Taiwan studies and forging an identity

Source: Taiwan Today (1/1/2020)
Forging an Identity

A map of Taiwan and the Penghu archipelago printed in the early 18th century by a Dutch publisher (Photo courtesy of National Taiwan Library)

Taiwan is a country of increasing interest for academics from home and abroad.

In September 2018, hundreds of scholars gathered at Taipei City-based Academia Sinica, the country’s foremost research institution, for an event with a decidedly local flavor: the three-day World Congress of Taiwan Studies (WCTS). Among the keynote speakers was Huang Fu-san (黃富三), the founding director of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Taiwan History (ITH). “Having a conference dedicated to Taiwan as its own cross-disciplinary subject is a major achievement,” he said.

Last year’s event was the third edition of the triennial WCTS and the second at Academia Sinica, with the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the U.K. hosting the other in 2015. Bringing together experts from around the world covering fields spanning anthropology, art, gender studies, history, law, linguistics, literature, political science and sociology, WCTS is testament to the vitality of Taiwan studies.

The office of the colonial governor-general in Taipei City built during Japanese rule (1895-1945) functions today as the Presidential Office Building. (Photo courtesy of NTL)

The subject’s rise to prominence is a relatively modern phenomenon, with ITH only officially established in 2004. “It was a turning point,” said Huang, who was then a professor of history at National Taiwan University in Taipei. The move signified a fundamental shift away from considering Taiwan a subsection of Chinese studies, he added.

Academic discourse at home has not always been receptive to this idea. The historian recalled that as a student growing up in Taiwan’s martial law era, lessons did not cover the country’s period under Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945). “There were many taboo topics at that time, and young people were taught to listen and not talk about politics,” Huang said.

It was only after the country’s democratization and liberalization in the 1980s and 1990s that an open academic environment formed suitable for free discussion. Taiwan studies-related centers and departments have subsequently sprung up at universities nationwide.

A Japanese tourism map of Taiwan from 1942 (Photo courtesy of NTL)

The origins of the subject can be found in the Cold War geopolitics of the 1950s, when Western scholars were often unable to gain access to China under communist rule. Many instead chose to sojourn in Taiwan. “World-leading anthropologists visited and began conducting field work assisted by local scholars and graduate students, and they came to understand what makes the country special.” Huang said.

Preserving the Past

Indispensable to the continued development of Taiwan studies has been the proper preservation and management of source materials. A landmark development in this regard occurred with the promulgation of the Archives Act in 1999 and subsequent formation of the National Archives Administration two years later under the Cabinet-level National Development Council. Before the law entered into force in 2002, archival work was conducted separately at the local government and institutional levels, leading to fragmentation and inconsistency.

Restructuring was made possible thanks to the efforts of National Taiwan Library (NTL) operating under the Ministry of Education (MOE). Founded in 1914 by the Japanese as Imperial Taiwan Library, NTL was the island’s first such public institution. For decades, it functioned as a branch of Taipei-based National Central Library (NCL), before it relocated in its current form to New Taipei City.

National Taiwan Library’s first home near the Presidential Office Building, which was destroyed in 1945 during an Allied bombing raid (Photo courtesy of NTL)

NTL’s first home was near the office of the Japanese governor-general in Taipei, now the Presidential Office Building. In 1945, both structures were damaged in an Allied bombing raid and the library destroyed. Thanks to earlier evacuation measures, however, most of its collection was preserved and now includes over 200,000 items. “Our catalog is unique,” NTL Director Cheng Lai-chang (鄭來長) said, referring to materials including official reports, survey results and periodicals stretching from Dutch rule (1624–1662) through the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) and on to the present day.

In 2007, NTL established the Taiwan Study Research Center (TSRC) separate from NCL’s Center for Chinese Studies. “Taiwan had long been considered a supposed bastion of traditional Chinese culture,” Cheng said. “But we approach the country as somewhere with its own history and culture, which include those of its indigenous peoples.”

A painting from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) depicting an indigenous wedding (Photo courtesy of NTL)

TSRC offers subsidies to students writing their master’s and doctoral theses on a Taiwan studies topic, with grants awarded to 34 students studying at 15 universities countrywide in the last two academic years. It also conducts exchange programs with institutes around the world and offers assistance to domestic and international scholars. The largest number of foreign visitors to the center are from Japan, accounting for 8 percent of around 72,000 international visits in 2018, Cheng said.

Global Interest

Due to the country’s unique history, cultural melting pot and critical geostrategic position in the Asia-Pacific, Taiwan studies has flourished as a subject at universities and research institutions worldwide. One of the primary aims of WCTS is to facilitate collaboration among the Japan Association for Taiwan Studies (JATS), North American Taiwan Studies Association (NATSA) and European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS), formed in 1997, 1999 and 2004 respectively, said Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley (蔡明燁), a researcher in SOAS’s Centre of Taiwan Studies (CTS) and Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology. She attended the latest WCTS as a representative from EATS, where she served as secretary-general from 2012 to 2018.

A map drawn in 1735 by a French missionary shows China’s Fujian province including the western half of Taiwan. (Photo by Pang Chia-shan)

Rawnsley is also the founding editor-in-chief of the biannual International Journal of Taiwan Studies (IJTS), which published its first issue in March 2018 and is based at CTS. The center opened in 2005 and is at the heart of the world-leading SOAS Taiwan studies program.

According to Rawnsley, IJTS was launched on the back of growing numbers of submissions to conferences held by EATS, JATS, NATSA and similar organizations. This proved the need for a publishing platform dedicated exclusively to Taiwan studies, she said.

Like many other international Taiwan-related academic endeavors, IJTS is co-sponsored by Academia Sinica with additional grants from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Taipei-based Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange. Other major financing sources worldwide include the MOE, Ministry of Culture and Taipei-headquartered Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

A Japanese magazine on school activities in Taiwan from 1940 (Photo by Pang Chia-shan)

Research published in IJTS spans a wide variety of topics including Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, international relations, politics, society and culture, as well as book reviews and conference reports. While some articles are focused on specific events, Rawnsley said, others are broader in their outlook and look to place Taiwan within a larger theoretical framework.

“Interdisciplinary and comparative approaches are critical to expanding the subject’s horizons,” she said. “That’s the only way for a rounded theory to develop.” Thanks to support from the government and nongovernmental organizations, Taiwan studies is now carving its own space on campuses and in academic literature by proving its critical relevance to the international community.

Write to Pat Gao at cjkao@mofa.gov.tw

An illustrated map of Taipei’s Beitou District issued in the 1930s to promote local tourism (Photo courtesy of NTL)

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