An Unfinished Negotiation between Tradition and Modernity: Taiwanese Farmhouse Modernization Movement, 1950s-1960s

Chen, Ching-chieh

Publications in EAAC 2015

Master course student, Graduate Institute of Building and Planning, National Taiwan University, Taiwan


The tension and collision between the Western modernity and local tradition is a key topic for the studies of East Asian architecture. This article highlights the rural area between the 1950s and 1960s in Taiwan, when the US aid anchored the modernization of the Taiwanese society, as the research arena. The once-overlooked demonstration movement of Taiwanese modern farmhouses and the demonstration projects of agricultural villages will be discussed. Based on official documents, publications, journalism, and design drawings, the author conducts critical interpretation: On the one hand, the farmhouses incorporate indigenous tokens like the worshipping hall to show a moral hierarchy of space; on the other hand, they adopt the modern design of spatial arrangement, so as to improve land-use efficiency and underline the advanced state. This movement ultimately fails because it is incompatible with the agricultural life style, and is not financially feasible. The author suggests that the predicament of Taiwanese architectural modernism disclosed by this failure is still not over yet. The recent initiatives of various local architecture and vernacular architecture would still need to search for a way out under the continuous conciliation between the traditionality and modernity of the Taiwanese society.

Keywords: Taiwanese farmhouse, architectural modernism, architectural nationalism, local modernity heritage

1. Introduction

The so-called “farmhouse” can hardly be explicitly portrayed in Taiwan, and so is the idyllic scenery attached to it. For over half a century many literatures regarding Taiwanese farmhouses have been produced, but have yet to be examined. Most of the recent researches about farmhouses however only focus on the speculation of farmland via the development of recreational real estate, and only recognize the “fake farmhouse” as the target of discussion. The fake farmhouse, as has been criticized, has obstructed the agricultural environment and the rural scenery. They are built according to the farmers’ needs of life and agricultural production, and are hence not neatly organized in looking. It is criticized that such buildings deviate from the traditional housing form and life style, which deprives Taiwan of its idyllic scenery.

This perspective, which downplays the social production and the indigenous residential style, actually dates back to the immediate post-war era of depression, when the KMT (Kuomintang, or the Nationalist Party) intervened in the agricultural village and its production of housing form. For the authorities at that time, demonstration of the modern life style in urban areas was not enough. Given the particularity retaining in the agricultural village once colonized by Japan, the government had to combine the rural tradition with the new but not yet stable regime. Given this background, the pursuit of a farmhouse that can improve the farmers’ living and production standard while also enhancing the consciousness of being the nationals under the new KMT regime, emerges as the critical part for the party state’s construction of modernity.

This article focuses on the “farmhouse” in the post WWII Taiwan, regarding it as a special arena of practice. It is suggested that these farmhouse designs, which inherit the American bureaucratic training and ideology of modern architecture, has encountered difficulties when facing the traditional value of the agricultural villages. The following will first review the macro context of land reform in the post-war Taiwan, and thereby reveals the socio-political effects of the smallholder agriculture, especially in how it has limited and supported the government’s measures of modernization as well as the modern landscape of agricultural village.

The author then analyzes two materials, namely 1) the demonstration movement of the farmhouse, and 2) the demonstration project of Longjing Agricultural Town in the middle Taiwan. The analysis will show the overall geo-political and socioeconomic situation,and unveil the material production, population deployment, and symbolic effects operating via the new rural forms. The conflicts and ambiguity between the traditionality and modernity of housing triggered by the plan is also explored. Finally, the author discusses the possibilities and limitations of the modernization movement of the Taiwanese architecture.

2. The Socio-political and Agricultural Situation during the Early Post WWII in Taiwan

In 1949, KMT retreated to Taiwan after being defeated by the Communist Party of China, and became the new regime after the Japanese’ colonial rule in Taiwan. From 1951 to 1953, it implemented three policies of land reform, including rent reduction, the grant of public land to the tenant farmer, and the grant of expropriated land from landlords to the tenant farmers. The goal of the government is to alter the social structure of the rural land originally dominated by the landlord, and meanwhile mitigate the social protests and conflicts between the landlord and the tenant farmer. Yet, even though the social conflicts are alleviated, the farmers are not bailed out via the redistribution of land. After land reform, the farm became too fragmented to suit the farmers’ needs; the irrigation system and the soil fertility, which was already severely impaired, also made farming inefficient but never received proper attention from either the government or the farmers themselves.

In this period when military tension against the Communist Party was still harsh, and the surging population caused by the great amount of refugees from Mainland China became great pressure, the government was without the technology and infrastructure materials required to improve its production efficiency. The Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR), which is aided by the US capital and technology under the economic agreement between the KMT government and the US at that time, hence began the incorporation of the compost barns in the post-war Taiwan. The purpose is to suppress the foreign exchange needed for purchasing chemical fertilizer. Finally, the government, or the JCRR, appealed to the independent farmers, whose population greatly increased with the land reform policy, to lead a movement called the erection of the “modern compost barn.” It is hoped that the unsanitary and inefficient condition of the traditional compost barns in the rural area will be replaced the ideal of a “modern compost barn for each farmer.”

In 1952, to further improve the production process of compost, the government published “A Solicitation & Reward Notice for the Architecture Engineering of A Simple Compost Barn” on an official publication called Harvest Magazine. It launched a nationwide solicitation for architecture design, which was required to be scientifically functional, concisely designed, economic in its cost, and accessible in the construction materials. However, all the manuscripts were deemed not perfect enough, and the government asked the Public Works Department to re-create the design by involving the merits in those manuscripts they received. The re-fashioned result was then published on the governmental press (JCRR, 1952). It is read that the scientifically-designed compost barn is beneficial to the national development and the campaign of anti-communist and anti-Soviet Union; free materials and incentives are also provided to induce the farmers to participate in the movement of the “erection of modern compost barn”.

Fig.1 The modern compost barn

a  b  

About 120 thousands compost barns were built from 1951 to 1958. Despite of the speedy construction, it only achieved half of the JCRR’s expectation. Moreover, the subsidy for this movement kept reducing after 1955 (JCRR, 1960), which was mainly due to the end of Korean War in 1953. After the War, the US expanded its political and economic aid, initiating the export of various materials and technical guidance to Taiwan, so that Taiwan ultimately built its own factory of chemical fertilizer, and the government’s reliance on compost also decreased. The movement of the erection of modern compost barn thereby comes to a halt.

With the movement’s termination, the farmers were then encouraged to use the chemical fertilizer that could immediately enhance their yield. The hope is to reduce the working hours on each unit of the farm, hence promoting the agricultural reproduction. Thus, the government quit the traditional and organic ways of agricultural production to step on its “modernizing” path: it enters the mutual arena dwelled by both the agricultural production and rural life, namely the “farmhouse” where the labor force for reproduction is stored.

3. The Disillusion of the Demonstration Movement of the Farmhouse

The Residential Committee for Farmers, which was established by the central government, was in charge along with JCRR to manage the reform of the agricultural residence. In the early 1955, the government again published “A Solicitation & Reward Notice for the Farmhouse Pattern” on Harvest Magazine. The requirement is based on the small or middle-sized famer family, and divides the farmhouse into “main building” and “subsidiary facilities.” The main building includes the bedroom and the hall (the Taiwanese living room), with the latter being required to involve ancestor-worshipping space. The subsidiary facilities include the toilet, the kitchen, the barn for housing livestock, the compost barn, and the grain-sunning ground.

Based on these conditions, the contributors have yet to propose three types of housing design ranged according to their cost, so that farmers with different economic capacity can make choice. They also need to consider ventilation, lighting, and the transportation to ensure that the building can be easily expanded in the future. It is even demanded that the design should bring the traditional scattered dwellings in Taiwanese society into the style of “concentrated community,” which incorporates the nursery, the meeting hall, and drinking water facilities.

No manuscripts was selected, however. The next year, the government once again announced that none of the designs was ideal, and that the Public Works Department would be in charge of the design. So three housing types designed according to the household size and with strengthening brick modernist style were officially produced. Called “Inexpensive Modern Farmhouse,” they were each framed within the concentrated community. The farmers would be loaned the subsidy based on the US aid if building their houses according to the drawing.

Fig.2 The Inexpensive Modern Farmhouse

 The Inexpensive Modern Farmhouse  


However, the people were opposed to the ideas of relocating themselves in concentrated village. Moreover, the actually-not-inexpensive housing made the promotion of “Inexpensive Modern Farmhouse” impeded. To propagate the unpopular farmhouse, the authorities had to allow the existing applicants to deviate from the architecture style demanded by the three standard housing types. Many people hence attached to their housing the folk styles they want, and disobeyed the modern hygienic way of using. Such phenomenon was in turn criticized by the government as the result of superstition and inadequate education, which was said to pose adverse consequence to the agricultural production. The design of the farmhouse, so judged by the authorities, need not ingratiate itself to the style and customs of the traditional agricultural village.

The KMT government has pushed for the demonstration movement because it regards the “Inexpensive Modern Farmhouse” as a symbol of modernization in which it shows its national force. The authorities therefore declare that “ the farmers will be led to lead a modern life via the modernization of the farmhouse” (China Times, 1956). It is expected that under this policy, Taiwan would compete with the then thriving modernization movement pushed by the Communist Party of China. Also, by denying the manuscripts contributed by the people and deemed them “not perfect enough,” the defeated regime could consolidate its technological authority, exercise control over the voice of modernism, and hence exclude the indigenous intellects trained by the Japanese agricultural education.

On the other hand, although the design of the farmhouse does incorporate the needs for traditional worshipping, the government meanwhile demands supervision be given to ensure that people eradicate the reign title of Japanese Emperor left on their ancestor tablet. It is announced that “the poisonous colonial legacy has to be annihilated,” so that the later generation would not “commemorate the Japanese Imperialism at the sight of the tablet, thus shaming the Chinese dignity” (Government of the Taiwan Province, 1954). The government further requires that the farmers punctually pay worship to the ancestors. By doing so, it highlights its legitimacy as the heir of Chinese culture, which is in contrast to the Communist Party who bans the worship of spirits. Considering that the alteration of the ancestor tablet must confront many mythical taboos, the government’s persistence in reshaping it shows its determination in the governance of the agricultural traditionality.

In 1957, to solve the serious setback of the Inexpensive Modern Farmhouse, the authorities tripled the amount of the loan and reduced the interest. The farmhouses hence surged from the original 180 to 1,113. With this, the farmhouse movement saw a transitory success (China Times, 1957).

Then in 1959, the “Flood on August 7th”, a serious disaster striking the middle and southern Taiwan and posing threat to the stability of governance, had however offered another chance for the KMT government to promote modernization in the agricultural village. Confronting the seriously impaired buildings, the government asked all the reconstruction had to be built “in accordance to the modern requirements,” so as to better resist natural disasters. The Public Works Department was asked to re-examine the design of the “Inexpensive Modern Farmhouse,” and the result is the “Modern Demonstration Farmhouse,” in which the housing was made by reinforced concrete instead of strengthening brick (Central Daily News, 1959).

Many “modern demonstration farmhouses” were then built in the damaged rural area, and the Public Works Department even found there a great place to install the long-frustrated modern concentrated community. In 1960, it displayed the “Exhibition of the Post-Disaster Reconstruction of the Modern Demonstration Farmhouse” in Changhua County, one severely-damaged rural district in the middle Taiwan. Although part of the project was still under construction, elements like street trees, walls, and subsidiary buildings were already built. Modern demonstration farmhouses simulating the traditional Taiwanese courtyard house adjoined one another. Bordering them were extensive ditches and utility poles. A chessboard-like grid system quite characterizes its image of a modern agricultural village (China Times, 1960).

In the official propagation, the reinforced concrete structure of the house is said to be more than just durable and robust, but can be “passed from one generation to the next.” There is space for traditional worshipping, so that the ethic of ancestry under Confucianism can be performed. A Qilou space (a semi-open space left empty on the ground floor of a building of at least two-story, and supported by the columns and topped by the floor of the first story) is also established. It can be applied to the storage of farming tools, the rearing of livestock, and even as the future room when a (male) family member gets married. The government hopes that the Taiwanese custom of “branching out” would not occupy valuable farm land via this vertical transformation of space, and that the horizontal extension of “Hulong”—the traditional way of adding up space to the original house after someone get married—would be replaced by the new design (JCRR, 1959).

It is further expected that the design for hygiene and ventilation will combine the water source, the street, the grain-sunning ground, the housing, and the subsidiary buildings into scientific circulation, which then enhances the land-use efficiency and reduce the farmers’ cost of living. They could then gain free time, and should be able to elevate the other production sections. Nevertheless, the seemingly ideal post-disaster modern demonstration farmhouse was actually incompatible with the agricultural society.

Fig.3 A propagation design of the Modern Demonstration Farmhouse

 A propagation design of the Modern Demonstration Farmhouse  


Only as few as 23 demonstration farmhouses were sold out until the end of 1960, which was even less than a half of the total construction. Few people built their houses in accordance to the design, and some even delayed their payment of loan because they thought the design was too absurd (United Daily News, 1960). The problems are various: Some said the distance between the pillars of the Qilou was too narrow for the cattle to turn around, and they might even crush the walls; Taboos of Feng-shui might be offended by leaving the ground floor empty; the inner space was too small for any working activities; the elders and the children could get injured with the steep stairs; the construction was so poor-qualitied that water would drip down and damage the food in store. Even water supply and electricity was complained to be not properly handled (JCRR, 1960, 1963).

The government however declared that construction according to Feng-shui was not necessary, and it criticized the builders from the rural area to be lacking modern engineering knowledge, which led to the poor construction, waste of materials, and “ridiculous” forms. In brief, the officials were unwilling to look into the reality of the agricultural village in Taiwan. This failure in addition posed a setback for the technocrats who wished to lead Taiwan onto the path of modernization. In 1961, the promotion of “Modern Demonstration Farmhouse” was gradually brought to an end (Government of Taiwan Province, 1961).

Fig.4 Modern Demonstration Farmhouse



4. Demonstration Project of Longjing Agricultural Town

Just as the demonstration movement of the farmhouse became embarrassingly abortive, the government turned to another project to re-collect the support from the people and to encourage the technocrats. In 1961, on three governmental publications, the same notice titled as “Demonstration Project of Longjing Agricultural Town” was posted. It elaborates the government’s aspiration of refashioning the image of agricultural village to look to the international standard.

This project aims to create a new “demonstration center.” It would be located nearby “Zhongxing New Village,” the seat of Government of Taiwan Province and hence known for its proximity to the KMT regime, and was thus entitled to the reception of foreign guests. The project would extend to as large as 1,500 acres to accommodate more than 20,000 people, which was unparalleled among the East Asian countries.

Yet, the Demonstration Project of Longjing Agricultural Town is actually the result of a hasty decision. The site of the project was severely damaged in the Flood on August 7th. The locals therefore appealed to the government for help and reconstruction. During this process, however, a new project featuring agricultural town was arbitrarily added. With this, the Longjing Town suddenly became the leader for the agricultural governance in Taiwan.

Two reasons dominate this decision. First, the Communist Party of China launched their modernization movements of “Great Leap Forward” and “People’s Commune” during this period, which compelled the KMT government to rival it. Second, since the US needed Taiwan to consume the products it dumped and supply the low-end products, it required Taiwan to become modernized in agriculture, so that the labor force in the rural area could be released to the low-end industrial production. It was hoped that the elevated labor quality and per capita consumption level in Taiwan would benefit the US in return.

The influence of the US can be exemplified by the 50th Annual Meeting of the Agricultural Society of the Republic of China, in which the US embassy in Taiwan announced The Prospect of the Agriculture in Taiwan. The embassy declared that Taiwan had to enhance its efficiency in agriculture, so that the labor force could be released to other production sections (Central Daily News, 1961). It was on the next day of the Annual Meeting that the Demonstration Project of Longjing Agricultural Town originally still under discussion was immediately enacted.

Fig.5 Longjing Agricultural Towne



Since the plan was huge and was under the pressure of quickly being realized, the dispute among different villages within the project site could hardly be negotiated, which then obstructed the progress. Hence, the government claimed that “construction is needed to eliminate divided factions,” and it decided to establish education as well as welfare institutions to conciliate the local conflicts (Central Daily News, 1962). Despite of this declaration, mistakes were being made constantly. For instance, the drainage system of the demonstration site was falsely constructed, which made the site a dry land with no water for irrigation (yet made the peripheral land flooded). Things got worse after the irrigation system was built, however. This time, the inner land became flooded while the surrounding land was drained. It was later found out that the construction of the drainage system inside was not even launched, and that its blueprint was actually still under planning. Given this, the exhibition of this Demonstration Project had to be postponed indefinitely (Water Resources Bureau, 1962).

Despite of the depressing situation, the aspiration for yet another “concentrated community” was still on-going. Modern farmhouses, the health center, the police station, the broadcasting station, roads paved by asphalt and other modern infrastructures were hoped to scatter the Longjing Town. Yet, this ideal had to be given up as many farmers strongly opposed to the distant configuration between the farm and the residence, considering that they were used to the traditional life spatially centering around the local temple. Plus, the funding was actually insufficient after the construction of infrastructure, so the govenrment had to lower its ambition. It constructed the Longjing farmhouse with strengthening brick instead of the more “modernized” reinforced concrete (Lee, 1973).

Even with this defect, the farmhouse in the Demonstration Project still highlights ventilation and hygiene, and retains the traditional spatial deployment centering the hall. It also aims to coordinate with the chessboard-like farmland to form vast modernizing landscape. Yet, such spatial design deviates from the traditional customs dominating the rural life and costs too much. The farmers therefore show little interest in purchasing it.

Fig.6 Modern Longjing Demonstration Farmhouse


Although the farmhouse itself is unpopular with the people, the Demonstration Project is still one important site for the reception of foreign guests. In 1964, Exhibition Hall for Agricultural Town was established there, in which a balcony and a viewing window was installed so that the guests could enjoy an extensive view of the modernizing landscape. This project embodying the modernization of Taiwan also complements the anti-communist purpose, and became the filming location in the late 1960s for anti-communist movies such as Before and After the Dawn, and movies featuring modern living style like The Bride and I, via which the supreme governance of the KMT is conveyed (United Daily News, 1968).

In the early 1970s, when Taiwanese society faced the threshold of industrial transformation and when the KMT government’s rule was threatened as it quit the ROC’s membership in United Nation, a new national plan focusing on the industrial construction, was advanced. The Demonstration Project of Longjing Town faded out and was incorporated into the planning of a harbor. A period featuring anti-communist, anti-Soviet Union, and the US leadership gradually disappeared. The governance characterized by the farmhouse also stagnated, a situation lasting until the early 1980s.

5. Conclusion

The social production and cultural construction of the post-war modern farmhouse is comprised by a series of modernization governance characterized by land control and redistribution of labor force. Advanced agriculture, concrete and durable materials, and architectural modernity are translated into the Taiwanese agricultural village and into the form of the farmhouse. The power of the technocrats is hence consolidated. Adherence to the authorities is also displayed through the adoption of specific technology and the self-management to fit in modernization. As for the incorporated modernist architecture style, it was transformed into the tangible symbol in the pre-modern housing through the maintenance of traditional tokens, such as the ancestor tablet, and hence becomes the node sustaining the regime.

The modern demonstration farmhouse simulating Taiwanese courtyard house, though traditional in its looks, actually intends to liberate the labor force of women and children to expand the reproduction of agriculture. The spatial flexibility provided by the modern beam system actually deconstructs the traditional cultural hierarchy, making the prioritization shift from the ancestry to the individual or nuclear family, or modern family.

The maintenance of “hall” and “branching out space” in the house, while negotiating with the sacred space of Taiwanese agricultural village, also conciliate the negative consequence caused by the top-down modernization by sustaining the symbolic meaning of ancestry and rural society. It moreover is intended to annihilate any trace of the indigenous identification with the Japanese Empire, and aims to link the small ancestor in Taiwan to the Great Ancestor in Mainland China.

The configuration of public amenities and the grid system in both project also materialize into a transparent modernization unit. This deployment actually aims to eliminate the connection between the land, the family and the agricultural village. It is expected that a modern agricultural community detached from the ancestry and the family could be generated, so that a modern public space securing the government’s dominance of traditionality would emerge.

To achieve the aforementioned goals, the government has to cater to both the traditional and modern elements. It first has to mobilize populism and national emotion so as to ensure its policy being smoothly implemented, and emphasis on traditionality seems to be the easy answer. Secondly, it has to appeal to modernity given that the Communist Party of China was awkwardly of “the same nationalism,” and that modernity seems the clearer standard in making distinction. Lacking the cultural understanding and mature technology required, the technocrats nevertheless failed ungainly in these campaigns.

Via the failure of this modernization movement launched by the state and technocrats, a review of the built environment in Taiwan can be given. Historically, the agricultural society in Taiwan has been relatively stable. No modernizing reform of the structure in agricultural society ever be proposed, and thus no search for the practice in “new style” when faced with the transformation of society and agriculture ever comes up. The local practice of architecture therefore always remains detached from the external force.

This detachment provides stable social and cultural condition for the indigenous built environment. This is probably why from the colonial to the post-war period, the Taiwanese agricultural village shows a unified and restrained look that seldom reveals any trace of strange alien language. Even if such language occurs, it is filtered by the dialect to become the vocabulary fit for the local customs. The author believes that part of the essence of the Taiwanese modernity lies in this ability to assimilate the alien language into the dialect embodying the local patterns.

Yet, this ability also poses problems for the transplant of the modernist architecture in Taiwan. For instance, when the property market of Taiwan was introduced the LDK housing style in 1970s, many buyers carried out their living habits in the rural village by topping sloping roofs, adding extra balconies, opening a vent window in the kitchen, and installing worshipping space at the inside, etc. All is done without building authentication. The tidy Western modernist picture imagined by the architect thereby deviates from the Utopian vision, since no attention is paid to people’ s real needs.

Therefore, many local governments and architects in Taiwan have proposed to pursue indigenous and vernacular buildings so that the everyday life, environmental ethics, and cityscape can be truly incorporated into the design. Yet, with the lessons from the farmhouse movement, the author suggests that the modernization process of the Taiwanese architecture should always be a dynamic conciliation between modernity and traditionality. People should avoid the judgment made solely by the building outlook or appeal only to the particular appearance within certain locality, and should search for the way out by looking into the Taiwanese social life which is still in alteration.


1) Central Daily News (1959) Scientific housing resists natural disaster; demonstration farmhouse re-launched. August, 26, p.3.

2) Central Daily News (1961) Four prospects for agricultural development. December, 12, p.6.

3) China Times (1956) Farmhouse for smallholders. April, 4, p.3.

4) China Times (1957) Farmhouse loan for farmers. July, 28, p.3.

5) China Times (1960) Demonstration farmhouse finished in Changhua County and ready for exhibition. January, 23, p.8.

6) China Times (1961) Farmhouse loan released next month. March, 25, p2.

7) Government of Taiwan Province (1954) 42th annual bulletin of the Government of Taiwan Province. Taipei: the Government of Taiwan Province.

8) Government of Taiwan Province (1961) The administration of the Government of Taiwan Province. Taipei: Government of Taiwan Province.

9) JCRR (1952) A solicitation & reward notice for the architecture engineering of a simple compost barn. Harvest Magazine, 2(17), 12.

10) JCRR (1952) Announcement for the solicitation of a simple compost barn. Harvest Magazine, 2(21), 12.

11) JCRR (1952) Report for the second season of JCRR. Taipei: JCRR.

12) JCRR (1953) How to build a compost barn? Harvest Magazine, 3(21), 6-9.

13) JCRR (1955) A solicitation & reward notice for the farmhouse pattern. Harvest Magazine, 5(18), 11.

14) JCRR (1959) New farmhouse. Harvest Magazine, 9(18), 6-7.

15) JCRR (1960) Brothers’ opinions on the demonstration farmhouse. Harvest Magazine, 10(2), 15.

16) JCRR (1960) Report for the 10th season of JCRR. Taipei: JCRR.

17) JCRR (1960) Welcome to the farmers to the finished demonstration farmhouse. Harvest magazine, 10(1), 5.

18) JCRR (1963) Report for the 13th season of JCRR. Taipei: JCRR.

19) Shu-hua, Lee (1973) Research of the agricultural economy before and after the farmland redistricting in Longjing Town, Taichung. Journal of Agricultural Economics, 4, 143;145-251.

20) United Daily New (1960) Little interest shown in the 48 un-user-friendly demonstration farmhouses. November, 3, p.2.

21) United Daily News (1968) Before and After the Dawn filmed tomorrow in Longjing. June, 6, p.5.

22) Water Resources Bureau (1962) Annual reports of Water Resources Bureau. Taipei: Water Resources Bureau of the Government of Taiwan Province.


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