Spring 2002

ISSN 1473-219X





eCulture texts and urban cultural change in Taiwan: a view through the semiotic lens

Tim French,
University of Luton


Taiwan today appears to have reached a cultural and political crossroads. The island’s political destiny – ie, continued independence as a nation-state or, alternatively, absorption into greater China – will determine Taiwan’s future cultural identity and also re-define the complex and surprisingly diverse cultural influences which co-exist within the island today. (Copper, 1999) After the resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997 and the return of Macao in 1999, only Taiwan remains just beyond Beijing's reach. The election of President Chen Shui-bian in 2000, together with his Democratic People’s Party’s open support for Taiwanese autonomy from China (the so-called ‘two China’ model) has recently served to challenge Kuomintang (KMT) political orthodoxy and influence on the island. Recent national elections to the 5th legislative Yuan assembly have confirmed support for the DPP. (Gao, 2002) Local county elections have also demonstrated increased competition in the form of emergent parties such as the PFP (People First Party), who gained control of the counties of Taitung and Lienchang for the first time earlier this year.

Indeed, within Taiwan today, there are those who see reunification with China as desirable and inevitable through a process of convergence or assimilation (ie, those who support the so-called ‘one China’ model) as well as many who yearn for Taiwan to establish a fully independent identity. Taiwan has, since Japanese occupation of the island ended in 1945, sought to construct a viable postcolonial national identity by resisting American hegemony and Beijing’s growing regional power. Until recently this policy has served to validate KMT dominance of the island. However, this dominance and policy is now being increasingly challenged. (Fu-sheng, 2001) Taiwan achieved a notable political and economic milestone through accession to the WTO (World Trade Organisation) in October 2001. WTO membership is likely to increase the pace of cultural change through increased globalisation. A revised internal political agenda is now leading to active reinterpretation of some of the turbulent events that have shaped the island’s past, such as the so-called Feb. 28th incident. (see Edmonds et al, 2001 for a comprehensive 20th century retrospective) Regional Asia-Pacific influences are also playing an increasing role in defining the nation’s culture sense of national identity as part of a greater China. (Wilson, 2001)

Against this complex and enfolding pattern of events, we identify eCulture as a significant internal agent for change, particularly amongst urban populations, where the vast majority of Taiwanese reside. By eCulture we mean widespread access and use of various Internet-mediated forms of discourse, such as e-commerce. A brief description of Taiwan’s cultural heritage follows, in which we seek to place our informal semiotic analysis of exemplar web-site texts within an appropriate frame of reference.

We later include an all too brief mention of rural Taiwan, which is worthy of far more extensive treatment, but for reasons of space has had to be largely excluded from our analysis. Nevertheless, it is perhaps important to point out at this point that the ethnic composition of both urban and rural populations is uniquely diverse and includes: Hoklo and Hakka (native Taiwanese), nine aboriginal tribes and ‘mainlanders’ from every part of China. This ethnic and linguistic diversity has impacted on the nation’s postcolonial national identity and culture. Indeed, our examination of Taiwanese culture is perhaps timely, given the launch of a Government-led national initiative aimed at reviving cultural diversity in the context of WTO membership, including plans to create a ‘virtual’ Taiwan.

Taiwan’s cultural heritage

Taiwan prides itself in maintaining Chinese traditional cultural values. The National Palace Museum contains many thousands of fine Chinese cultural artefacts, dating from all periods of Chinese history, which were saved for posterity by nationalist forces fleeing mainland China. Unlike modern day China, Taiwan allows virtually complete freedom of religious worship. Consequently, we find Taoist, Buddhist as well as various native ‘folk’ religions happily co-existing with newer cults such as the controversial Falungong sect, which is banned in China. (Ownby, 2001; Taipei Review, 2001) Spirituality in its widest sense appears to be heavily embedded into the collective Taiwanese consciousness. Any casual visitor to Taiwan immediately notices the profusion of street temples. Many homes contain a simple religious shrine of some kind, and various local religious festivals and practices take place throughout the year such as the popular practice of burning ‘ghost money’, most notably during ‘ghost month’ (the lunar-month of July) and Chinese New Year.

Taiwan has so far resisted widespread penetration of English. Instead a wide variety of oral dialects remain intact. Traditional Mandarin is the preferred language of written communication, rather than the simplified form long since adopted by China. Traditional Mandarin is taught in schools and even today, university education is conducted almost exclusively in Mandarin. Taiwanese (a local oral dialect) is also widely used at all levels of society for day-to-day communication. However, we must be careful not to over-simplify. The diversity of socio-linguistic codes in Taiwan includes (at least) Taiwanese, Mandarin, Hakka and various aboriginal languages. Any casual visitor to Taipei notices immediately the absence of the English language since, apart from dual-language road-signs, there is little use of English on public display, even in downtown Taipei, or indeed, any of the major cities such as Taichung or Kaohsiung. Compared to many cities in South East Asia of similar size and importance, penetration of English language and culture is far less apparent. Rather, at a street level one is presented with rich local signification and vibrant local iconography, still showing little obvious influences of globalisation. (Cornberg, 1996)

The family unit in Taiwan is immensely significant, as in China. However, in contrast to China’s controversial one-child policies, large families have, until recently, been the norm. The family provides support in many ways including social and financial needs. It is commonplace for parents to save money to meet children’s study fees and similarly, children are expected to provide regular contributions to support their parents. The extended family concept traditionally influences choice of marriage partner, and sex before marriage is certainly not encouraged. Traditional gender roles and values of morality have heretofore been dominant, as have traditional women’s roles, though these are now changing rapidly.

Linguistically, spiritually, socially and culturally, Taiwan, as much as mainland China itself, therefore, can be seen in many ways be seen to represent cultural continuity for a Chinese cultural heritage, which has been continuously evolving and developing over the past several thousand years.

Times are changing: the rise of urban eCulture

eCulture is acting as a dynamic agent for change in Taiwan. Consequently, wide-ranging effects on society family and business are being reported. Taiwan has long been on early Internet adopter with usage reaching an estimated 35% of the entire population by March 20025. Global Brand signs such as McDonalds, Carrefour and Ikea have started to penetrate the Tapei City skyline and over 5000 cybercafes are now registered in Taiwan. Brand led hyper-consumerism has been identified as an area of concern, and is indeed, transforming urban shopping culture. (Miranda, 1999); Gao, 2001) Traditional family Confucian values of obedience and loyalty are more generally being questioned. The rigid and demanding Japanese-style university entrance exams, together with their vast cram-school culture are being increasingly challenged by calls for the adoption of more flexible and open Western models. (Mu-Lin, 2000)

Therefore, eCulture can be seen as an agent for change in several ways:

1. Traditional cultural values are being challenged by free access by the young to e-pornography within a country which still cherishes traditional sexual morality. Concerns have recently been raised concerning the rapid growth in the readership of highly explicit cartoons (known as porno-comics) commonly to be found in cartoon-lending shops. The rise in popularity of such texts is assumed to be linked to wider unregulated Internet access, particularly amongst the young. (Kao, 2001)

2. eBusiness is forcing rapid change, reform, and innovation in all forms of business including retail banking and eFinance. Most of Taiwan’s banks now offer Internet-mediated on-line bank account access using personal computers or mobile devices. Many Taiwan banks have recently adopted an XML (Extensible Markup Language) information architecture which facilitates impersonal business to business or business to consumer transactions, rather than supporting traditional Chinese trading models which value face-to-face business relationships based on guansxi collectivist ‘trust’ relationships. (Horng, 2001)

3. Youth culture is rapidly adopting new modes of behaviour, such as the explosive growth in cybercafes, where unregulated access to the Internet is exposing Taiwanese youth to a world culture not available to past generations. Youth culture is demanding cybercafes and coffeehouses rather than more traditional venues. Young people are relating increasingly to role models derived from USA or Japanese cultures, due to Internet exposure and adoption of fashionable mobile phone technologies.

4. Social and economic mpact: the effects of eCulture go far beyond the cultural domain. Many observers see Taiwan, as over-exposed economically to high-technology products and exports. Domestic initiatives such as the Hsinchu High-Tech Business Park account for much of the growth of such industries in recent years. The severity of the economic recession currently being experienced in Taiwan, is one indication of this over-exposure.

Countryside values and cultural diversity

The rural economy’s strong agricultural orientation supports a diverse mix of various indigenous ethnic groups, each with their own distinctive character. The Government is, after many years of repression, taking steps to actively support such aboriginal peoples. These groups include: the Yami people of Orchid Island, the Ami people of the rugged west coast, and the Paiwan of Southern Taiwan. Their geographical distribution shown below in Figure 1:

Figure 1. Geographical distribution of aboriginal groups

Whilst urban Taiwan may be rushing to embrace eCulture and high technology, (ie, becoming part of the Global Village) some countryside peoples have a quite different set of priorities. For indigenous groups (who form a relatively small proportion of the whole rural population and who are vastly outnumbered by those from a broadly defined Chinese ethnic background) preservation of their own unique cultural identity remains uppermost. Thus, for members of the nine tribal groups, whether living in rural areas or having migrated to the cities, eCulture may well be largely irrelevant.

Given the diverse nature of Taiwan, it is to be expected that at least some of this diversity will be reflected in ‘texts’ of various types. By ‘text’ we mean both texts such as magazines, newspapers, books, poetry, literature, film and music, religious settings and gatherings, temple and high-street shopping iconography (such as the ‘misuse’ of English on retail consumer goods), as well as newer texts such as the Internet, including eCommerce web-sites.

Semiotics has been chosen as our preferred paradigm to examine the interrelationship between culture and text largely because of its proven strength in identifying and interpreting ‘signs’ embedded in textual narratives of various kinds, as well as in wider social and cultural settings. eFinance texts have been chosen as our domain of interest simply because they are so widely used, and also because the domestic financial sector has already begun to respond to both local and global forces for change (ie, domestic deregulation and globalisation) as Her observes:

Foreign banks will make inroads into the market... the domestic [banking] sector must step up its efforts to win a competitive edge... by developing new products, on-line banking services…the Government has in recent years accelerated financial sector reforms... one significant regulation, the Financial Merger Law was enacted in November 2000 to achieve greater economies of scale... another new regulation is the financial holding Company Law, enacted in June 2001 to promote financial integration. (Her, 2002)


Semiotic insights have been shown to directly inform aspects of culture. Active writers in the field of cultural semiotics include Sonesson (2000), Haarmann (2000) and numerous others. Similarly, there have been sustained efforts to link generic cultural differences and characteristics to aspects of software product localisation and globalisation. (Hofstede, 1991; Kersten et al, 2000; Day & Dunckley, 2001) Semiotics is the discipline of everything that produces meaning. It has been called the ‘science of signs’. More specifically, it is the discipline which connects meaning, meaning making, communication and culture through an understanding of acts of signification. A great variety of semiotic discourses and traditions, most noticeably that of Peirce (1931), Saussure (1966), and Eco (1976) have been applied to the field of IT. These include the work of Anderson (1997), Liu, (2000), and French, Polovina and Vile (1999). There have also been various collaborative initiatives such as the Shared Meanings Design Framework, (http://www.smdf.org) Semiotics for the HCI Community (http://www.code.uni-wuppertal.de/uk/hci/welcome.html), the Semiotics Engineering Research Group and the Semiotics Special Interest Group. We present below a set of working hypotheses which also seem to represent some points of common agreement derived from the various semiotic schools, writers, research groups, traditions and approaches mentioned above. Figure 2, which follows, presents a simple conceptual model, which shows how web-site signification might be related to wider cultural phenomena:

Figure 2. How web-site content might relate to wider cultural dimensions

Working hypotheses

1. Users give meanings to signs, based on personal perceptions and experiences, as well as specific cultural contexts, acts, values, experiences and norms; in a sense every text and form of human communication can be considered to be culturally defined.

2. The Human Computer Interface of a typical web-site is a rich source of signification (images, adverts, attractors of various kinds, culturally specific signs, text, icons, hypertext links and metaphors) – ie, it is just another form of human communication, but one with unique qualities mediated by the computer.

3. Specific kinds of web-site content are related to wider cultural phenomena and vice versa.

4. Web sites transmit cultural messages to users, some of these may be explicit and intentional; others may be subtle, and implicit.

5. Web site content is differentially perceived across cultural and linguistic boundaries – this has practical implications for re-designing a site from one country to another, since this act of localisation involves far more than mere translation.

6. To semioticians, a web-site is just another text, capable of being analysed, and interpreted using established methods of semiotic textual analysis.

A computer-based sign in this context means: a textual cue, a colour, an image, an icon, a navigation cue, an advert, or other so-called web-site attractors. (Fink, 1999) Semioticians view an interface as a self-consistent sign system which is intrinsically capable of being differentially decoded by users depending on a user’s cultural background together with a whole host of other influencing factors. Semiotics does not recognise for example, that any particular sign is truly ‘universal’ – it all rather depends on context, both local and global.

A fundamental semiotic principle of particular relevance is that both the context of the sign and the interpretant of the sign alter the meaning of the sign itself. Thus, for example the difference between an icon and its meaning is highly flexible and not intrinsically quantifiable.

From our earlier discussion, it is clear that urban culture is rapidly evolving. We believe that an analysis of web-site signification can reveal contemporary wider social and cultural phenomena (ie, we can reverse engineer some of the wider cultural factors previously identified from live web-site texts). Indeed, the strength of semiotic analysis lies in its ability not only to infer cultural factors from signs embedded in texts, but also from its ability to embrace signification operating at social, organisational and workgroup level. (Prates et al, 1997) We have chosen below to present an informal analysis of signs embedded within selected Taiwanese eFinance banking web-sites in order to establish some links between specific site signification and some cultural factors we have discussed earlier.

Empirical Study of web-site texts – some informal examples

A survey of some popular retail Banking eFinance web-sites was undertaken during September 2001 using a semiotic checklist evaluation instrument. These sites represent a rich repository of cultural signification, well beyond the scope of the present paper. Our methodology also involved gaining access to family, business and social sources of signification. Our method including sources of signification and interpretation are detailed below in Figure 3. We now go on to present a few informal examples to illustrate our general approach. Also an exemplar ‘mind-map’ is reproduced in Appendix B and it relates to Figure 5 which follows.

Figure 3. SinoPac Bank Taiwan (http://www.banksinopac.com.tw)

Interpretation: SinoPac Bank

SinoPac Bank is widely regarded as one of the early adopters of e-commerce banking and as such has relatively well established English language and Mandarin sites. SinoPac have deliberately chosen to use a very specific form of local iconography (the image of the ‘double-fish’ sign), which decorates the exterior of their head-office building in downtown Taipei for local users, whilst projecting a neutral image ‘Welcome to SinoPac Bank: we grow your assets’ to US/ English investors. The ‘double-fish’ sign can be seen to be strongly culturally bound, (ie, users give meaning to signs based on their local contextual and cultural cues) as follows:

1. The meaning of the ‘double-fish’ sign is dual – it serves as a visual reminder to local residents who are familiar with the exterior physical decoration of the building

2. The sign more generally seeks to convey the message of ‘‘prosperity’ – something will always be left over each year after a Chinese New Year feast’.

3. Finally, such prominent site signification can be seen to project a more general cultural message: whilst the Bank is using e-mediated forms of commerce and addressing global e-Markets, it is, nevertheless, cherishing traditional Chinese values.

Figure 4. E.Sun Bank (http://www.esunbank.com.tw)

Interpretation: Yu Shan Bank

Here site signification makes little attempt to be inclusive. There is no English language version, only Mandarin. The brand sign used here has an entirely local significance, since the name of the bank is derived from Yu Shan (‘Jade’ Mountain) symbolism, the highest mountain-peak in Taiwan. The message this brand sign transmits seeks to reinforce local rituals, since anecdotally, it is said that the founder of the bank still encourages all senior staff to climb the mountain every year (to engage in a collective symbolic act invoking the spirit of the mountain). Notice also the images of people presented here – they represent only a single ethnic group. Signification does not seek to address the needs of a wider audience. Clearly a niche player, representing local cultural continuity, rather than change.

Figure 5. Grand Commercial Bank (http://www.grandbank.com.tw)

Interpretation: Grand Commercial Bank

This site seeks to exploit a particular form of shopping culture, common in urban Taiwan, which promulgates use of cartoon characters to market and promote sales (The site home page reproduced above is offering customers a Pokemon promotion). The surprising and visually striking signification and images appear alien to an English viewer’s expectations of bank site content. This imagery shows strong Japanese influences and can be related to the success of a particular Taiwanese ‘Hello Kitty’ credit card – directed mainly towards young women. The use of cartoon iconography forms part of a wider Asia-Pacific shopping cultural phenomena, in which the traditional Asian cultural aversion to borrowing and use of credit cards is being ameliorated through the use of youth-oriented branding using cartoon characters (Hui, 2001). One can also perhaps suggest links between the striking site signification used here, with the rapidly expanding urban cult of urban comic-lending shops and comic-culture we have mentioned previously.

Figure 6. Fubon Bank (http://www.fubonbank.com.tw)

Interpretation: Fubon Bank

This English language web-site shows much stronger influences of global values and images and does not appear to address local cultural factors to any great extent. The site projects a strong, but somewhat stereotypical financial iconography, comprising images of modern office buildings, various key statistics, and financial graphics (ie, familiar global financial signs). Indeed, the site signification is deliberately generic, so as to attract global, rather than local investors.


These exemplar sites reveal a complex mix of signification: some signs appear to reflect entirely local cultural dimensions, whilst wider influences such as Asia-Pacific regional and Japanese inspired hyper-consumerism (cartoon and toy promotions) are evident in the imagery used in the Grand Commercial Bank and SinoPac homepages. In contrast, Fubon Bank appears to represent a more homogenised global value eFinance ideology, indistinguishable perhaps, from any banking site worldwide. What, if anything, can we conclude? Perhaps only that this diversity and specificity of web-site design is itself a reflection of an equally diverse set of influences and heterogeneous cultural phenomena operating within modern Taiwan today.

Future directions

At a macro-level, Taiwan appears to represent cultural continuity through its inheritance and nurture of Chinese cultural artifacts, language and Confucian values, including freedom of religious expression. Yet, paradoxically, Taiwan presents a country rapidly adopting cultural innovation and change through a rapidly evolving eCulture. It is perhaps doubtful whether Taiwan can continue to support traditional Confucian values whilst embracing the new. Can an eCulture barely five years old challenge traditional cultural values with a 5000-year-old pedigree? Can eCulture and tradition happily co-exist? The European Union is seeking to resolve similar cultural dilemmas by actively supporting the use of e-mediation to preserve European culture through its Digital Cultural Heritage initiative. Such initiatives appear to demonstrate that eCulture can be used to advantage as a powerful preservation force, as well as a force for dynamic change.

We have demonstrated that eCulture texts can be interpreted so that their value as analytic agents can be harvested (ie, by viewing such texts through a semiotic lens we can, perhaps glimpse wider cultural phenomena). Thus, such texts can be seen not only as simply agents for change but also as viewing platforms, from which vantage point, local and global internet viewers users can trace dynamic cultural change as it occurs, and is reflected in live web-site signification. Our own vantage point has been necessarily a limited one. An extension to our work, comprising a wider analysis of signification used in temples, street signs, rural settings, youth cultures, and shopping contexts is needed before we can begin to build any comprehensive semiotic model of Taiwanese cultural texts and phenomena. As Kersten observes:

There is no solid theory that links software to culture, or the way ideas and values are implemented in software. Such a theory requires and needs to go beyond the consideration of the surface manifestations of culture that have been widely accepted… (509)

We hope that our initial work may point the way towards developing such a theory. Commercial application areas include web-site localisation and globalisation, marketing and digital brand analysis and related areas. However, we are only beginning to systematically read web-site content with any authority, and to relate specific kinds of web-content to specific cultural factors, phenomena and ideologies operating within particular countries of the world. For one thing, the semiotics of eCulture appears to be at a formative and immature stage as compared to the semiotics of literary, film and media texts. We hope therefore, that others will extend and improve upon our initial work, particularly since computer-mediated web-site texts are assuming an ever-greater role in our everyday lives and collective cultural consciousness.



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APPENDIX A: Semiotic evaluation instrument and web-site taxonomy

a) initial heuristic (semiotic) check-list of eFinance site content

Did the site engender trust using signification? (images, brands, text, icons)…if so please state which sign types were used which you perceived to engender trust and security.

Does the site make consistent use of signs or images or textual cues? (BRANDING?) If so did you find the ‘look and feel’ to be convincing…? Why?

Was there any obvious support for those with a disability?

Could the site be potentially accessible by someone from another culture?

Were there any images or content which were culturally bound? Did the site project a particular value system?

Did the site project a consistent BRAND identity of the business? Was this image consistent with other forms of advertising or branding? Was the image positive? Did you get a feel for the actual ‘size’ of the business?

Did the site make you feel ‘at home’ i.e. confident or were you anxious about making mistakes or where to look for services or products? How was the CRM aspects handled (customer help facilities?)
Phone number, e-mail, FAQ…

Were the signs and images assembled into a consistent metaphor (or did they appear to be randomly organised…?)


b) simplified list of computer-based signs (to be used in conjunction with the semiotic evaluation instrument)


- ICONS (representational, abstract, arbitrary design)

- IMAGES Photos (b/w), colour

- ‘Wallpaper’ , background colours/pallettes used

- NAVIGATION CONTROLS (arrows, buttons)

- Hypertext links

- TRUST signs

- SECURITY signs/information

- PRODUCT information (descriptions/prices)

- PDF signs

- Virtual tours, VR signs,

- Animated banner advertising

APPENDIX B: Exemplar 'mind-map' for Yu-Shan digital brand

NB This paper is dedicated to my darling wife ho-shin Chang and our extended family both in the UK and Taiwan, for their love, guidance and constructive comments.

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