Constructing a Nation: Taiwanese History and the Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Taiwanese History and the Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien


This book presents the historical relationship between Chinese Mainland and the island of Taiwan using films in form of Hou’s Taiwan Trilogy. The films involved in the book are: City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women. Hou Hsiao-hsien presented these films in different occasions in order to bring about different ways of understanding the historical transitions of Taiwan from the time of Chinese control to Japanese occupation, and then to the Nationalist government rule after the Second World War.

These films present a good way of understanding Taiwan’s past in order to deal with the present circumstances of the Island. Hsiao-hsien achieves this by juxtaposing the past and the present situations of the island. For instance the film City of Sadness juxtaposes the martial law of 1987 which introduced democratization with the transition from Japanese occupation to Nationalist government rule which was followed by hope and then disillusionment and repression (Yip 1997). This representation involved the use of an extended family which existed during the transition period. By presenting the family’s experience in the turbulent period, the film underscored the antagonistic relationship between the government and people and the tensions between the island the mainland. This differs from official history usually taught in Taiwan after the Guomindang takeover in 1949 because it used symbolic characters to present problems faced by the society in those times. Official history only described what happened in history but did not bring out the real effect of problematic repressions, tensions, and antagonism experienced during the transition period.

The Puppetmaster also goes back into the fifty years of Japanese occupation of Taiwan and relates it to the present activities by using the life of Li Tianlu, the aged master of Taiwanese hand puppetry (Yip 1997). The film pushes public history to the background as opposed to official history which clearly highlights the public history. Good Men, Good Women also explains Taiwanese history by using symbolic characters in the film. The film symbolically uses two Taiwanese patriots whose political activities in the 1930s and 1940s are thwarted by White Terror. This approach highlights the problems of historical Taiwan and relates them to the present; hence making it easy for the present Taiwan to solve its problems.

It is important to understand Taiwan’s history today because the past can be used to predict the future and deal with the present. By understanding the past through history, policymakers in present Taiwan are able to learn from the mistakes of the past and correct them to create a better environment for the present. History also highlights the negative effects of bad leadership; hence enabling the current leaders to practice good leadership.


Works cited

Yip, June. “Constructing a Nation: Taiwanese History and the Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien” in Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, ed. Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, pp. 139-168. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.

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