Tropic of Cancer Post


ca. 1921-1923 紙本水彩, 24×28.5cm.

watercolor on paper





    Towering over the West Coast Rail Line which runs north to south along Taiwan’s west coast, the commemorative obelisk symbolizes the glory of the Japanese Empire and bears inscriptions which condense the uniqueness of its southland territory of Taiwan into two columns of scientific description. It is precisely these numbers, or rather this latitude, 23°27’4” N, which has nurtured the diverse landscapes of Formosa. The lush mountain forests, deep blue waters, and open fields illuminated by the bright sun—all the myriad landscapes of this island lying along the Tropic of Cancer—are represented in exquisite color in Chen Cheng-po’s artwork.







The Second Tropic of Cancer Monument





    In 1908, in celebration of the completion of the north-south rail line, the Taiwan Governor-General chose to erect a commemorative monument near the intersection of the rail line and the Tropic of Cancer. After this famous Chiayi landmark was severely damaged by a storm, a second monument was unveiled in 1915. It is this second monument which is portrayed in Chen Cheng-po’s painting.2




Inscriptions on the monument





    The monument, as depicted in the painting, bears the inscription “Tropic of Cancer Post.” Yet, historical sources indicate that the actual inscription read “Tropic of Cancer Monument” and, underneath, a smaller inscription composed of two columns of Chinese characters indicated the latitude and longitude. Contemporary painters have their own rationale for including or omitting certain details, and as such, this sort of discrepancy (that is, Chen’s decision to not copy the inscription of the geographic coordinates) is a common occurrence.






    In these photographs of the second monument, taken from Paintings from the Colony of Taiwan (1918), the inscriptions (including the numbers denoting the latitude and longitude of the site, 23°27’4” N 120°24’46” E) are clearly visible, as are structural details of the monument. It is interesting to note that numerous details in Chen’s representation do not correspond to the actual monument as photographed.





Purpose of constructing the monument





    The completion of the north-south railroad was a feat of engineering that ushered in a new era and symbolized the success of Japanese efforts to modernize infrastructure in its colony of Taiwan. The decision to erect a commemorative monument along the Tropic of Cancer and the precision involved in measuring its latitude and longitude reflect the technical prowess of the empire and its capability to push southward, having already crossed one important geographical boundary.





Chen Cheng-po and Shuikutou Public School





    In 1920, Chen was transferred in his capacity as instructor from Chiayi Public School to Shuikutou Public School, located on the city outskirts. As the Tropic of Cancer Monument stood between Chiayi City and Chen’s new place of work, he would inevitably catch sight of the giant commemorative structure each time he traveled between those two places. Thus, this painting was likely completed during this period of Chen’s life.





Chen Cheng-po and modernity





    Machines, electricity, train trestles... Under Japanese rule, Taiwanese people witnessed brand-new innovations spring into their everyday surroundings. These sights of modernity are important recurrent elements in Chen’s paintings. It is perhaps for this very reason that the Tropic of Cancer Monument, a sort of modern marvel itself, became a subject of Chen’s work.





Watercolor painting





    In 1913, eighteen-year-old Chen enrolled in the National Language [Japanese] School at the Taiwan Governor-General’s Office in Taipei. There, under the guidance of watercolorist Ishikawa Kinichiro, he commenced his formal training in Western art techniques. For the next decade, Chen was primarily focused on watercolor painting, as reflected by his surviving works from this period. It was not until after 1924 when he left to study abroad in Japan that he slowly began to establish himself as an oil painter.





Wheeled carts





    In former times, cattle-drawn carts, usually ox-carts, were a characteristic feature of the rural Taiwanese landscape. As the Japanese colonizers worked to modernize Taiwan’s transportation systems, the ox-cart was gradually replaced by mechanized vehicles. Although Chen’s painting takes modern landscape as its central theme, the decorative flourish of the ox-cart perhaps reveals his desire to create a contrast between past and present.




水牛ト牛車 BAFFALO & OX-CART, 臺大日治時期繪葉書, arrowntul-tw-1609621_2102_001

Baffalo (sic) & Ox-Cart, National Taiwan University Collection of Japanese Era Postcards, arrowntul-tw-1609621_2102_001

    水牛ト牛車          台大日本統治時代絵葉書



1908, 臺灣總督府官房文書課編, 臺灣寫真帖, 頁93-94



    1908, Collections of the Taiwan Governor-General Chief Cabinet Document Division, Photographs from Taiwan, p. 93-94.

    During the Japanese colonial era, ox-carts were a typical feature of Taiwanese life, so much so that in Photographs from Taiwan, published by the Governor-General’s office, a separate section was devoted to the ox-cart. In 1935, a short story entitled “Ox-Cart,” penned by Taiwanese writer Lü He-ruo, appeared in the Japanese magazine Literary Review. Written in strident left-wing prose, “Ox-Cart” recounts the plight of a low-class laborer who, unable to withstand the wave of mechanization brought on to Taiwan by the colonial powers, loses his livelihood as an ox-cart driver and meets an unhappy, dishonorable end.






    Published in a 1919 issue of Taiwan Railway magazine, “Railway and Ox-cart” analyzes the competitive relationship between the traditional Taiwanese ox-cart and more modern means of transportation.





Sugiyama Yasunori, Famous Sights of Taiwan (1916); Paintings from the Colony of Taiwan (1918)