The Invisible Armada

Taiwan – or the return of the “cargo cult”

Alain Brossat




Of all the fantasies produced by the imagination of the reconstructors of Taiwan's past, one of the most entertaining is undoubtedly this: the island as part and parcel, since time immemorial, of a spectral "Austronesian Empire" extending from Southeast Asia to Madagascar, including the vast maritime expanses of the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, with their innumerable and diverse island and archipelagic populations... The metamorphosis of the notion of cultural area, understood here in its broadest sense, the most vague and foreign to any condition of historicity, in that of empire has, in this fable, a distinct vocation: to erase on the magic slate of History all that which, in a solid, massive and tangible way, links the past as well as the present of Taiwan to the Chinese world – population, customs, language(s), culture, political history, etc.

Fantasy, however, distinctly submissive here to ideology, can place itself unexpectedly and unintentionally in the service of truth: if one absolutely insists that Taiwan, for reasons of pure political expediency, move away from Mainland China and is getting closer to Melanesia, Oceania, if we must at all costs find arguments that support this grossly revisionist thesis, then here is one: the Republic of China is today, in its political,social and cultural life,  the most exemplary living museum imaginable of what some anthropologists have called the "cargo cult".


What is the "cargo cult" - a hotly contested notion, as we shall see? A mimetic behavior directly resulting from colonization and which would have appeared at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century throughout Melanesia, with the exception of New Caledonia colonized by the French. A collective behavior that would have quickly spread among the Aborigines of the Melanesian islands and archipelagos, then progressively erased after the Pacific  War, except in certain parts of the New Hebrides (today Vanuatu).

The “cargo cult” would therefore be rites consisting, for example, in imitating the gestures and procedures implemented by US and Japanese military radio operators during supply operations for troops landed on the islands (by airplanes -freighters or boats). By extension, this would be a set of ritualized mimetic behaviors consisting in imitating the techniques and forms of the culture of the occupants, in the hope of thus producing the same effects, this against the backdrop of millenarian beliefs.

The natives are supposed to be unaware of the background (the methods of production, transport) of the provision of the goods which are landed on their islands. They would be inclined to see in it the effect of a divine favor. The cult would pay homage to this favor and aim to perpetuate it. The natives would only be able to perceive the sudden surge of this manna as the effect of a providence. In other words, according to one observer, the natives could not imagine the economic system which was hidden behind the bureaucratic routine and the displays of the shops, nothing suggested that the whites made their own goods. They were not seen working the metal or making the clothes and the natives could not guess the industrial processes by which these products were made. All they saw was the arrival of ships and planes... (Peter Lawrence Road Belong Cargo, 1964).


Of course, the motif of the “cargo cult” is a notion coined by anthropologists, it is  intended to account for practices that are as diverse as they are dispersed in space and time. This "cult" presents, in the description and analysis practiced by anthropologists, syncretic characteristics, resulting from the combination of heterogeneous elements: the proselytism of Christian missionaries in the 19th century, the profusion of material goods and technical equipment arriving by boat and plane, especially during the War in the Pacific, and finally ancestral beliefs and myths, those of the indigenous populations. What is therefore referred to with the generic expression “cargo cult” therefore results from the meeting, arrangement or amalgamation of all these disparate elements.

The promoters of this notion put forward, when they analyze the practical forms of the “cargo cult”, two elements: imitation and prophecy . The indigenous populations imitated the conduct of the whites or, during the war, of the Japanese occupiers, and expected from this imitation results similar to those produced by the acts and gestures of foreigners – the provision of a profusion of consumer goods or 'equipment. Ignoring everything, according to the promoters of the concept of the "cargo cult", of the production chain and the logistical apparatus (long circuits of great complexity) that presupposes the unloading of a profusion of consumer goods on their island, they would be inclined to place this event under the sign of a divine action, in response to a request addressed to it by the beneficiaries of this contribution. The "cargo cult", interpreted in this sense, is "magical thinking" substituted for a rational knowledge of the long chains of causes and effects, of calculations and regulated actions whose outcome is that these trucks make, one day, their appearance on the island.


The "cargo cult" would have experienced a remarkable boom at the end of the Pacific War, when the natives, observing the direct relationship that was established between the actions of the radio-operators in their cabins and the landing or parachuting of food and medicine, would have undertaken to build fake radio operator cabins, equipped with fictitious sets, with fake microphones, in which they too would have asked for the delivery of desired goods. This mimetic conduct would have sometimes extended to the construction of false landing strips intended for the planes thus summoned.

During the 20th century, these magical behaviors are, according to anthropologists, often intertwined with messianic movements, some of which carry anti-colonialist aspirations.


Beyond the observations (made by anthropologists and other travellers) of mimetic behavior that occurred during the encounter between newcomers from societies with high industrial and technological development and indigenous populations, the theoretical shaping of the "cult of cargo" is questionable and has been challenged by other anthropologists specializing in this region of the Pacific. This is because it is based on a binary opposition between instrumental reason and magical thought, that is, ultimately, between “developed” and “primitive”. The motif of imitation, inspired by magical thinking, where knowledge of the complex processes of production and delivery of desired goods is lacking, can tend to accredit the notion of a hierarchy between certain cultures which would have access to complexity thought and others for which, precisely, magical thought would be the recourse against the absence of it. Now, as Claude Lévi-Strauss, among others, has shown, “savage thought” is anything but simplistic thought, quite the contrary, as shown by the study of myths, cosmologies and forms of practical  knowledge or of social organization of the first peoples is often based on extremely complex taxonomies and combinations.


More than a theory strictly speaking and even less a "scientific" theory, disputed by certain specialists of the cultures of the region (Jean Guiart, in the French-speaking field, among others), the "cargo cult" would rather have, for researchers, but also scientists, artists, writers, filmmakers, even observers of political life, the status of a stimulating metaphor , a strong image and a "beautiful story", capable of boosting, by association, our reflections over a whole dimension of the present. It is very precisely under this regime of association and flexible stimulation that I will evoke here what presents itself before our eyes as a comeback, against the grain of a (supposed) linear historical progress, of the "cult of the cargo" - in Taiwan today.


The reference situation is not (yet) that of an occupation of the island occurring in a context of war; it is rather that of a long-term mental occupation which has been considerably reinforced since the return to power of the DPP, promoter of a policy of confrontation with China and unconditional alignment with the United States [1]. In this context where the ruling elites and the upper middle class are more and more massively placed under the influence of a desire for full and complete inclusion in the field of the global North (placed under the hegemony of the United States) , the motif of performative imitation becomes determinant. It is, in an ever more imperious, thoughtless, mechanical way that the magical behaviors of imitation of the mentor, the adoption of his ways, his style, his uses and procedures tend to become among these ruling elites. a second nature. It is from these mimetic behaviors that they expect irreversible advances in the integration of Taiwan into the field of liberal democracy, of the white-centric Western camp.

The "cargo cult" is identified here, as a singular form, with the passion for shortcuts and simplifications associated with it: those who give themselves up to it do not wonder about the particular and general, immediate and distant reasons for which they will be carried to adopt such and such a decision or conduct, they are only interested in the expected effects, in the instant or almost and they associate with them the most emaciated of prophecies - the tomorrows that sing of the promotion of Taiwan to the rank of model Asian democracy. The "cargo cult" is here the fetishism of manna , which is expected to be granted, in return for appropriate mimetic conduct.

This is the case with the haunting and proliferating motif of the miraculous metamorphosis of Taiwan into a bilingual nation, land blessed by the gods of democracy and globalization united, and whose society would have converted to English, as one man, like those populations of the Pacific Islands converted to Christianity by skilful and persevering missionaries.

This is, of course, an empty slogan, a paper objective whose unrealism is obvious, as if a population traversed by all sorts of linguistic, historical and cultural complexities could, with a snap of the fingers , convert from top to bottom and from bottom to top, to the language of hegemony, of the protector and master. The way the promoters of this magic behavior argue about it is typical for a cargo cult mentality and mindset : they are never interested in the complexities and difficulties associated with a such a project, in the cultural challenges associated with this undertaking, but exclusively in the expected immediate benefits: economic advantages above all, English being the language of international business, but also political, English being the language of the hegemonic power, and, supposedly, that of the Western camp, of global democracy.


However, if there is a complicated question par excellence , it is that of a long-term linguistic policy, of the relationship between a given population and a language or languages, of linguistic exchanges between peoples and nations, of their circulation between languages, etc. – anyone familiar with life on university campuses in Taiwan is aware of the very great difficulties that still and always face, today, the goal of equipping new generations of students with a passable command of English...  


"Taiwan, a bilingual nation in 2030" is not a prospect, a project that we could be achieved by appropriate means, it is a gimmick , a magic formula from which its promoters expect a miracle: a kind of fusion attested by the language between the protege and the protector, the irreversible transformation of the current cultural and political status, still uncertain and oscillating, of Taiwan torn between everything that links its population and history to the Chinese world and its allegiance to the United States, into a new condition - its irreversibly belonging to the camp of white-centric and Western-centric world democracy.

It is indeed a rite, an operation of magic (white in this case) that those who advertise it intend to transform them, by incorporating the language of the other (the master and protector here ) into Westerners by proxy and honorary Whites, into model students of liberal democracy.

The shortcoming of magical thinking is obviously glaring here: it consists in the ignorance of the fact that the mastery of a language by an individual or by a collective is not something that is acquired like that of a technology or, a fortiori , as one procures an expensive commodity; that a language is not just a medium intended to facilitate economic exchanges and political alliances; that the familiarization of a population with a globalized language with which it is devoid of any organic link, a priori , is necessarily based on slow and assiduous a process of acculturation, immersion, familiarization, hybridization which can only be part of over a long period – a long and complex process, as it calls into question the habitus, the representations and the forms of life of the population concerned – in short, the complete opposite of an innovation that can be implemented by the effect of a decree emanating from the top of the State [2]. What is interesting, in this  flight into the imagination, is the combination of the pathetic aspiration to align itself with the (supposed) language of hypermodernity with the roughest, the most primitive of mimetic movements.


The frenzied "cargo-cultists" who, in Taiwan today, are the promoters of the magic operation par excellence consisting in establishing a line of equality between the conversion of the population of the island to English (or rather : inculcation, grafting of this hegemonic language on this population) and definitive separation of Taiwan from China, (ergo become-western-democratic of the island) only mimic  what was once the natural and brutal gesture of their favorite enemies: the bureaucracy of the Kuomintang whose first concern was, when it set foot on the island in the aftermath of Japan's defeat, to unceremoniously impose Mandarin as the official, administrative language, language of the education system; this, without worrying about sparing a population which, in its great majority, did not master it and practiced Japanese in its relations with the authority.

But at least the Mandarin thus imported and imposed as the language of the new master, substituted overnight for Japanese, was  not entirely foreign to the culture and linguistic customs of the local populations – Taiwanese, Hakka are also “Chinese” idioms, belonging to the same linguistic domain as Mandarin. The abrupt transition from Japanese to Mandarin, as the language of authority, of the State, of the new master results from a classic state authoritarianism destined to harden into despotism with the arrival on the island of the “nationalist” military apparatus, after his defeat on the mainland. This operation could rely on the installation in Taiwan of hundreds of thousands of mainlanders who practice Mandarin and who did relay it. The inconsistent reverie of an importation or an inculcation of English in each Taiwanese home, in the instant of a small decade (on the scale of the life of a people) is of another species. again: people of all walks of life are supposed to learn to use English when circumstances demand it (in other words: when dealing with Westerners, whites, as a rule) like their parents and grandparents acquired, in earlier phases, radio- and then TV sets. But that is precisely magical thinking and the cargo cult in its native splendor – believing that one can appropriate a language as a mere accessory, a tool of common use, even a commodity.


The system of mores is at stake here as it is with the stakes of language (or languages). The conditions under which same sex marriage was adopted in Taiwan, in the most expeditious way, under the impetus of the ruling circles and a fraction of the intellectual and cultural elites come from the same background of magical thought as the hazy reverie of a massive conversion of a population which, for the most part, is already bilingual, even trilingual (Mandarin, Hokklo and sometimes Hakka or an aboriginal language) to the current use of English. The adoption of “marriage for all” has been the object of a soft coup, under the impulse of these feverish rulers and against the dispositions of the majority of the people, this, for distinctly political and ideological reasons; that is to say under the effect of a compulsion to align with a norm bearing the cutting-edge mark of Western democracy – the new clothes of a new tolerance, the magic formula of gender equality, the flagship measure of the new civilization of mores naturally embodied by the white elite of the Global North.


The adoption of same sex marriage in Taiwan did not come to conclude or complete an intense and in-depth social debate, a reflection or an in-depth introspection on the foundations of the civilization of customs in the island (distinctly patriarchal, conservative, often imbued with puritanism, with all the hypocrisy that goes with it) [3]. It resulted, in the most distinct way, from a mimetic gesture and a magical operation consisting in the fabrication of a flattering narrative: being the first country in East Asia to adopt same sex marriage, Taiwan can only be an enlightened, exemplary democracy, the advanced bastion of the civilization of mores in Western style, in this region of the world.

The pseudo-reasoning here at work is based on the same type of shortcut as those that we have seen deployed in operations consisting in manufacturing imitations of transmitter sets in the hope of seeing a whole providential manna spread on the island: same sex marriage  - which concerns only a tiny part of the population and whose sociology is very marked (urban middle class, young, with high social and cultural capital) - entered the body of the law – ergo Taiwan is the most decorative, the most exemplary of Asian democracies...

So, then, who cares about those tiny shadows on the picture that are the death row where interminably rot, as in Japan, those condemned to the death penalty, always inflicted in a mode that is both arbitrary and opportunistic, the innumerable established and informal discriminations of which the victims are immigrant workers, restrictions on fundamental rights, a heavy legacy of the dictatorship, never challenged by the pro-US and pro-independance neo-liberals now in business (massive restrictions on the right to strike, in the public service in particular), the structural attacks on civil liberties (cameras everywhere and, in full swing, the witch hunt orchestrated by political authority and the media, in the context of anti-Chinese hysteria) - not to mention the devastation of the environment today pursued with unfailing enthusiasm?


The persistence of an updated form of the cargo cult  in Taiwan, with the unbridled mimetic behavior that it induces, has a distinct foundation: it is obviously a question of recourse against uncertainties, the vagueness of identity - Taiwan being, both for historical and cultural reasons, a composite space, resulting from the assembly of all sorts of heterogeneities; but it is above all a question of trying to reduce the complex, the multiple, which results from long, often tormented processes of hybridization, acculturation, arrangement of heterogeneous elements, from formation of situations of compromise to the conditions of the greatest of simplicity - Taiwan, a vibrant democracy and, as such, an exemplary enclave of the liberal West in the South China Sea.

Magical thinking here, acclimated to the conditions of the new Cold War in this part of the world, is the passion for the simplified, for the reduction of the complex to its simplest expression. What makes Taiwan a fascinating and endearing entity, as much from the point of view of its human geography as of its culture and its history, of the vertiginous arrangements of the hypermodern on the traditional and the immemorial which are observed there, is precisely everything that attests to the complexity of the montages, the stratifications, the disparities that have shaped the landscape of the present there: the sometimes vertiginous arrangements between men and gods,  sentences begun in one language and continued in another, the overlappings between the immemorial and certain forms of hyper-Westernization, etc...[4]

Recourse to cargo cult is what is intended to reduce these contrasts and these paradoxes to the conditions of advertising and propagandist formulas simplified to the extreme; which aims to manufacture fake identity of the lowest quality and intended to bring the island into the boxes of the new Cold War, in the position of client and subordinate of the American big brother.

The greater the discontinuities in Taiwanese history, the greater the identity uncertainties there and the more there is today the temptation to create a tailor-made molar and compact identity – with the expected benefits in terms of legitimacy – Taiwan, darling of Western democracy in East Asia, with this ideal, this inconsistent prophecy: the island would be called upon to become, in the field of geopolitics and the strategic issues at stake in the region, the Israel of the Far East [5].


In conditions of colonial oppression or of a totally asymmetrical encounter between indigenous populations and over-equipped and invading arrivals, the mimetic gestures and rites, stories and beliefs subsumed under the generic title of the cargo cult can be, for the indigenous people, recourses or tactics founding a resistance to the occupation and the disruption of their living spaces. Hence the importance of the messianic stories, of the prophecies in the stories more or less directly arranged on the supposed "cult".

In the conditions of the cargo cult revisited and updated in Taiwan today, something quite different is at stake: the compulsion to imitate there doesn't emanate from a desire for emancipation or an act of resistance, but it results from a project of subordination, from an impulse of subalternity - to become a protectorate of the United States, having definitively broken the bridges, all the bridges, which could connect the island to the Chinese continent, a protected space magically transported by this very fact to the latitudes of the Western world, having adopted the mores and linguistic uses – so many operations bearing the distinct mark of flight into the imaginary.

Mimetic behaviors, in this context, lose all scope of open or surreptitious diversion, are devoid of any dimension of tactics of dodging and the search for "secondary benefits", implemented by the oppressed in the face of a conquering and overpowering newcomer. . They find themselves essentially reduced to the condition of servile and mechanical imitation associated with the obtaining of illusory benefits. The dark desire for occupation (rather than for an end to occupation) feeds the most childish of prophecies: Taiwan would be called upon to become a new Hawaii, an advanced bastion of democratic civilization on the first chain of defense of the West facing China... It is, if one dares to say, the good old image of the unsinkable carrier firmly anchored in the China Sea (MacArthur...) which returns, carried in the sides of the… cargo - a poor and illusory prophecy, for the good reason that what is thus “promised” by the gods of democracy is more likely to be a Ukraine in flames than a prosperous Silicon Valley – a daydream already outdated, by the way – the poisoned gift of the big brother and supposed protector...


Over time, the mentality, the automatisms of the cargo cult have become deeply rooted in Taiwan not only in the attitudes and behavior of the governing elites but also, from top to bottom, in society: people "Westernize" themselves by imitation , most often futile and superficial, in a consumerist mode, in small as in big things. They borrow as feverishly as mechanically from the "folklore" of Western societies, they "celebrate" Haloween and Christmas by transforming these popular feasts into trade fairs, and ignoring everything of the cultural or religious background of these festivities in Western societies. [6].

In the same vein, the higher one occupies in Taiwan in the social and cultural hierarchy, the greater one's cultural capital, and the more one is willing to sprinkle one's speech with English words and expressions, a bit like the elegant like to wrap themselves in a cloud of French perfume... In the university environment, an invisible border, but nevertheless perfectly identifiable for a trained eye, separates those who, having spent many years preparing their thesis in the United States, Great Britain or Australia, practice an English more or less fluent from all the others, including those who, having studied in Germany, France or Japan, speak and read the languages of these countries [7]. This invisible boundary establishes an equally implicit but nonetheless functional hierarchy. Those who teach at university and “have a problem” with English suffer from a perpetual complex with those who are at ease with this language. We have there, in this thumbnail, a summary of the general situation: the cargo cult has its losers, as well as its winners [8]...

[1]An obscure desire for occupation, that is to say for the open transformation of Taiwan into a vast base of the United States against China, manifests itself more and more openly among those who advocate of an armed confrontation with China.

[2]It could be that the first signs of the acclimatization of the cargo cult in Taiwan appeared with the adoption by the middle class of the now customary "by-bye", as it punctuates the most common interactions in the daily life of the island, "by-bye", therefore, rather than its equivalent in Chinese language, "tai'chen"... We can see in the adoption of this keyword a magical behavior intended to mark the passage of the island from one world to another, a way of symbolically mooring in the Western world, of casting off with the Chinese world. It would be necessary to establish a genealogy as precise as possible of its adoption – at the time, one can imagine, when Formosa was used as a base of rest for the American soldiers engaged in the dirty wars of Korea then of Vietnam; it would be necessary to study the way in which it imposes itself as a mark of a distinction, over the amplification of circulations between the island and the United States, at the time, already, of the dictatorship. It should be noted that as it migrates towards the Taiwanese linguistic and phonological universe, the expression borrowed from the English language undergoes a marked inflection – no longer "bye-bye", pronounced with the "American" accent, Australian English ... - but indeed, in its immediately identifiable particular form, with its slightly languorous, nonchalant accentuation, a formula entirely remodeled to the conditions of linguistic usage and local customs. This simple example clearly shows the extent to which any linguistic borrowing, any migration of a term, of an expression from one language to another presupposes a whole process of transformation, reacclimatization, taming and redeployment. "By-bye" has become one of the most common words of the various idioms practiced in Taiwan, which, while condensing undoubtedly something essential of the evolution of the situation of the island since the Second World War and of the collective historical imagination of its population, in no way prejudges the possibility of making it overnight a land of choice for Chinese-English bilingualism... What matters above all for our purposes is the special touch of expression as it is practiced on the island and from which one immediately recognizes a Taiwanese, unlike any other kind of... Chinese.

[3]In Taiwan, today as yesterday, the most glorious careers in politics, art, sport (etc.) can come crashing down on the pitfall of a banal affair of adultery... The progress of the civilization of morals is therefore of variable geometry, which highlights the character of same sex marriage as an ideological gadget for everyone – at least in part.

[4]I note this photo, in the Taipei Times of the day (21/03/2023): police officers, very busy preparing a tribute (in the form of gifts in kind, pastries, fruits...) to a deity "who helped them to solve a case”... Usually, what helps the police to “solve a case” in Taiwan is the omnipresence of high quality cameras... A wonderful combination, in that... case, of tradition and hypermodernity...

[5]For an observer from France, the identity uncertainties and stratifications that arise in Taiwan irresistibly evoke the historical destiny of Alsace-Lorraine, with the perpetual oscillations of these two provinces between two "worlds" - Germany and France. Mimetic compulsions are inseparable from this uncomfortable condition – but at the origin of rich singularities at the same time. As the Alsatian Dadaist designer, painter and poet Hans (Jean) Arp said, “Alsace (…) is a country called to the highest destinies. It is the cleanest country in the world: it changes its shirt every thirty years (emphasis added, AB)”. This ironic definition applies perfectly to Taiwan (Jean Arp, Jours effeuillés, poèmes, essais, memoires , 1920-1965, Gallimard, 1966).

[6]Last Christmas, Taoyuan City traffic police were ordered to wear Santa Claus hats to add a festive touch to their duties..."We are cops, not clowns! objected some of them... For an anthropological approach to Santa Claus, see the classic book by Claude Lévi-Strauss: Le Père Noël supplicié , Seuil 1994 (based on an article published in Les Temps Modernes in 1952 ). The cargo cult is the importation of Santa Claus as a simple foil for end-of-year business, in all supermarkets and malls in Taiwan...

[7]Teachers able to give lessons in English receive a bonus. The symbolic and the "materialistic" operate their junction here...

[8]We could also mention the zeal with which the Taiwanese academic world has irreversibly converted, in the context of the Covid 19 pandemic, to the digital economy and all that accompanies it (courses, conferences, seminars, defenses of online theses, etc.) and has profoundly transformed the ways of doing things in the academic world – this, of course, under the impetus and in imitation of the American academic world, now inseparable from the giants of the digital economy and having become totally dependent on the internet...