modern, the portions of colonial legacy and national cultural identity.

In Taiwan’s culture, the major persisting legacy of Japan is the hierarchy of film and opera. Unlike China, where Beijing opera is highly respected, in Taiwan the local opera is a popular medium. Unlike the West, Taiwan has always given high cultural prestige to cinema, while opera has been the popular medium. Cinema was an elitist form of entertainment whereas traditional puppet shows and Taiwanese opera belonged to the people. The New Taiwanese Cinema walked along that road, making artistic films and gaining recognition from prestigious international film festivals. However, at the moment, the tendency goes in reverse – cinema aims for the popular, hoping to join Taiwanese opera’s place within the hearts of the Taiwanese people.


[1] Ru-shou Robert Chen, “Taiwan cinema”, in Yingjin Zhang (ed.), Encyclopedia of Chinese Film(London/New-York: Routledge, 1998), 47.
[2] Regarding the KMT influence on cinema in Taiwan, see Chris Berry, “A nation t(w/o)o: Chinese cinema and nationhood”, in Wimal Dissanayake (ed.), Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1994), 42-64.
[3] Walter Chen, “Chronology, martial law”, Taiwan History, December1996, http://www.leksu.com/mainp15e.htm, accessed 14 May 2000.
[4] W. Chen, “Chronology, 1989”.
[5] W.Chen; Chien-chao Hung, A History of Taiwan (Rimini: Il Cherchio Iniziative Editorial, 2000); Xian-zhi Kao, Three-hundred Years of History of Taiwan (Taipei: Gu-Ting Book House, 1977); Feitau Kung & Eric Chia. “The Taiwan timeline”, May 1999, Lenexa (Kansas),http://taiwanresources.com/ info/ history/ chrono.htm, accessed 15 May 2000.
[6] Lizhi Fang, “Les mots interdits”,Le nouvel observateur, 1833 (23 décembre-29 décembre 1999): 13.
[7] Lung-Yen Yeh, The History of Taiwanese Movies during the Japanese Colonization {in Chinese} (Taipei: Mt. Jade Association, 1998), 21, 52
[8] Donald Richie, Japanese cinema: an introduction (Hong-Kong/New-York: Oxford, 1990), 1.
[9] Yeh, 53-55.
[10] Richie, 1.
[11] Joseph Anderson & Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1959), 22-23.
[12] Or is it The Hat Tricks of Mr. Brake? Translating the Chinese titles into English leads to rough approximates and is a Herculean task despite the best effort of the research team.
[13] Yeh, 53-55.
[14] Yeh, 53.
[15] Yeh, 55.
[16] Georges Sadoul, Histoire du cinéma mondial (Paris: Flammarion, 1949), 52.
[17] Yeh, 65-66.
[18] Anderson & Richie, 33.
[19] Sadoul, 30.
[20] Anderson & Richi, 33
[21] Just as our eyes bridge the gap between the frames of a film when it is unrolling at proper speed thus interpreting it as continuous action, our eyes also have the faculty to “keep a colour in memory”. The Kinemacolor effect was made possible by the eye’s faculty for compensating for missing information.
[22] Yeh, 66.
[23] Yeh, 66.
[24] Yeh, 80.
[25] Yeh, 81
[26] Yeh, 59.
[27] The main dialect in Taiwan was the Hokkienese Minnanhua dialect, locally called taiyu or Taiwanese. Nowadays most people speak both Hokkienese and Mandarin because, after World War II, the KMT regime forbade any teaching of the Taiwanese dialect in the schools. I will therefore refer to the local dialect as “Taiwanese”.
[28] Yeh, 128.
[29] Yeh, 185.
[30] Yeh, 117.
[31] R. Chen, Encyclopedia, 47; Yeh, 131.
[32] Yeh, 131.
[33] R. Chen, Encyclopedia, 49.
[34] Anderson & Richie, 35.
[35] R. Chen, Dispersion, 234-235.
[36] Yeh, 123
[37] Yeh, 71. Chen (Encyclopedia) dates the same event as 1901 but does not provide any source for this.
[38] Yeh, 94-95.
[[39] Susuyan, 107.
[40] Andersan & Richie, 33-34.
[41] Su-Shang Lu, A History of Cinema and Drama in Taiwan {in Chinese} (Taipei: Orient Cultural Service, 1961), 6.
[42] Suyuan & Hu Jubin, Chinese Silent Film History (Beijing: China Film Press, 1997), 107.
[43] R. Chen, Encyclopedia, 47 & Dispersion, 52.
[44] Lu, 6.
[45] Yeh, 100-101.
[46] R. Chen, Encyclopedia, 48
[47] Richie, 7.
[48] Anderson, 24.
[49] Richie, 2-3.
[50] Richie, 12.
[51] Richie, 8
[52] Richie, 8.
[53] Yeh, 185.
[54] The literal translation would be Tears of Peach Flower or Peach Flower crying.
[55] Yeh, 185.
[56] R. Chen, Dispersion, 49
[57] In narrating his life as a musician it unfortunately omits to refer to him as a benshi.
[58] Anderson & Richie, 24-25
[59] Anderson & Richie, 24-25.
[60] Anderson, 267.
[61] Yeh, 185.
[62] Richie, 8.
[63] Yeh, 185.
[64] Yeh, 123.
[65] R. Chen, Encyclopedia, 49
[66] According to the statistics issued by the Taiwan Governor’s office in W. Chen, “Modernization”.
[67] W. Chen, “Modernization: petition for establishing Taiwan parliament”.
[68] W. Chen, “Modernization: Peace Police Law violation incident”.
[69] W. Chen, “Modernization: petition for establishing Taiwan parliament”.
[70] Theresa Yung-ching Chen, Taiwanese Opera as a Popular Theater, M.A. Diss. Royal Holloway University, 1993, 16.
[71] T. Chen, 18.
[72] R. Chen, Dispersion, 32.
[73] T. Chen, 18.
[74] T. Chen, 19.
[75] Anderson, 267.
[76] Yeh, 169.
[77] Yeh, 121.
[78] T. Chen, 17
[79] T. Chen, 18.
[80] Richie, 1.
[81] Yeh, 56.
[82] T. Chen, 13
[83] T. Chen, 12.
[84] T. Chen, 12.
[85] T. Chen 15.
[86] T. Chen, 16.
[87] T .Chen, 15-16.
[88] T. Chen, 17.
[89] Cited in T. Chen, 18.
[90] The KMT government financed the New Taiwanese Cinema’s first productions.
[91] Sandwich Man (1983, dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tseng Chuang-hsiang, Wan Ren) talks about Japanese and American imperialism, whereas Strawman (1987, dir.Wang Tung) and Puppetmaster (1993, dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien) both talk about the Japanese colonisation era (Puppetmaster even hints at the Japanisation policy when the hero has to stop his puppet show performances and find another trade). City of Sadness (1989, dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien) is a representation of the February 28th Incident, which led to the imposition of martial law, commonly referred to as the “White Terror” days. Most of the remaining films of the trend are witnesses of Taiwan’s rapid transformation into an industrial society.
[92] Visit their web site, with English version: http://www.pilimovie.com.tw

About the Author

Jeanne Deslandes

About the Author

Jeanne Deslandes

Jeanne Deslandes is a lecturer in Film Studies at Providence University (Taiwan). Her past research focused mainly on sound technology, music in cinema and current Canadian film policy. The research team which worked on this project included Kelly Chu-Chun Fan (a graduate of the English department at Providence University in Taiwan), Penny Lin (a graduate of the Department of Communications at Chaoyang University of Technology), and Lucia Tai-Yun Cheng (a graduate of the English department at Providence University in Taiwan.)View all posts by Jeanne Deslandes →