Raising Awareness About The Destruction of Heritage in Taiwan — “Grassroots Heritage” By James Morris

To anyone to new to Taiwan, there seems to be an abundance of heritage on this island. People burn ghost money on the streets, there is a temple on almost every street, and there is a level of respect for traditions here that is commendable. However, when you look below the surface, you can start to see that Taiwanese heritage isn’t being protected. In many ways, the Taiwanese government is failing in its duty to protect cultural sites such as monuments, graveyards, and old homes. The disturbing part of it all is that it’s being done on purpose for profit.

James Morris’ book on Taiwanese Heritage “Grassroots Heritage”

James X. Morris is a Ph.D. Candidate in the International Doctoral Program in Asia-Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University. He has been studying and documenting Taiwan’s small and forgotten heritage sites for four years. He has recently begun a second round of funding on Indigogo for his book “Grassroots Heritage” and he needs your help to ensure his book can be finished.

I interviewed James about his book and also about what leads him to believe that the Taiwanese government has a “systemic lack” of policies to protect heritage sites.

What is “Grassroots Heritage”?

“Grassroots Heritage” is a book, a concept for looking at local history, and a play on words. Taiwan’s history has largely been written by victorious regimes. The Qing, the Japanese, and the Kuomintang have all had a heavy hand in erasing the past regimes and imposing their own narrative for the island. The Taiwanese are now able to explore their history, but much of the national narrative has already been established.

One place you can still find the grassroots history of Taiwan is in its cemeteries. Unlike in the West, tombstones in Taiwan include encoded social information, genealogy, and subtle political messages.

I chose the name as a way to bring awareness of how important tombs and cemeteries are for reclaiming local narratives and history. As for the wordplay, you can go out and physically find Taiwan’s native heritage encoded among the blades of grass.

I want to really make people feel like these stones are their friends… haha.

Why did you decide to write “Grassroots Heritage”?

I guess the most important thing is that this is a way to highlight heritage destruction occurring all across Taiwan through one case. It’s a field site I’ve spent the past nearly 4 years working in, and now that it’s gone I want to leave something for the Taiwanese. To say “this is what once was.” The most important thing I’d like to make people aware of is that all cemeteries are being destroyed across the island all at the same time.

In 10 years there won’t be any more tombs left period. An island without monuments from the past is an island without control of its future.

A Japanese period tombstone from Xindian First Public Cemetery is being cleaned before storage. It features highly-skilled carved dragons

Why is there such widespread destruction of heritage in Taiwan?

Unfortunately, Taiwan’s local governments are still in a developmental mindset. It’s a holdover from the authoritarian period. Combine that with the Taiwanese superstitions of ghosts from cemeteries being able to create misfortune and illness for the nearby community, and you have an atmosphere ripe for neglect and destruction.

On top of this, the island’s central and local cultural bureau, and departments are underfunded.

It’s not just the cemeteries being destroyed either. You can walk by any heritage sites, buildings, and environments and assume it’s on the chopping block for an economic development project. The question is whether the land grab has happened yet or is in the near future.

The politics and social issues are much more complex than that, but that’s the overall trend we’ve been experiencing. Many people are happy that there are people out here trying to save the cemetery heritage and protect the tomb artifacts, but they are too superstitious to take much effort themselves.

There are a lot of Taiwanese who are trying to protect their heritage, but unfortunately, their messages are not getting through to the proper powers that be.

What do you want to achieve with Grassroots Heritage?

This book is one part labor of love and one part warning. I’ve spent the past four years documenting Xindian First Public Cemetery, watching its destruction, and moving the stones out of the paths of the excavators by hand. I can’t let all of that time and effort go without a purpose. I want people to know what has happened here and what is happening around Taiwan.

Dr. Oliver Streiter at the National University of Kaohsiung, the pioneer in Taiwan’s tombs documentation, has been warning people that within a decade there will be no more tombs left on the island.

By documenting the “death” of this particular cemetery I hope people will be able to know what once was and what has been lost… and how it’s been lost. There are still some important heritage cemeteries left in Taiwan, and I hope this book can bring awareness to their importance.

I want the tombstones and the artwork to be the subject of this book as much as I want to explain what happened. As such, it will be divided into three sections: an introduction to the site and customs, an album of photography from the cemetery, and a summary of the activism.

It sounds silly, but these stones became dear friends to me. I want to show that this heritage isn’t spooky and to convey the tragedy of this loss.

What got your interested in documenting Taiwanese heritage sites?

In general, I became interested in documenting Taiwan’s heritage sites because I got to be outside. I explored something completely different from what I grew up with at home in the USA.

The more I started to understand the characters, motifs, coded messages and learned how to “read” a heritage structure and its surroundings, the more I got pulled into the mystery.

Grassroots - James Morris
Author James X. Morris doing fieldwork at a tomb in Xindian District

Xindian First Public Cemetery was the first site I ever studied, and I simply continued further down that rabbit hole.

What advice do you have for people in terms of their heritage in Taiwan?

The best advice is to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Put down your phones. Realize your history is being stolen from you. What nobody realizes is this is happening at every heritage site in Taiwan all at the same time.  People think “well, it’s okay, there are plenty of other places that still have history” but nobody realizes this is happening all at once around the island.

Heritage Site

“So to the Taiwanese: Do you know where your ancestors are buried? Are they still resting there peacefully? Your ancestors are at risk. The fate of Taiwan’s heritage ultimately lies in the hands of the Taiwanese. I’m a foreigner. I can go back home and see my ancestors’ tombs and houses.”

Destruction of heritage

So I’m in Taiwan, right? I want to see something cool and unique. I don’t care about Taiwan’s shopping malls or air conditioning (as convenient as it is). We have that stuff in my home country. I want to see something more interesting… more unique. The temples are beautiful, but they’re not just special to Taiwan. China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Vietnam… they all have similar types of temples. Most of them are much older. But, Taiwan’s cemeteries are a treasure trove of artwork and history that are unique to this island.

Singapore has begun to turn its Chinese cemeteries into tourism locations. Why not Taiwan? Sadly, the cemeteries here are seen as marginalized land. With their destruction, Taiwan loses centuries of history. There’s very little left in Xindian District from the Qing Dynasty period. The tombstones contained the oldest existing written words for this entire area of Taiwan.

Now, most of that is gone. It’s a tragedy.

What you can do to protect Taiwanese heritage

James’ work is impressive and I admire him a lot for what he is doing. I would really recommend supporting him through his Indiegogo campaign, where he is looking to capture the last 21% of the funding that he needs for his book. The money is being used to ensure the book’s research and writing can be covered, and I personally am looking forward to getting a copy when it is published.

Closing thoughts

When old streets and red brick buildings are considered a tourist attraction because they survived being demolished then I think it is time to start to question just why are so many places of importance being irreparably destroyed? If it’s due to negligence by the government and developers, then this is truly a shame for the heritage of this great island.

Nihao's It Going?

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