Colonial Project, National Game:
A History of Baseball in Taiwan

By Andrew D. Morris

Reviewed by Kristin Stapleton
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2011)

Book cover for Colonial Project, National Game

Andrew D. Morris.
Colonial Project, National Game:
A History of Baseball in Taiwan.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 272 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-520-26279-9 (cloth)

Baseball fans looking for an engaging account of the warm welcome their favorite game has found in the hearts of the people of Taiwan are likely to find Andrew D. Morris’s latest book pretty dreary. Baseball histories, such as Michael Lewis’s popular Money Ball (Norton, 2003), generally throw in some dramatic accounts of key games and celebrate particular talents of particular players, in addition to making whatever other points they want to make about how the study of baseball can illuminate the world around us. Morris disdains to throw any sops to us fans, however, and sticks very closely to his mission of demonstrating that “a history of Taiwanese baseball is an appropriate and crucial window for understanding the complicated histories and cultures of modern Taiwan” (p. 149). And, actually, his mission is more focused than this: he aims to show that Taiwanese baseball was thoroughly politicized by its engagement in questions of national identity in several distinct periods over the last hundred years.

The book thus is organized chronologically, beginning with a chapter on the early years of baseball in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial era, when only Japanese played the game. As with cricket and soccer in British colonial territories, Morris notes, the Japanese were reluctant to open the field to resentful people who might humiliate them. A new approach to assimilation became possible after resistance had been sufficiently crushed, and baseball began to be encouraged as a way to civilize the savage Taiwanese.

In the second chapter, which focuses on the 1930s, Morris has a very interesting account of the Japanese fascination with the aborigine boys who demonstrated a talent for the game. The 1930 Musha violence, when aborigines massacred Japanese attending a sports meet and then were themselves wiped out by Japanese troops, demonstrated the need to spread the ideology of racial amity within the Japanese empire. Back in the home islands, the visiting aborigine ballplayers were seen as an invigorating influence on a “jaded modern Japan” (p. 38).

The years of warfare in the late 1930s and 1940s are passed over very briefly, and chapter three takes on the early period of Chinese Nationalist control over Taiwan. The Nationalists, who could hardly be portrayed in a less flattering light than they are here, tried to promote basketball and soccer over baseball, which they failed to understand and associated with the Japanese influence in Taiwan. After the “white terror” wiped out the island’s native elite and other potential threats to the Nationalists, the Taiwanese rallied around baseball as a relatively safe way to express their anger at Chiang Kai-shek’s regime and nostalgia for the departed Japanese. Eventually, despite their extraordinary alleged inability to comprehend the game, Nationalist authorities decided that the talent of Taiwan’s baseball-playing youth was a useful resource in the effort to win international approval and foster nationalist feeling.

Chapters four and five analyze the political atmosphere surrounding the rise to world dominance of Taiwan’s Little League teams in the 1960s and 1970s, when Nationalist and anti-Nationalist activists would both try to claim the Taiwan team for their own and beat each other up at international youth baseball venues.

Chapter six and the conclusion discuss the 1990s to the present. Here the focus is on the two professional leagues established in that period, and their steady decline in popularity due to mob-linked gambling scandals, excessive reliance on foreign players, the exodus of some of Taiwan’s best players, and crass commercialization. Finally, the Nationalists’ preferred game of basketball seems to be pushing aside Taiwan’s “national game.”

Throughout the book, Morris plays pepper with various colonial and post-colonial theories. The chapter that discusses the Little League scandals of the 1970s and 1980s makes much use of Michael Herzfeld’s reflections on how humiliation and failure can lie at the core of feelings of nationalism (p. 89). In this context, he discusses some of the baseball-themed fiction and movies produced in Taiwan (pp. 116-120). The concept that most interests him, however, is “glocalization” or (citing Aviad Raz) “the tension between global cultural production and local acquisition” (pp. 24-25). This concept is illustrated most refreshingly in Morris’s accounts of the opinions and attitudes of retired Taiwanese baseball star and coach Jian Yongchang, who personally experienced most of the history of Taiwanese baseball, from the period when the Japanese were promoting it to try to turn him and his teammates into “almost-equal imperial subjects” (p. 27), to the Nationalist period when Japanese-American baseball terms such as “sutoraiku” were banned ineffectually, to the era of American imperial domination, when Jian translated Al Campanis’s book The Dodgers’ Way to Play Baseball from its Japanese translation, leaving out all mention of the Dodgers in the title (p. 63). In the joyful Mr. Jian, a baseball fan can recognize a baseball fan. Unfortunately, he is the only one in the book.

In his conclusion, Morris warns us not to pine for more individual voices or personal experiences of the game, whether of fans or of “sandlot” players who knew they would never make it to the international Little League circuit and may not have cared: “…there was little space for expression of individual interest in or attachment to the game. Indeed, the notion of one’s baseball aptitude or involvement being part of one’s identity was nearly a moot point when the game meant so much politically to these modern regimes” (p. 151). Lest the reader be unconvinced that the game could ever be so completely subsumed by national identity politics, in the absence of much discussion of gender politics or family politics or class politics, Morris continues: “So although the Western assumption (against most available evidence, of course) is that sports’ ‘natural’ orientation is to be depoliticized, it turns out that it is an aberration in baseball’s long career in Taiwan to be about and directly accessible to the depoliticized ‘individual'” (p. 152; italics in original). Only the recent triumph of capitalist ideology over Cold War nationalism has allowed the individual to put his or her own identity as a consumer first. Taiwanese baseball fans have been liberated from politics only to fall into the clutches of consumerism, and baseball has lost its status in Taiwan. This is a dreary tale, indeed, but the book’s provocative argument deserves serious engagement.

Kristin Stapleton
University of Buffalo, SUNY