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Lecture | China Seminar

Memory, Activism and Social Justice: Kao Jun-honn’s Great Leopard Project

Wednesday 15 November 2023
University Library
Witte Singel 27
2311 BG Leiden
Vossius Room


In 2016, Taiwanese activist, artist, academic Kao Jun-honn 高俊宏 started his long-term Topa (大豹社 Great Leopard) project. The focus of his investigation is the aborigine Atayal Topa Tribe of Taiwan and the descendants of these colonized people who were expelled from their land and nearly annihilated by serial colonialization that swept the island.  

Based on long-term fieldwork and on-site investigation Kao recreates the “Great Leopard Incident” documented in the advance of the frontier guard line between 1903 and 1907. Kao traces the ruins of frontier guard posts that were instrumental for separating the “savages” from the “civilized”, for colonizing the Topa tribe’s space and expanding the economy of the Japanese colonial government in Taiwan. The frontier guard system was subsequently governed by the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek during the white terror era. After martial law was lifted, colonialization of indigenous land shifted to establishing postmodern entertainment parks for the urban middle class driven by coercive environmentalism and neoliberal policies.  

Kao’s Great Leopard Project has resulted in a documentary film, two book volumes, video works, topographical maps of the Topa river basin, installations of archives etc. Kao himself however, is less concerned with these artifacts as such but with the agency and the possibility of art and how it can intervene into and engage with reality in general and with global capitalism and postcolonial struggles in particular. Taking his documentary Llyong Topa 拉流斗霸 (2021) as point of departure, I will argue that Kao successfully employs art activism to reinvent historical colonial sites and to push for transitional justice and social change. 


Irmy Schweiger (PhD, University of Heidelberg) is a professor of Chinese language and culture at Stockholm University, Sweden. Her research interests are situated in the realm of modern and contemporary literature and culture of China and Taiwan. Among other things she is interested in historical trauma and cultural memory, cosmopolitan and vernacular dynamics in literature and literary history, literature as counter narrative to official discourse, and literatures of the diaspora. Currently she is working on a project that deals with the future of memory and the memory of future, exploring contemporary Taiwanese literature and culture.

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