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    Sep 22, 2022 / By Silvia Torchio

    What is behind the scenes of artistic creation? This is one of the most common and hard to answer question about art and creativity.

    Artistic creation is often considered as a mysterious process, but from time to time it happens that something let people come close to this mystery, have the opportunity to explore the process and find it marvelously entertaining and deeply engaging.

    This is what exactly happens in The Dream and Reality of Picture Books, where Jimmy Liao, the renowned Taiwanese picture books author, shares the story of his career path since the beginning for more than twenty untiring years, providing the readers with a great insight to his thoughts and methods behind his amazing work.

    Jimmy Liao is one of the most famous Asian contemporary adult picture book artists. Since the publication of his two first books Secrets in the Forest and A Fish with a Smile in 1998, Jimmy has created almost sixty books and his works have been translated into twenty foreign languages and have sold over a million of copies all around the world.

    How has he succeeded in keeping this astonishing creative energy for all these years? In The Dream and Reality of Picture Books, without reservation and with richness in details, he tries to answer this difficult question.

    The book starts with how Liao began to create, describing in great detail and with great warm his childhood and youth, his education (and self-education) background and his previous work as an editorial illustrator in an advertising agency. The tale is enriched by the sharing of meaningful anecdotes about his life, from the choice of his nom de plum to the farseeing encounter with a “well informed” fortune teller in 1993 and to the beginning of his battle with the illness in 1995, that completely changed his personal and professional life. About this, he says: “I started to create picture books because of a serious illness, and creation gradually turned into my daily task.”

    The book is divided into three big sections. The first one, called “Thoughts”, is about the process of creation and all the achievements and the difficulties that Liao has, respectively, reached and faced for more than twenty years as a picture book author, with many examples taken from his own experience and his works. Liao compares the creation process of a picture book to the work of gardening: the care that the gardeners have to take of their field is the same type that the artists must take of his work. The result is not guaranteed, perhaps no flowers will bloom for the gardener and there will not come out a satisfying work for the artist, but taking care is the only way. And Liao reveals his “gardening” secrets to his readers wholeheartedly. In addition, Liao warns: creation is difficult, it is like climbing a high mountain. At the beginning it is very hard and needs much patience and concentration, but as soon as the highest point has been overcome, the process increases faster and smoother. In other words: only by constantly doing and lifelong learning, an artist can truly enter the field of art.

    The second section called “Methods”, discusses the various means and techniques used in the creation process of a picture book, the importance of how the illustrations are assembled and how the story is built up. There are different ways to develop a plot and what really is important is to find the suitable technique to the story. Liao himself has tried many different creative methods for all his works and he considered himself lucky to have experienced many techniques, that lead him to create different kind of picture books. As far as he concerned, artists must always experiment with themes and styles during the creative process, in a constant challenge for themselves and their abilities.

    He explains how to organize inspiration, to build a storyboard, to set a layout, and, very importantly, how to make text and images work together. With reference to this essential aspect of picture books, Liao thinks that the story must be simple and the plot not too complicated. What people are mostly attracted are images, that must always spark different feelings, every reading, even when the reader already knows the story. In this way, Liao provides those who want to create picture books with sound advice and powerful suggestions, inspiring them with his experience and letting them not to waste energy and to save precious time to focus on their projects.

    The third part, called “Case Studies”, extensively analyzes seven of his most important works: Turn Left Turn Right, The Sound of Colors, Starry Starry Night, The Rainbow of Time, So Close Yet So Far, One More Day with You, and I’m Not Perfect. Liao reveals the background of the development of the books, the idea or the anecdote which inspired the story, the entire creation process, the difficulties (the so called “bottlenecks” and “low tides”) and the solutions that sometimes come up like epiphanies. He sincerely unveils the pain, the doubts, the questions behind every painstakingly choice he made. Nothing must be taken for granted. All the cases are equipped with illustrations from the related book and other original and interesting documents, such as drafts and maps.

    In the final part Liao shares his experience beyond the creative work, such as how to interact with editors and publishers, how to deal with comments after the book is published, how to handle the fact that books can turn in successful cartoons, movies, musicals.…

    All the works of art are our attempts to understand the chaos of life and fervently give it a shape. All the creative works can only try to suggest. Creation can only suggest, can only symbolize, and picture books are the creation of symbols and suggestions. There is no answer in life, and the final meaning of riddles seems to be the process of solving the riddle itself, not the answer. — (from Case Study 4: The Rainbow of Time)

  • The Brief But Heroic History of Taiwanese Fine Arts Needs Us to Carry It Forward: An Interview with Yen Chuan-Ying and Tsai Chia-Chiu, Executive Producers of TWO CENTURIES OF TAIWANESE FINE ARTS
    Sep 22, 2022 / By Wu Ying-Hui ∥ Translated by Ed Allen

    Originally published at Openbook: https://www.openbook.org.tw/article/p-66110


    Increasing the Value of Art Through Multiple Perspectives

    Two Centuries of Taiwanese Fine Arts follows a core chronological progression with interstitial subject essays. Volume One, “The Modern Age”, commences with Qing traditions in painting and calligraphy and their immediate inheritors before moving into the discourse of Enlightenment during the Japanese Occupation and ending with the conclusion of World War II and the rise of a new government. Planned chapters on “Modern Art and Exhibitions”, “Urban Modernity”, “War and Martial Law”, and “Men and Women in a New Era” set out the threads of each period and provide introductions to the artwork.

    Volume Two, “The Islands Call”, and its chapters on “The Call of the Mountains and Seas”, “A Return to Native Soil”, and “The Development of Subjectivity” follow movements in the fine arts amid the post-war political environment of enforced silence and through the great burst of noise and energy in the art world immediately after the lifting of martial law in 1987.

    Two Centuries of Taiwanese Fine Arts requires that the reader “consider Taiwan from its artworks”, thus giving priority to “public property” collected in public museums, supplemented by work in private collections.

    Tsai Chia-Chiu points out that works were chosen on the principle that they could “tell a good story”, yet the candid eyes of each contributor also stand out. “‘Narratability’ arises from the creative journey of the artist, the compositional depth of the work, and more importantly the links with Taiwan’s history and land.” Pursuing a popular appeal, the book eschews abstruse academic language, with each contributor enjoying carte blanche to write as they wish. As a result, chapters resonate with readers through the use of erudite but accessible techniques, for example, by drawing from individual experience or citing artistic confessions. Tsai, for example, translates and incorporates the entirety of Huang Tu-Shui’s “Taiwanese Art in Transition”, first published in the Japanese-language journal Shokumin in 1923, an essay in which the artist’s fervent desire to affect society with his art comes through strongly, the same way Huang inscribed his own life into his carvings, aspiring to immortality for his soul and his work.

    As Yen Chuan-Ying argues, this same freedom allows for varied interpretation of the same piece among the essays. In the case of Chen Cheng-po’s My Family (1931), for example, some have fixated on the Japanese-language On Painting for the Proletariat upon the table, while Yen approaches the painting from the perspective of the “woman behind the artist”, drawing up her own portrait of Chang Chieh (Chen’s wife), the silent supporter of her husband’s engagement with modern art.

    “We encourage anybody viewing these works to find their own reference point to construct a relationship with them. The work of art,” Yen believes, “no longer belongs to the artist once it has been exhibited. Fine arts cannot develop independently of society, while many opinions and ideas about a work will change with the times – this is how value accrues and builds up in art, and where its significance resides. Without recognition and confirmation from society, a work of art may be destined for the scrapheap.”


    Time: An Unfinished Project for a History of Fine Arts

    Taiwanese fine arts have until now been an appended chapter in the history of Chinese Fine Arts, such that scholars like Yen Chuan-Ying – who has dedicated herself to the subject for over three decades – seem to be blazing a treacherous trail. Yen recounts in detail her drift from the prestigious mainstream of research in Chinese fine frts to the overlooked realm of Taiwanese fine arts, starting with her enrollment at the Department of History at National Taiwan University in 1968. When she submitted a “Research Project in Taiwanese Fine Arts” to the National Science Council in 1988, her work was still deemed to be “of no academic value”, and was even ridiculed by Yen’s senior colleagues, who sneered: if we can research the history of Taiwanese Fine Arts, I suppose any rock off the street could be researched as well?

    Tsai Chia-Chiu also recalls his own frustrated ambition while still a graduate student in art history. “The atmosphere made you doubt yourself. Perhaps Taiwanese fine arts just didn’t belong in the hallowed halls of the Chinese classics?”

    “The fine arts are a core component of cultural memory; the construction of a history of Taiwanese art must originate from a popular self-identification with Taiwanese culture. We’ve never earnestly asked ourselves who we are,” says Yen, with profound force, “or who our parents are. Our understanding of our lives and environment is skin-deep. This is because we don’t wish to understand – or would rather forget.” Yen worries that if we still don’t want to learn, our opportunity may disappear, and “works of art will vanish without our being aware, and memory fade or be distorted in turn.”

    Modern art still constitutes the mainstream of research in Taiwanese fine art, a situation enabled by the majority of artists remaining in good health and the relative ease of fieldwork. Academic work on art from the Japanese Occupation, meanwhile, requires not only proficiency in two foreign languages (English and Japanese) but also such burdensome challenges as processing historical documents from over a century ago and negotiating the complex web of relationships between artists, authenticity of artworks, the search for lost pieces, and fieldwork surveys. Yen Chuan-Ying cites the case of Huang Tu-Shui’s Water of Immortality, for which a profusion of legends survives, including from involved parties such as the Chang and Hsu families. “We simply have too many dubious tales. Depending on the artist’s memory or upon oral transmission leaves one open to positive or negative influence from the individual, which will transform or obfuscate the conclusion. If not clarified now, the situation will become even more complex, while leaving things ambiguous and writing any old story is equally pointless.”


    Publication: Consolidating New Understandings and a Common Call to Action

    For decades, Yen Chuan-Ying has worked assiduously on fine art from the Japanese Occupation, all while remaining anxious and unhappy with the fringe status of her discipline. The publication of this series, however, brought difficult questions and high degrees of pressure from government departments, artists and their families, and the holders of artworks.

    The two volumes are entirely color-printed, with a generous number of foldouts and editing with special color details. Patience Chuang, Editor-in-Chief at SpringHill Publishing, chuckles: “All my colleagues have said this is a book that will ‘shake the nation to its roots’. Our ambition, though, is to keep re-printing and never stop, as long as there’s market demand. There are times when culture takes root in commerce.”

    Chuang points to the extraordinary success of books about Taiwanese history in recent years. Whether those readers can be hooked on the history of fine arts remains to be seen. “Regardless, from the editor’s perspective, Two Centuries of Taiwanese Fine Arts does fill the existing gap for a volume in the Fine Arts category for Taiwanese history.”

  • Opening a Dialogue with Western Narratives on the History of Infectious Diseases: A Review of THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE SPANISH INFLUENZA IN CHINA
    Sep 22, 2022 / By Sean Hsu ∥ Translated by Ed Allen

    At the end of 2019, as the scientific world, public health systems and national governments set about a vigorous response to the global outbreak of the new infectious disease known now as COVID-19, popular attention turned to books in the popular science literature market – Plagues and Peoples, Spillover Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, The Next Pandemic, and Guns, Germs and Steel. While publications on relevant pathogens, immunity, vaccine development and zoonoses were rapidly introduced or reprinted, the production figure for original Chinese-language works paled next to that of translations. New works mainly focused on health care and protection, varieties of care for young families, or simple compilations of materials, and their number remains limited even if we include systemic books on Taiwanese biomedicine. Compared with the unique aspects of essentially Taiwan-specific areas of biomedical research (such as snake venoms, hepatitis, and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)), other subjects lacked the depth and variety of perspectives necessary to succeed on the international market. There is, despite this, nothing lacking in Taiwan’s scientific research and ability to construct narrative. In the past decade or more, younger scholars have invested themselves enthusiastically in the task of making professional knowledge available to the public; special diligence has been shown in the interdisciplinary fields of STS (Science, Technology and Society). The Secret History of the Spanish Influenza in China appropriately reflects this present situation.

    The author, Pi Kuo-Li, is an Associate Professor at the Graduate Institute of History at National Central University and a specialist in the social history of Chinese medicine, history of disease, history of the body, and modern Chinese warfare and technology. Pi’s pre-pandemic research crystallizes in his work Medical Care, Diseases and Society: Understanding and Responses to Influenza Epidemic in the Early Period of Republic of China. Following more than six years of hard labor, this new book, with its underlying theme of the search for the disease and social response and mentality in popular culture, was published in February 2022. From the grand perspective of the global history of disease, this book compensates for previous Western-centered works on the Spanish flu – that great global public health system crisis – and their severe lack of content or grave misunderstanding of greater China during that time. The fatal disease, which raged from 1918 through April 1920, resulted in the death of at least 20 million worldwide (the highest estimate reaches 100 million). By share of global population China should have experienced millions or tens-of-millions of deaths, and yet searching relevant materials gives a number of only 600,000. What explains such an enormous gap?

    China at the time was in the chaotic and confused state of civil war, and was unable to produce accurate statistics on deaths or completed records pertaining the Spanish Flu (for the West, the Great War also significantly contributed to the discrepancy between real and estimated deaths), especially as it engaged with the clearer threats of plague, smallpox, and malaria. Yet Pi successfully analyzes medical books and journals according to multiple perspectives drawn from Chinese and Western medicine (these, intriguingly, united in their advance during these years, rather than struggling in opposition – a likely factor in reducing the harm caused by Spanish Flu), while pointing to comparative descriptions of real cases from daily life and popular culture. The book thereby enters a dialogue with classic Western works on the pandemic. The author describes this as a “diversity of medical history research” perspective – a search for the interactive links between elite medical views and intellectual constructs with daily life and material culture at the lower levels.

    In summary, The Secret History of the Spanish Influenza in China uses historical research to consolidate ideas on how, in the time of Spanish Flu, popular Chinese society and Eastern and Western currents of medical thought recognized and approached an infectious disease – one not far separated from the “cold flu” concept long familiar to TCM, though with a much higher fatality rate. In doing so, the book constructs a humanistic base for conversation amid the largely Western-directed history of infectious disease, which helps us prepare for the next unexpected and life-threatening plague.