Mass Burial: A Case of Artivism in Taiwan

Mass Burial: A Case of Artivism in Taiwan

Meiqin Wang

Introduction: Political Control and Censorship in Taiwan

It might sound counterintuitive to highlight governmental censorship and political control in Taiwan as a problem since this small island has long been applauded in Western societies for its democratic political system and served as the opposite of authoritarian mainland China. As recent as 2021, Taiwan was still touted as “one of the highest-performing democracies in Asia.”[1] Indeed, here in the West, Taiwan seldom appears negatively in the mainstream media and voices of its home-grown critics and dissidents are rarely heard, while China, the country that Taiwan’s current government seeks independence from, has always been portrayed in a negative light with plenty of its critics and dissidents cited in the news. However, democracy cannot be taken for granted, as we have seen plenty of reports in recent years discussing the decline and even collapse of established democratic systems in different parts of the world.[2]

In Taiwan, progressive intellectuals and social activists find themselves fighting against increasing governmental control and censorship in recent years under the rule of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This former oppositional party has now replaced the historically dominant Nationalist Party or the Kuomintang (KMT) to hold the power seat of the island.[3] Taiwanese citizens’ journey for democracy has been complicated by the government-promoted anti-China political ideology that has divided the population and politicized public affairs. To many critically-minded citizens, democracy in Taiwan has been eroded and has become a political theater performed by politicians as actors; it is now an illiberal democracy and shows signs of heading towards electoral authoritarianism.[4] For them, this erosion has accelerated since 2020 with the beginning of the second term of president Tsai Ing-wen. She was re-elected with the largest vote total in Taiwan’s history, an outcome that seems to have granted her administration much greater power than her previous term. Surely, citizens still enjoy the right to vote. The election itself, however, has become an expensive game that only people with economic means can enter to play. The endless cycle of election campaigns, like reality television shows, have grabbed public attention and become the focus of political activities, reportages, and debates, often turned into spectacles for mass consumption.

In reality, it is getting harder for meaningful political participation and policy input from ordinary citizens, let alone demanding accountability from the elected officials. As a matter of fact, citizens voicing critiques toward government policies tend to be verbally attacked by the DPP government-supported “internet navy” or “online army,” known as “1450,” who have been employed to misinform the public by smearing the reputations of social, cultural, and environmental activists who raised their concerns publicly.[5] The situation has become life-threatening during the challenging time of the global outbreak of COVID-19. While Taiwan appeared to be successful in preventing the spread of the pandemic throughout 2020 and bought itself precious time to prepare, it nonetheless fell short in testing and vaccinating its population. Meanwhile, the government took the opportunity to further its anti-China campaign among its population, continuing to call COVID-19 the “Wuhan pneumonia” long after the virus acquired its proper scientific terminology.[6] Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) implemented rigid emergency-time regulations to control mobility and information distribution, despite criticism about the unlawfulness of these newly introduced social controls. CECC, which conducts a daily press release reporting on numbers of infection and the death toll, became the only acceptable source of information about the pandemic to be publicly distributed. The “1450” army has been waging intensive media attacks on individuals who expressed doubt or critique in public about the government’s control over the interpretation of the pandemic or policies implemented to prevent its spread.[7]

When COVID-19 infection cases suddenly rose in Taiwan starting in May 2021, the death toll quickly reached a rate higher than the global average at that time.[8] However, the pandemic has been so politicized by the ruling party DPP that Taiwan officially rejected the donation offer of vaccines from mainland China while pleading for support from the US and Japan.[9] As such, Taiwan citizens witnessed their government clinging to the ideology of “pro-US, pro-Japan, and anti-Chinese mainland” that it actually was “putting politics before epidemic management.”[10] At the same time, social stigmatization has been rampant against people infected by COVID-19 to the point that those unfortunates dared to not publicly acknowledge or mourn their family members who died of the infection.[11] This is especially unsettling in a society that has a deep tradition of venerating death in which people carry out elaborate funeral rituals to properly commemorate the passing of their loved ones, offering a sense of dignity to their death. Not able to do so is like being unable to help the love ones complete the cycle of life, thus depriving dignity of their death. The failure of such an important family duty could bring grave psychological trauma to those that are still alive.

Mass Burial: Culture in Action

Figure 1. The banner of Mass Burial: Culture in Action, hoisted through a crane by Yen Kuan-chuan, a veteran labor activist, 2021. Photograph courtesy of Mass Burial organizers.

It was against this absurdity and tragedy that some progressive intellectuals and artists, social movement activists, and grassroots organizations launched Mass Burial: Culture in Action (Figure 1). Taking place at Taipei’s Freedom Square (also known as Liberty Square), an important public space near the power seat of Taiwan’s government, it is a 10-day performative cultural event and public art project addressing the wrongdoings of the government. Mass Burial makes reference to the historical mass burial in August 1931, during which more than 5000 people from across Taiwan voluntarily came to Taipei to protest against the Japanese colonial government by participating in the funeral procession mourning Chiang Wei-shui (1890–1931), a Taiwanese physician and social activist who played a crucial role in Taiwan’s resistance movement against Japanese rule. The 2021 Mass Burial was conceived to be a collective citizens’ action project that would reenact the spirit of the historical protest. Its organizers called for public participation to openly mourn COVID-19 victims, including those officially acknowledged and those died of government-sanctioned vaccines, but were not reported due to official denial of such incidents, and question the increasing injustices in Taiwan that at once exposed by and contribute to the death toll and the silenced public. The event officially started on August 28, 2021, the hundredth day of Taiwan’s COVID-19 outbreak, and ran through September 6. The days were chosen because they were the final days of July in the lunar calendar, the ghost month dedicated to venerating the dead in the Chinese tradition, and thus appropriate for the purpose of Mass Burial.[12]

In the call for participation distributed in early August, the organizers write:

Since May 19, 2021, due to the spread of COVID-19, Taiwan government issued level-3 security lockdown for pandemic prevention. The fully ruling green camp [referring to DPP] has operated a patriotism campaign under the slogan “one island, same fate” and launched a cognitive warfare with the online army; taking advantage of the new international cold war atmosphere, they have slandered all critical voices “red color” [pro-Chinese Community Party], and refused to make it transparent the decision-making process involving pandemic prevention and vaccination that are critical to people’s survival; the mechanisms of democratic supervision and power balance from the Congress, oppositional parties, and the media have completely failed, which has a chilling effect on voters in the middle ground and they keep quiet to avoid being involuntarily “painted” red color or blue color [pro-KMT].

We cannot remain silent facing the birth of such a new type of soft authoritarianism, and we cannot give up our freedom of expression because of the fear of being “singled out.” At this moment, Taiwan needs new moral courage and values, as well as new language and communication methods, to reflect and confront the authoritarian rule exercised in the name of democratic progress.

We wish to invite important art and cultural workers to abandon the mentality and language commonly used by online army, politicians, and media celebrities that have undermined social trust and hindered social dialogues; we opt for artistic and cultural creativity to re-examine what life, freedom, justice, and dignity mean. We also invite the public to join this endeavor and together let us walk out of indifference, cynicism, and helplessness so as to take on the political responsibility of our era, prove that idealism is not dead, and create a different “moment.”[13]

Identifying the deteriorated political and social environments that have suffocated freedom of expression in contemporary Taiwan, organizers hoped to activate citizens’ participation via the means of the arts in order to challenge the soft authoritarianism that is on the rise in this island. Considering that most of these organizers have been fighting for liberty and democracy since the 1980s when Taiwan was still under the then authoritarian KMT’s one-party rule, it must be disheartening for them to see that the hard-won progress is threatened by the now ruling party with whom they laid their hopes and enthusiastically supported. This attempt to gather leading art professionals to collaborate with cultural and social activists is therefore an alternative endeavor to “take on the political responsibility” of this era. Art and social activism, therefore, is merged into artivism in the conception of Mass Burial.

A multidisciplinary public art project, Mass Burial embraces various media and approaches such as calligraphy, poetry, architecture, performance art, theatrical performances, exhibitions, craftwork, and public forums. At a press release announcing its launch, the chief organizer Wuo Youngie,[14] a veteran social activist, promised Mass Burial to be the most remarkable art event in Taiwan this year because it was going to present the works of some of its most prominent art personalities. Indeed, as a self-funded public endeavor pulled off within two months, an unusually short period of preparation considering its scale, the list of participants was extremely impressive. For example, Hsieh Ying-chun,[15] the island’s most internationally renowned architect, led his architectural team to create Mass Tent, at once an artwork and a pragmatic shelter under whose cover all cultural programs unfolded; Chen Chieh-jen,[16] also an internationally established visual artist and filmmaker, created Mass Standing, a participatory performance artwork taking place every evening throughout the event; Wang Mo-lin, a theater critic, director, and experimental playwright who is famous for his uncompromising attitude towards the cultural authorities, joined the forum “Mass Night Talks.” Well established in their distinctive fields, each of these three were also recipients of the National Award for Arts, Taiwan’s highest official recognition given to arts professionals once every two years.[17]

Figure 2. The back side of the banner of Mass Burial: Culture in Action, where the Anonymous Stele is attached. Written by calligrapher Yu Chun-ming, 2021. Photograph courtesy of Mass Burial organizers.

Besides, seasoned calligrapher Yu Chun-ming spent four days completing Anonymous Stele, a massive white scroll covered with 821 hand-written case numbers of officially recognized COVID-19 deaths (Figure 2). This work was then printed on letter-sized color papers for participants to make origami cranes to mourn the dead and pray for the still sick during the opening day of Mass Burial (Figure 3). In addition, performance artist and environmental activist Tseng Chi-ming carried out a 10-day performance work series Mirror-Voice; director and performer Tuan Hui-min and his team contributed an action theater piece Mass Tree (Figure 4); and Chung Chiao, director and leading figure of the People’s Theater Movement in Taiwan contributed several poems written for the occasion.[18] Informed by his long-term experience working with disadvantaged social groups in theater work, Chung emphasized the force that could be stimulated from ordinary people when they are given a proper chance with a statement: “The powerless can become a mass when standing together.”[19] The central theme of these art professionals’ works for Mass Burial is remembering the COVID-19 victims and calling for the public to take action to hold the government accountable—in a way, to become responsible citizens.

Figure 3. Letter-sized color papers printed with Anonymous Stele for making origami cranes to mourn the dead and pray for the sick, 2021. Photographs courtesy of Mass Burial organizers.


Figure 4. Photos and screenshots from Mass Tree, action theater performed by Tuan Hui-min and his team, 2021. Photograph courtesy of Lin Yu-chuan; video courtesy of Mass Burial organizers.

These ongoing artistic activities were accompanied by an archival exhibition for “the powerless,” referring to marginalized social groups such as foreign workers from southeast Asian countries—who are doing most of the low paid, difficult, and dirty jobs in Taiwan, patients of infectious diseases such as leprosy, women working in the entertainment industries, etc. These groups have long been discriminated against in Taiwanese society and have experienced worsened circumstances during the pandemic when businesses were shot down and restrictions for mobility were implemented by the authorities. The exhibition displayed artworks, documents, and props from past protests (Figure 5). In addition, an altar was set up mourning people who died of the COVID-19 infection and vaccination as well as those who died of forced relocation, pollution, and other man-made disasters. Photos of leading political figures in charge of Taiwan who were believed to have contributed to these deaths were placed in front of the altar when a mass mourning ceremony was performed by a priest to properly honor the deceased, as if they were coming to apologize for what they have done.

Figure 5. Photos and screenshots of the exhibition, contributed by Taiwan International Workers Association, the Labor Union of workers from Miramar Golf Course in Linkou (Taoyuan), and the Foreign Student Rights Group. Photographs and video courtesy of Mass Burial organizers.

Every evening, a musician or singer performed to honor the deceased right before the public forum “Mass Night Talk” began. The forum took its historical reference from the famous Decameron by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio in response to the deadly pandemic known as the Black Death, given that human beings are again living under the threat of a massive pandemic, this time COVID-19. Simultaneously broadcasted live via Facebook and YouTube, the forum was themed on “Listening to Death” and every night it focused on one topic.[20] In total, it held nine, three-hour or so panel discussions featuring researchers, practitioners, and activists from the domains of the arts, social movements, environmental protection, labor rights, and animal rights, to name a few. All panels concluded with a Q and A session during which there were always eager audience members wanting to join the discussions.

In the first night’s panel, “Dialogue with the Dead,” three speakers shared stories of relatives who died of covid-19 or vaccination. One speaker brought up the problem of “social death,” referring to the online army’s attack on individuals with fake news that can seriously smear their reputation and thus “kill” them socially. The deterioration of democracy in Taiwan was discussed during the second night’s panel entitled “From Additive-Fed US Pork to Medigen Vaccine: How Did Democracy Die?” Three activists shared their stories of fighting against importing additive-fed US pork and the emergency use authorization of the domestically produced Medigen Vaccine before phase 3 trials and without data suggesting its efficacy.[21]

The third night’s topic, “Algal Reefs: How did the Ecological Ideals Disappear?” requires a little bit of elaboration since it is a cause that organizers and many participants of Mass Burial have worked for. This panel, also consisting of three speakers, was related to the environmental activists’ efforts to protect the more than 7,600 years-old algal reefs in the Datan village along Taiwan’s northern coastline, which is at risk from a government-sanctioned $2.2 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) importation project.[22] Largely unknown to the public, the Datan algal reefs are home to a significant population of maritime lives, including threatened and endangered species, and scientists have declared its rich ecosystem to be one-of-a-kind in the world.[23] The current president Tsai wrote “forever algal reefs” in 2013 and promised again in 2018 to protect the algal reefs.[24] But to the disappointment of environmentalists, she has since turned away from her promise. While officials denied that the LNG project would endanger the algal reefs, activists continued their campaign by displaying evidence otherwise to raise public awareness and in early 2021 they began a campaign urging the public to push for a referendum to protect the area, which if passed would be the first referendum about ecological protection in Taiwan.[25] To support this referendum and to protest against short-sighted economic behavior, the above mentioned Wang Mo-lin, Tseng Chi-ming, and other artists launched a performance art project in May 2021 entitled “Datan Algal Reef Live Show: The Labor of Man and Nature.” Using their very bodies as the mediums, artists lay, ran, crawled, or performed rituals to interact with natural elements such as sunshine, wind, earth, and sand (Figure 6). Their strenuous physical actions on the one hand displayed the fragility and insignificance of human bodies in front of the vastness of nature and on the other hand also conveyed the fighting spirit of individuals in their effort to protect nature.[26]

Figure 6. Tseng Chi-ming, Chian Yuan-hsiang, and others, “Datan Algal Reef Live Show-The Labor of Man and Nature,” 2021. Photographs courtesy of Hsu Pin.

The remaining six panels covered a range of pressing issues in Taiwan that are often avoided by the mainstream media during this “emergency period,” such as the increasingly authoritarian-approach of the ruling party; political and bureaucratic corruption; ecological deterioration; stigmatization and discrimination against certain social groups, the lack of affordable housing, etc.[27] The last night’s panel was a round table discussion entitled “Are Cultural Actions Useful? Dialogues among Artists, Social Activists, and the Marginalized.” During this panel, organizers, participants, and audience shared reflections on Mass Burial itself and furthered the conversations on Taiwan’s problems as well as the efficacy or challenges of tackling them via art and cultural actions.

Considering the wide range of critical topics “Mass Night Talk” covered, the number of leading experts in relevant fields invited, and the heated discussions among speakers and between speakers and audience, it was an impressive success. This is even so when considering the short time period of preparation. Chung Hsiu-mei, a key organizer and herself a literature professor from National Cheng Kung University, revealed that, except for the first three panels’ speakers that were confirmed a couple of weeks in advance, the speakers for other panels were often times solicited several days before.[28] This, on the one hand, reveals the spontaneous nature of Mass Burial as a grassroots cultural action. On the other hand, it reveals the willingness of the intellectual communities to speak out when given an opportunity. Overall, it is extraordinary that in such a short period of time, Chung and her colleagues were able to pull off such a significant public event against all the odds in a time of mobility restriction and information control.

Artivism Leading the Way

Given the organizers’ intention to foreground art in carrying out Mass Burial, it is worthwhile to analyze some artworks in detail and contemplate how the artists took up the mission in championing a cultural action in their attempt to reclaim liberty and democracy in a time of heightened censorship and government control. In doing so, we can see how art and activism interact as artivism in creating space for mass participation, bringing forward social criticism, and fostering dialogues among people of different backgrounds. As a form of grassroots resistance and alternative cultural production, artivism is not entire new in Taiwan. As a matter of fact, it can be traced back to the 1980s when Taiwan was still under “Martial Law” or “white terror” that was implemented by KMT-led Government.[29] In the 1980s, progressive artists, such as the aforementioned Chen Chieh-jen, worked with their fellow citizens in pursuing political freedom and contributed to the end of “Martial Law” in 1987.[30] Their efforts also contributed to the end of KMT’s one-party rule in Taiwan in the 1990s, during which DPP grew into a major opposition party that eventually won the presidency of Taiwan in 2000. Since the post-democratization era of the 1990s, Taiwanese artists have also been active in various civil discourses such as environmental protection, community building, labor organization, human rights, and disaster relief, and their work accentuates the power of art for social engagement or intervention.[31] In a recent talk given by Kristina Wong, an American performance artist, to the organization Artists for Democracy, she emphasizes that artists make culture and culture shifts public understanding and that’s what leads to changes in policy making.[32] I believe that a similar kind of perception about the role of art has motivated the continuous efforts of Taiwanese artists in their pursuit of a more just, fair, and sustainable society and this is particularly evident in the works of artists who participated in Mass Burial.

Let us start with Mass Tent (Figure 7), the large installation work conceived by architect Hsieh Ying-chun as a massive tree whose canopy almost covered the entire open space right in front of the Freedom Square Arch to provide an ample shaded space against the summer heat at the heart of Taipei.[33] It was under this temporary monumental public structure that the organizers carried out other programs. Hsieh has been known for his work in post-disaster reconstructions in Taiwan and neighboring regions over the past two decades. His concept of People’s Architecture, sometimes referred to as social architecture, promotes collaboration between laypeople and professionals with the goal that laypeople will be able to learn the technique and build their own home in the process.[34] Hsieh advocates employing adoptable and affordable technology such as a reinforced steel system with nuts and bolts that can be easily assembled to accommodate different needs in different social, spatial, and climatic conditions. Mass Tent speaks to his people-oriented pragmatic approach using cheaply available canopy clothes and light-weight steel framework to create a massive tent on the square. Suitable to the mourning occasion, the canopy was in black. The technique was simple and straightforward enough that everybody could give a hand and it was indeed built collectively in the early hours of August 28 to launch Mass Burial. This goes well with its goal, which was to foster collective actions among Taiwan citizens. What can be better than building a shading area together to be used in the following days.

Figure 7. Hsieh Ying-chun, Mass Tent, as the background for various activities, August 28-29, 2021. Photographs courtesy of Mass Burial organizers.

Symbolically, Mass Tent plays with the idea of creating a temporary free space for discussing political and ideological control, mourning the loss of lives, and reflecting on social and environmental injustice. Pragmatically, the enormity of its physical presence was in response to the social distancing regulation required by the authorities for public gatherings so that the organizers could have enough space to accommodate participants and audience. Meanwhile, the sheer size of it was also a statement for the temporary attainment of such a space from the grassroots effort, especially against the backdrop of the Freedom Square Arch, a permanent public monument of historical significance in Taiwan. Freedom Square only acquired its current name in 2007 to replace its former name Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square (which honored Taiwan’s first president Chiang Kai-shek who ruled Taiwan in an authoritarian fashion). This change of name marks an important milestone in Taiwan’s journey towards democracy and liberty. It was therefore all the more frustrating when the organizers discovered that in order to keep Mass Tent on display, they had to pay an enormous rental fee per day to the National Performing Arts Center (also known as the National Theater & Concert Hall), the official institution that administers the use of the Freedom Square.[35] Falling short on their fund, organizers were forced to dismantle Mass Tent the second night after its installation.

Outraged by the circumstance, the organizers held a press conference to express their frustration and protest publicly: “Freedom Square, the holy site of Taiwan’s democratic movement and symbol of freedom, is no longer free; the historical significance of this space is dead.”[36] The rental fee for using the Freedom Square to organize non-profit public events used to be much cheaper and almost nominal, but in the past few years it has apparently risen dramatically.[37] They condemned that it has become such a highly commercialized and for-profit rental space that access to this supposedly free public venue is practically unattainable for independent and non-profit organizations. The irony and absurdity, they pointed out, is that annually the government grants tens of millions of public funds to arts events sponsored by the National Performing Arts Center, while self-funded alternative arts events like Mass Burial, without spending a penny of public funds, has to pay the Center for carrying out its programs in this public space. This might well be seen as a form of ideological control to weed out social discontent and curtail freedom of expression, albeit not directly via political power but via the power of money.

Against the obstacle, the organizers did not give in. Instead, they worked with Hsieh Ying-chun to bring back Mass Tent, considering its continuous presence at the Freedom Square a public fight to safeguard the space of democracy and reclaim “the right of the powerless to have a space for freedom of expression.”[38] They argued: “If the Freedom Square is reduced to become a symbol of ‘without money, there is no freedom of expression,’ then democracy is truly dead in Taiwan.”[39] The following day, a much smaller version of Mass Tent was re-installed (Figure 8). Although no longer magnificent in scale, it still provided a physical structure under whose covered area the programs of Mass Burial continued. Its quick coming-into-being reflected Hsieh’s long-held belief that spatial constructions should be flexible in order to adopt to specific social, political, and economic conditions. Moreover, because of the organizers’ publicized critique and other forms of protest, the National Performing Arts Center exempted the rental fee for the smaller version of Mass Tent, so the Freedom Square became free again, at least for the moment.

Figure 8. Screenshot from a short video on the scaled down Mass Tent, 2021. Video courtesy of Mass Burial organizers.

Another work dedicated to Mass Burial that relied entirely on audience participation was Mass Standing, a collective performance-and-photographic work that started on August 29, 2021, the second day of Mass Burial and continued from 5 to 7 pm every evening until September 5 when it held a special session at midnight to conclude that day’s program (Figure 9). It was conceived by Chen Chieh-jen, the visual artist and filmmaker whose artivism can be traced back to the 1980s, as briefly discussed earlier, when he used guerrilla-style performance art and underground exhibitions to challenge the authorities. In the past two decades, Chen has focused on exploring the impact of globalization, neoliberalism, and labor immigration on Taiwan’s society and in particular addressing the hardships inflicted upon disenfranchised social groups under the condition of neoliberal capitalism. In a call for participation for Mass Standing, Chen writes:

We welcome all those who feel powerless, those who pass by, those who are confused, and those who are exhausted, to the mass standing area in Mass Tent; While maintaining social distance, you can stand silently, sit still, or meditate according to your physical conditions; you can come and go freely at your will. [40]

Figure 9. Screenshot of Mass Burial life-broadcast via Facebook on September 5, 2021, with Mass Standing in progress. Broadcasted by Mass Burial organizers.

Figure 10. Selective pieces from Mass Standing, 2021. Photographs courtesy of Chen Chieh-jen Studio.

To complete the work, Chen and his team took photos of participants every evening. Besides fostering a sense of community to protest using the simple gesture of standing, he states: “we want to record current circumstance so we have historical materials to go back in the future.”[41] It is the conscious sense and effort of making history that he is referring to. Although participants were all wearing masks as everyone else did in those days, Mass Standing has produced some powerful portraitures and hand gestures that surely will serve as important documentation of this daring cultural action launched under the restricted conditions of heightened control over individual mobility, public gathering, and information sharing. For example, the images of people folding their fists high with a solemn and firm facial expression convey strong messages (Figure 10). On the Facebook page that broadcasted Mass Burial, the poem accompanying the images reads:

This is a gesture of oath

Vowed to dedicate to the cause of human liberation

This is a gesture of unity

Rallied among sincere hearts of oppressed people worldwide

This is a gesture of combat

Opposing resolutely every kind of unjust in every part of this planet

This is a gesture of salute

Honoring people everywhere who are committed to building a better world [42]

With such noble goals as expressed in the poem, the simple act of standing together acquires political, social, and cultural significance. Chen related this work to the Taiwanese people’s historical struggle against Japanese colonial rule in his hope to emphasize “the power of the powerless” that was manifested 90 years ago in the mass burial honoring Chiang Wei-shui. He asks: “90 years later, how should we think about the pandemic, virus, and death, especially when neoliberalism has destroyed the healthcare systems, social systems, and economic systems of most countries and regions around the world?”[43] He therefore called for all who have suffered from the current powerless situation to come together, carrying on the spirit of the mass protest 90 years ago while brainstorming on how people can change the current situation. In this light, everyone who participated in Mass Standing can be seen as consciously contributing to Chen’s artivism in his effort to promote alternative social relations, engage with the public, and expand the critical dimension of art.

Performance artist Tseng Chi-ming carried out a 10-day performance series Mirror-Voice as his contribution to Mass Burial (Figure 11).[44] Often taking issues with social and environmental injustices in Taiwanese society, Tseng’s performance art has aimed to stimulate social engagement and public actions. For this series, Tseng departed from his usual preference of environmentally friendly materials such as soil, flowers, and trees or direct elements of nature such as rivers, beaches, and sunlight as his props. He chose mirror as his medium for the rich symbolisms mirror has been associated with in many cultural traditions, such as a window to the soul, a guide to the after-life, a symbol of light, and the act of casting a spell on demons.[45] For him, mirror was an appropriate intermediary for the occasion of performing a collective mourning to the dead and offering them a belated farewell. In addition, its use in traditional Daoist rituals as an instrument to reveal the true identity of demons and ward off evil spirits also makes it relevant for an effort to make the public aware of the behind-door illegitimate operations of government officials that led to the death of innocent people. The use of “voice” in the title points to his observation that ordinary citizens have largely lost their voice when it comes to public and political affairs in a highly commercialized and divided Taiwanese society.[46] Mirror-Voice therefore is a performance that hopes to speak out on behalf of the COVID-19 victims who have been permanently silenced and call on the public to question those in power who are responsible for the increasing injustices in society.

Figure 11. Photos from Mirror-Voice, performance art by Tseng Chi-ming and participants, August 28, 2021. Photographs courtesy of Cheng Shun-jen and Tseng Chi-ming.

As a prelude to Mirror-Voice, Tseng started his performance work on August 23, the exact date 90 years ago when the historic mass burial mourning the death of Chiang Wei-shui took place. Dressed up like a hospitalized patient, Tseng and his friend Kao Hsiu-hui wrote down one after another case number, age, and gender of the COVID-19 victims in either water or charcoal on the paved floor of the Freedom Square (Figure 12). They were emulating the health authorities’ treatment of the deceased, in which lives were reduced to these lifeless digit symbols and being broadcasted every day as a way to inform the public of the government’s effort in controlling the pandemic. The soon-to-be evaporated or scattered numbers speak to the insignificance of these lost lives to the authorities, which adds one more dimension of grievance to the still living family members.

Figure 12. Photos from Mirror-Voice, performance art by Tseng Chi-ming and Kao Hsiu-hui, August 23, 2021. Photographs courtesy of Yeh Shu-yin.

On the afternoon of August 28, the day Mass Burial officially began, Tseng carried out the core component of Mirror-Voice with the participation of an audience functioning as a collective funeral ritual for the deceased (Figure 11). He spread out 100 small mirrors under Mass Tent, on each of which he wrote the case number and gender of one COVID-19 victim and placed an acacia bean, a symbol of love in the Chinese tradition, and a pinch of lime powder on top of the bean.[47] A complex embodiment of life, love, and death/disappearance (as the lime powder would dissipate easily in the windy and rainy days of summer), this mirror was then held by each participant in their hands as they chanted mourning poems. One might also add, they were chanting for the return of fairness and justice, given that besides its ritualistic use, the mirror has a long tradition of being associated with fair and just governance. The famous Chinese idiom mingjing gaoxuan (a clear mirror hung high) is a metaphor for a government official who is perceptive, fair, and honest and who enforces the law without personal favor—thus a symbol of the official’s integrity.[48] Since a mirror reflects everything in front of it without bias, it has also been an embodiment of ordinary people’s quest for a government that can deliver equality, fairness, and justice. Thus, the 100 mirrors at the symbolic location of the Freedom Square, either quietly laid on the ground or held up by participants, made a loud voice on behalf of those who could not speak for themselves because of either death or being marginalized.

Considering the political connotation of the mirror, the evolution of Mirror-Voice the next day on August 29, 2021, became even more striking. Under the watchful eyes of an audience, Tseng reorganized the 100 mirrors into five connected grids; he reappeared with three participants, all dressed up as authorized medical professionals, and they stepped on these mirrors one by one—slowly but surely—to crash each into pieces; they then bowed down at the four corners of the central grid in a posture of mourning (Figure 13). Subtitled Forbid-Join, this performance was a metaphoric demonstration of the state-sanctioned violence that forbade the voices of the suffering to be heard, stigmatized the protest of concerned citizens, and stifled civic participation, all exercised in the name of public safety. In the quiet evening square, the sound of crackling as performers stepped on the mirrors was unsettling and frustrating, all the more so when one thought about the fact that Mass Tent, under which the performance was carrying out, was going to be dismantled that night.

Figure 13. Left: A screenshot from a recording of Mirror-Voice performed by Tseng Chi-ming and three participants, August 29, 2021;  right: A photo of the same performance. Video and photograph courtesy of Lin Yu-chuan and Yeh Shu-yin.

The broken mirrors continued to serve as the medium for Tseng to continue the series till the last day of Mass Burial. He glued broken pieces back to their original shape and placed all mirrors into a small circle at a corner next to the scaled-down Mass Tent on the third day (Figure 14). For the remaining days, they quietly sat there witnessing the rise and fall of the sun, the coming and going of rain, and all the people who came to the Freedom Square and participated in Mass Burial. Tseng attended to them, such as writing case numbers and gender signs back when they were washed away by the rain. For each passing day, he attributed a new subtitle for the series, depending on the happenings (natural or human) of that day at the Freedom Square. Like Tseng’s other performance works, Mirror-Voice responds to the troubled reality in contemporary Taiwan and is a socially engaged artwork that is part and parcel of this grassroots protest under the name of Mass Burial. Its on-site spontaneity is also a usual approach adopted by Tseng since many of his performance artworks tend to be done in an improvisational way responding to the needs of protests against environmental or social injustices.

Figure 14. Photos from Mirror-Voice, performance art by Tseng Chi-ming, August 30-September 5, 2021. Photographs courtesy of Tseng Chi-ming.

Mass Tent, Mass Standing, and Mirror-Voice are three artworks that exemplify the kind of artivism that I have been researching in Taiwan. It is an artistic and cultural practice that seeks to address various social problems, either short term or long term, by the means of arts with a wide range of agendas, such as political reform, policy change, environmental awareness and protection, social inclusion and equality, community building and personal empowerment, etc. Here at Mass Burial, artivism seeks to open up free spaces where COVID-19 victims can be mourned in public, newly marginalized voices can be heard, justice can be pursued, social and political problems can be discussed, and critical reflections on Taiwan’s journey towards liberty and democracy can be made.

Conclusion: A Surviving Civil Society

How was it possible to pull off such a multiple-day public art event in such a short period of time with very limited resources? One answer probably lies in the tradition of the civil society that has emerged since the 1980s as part and parcel of Taiwanese citizens’ fight for democracy, justice, and environmental protection against the then dictatorial government under KMT’s single party rule. While many once-democratic and environmental fighters have overtime ascended to leading official posts of the now ruling party DPP and have stood on the opposite side of the civil society, there are remaining activists who continue to advance various civil discourses against a changing political landscape with new forms of political oppression. Among them, environmental protection continues to be a thread that connects activists of different political inclinations and builds common ground for collaborations and collective actions. In recent years, activists for food security have also joined forces with environmental activists in their struggle for a better living condition for the Taiwanese people. Then, there is the legacy of intellectual activism that continues to be carried out by some scholars, especially those who identify themselves as leftists and are concerned about the livelihood of the working class and other underprivileged social groups. It was the collaboration of environmental, food security, and intellectual activists with each group drawing on their networks of support and human resource that made the 2021 Mass Burial possible.

For such an extraordinary public cultural event, the turnout of people in real space was less than exciting, however, at least according to some of the organizers. They did not hesitate to point out that 90 years ago more than 5000 people from across Taiwan voluntarily went to Taipei to participate in the mass burial for Chiang Wei-shui. That was a time without the convenience of internet and social media that could broadcast news fast and far or of easy mass transportation that allowed people to travel frequently. With the convenience of all these, the physical attendance of people, especially from the younger generations, was no way matching the expectation that the organizers had.

A number of reasons could explain the low turnout of ordinary citizens in Mass Burial. For one, this could be due to the fact that people were strongly advised against gathering in public and also the fact that the vaccination rate was still very low by August 2021.[49] Partially, it could be exactly because of the popularity of social media in contemporary times. As one journalist points out, social media can be a friend and a foe, meaning that social media can swallow everything, including political campaigns, personal histories, and even journalism itself.[50] This is the burden of our information age, in which a piece of news, no matter how significant or striking, gets buried quickly by other more sensational ones. The work of the online army who intentionally confuse the public with fake news undoubtedly exacerbates the situation.

Figure 15: Screenshots from the life-broadcast of the last “Mass Night Talk,” September 5, 2021. Broadcasted by Mass Burial organizers.

More importantly, the low attendance turnout could be a sign of the declining civil society and shrinking civil space in the island. As Taiwan contents itself as an exemplary working democracy, it is even harder for its politically charged intellectuals and social activists to gain public support towards their events. These events, due to their critical stance toward the government, would be naturally considered anti-DPP and thus people associated with the party, the majority of young people now, would likely turn away from them.[51] Young people used to be the main force of several waves of civil protests in the past that have changed the cause of Taiwan’s politics. The current younger generations, however, appear to have become increasingly apolitical if not already supporters of DPP.[52] Having to deal with the increasing pressures of contemporary life, especially the skyrocketing housing prices and plummeting wages, might help explain this apathy towards politically charged-civil discourses in recent years.[53] Several speakers at the “Mass Night Talk” forum pointed out that life has become increasingly difficult and competitive for young people in Taiwan, which has deprived them of the crucial leisure time to get involved politically or think critically.[54]

Nonetheless, although not as well attended as the organizers of Mass Burial hoped, the fact that they could carry out the public event to the last day as planned was remarkable itself, speaking to the fact that civil society is still alive in Taiwan, albeit under challenge and is in a survival mode now. Mass Burial provided a much-needed and timely opportunity for artists, social activists, and audience who believed in the potentials of open and free dialogues to come together (Figure 15). Along the way, they fostered mutual understandings among different social organizations and between the art communities and the social activist communities while also contributing to new forms of art and cultural production and sociopolitical imaginations. In so doing, they can be said to “take on the political responsibility of our era, prove that idealism is not dead, and create a different ‘moment’,” as hoped by the organizers. In a time when the civil society is declining, it is especially important to have such alternative forms of civil gatherings that might incubate new forms of civil engagements and collective actions.[55] Of course, it awaits to be seen what larger and lasting social impact this event would have for Taiwan.

Acknowledgement: The research of this essay was made possible with a Fulbright Scholars Grant that the author received in 2020-2021.

Meiqin Wang is an art historian and a professor at California State University Northridge. She researches contemporary art from China in the context of commercialization, globalization, and urbanization of the Chinese world and has written on topics such as artist villages, creative cultural industries, art and urbanization, and socially engaged art. Her major publication includes two research monographs Urbanization and Contemporary Chinese Art (Routledge, 2015) and Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China: Voices from Below (Routledge, 2019), and two edited volumes Socially Engaged Public Art in East Asia (Vernon Press, 2022) and Visual Arts, Representations and Interventions in Contemporary China (Amsterdam University Press, 2018). Socially engaged art and its related categories such as public art, artivism, and ecological art are topics that she sees herself devoted to researching in the coming years.


[1] Freedomhouse, “New Report: The Global Decline in Democracy Has Accelerated,” accessed October 15, 2021,

[2] For examples, see Ernesto Gallo and Giovanni Biava, “Western Democracy: Decline And…,” accessed October 20, 15, 2021,; Simon Evans, “Decline of Western Democracy,” accessed October 20, 2021,; Ishaan Tharoor, “Democracy Is in Decline around the World — and Trump Is Part of the Problem,” Washington Post, March 5, 2020.

[3] For a detailed analysis on the topic, see Ryan Brading, “Taiwan’s Millennial Generation: Interests in Polity and Party Politics,” Journal of current Chinese affairs 46, no. 1 (2017): 131-66.

[4] For discussions on electoral authoritarianism, see Yonatan L. Morse, “The Era of Electoral Authoritarianism,” World politics 64, no. 1 (2012): 161-98; Michael K. Miller, “The Strategic Origins of Electoral Authoritarianism,” British journal of political science 50, no. 1 (2020): 17-44.

[5] The name “1450” came from Taiwan government’s plan to allocate NT$14.5 million in 2019 to employ editors to “correct” information on the internet. See Lingzhi Fan, “Taiwan Dpp’s Dark “Online Army” Underbelly in Misinformation Campaign,” Global Times, accessed October 20, 2021,

[6] As late as August 2021, the author still saw Wuhan pneumonia being used to refer to COVID-19 in clinics that she visited. This has also been the case with some newspapers; for example, Taiwan’s Liberty Times used Wuhan pneumonia for COVID-19 in its news report on Mass Burial on August 26, 2021.

[7] Chen Chieh-jen’s talk on August 28, 2021 as part of first panel of “Mass Night Talk.”

[8] Lawrence Chung, “Critics Ask Why Taiwan’s Covid-19 Death Rate Is above Global Average,”  accessed October 20, 2021,; Qi Wang and Yameng Lu, “DPP’s Pursuit of Political Interests Comes at Cost of People’s Lives Amid Rampant Covid-19 Situation,” Global Times, accessed October 20, 2021,

[9] See Michael Bristow, “Taiwan Must Choose between Virus and Politics,” accessed October 20, 2021,; Wang and Lu, “DPP’s Pursuit of Political Interests;” Shasha Chen, “Taiwan Leader Mocked for Rushing to Thank Us, Japan for Vaccine Donation,” Global Times, accessed October 20, 2021,

[10] Global Times, “Experts Criticize the DPP in Taiwan for ‘Putting Politics before Epidemic Management’,”  Global Times, accessed October 20, 2021,

[11] Ralph Jennings, “Back from Quarantine in China, Taiwanese Fear Discrimination at Home,” Global Times, accessed October 20, 2021,; Taipei Times, “Editorial: Virus Discrimination Continues,” Taipei Times, April 1, 2020, p. 8.

[12] Public programs for Mass Burial actually lasted 9 days from August 28th, 2021 to September 5th, 2021. The 10th day, September 6th, was for the organizers to uninstall and clean the site.

[13] The author obtained a copy of the CFP that was circulated by the organizers via WeChat.

[14] Wuo is also a researcher at Taiwan International Workers Association and a former faculty member of Tainan National University of the Arts (he just retired from the university in early August 2021).

[15] Hsieh’s work has been included in many large-scale exhibitions worldwide and he represented Taiwan for the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2006 and again for Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2009.

[16] Chen’s work has been shown at many international art exhibitions such as Venice Biennale, San Paul biennale, Liverpool Biennial, Kwangju Biennial, Shanghai Biennial, and Yokohama Triennale as well as at many photography festivals worldwide.

[17] Chen received the award in 2009, Hsieh in 2012, and Wang in 2019.

[18] Chung began his practice of people’s theater in Taiwan around 1990, taking inspiration from people’s theater in South Korea and southeast Asian region that he visited. Among the first theater artists to do so, Chung can be seen as the founding figure of People’s Theater Movement in Taiwan, a theatrical practice that centers on the participation of ordinary people as actors to tell their stories, express their griefs, and expose social problems.

[19] Quoted from Youngie Wuo, “Mass Burial: Cultural in Action,” accessed November 2, 2021,

[20] Mass Burial has a Facebook page that live-broadcasted most of its programs:

[21] For controversy over the vaccine, see Hui-chung Chiang, Chang Ming-hsuan, and Emerson Lim, “Autopsy on Medigen Vaccine Recipient Shows He Died of Aortic Dissection,” Focus Taiwan, accessed October 25, 2021,

[22] Cindy Wang and Stephen Stapczynski, “A $2 Billion Energy Project Threatens a 7,000 Year-Old Reef,”  accessed September 26, 2021,

[23] Mission Blue, “Datan Algal Reef in Taiwan Is Declared a Hope Spot in Support of Saving a Unique Ecosystem from Industrialization,” accessed September 26, 2021,

[24] Zixian Wu, “What About the Promise That the Algae Reefs Said to Last Forever?,” accessed September 26, 2021.

[25] Shu-ting Cheng, “Public Urged to Sign Petition on Algal Reefs Poll,” Taipei Times, February 24, 2021, p. 3.

[26] Liangting Guo, “Foreword: The Return of Cultural Activists,” accessed November 5, 2021.

[27] The titles of these panels are “From Mass Burial to Mass Tent: the Death and Rebirth of History and Culture,” “How Did the Cat Die? How did People Die?” “Stigma that Cannot Be Relieved,” “The Night for the Youth and the Song of Labors,” “The Death of Spatial Imagination,” and “Are Cultural Actions Useful? Dialogues among Artists, Social Activists, and the Marginalized.”

[28] Personal communication with Chung during the holding of Mass Burial.

[29] On May 19, 1949, the Governor of Taiwan Province and the Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of China enforced the “Order of Martial Law,” which remained effective for the next thirty-eight years until it was revoked by President Chiang Ching-kuo on July 15, 1987.

[30] For a discussion of Chen Chieh-jen’s art, see Pei-yi Lu, “Three Approaches to Socially Engaged Art in Taiwan,” Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art  15, no. 6 (2016): 91-99.

[31] See Wei Hsiu Tung, Art for Social Change and Cultural Awakening: An Anthropology of Residence in Taiwan (Blue Ridge Summit: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2013), 106-22; Pei-yi Lu, “Three Approaches.”

[32] Kristina Wong, “A4d Artist Talks – Total No Recall Edition – with Kristina Wong!,” streamed live on September 9, 2021,

[33] For details about the construction process, see People’s Architecture, “New Work: Mass Tent, the Tent for People,”

[34] For more about the concept and Hsieh’s work, see the official website of his architecture firm “Atelier-3 & Design for People Co.,Ltd.,”

[35] Xichen Qiu, “Mass Burial Reflects on the Injustice Associated with Covid-19 Pandemic,” CNEWS, August 30 2021.

[36] Xichen Qiu, “Mass Burial Reflects on the Injustice Associated with Covid-19 Pandemic,” CNEWS, August 30 2021.

[37] Chung Hsiu-mei, in communication with author via Wechat, September 20, 2021.

[38] Mass Burial Facebook page, posted on August 30, 2021.

[39] Mass Burial Facebook page, posted on August 30, 2021.

[40] Mass Burial Facebook page, posted on August 28, 2021.

[41] Chen’s talk on August 28, 2021. Historical consciousness with a clear sense of what they are doing is making history for the future is not only presented in the effort to record every program of Mass Burial, but also is expressively remarked by the organizers in their publicity materials.

[42] Composed by Fan Zhenguo, writer and executive editor of the short-lived but highly influential magazine Human World (Ren Jian Magazine) of the 1980s. Mass Burial Facebook page, posted on August 31, 2021.

[43] Mass Burial Facebook page, posted on August 28, 2021.

[44] Tseng Chi-ming gave every night’s performance a subtitle and named the whole series Exhaust-Bestow (jin-yu), while Mirror-Voice (jing-yu) became a subtitle for the opening night’s performance on August 28, 2021. Since Mirror-Voice was the first among the series that he conceived and all other subtitles were created as its homophones, I still use it as the title for the series.

[45] Tseng Chi-ming, in interview with author, July 12, 2021.

[46] Tseng Chi-ming, in interview with author, July 12, 2021.

[47] The number 100 connotes two meanings: one is to mark the hundredth day of the level-3 security lockdown in Taiwan; two is to indicate many, as in Chinese culture one hundred means “all of them.”

[48] This idiom can be traced back to Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty in the 3rd century BC. Legend has it that he had a mirror that could show the good or evil of a person; it has become customary for government officials to have a mirror or a plaque with the character mingjing gaoxuan hanging in their public office to proclaim their integrity

[49] As late as August 23, 2021, less than 40 percent of the population in Taiwan has received a first dose and less than 4 percent was fully vaccinated. See Vincent Chao, “Moving Past Taiwan’s Zero-Tolerance Approach,” August 30, 2021,

[50] Katharine Viner, “How Technology Disrupted the Truth,” The Guardian, accessed October 30, 2021,

[51] See Timothy S. Rich, Madelynn Einhorn, and Isabel Eliassen, “Taiwan: The Age-Old Question of Who Gets a Vote,” accessed October 30, 2021,

[52] Chung-li Wu and Tzu-ping Liu, “Political Participation in Taiwan,” in The Taiwan Voter, eds. Christopher H. Achen and T. Y. Wang (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017), 258; Brading, “Taiwan’s Millennial Generation,” 133-36.

[53] Kwangyin Liu, Teng Kai-yuan, and Kang Chen-gang, “Why Are Taiwan’s Housing Prices Soaring?,” CommonWealth Magazine 736, November 19, 2021,; Economist Intelligence, “Taiwan’s Property Quagmire,” accessed November 28, 2021,; Roy Ngerng, “Taiwan’s Wages Are So Low Because Business Profits Are Too High,” The News Lens, September 29, 2021,

[54] The pressures that young people endure nowadays was brought up in several mass night talks, including “The Night for the Youth and the Song of Labors,” “The Death of Spatial Imagination,” and “Are Cultural Actions Useful? Dialogues among Artists, Social Activists, and the Marginalized.”

[55] As a matter of fact, several artists of the Mass Burial and a number of its organizers have participated in the one-month street protest, entitled “2021 Autumn Battle: Oppose dictatorship! Defend democracy! Fight for referendums!”, between November 13 and December 12, 2021. Artist Tseng Chi-ming is among those who would walk for 30 days by foot from Pingtung county, the southern tip of Taiwan, all the way up north to Taipei as part of the social and environmental activists’ effort to call for public to vote for referendums that aim to protect the algal reef in Datan village and ban the import of Additive-Fed US Pork, among others. The referendums were held in Taiwan on December 18, 2021.