label r shifted
Session B4
What does Civility Mean in the Taiwanese Context? An Ethnographic Inquiry Based on MRT Etiquette
Anru LEE
Department of Anthropology, The City University of New York, USA

Twenty years after its grand opening in the mid-1990s, the Taipei Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) System continues to be a favorite means of public transportation among metropolitan Taipei residents.  This paper argues the Taipei MRT has become a space wherein Taipei City residents (re)shape their collective identity against Taiwan’s shifting politics and within the ever-changing global economic context.  The knowledge derived from the shared sentiment of cultural intimacy among fellow passengers helped people in Taipei to construct a present self that is civilized and enlightened, separating from their politically repressive and unruly past.  It also reflects a shift of reference in metropolitan Taipei residents’ self-identification to an increasingly globalized world within which the Taiwanese economy is embedded.  They can now appraise their city and themselves on a global scale through omnipresent urban infrastructure like mass transit systems such as their MRT.  The convenience and punctuality of the Taipei MRT, the ease it has made of one’s daily commute, the extensive distance one can travel with it, its effect on Taipei streets and air quality, the gradual change in etiquette and behavior among metropolitan Taipei residents, and the transformation of Taipei’s civic culture in recent years are all part and parcel of the structure of feeling engendered by the Taipei MRT.  However, nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm.  The recent change in the civic culture relies on the cooperation of metropolitan Taipei residents.  As a matter of fact, in its media campaign to gain continual support for the various MRT regulations such as the eating/drinking ban, the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation appealed to the collective effort by the passengers to maintain a clean environment and the pride they take in the creation of a “quality culture” thereafter.  

Hohne (2015) reminds us in his discussion about the early days of the New York City subway that modern urban infrastructures are powerful devices for helping to establish and maintain subject formations.  Through this process individuals are constructed as desirable, predictable and conforming subjects, which allows them to be integrated into certain social, economic, and cultural orders.  Yet, the process of subjectification is also a highly contentious process wherein different ideas of what the subject of an infrastructure is – or should be – come into conflict, and it requires constant experimenting, inventing and aligning.  In the case of the Taipei MRT, for example, the renewed civic culture is both inclusive and exclusive.  Openly or privately, there is an at times subtle but unmistaken distinction made among denizens between those of “us” who know the code of conduct and therefore morally superior and those inadequate ones who do not have the knowledge.  Furthermore, in spite of the modern, contemporary, cosmopolitan and lawful outlook, there seems to be a sense of distrust towards fellow citizens.  The suggestion echoed throughout the internet by those opposing a no-drinking amendment that, once water is allowed, other kinds of drinks would soon be brought in illegally and mess up the subway environment is symptomatic to this cynicism.  The constant controversies about who should or should not sit on the MRT’s Priority Seats are another example.  Together, these raise the question:  If the Taipei MRT is considered as an embodiment of Taiwan’s latest civility and modernity, how should we characterize this civility and modernity?   Ultimately, controversies surrounding and issues raised by the MRT etiquette become a diagnostic tool to understand the concept of citizen or citizenship in Taiwanese society at large.