When the KMT took over Taiwan in 1945, it imposed a cultural policy that can be summarized with the statement, "We are all Chinese." Displays of non-Chinese culture, such as the use of languages other than Mandarin in public, or Aboriginal traditions (except in theme parks) were viewed as a threat to KMT social control. Thus, the authorities have tried to suppress the island’s rich and eclectic cultural reality. But these efforts have been much in vain.
To be sure, Chinese culture has exerted enormous influence that predates KMT rule. At least 98% of the people living on the island have ethnic ties to China. Traditional Chinese beliefs, such as Buddhism and Taoism (see next section), have many adherents on the island, as do folk beliefs popular on the Fukien coast where many Taiwanese have roots. Many traditional Chinese arts continue to flourish in Taiwan, notably calligraphy, traditional painting, pottery, seal making, paper cutting, instrumental music, Beijing opera dance, and the martial arts. The government’s National Palace Museum, located outside Taipei, offers perhaps the world’s greatest collection of Chinese art. Acupuncture and other traditional healing techniques are widely practiced. Taiwan offers visitors and residents some of the best Chinese cooking available anywhere on earth. The classics of Chinese literature are widely appreciated on the island. Traditional kinship structures and agricultural practices in Taiwan closely resemble those of China’s coastal provinces.
Because Taiwan sits on important international trade routes, and because it has had a variety of peoples and rulers, however, it has absorbed many other cultural influences as well. The pioneering Hoklo and Hakka settlers who came to Taiwan for a new, free life, were open to new ideas and production techniques. For their part, the Aborigines sought to resist complete absorption by the immigrants from China, and later the Japanese colonial rulers, so they, too, were open to influences from elsewhere that could help them to preserve a sense of separate identity. This is one reason why Christianity has appealed to Aborigines. Over the centuries, some uniquely Taiwanese elements have emerged out of this cultural patchwork quilt.
In the field of music, Taiwan has developed its own style of opera, which is quite different from the Beijing style. There are also local folk dance forms, and Taiwanese folk music reached its fullest development during Japanese rule, influenced by Western ballads and jazz, as well as Asian musical traditions. The lyrics are filled with images of farmers, fishermen, and street peddlers, and Taiwan’s tragic history of oppressive rule is a recurring theme. During the martial law era, the government tried to ban some Taiwanese folk songs as "too sad" or "subversive."
Taiwan also has an independent literary tradition. In the 1920s and 1930s, a school of "native soil" writers developed. They wrote about daily life and local culture and history. Forced to write in Japanese by the colonial authorities, these writers nevertheless sharply challenged Japanese rule. [After World War II,] The [KMT] government banned Japanese as literary language, and so these writers not only laboriously translated their work into Mandarin, but slowly learned to write in their new language as well. In the 1970s "modernist" writing, emphasizing highly individualistic styles and heavily influenced by Western existentialism, replaced "native soil" as the dominant school. The authorities encouraged the publication of literature which echoed the official longing for a return to the mainland.
In the early 1970s, a second "native soil" school emerged, which again graphically depicted Taiwanese social realities. Some of the writers were farmers or workers who wrote in their spare time; others were intellectuals who had grown up among Taiwan’s "masses." The oppression of Japanese rule was a favorite theme, though the government usually recognized that these works targeted other oppressors as well. The new native soil school often displayed a romantic yearning for a return to the agrarian past, as well as strong sense of indignation at the negative consequences of rapid economic modernization. They filled their books with Taiwanese slang, but several of these writers were ardent advocates of reunification with China (under Mao’s leadership). The government launched bitter critiques against these writers for "pro-independence" and "pro-Communist" sentiments.
More recently, a new generation of Taiwanese film markers have received international recognition for works dealing with the harsh realities of Taiwan’s history. "City of Sorrow," a film about the 2-28 Incident in 1947, has won international critical acclaim, and played to packed houses in Taiwan and all over the world.
In other areas, Japanese influence remains strong in Taiwan today. The popularity of baseball, and the excellence of Taiwanese teams in international competition, is a product of Japanese rule. The Japanese board game go is likewise popular. Taiwanese also gained their taste for coffee, sushi, and sashimi during the Japanese period. Nothing could be more alien to Chinese culture than eating raw fish.
Since 1945, Western culture has played an increasingly important role in Taiwan. Rock and roll, music videos, blue jeans, designer clothes, and violent and sexually explicit Western films are all in vogue. Hamburgers, pizza, Kentucky fried chicken, and ice cream are all consumed in Taiwan’s main cities, and all are as far from Chinese culture as uncooked seafood. Western literature is widely available and until quite recently was often published in pirate editions which ignored international copyright laws.
A key element in the KMT’s "We are all Chinese" policy is the efforts to promote the use of Mandarin Chinese, China’s "national language" (Kuo Yu). Public education is exclusively in Mandarin, and students who use Aborigine tongues, the Taiwanese dialect, or Hakka have risked disciplinary action. Although many Taiwan-born children of mainlander refugees have learned local languages, Mandarin is the language of public affairs, and English is increasingly used in both business and politics. To show their identification with Taiwan, rather than China, opposition politicians have generally conducted rallies in Taiwanese or Hakka (KMT candidates often use these languages when campaigning for local offices and have in fact come to be expected to do so.) In some parts of the island, especially Taipei, younger people use Mandarin most of the time, regardless of when their families came to the island, but in southern Taiwan, Taiwanese is still the predominant language of everyday life. Throughout Taiwan, island-born people over the age of 60-- about 30% of the population -- remain unable to speak Mandarin fluently.