Visualizing Transnational Christianity in Cold War Taiwan: Traces and Possibilities 

Written by Joseph W. Ho 

Photo courtesy of Joseph W. Ho

Repeated handling has worn the photograph album’s thick black pages to a soft texture. Its covers fared somewhat better, with the front bearing a still-recognizable colour image of rowboats drifting near Taichung’s famed Mid-Lake Pavilion (湖心亭). Smelling faintly of mildew – an olfactory remnant of humid environments it once inhabited – the album is a time capsule. One of several assembled by a Chiayi-based family from the late 1940s onward, it is a material fragment of larger historical collisions. The black-and-white and fading colour photographs that fill the album are visual traces of experiences bridging Taiwan, Mainland China, and the Chinese diaspora in the first decades of the East Asian Cold War.  

At the same time, the album contains visual references to other identities. An early-1960s photograph depicts a sunglasses-wearing foreign Roman Catholic bishop, accompanied by a smiling principal and men in crisp suits and clerical garb, reviewing columns of saluting Taiwanese middle-school boys in military-style uniforms. Two of those boys, with unsmiling expressions beyond their years, stand at attention for their parents’ cameras in other images. In the background of one photograph, a bulletin board denotes their institution as the Catholic Fu Jen Junior High School in Chiayi (嘉義縣私立輔仁初級中學). Photographs made later that decade depict groups of middle-aged women gathering in the courtyard of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church (嘉義七苦聖母堂) in the same city. Some smiling and others serious, their expressions reflect the joys and struggles of a growing community in religious and gendered terms. These are the eclectic photographs of a Chinese Christian waishengren family setting down roots in Taiwan across the 1950s and 1960s. 

Their experience was far from isolated. The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the Nationalist government’s retreat to Taiwan put diasporic movements of missionaries and Chinese Christians out of Mainland China into motion. As connections between global religious institutions and local groups were severed or radically transformed, photographs and other vernacular visual materials of (and by) participants in the exodus represented nostalgic perceptions of diverging histories: those left behind on the Mainland and those coming into being in Taiwan or elsewhere. By “freezing time” during dramatic historical change, these materials mediated imagined hopes for the survival of communities torn apart and simultaneously remade by the Chinese Civil War and Cold War realignments.  

Beyond visual representation alone, images and cameras – as artefacts and devices with physical engagements – travelled with people, entered personal and collective memories, and structured performative gestures. Sitting for portraits, bringing a camera to a gathering, examining photographs with loved ones or colleagues, projecting slides for group viewing, and all the actions associated with creating and circulating images carried diverse meanings in this history – whether for fractions of a second or lifetimes of seeing and imagining. 

This exploration of overlaps between missionary, indigenous, and transnational visualities began with my recent book, Developing Mission: Photography, Filmmaking, and American Missionaries in Modern China (Cornell University Press, 2021). In it, I illuminate visual and historical conditions in Republican China and its transnational Christian communities that gave rise to these later Taiwan-based trajectories. Mobile modern photographic and filmmaking technologies enabled missionaries and Chinese Christians to build transpacific religious and media networks across the first half of the twentieth century. Visual cultures – distilled in materials as granular as individual photographs or as broad as cross-cultural ways of seeing war and peace – mediated relationships between image-makers, subjects, and audiences. In the process, people and images constructed modern imaginations of the present while looking toward uncertain futures existing between nations and Christian groups as well as local and international histories.  

These pre-1949 identities and image-making developed well beyond the period from which they grew. My next book project – in which Christianity in Taiwan is one of several key themes – explores the evolution of these visual cultures in parallel with popular conceptions of Nationalist “Free China,” the “loss of China” in US consciousness, and contemporary negotiations of Taiwanese identities. Vernacular media and identities framed ground-level Taiwanese experiences between “Christian arcs of containment” and “wayfaring” (as conceptualized by photographer Chang Chao-tang 張照堂), bridging national upheaval and communal diaspora. Private and public performances of image-making, religious projects, and family experiences and memories surface in the fragmentary afterlives of visual assemblages that emerged from this period. Together, such images and image-making are futurity artefacts created by transnational communities and projected onto their existences in an evolving Taiwan. 

These were broadly shared transnational experiences. As the family in Chiayi tripped the shutter on their twin-lens-reflex camera, waited for negatives to develop, and pasted the finished prints (their own and others collected from friends and family) into their albums, other members of Catholic communities in Taiwan were doing similar things as well. While engaged in shared photographic processes and local environments, some of them did not necessarily navigate cultural and political belonging in the same way. They were Jesuit missionaries from the United States and other countries, documenting life and work in Taiwan across the 1950s–1970s with their own cameras. Their visual production was collectively coloured by echoes of universalistic documentary imaging, Cold War anticommunism (superficial and serious), and the humanization of postcolonial Christian internationalism. Some, like Fr. Frederic J. Foley (傅良圃), Fr. John J. Dahlheimer, and other Taiwan-based colleagues, produced hundreds of thousands of images, most with very high technical and artistic qualities. These included Kodachrome colour slides, black-and-white negatives in 35mm and medium format, print media, and 16mm and 8mm movies with largely unpublished content that extended beyond Taiwan, including Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.  

The Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at Boston College and the Jesuit Archives and Research Center in St. Louis, Missouri, hold many of these materials. Unfortunately, most have largely escaped scholarly attention until now. For example, the Ricci Institute’s archival staff discovered over 84,000 of Foley’s negatives during the institute’s move from San Francisco to Boston in the spring of 2022. Yet, these sources are only those of Jesuits originating in the US. More images by other Catholic and Protestant communities in twentieth-century Taiwan wait in the archives of church groups, educational institutions, and national holdings worldwide. These are exciting research challenges and possibilities that I have faced before. I hope others may join in pursuing them as well. 

All said much work remains to be done in recovering these layered experiences and visual materials. Photographs and films by missionary makers are more visible in the archival record, but what about those of countless private families – like the one whose images are described above – whose lives linked Cold War Chinese diasporas with Taiwanese Christianity? What may be said about specific aesthetics and cultural politics with which waishengren, benshengren, and foreign interlocutors engaged while creating their images? What other stories, now hidden in closed albums and unseen frames, may be found in bringing such visual media back into literal and scholarly focus? As this research unfolds, we may see more ways in which modern Taiwan’s multilayered histories – and the place of global Christianity in them – are written in shades of light. 

Joseph W. Ho is Assistant Professor of History at Albion College and Center Associate at the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan. He is coeditor of War and Occupation in China (Lehigh University Press, 2017) and author of Developing Mission (Cornell University Press, 2021).

This article was published as part of a special issue on christianity in Taiwan.

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