Seeing Culture Like a State

At this year’s Taiwan’s annual anthropology conference, the Taiwan group anthropology blog Guava Anthropology hosted a public event where blog members were invited to give five minute “lightning talks” on the topic of cultural policy. In May, Taiwan’s new Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chun 鄭麗君 announced plans to hold a national conference with the aim of establishing a “Basic Cultural Law” for Taiwan.1 These talks were to reflect on both the role of the government in shaping cultural policy and the role of anthropologists in shaping government policy. Below is the English version of the talk I gave in Chinese.2

The State must “see” culture

The central problem facing state cultural policies is the need to make culture visible to the state. After all, if the state can’t “see” culture, how can it regulate it? Post-war Taiwan saw tremendous changes in cultural policy: from promoting China-centric cultural nationalism to embracing multiculturalism. But whether it is mono-culturalism or multiculturalism, whether the state wants to suppress or encourage the development of local cultures, it must first be able to “see” them.

Seeing Culture Changes It

But here’s the thing, the act of making culture visible changes it. How does culture become visible? At the most basic level it gets written down, recorded, and photographed. This act of recording can permanently fix cultural traits that had previously been fluid. When the British did the first census of India they recorded everyone’s caste, in doing so they turned a system which had been much more flexible and fluid into something rigid and fixed. Even the process of recording caste was fraught with conflict as groups petitioned the government to change their caste listing.

How do governments “see” culture when it doesn’t want to be seen?

But sometimes it is difficult for the state to see culture. When Taiwan’s government wanted to suppress the use of local languages in favor of Mandarin it found a way to make students spy on each other. If a student was caught speaking a local language they had to wear a sign saying that they had wear a sign saying “I won’t speak the local language”. The only way to get rid of this sign was to catch another student speaking the local language and make them wear the sign instead.

How does the state see culture that wants to be seen?

Today the policy is reversed, the state wants to encourage the preservation of local languages. There are even funds to support families that use endangered languages in the home. But how to know if the recipients of these funds are actually using the target languages? Early on they would do this by giving written tests, requiring the family to prove that they had learned 300 new vocabulary words each month. But this caused problems because people focused on learning to write and spell new words rather than actually speaking the language in their homes. So they switched to having inspectors make video recordings of the family speaking in their mother tongue. But this hasn’t worked either. Families have taken to memorizing dialogs — little plays they perform for the video cameras.

Visible to whom?

Making culture visible to the state is an act of violence. Whether the government is trying to suppress culture or promote it, it must see it first. So what is the answer? One answer might be to leave the government out of it altogether. But I don’t think that is right. Government is involved whether or not it wants to be. The choices individuals make about their own cultural practices aren’t made in a vacuum, but are shaped by the wider cultural environment and the state has a big say in shaping that environment.

But there are ways of seeing culture that don’t do as much violence to the cultures under observation. It is a lot easier for members of a culture to see their own culture than it is for an outsider. Giving communities greater autonomy over their own cultural policies doesn’t require ripping that culture out of its context in order to be seen. It isn’t enough to simply switch from suppressing a culture to promoting it. The very nature of the relationship between the state and cultural practitioners has to change as well.


  1. Although it seems that plans for such a law, as well as national consultations, were first voted upon in 2011, under the previous administration. 
  2. Please note that 5 minutes does not leave much time for subtlety or nuance. 

3 thoughts on “Seeing Culture Like a State

  1. It is a lot easier for members of a culture to see their own culture than it is for an outsider.

    Fact? Or popular piety? I recall giving a paper at a conference in Taiwan on the iconography of Chinese deities, following which an eminent native anthropologist and expert on popular religion said, “I never thought of that.” I am reminded of what Bakhtin wrote in his “Letter to Novy Mir,” that all cultural understanding requires dialogue. Why? Because there are blind spots on both sides.

  2. Dialog is great, but as Talal Asad long ago pointed out in his article on ‘The Concept of Cultural Translation’, it does not happen in a power vacuum. Also, please note that I was not making an argument placing emic accounts of culture over etic ones in an epistemological sense as you suggest, but about the violence necessary to make culture visible to the state regulatory apparatus. That is what I mean by “easier.”

  3. Why “violence”? I could see this argument in the case of, say, late imperial China, where the state was largely indifferent to what individuals and groups were up to unless they became sufficiently large and well-organized enough to be seen as a threat to the state. Then, however, the initial violence was on the part of those who became rebels against the state. But now? If, for example, an indigenous group puts information on a Website and a bureaucrat notices and reacts to it, where is violence involved? Does after the fact count as violence in the visibility of the information per se?

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