Obituary for J. Bruce Jacobs, Emeritus Professor of Asian Languages and Studies, Monash University, Melbourne

Written by Jens Damm.

Image credit: 13th Annual Conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies at Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Science, Czech Republic

It was almost one decade ago that I met Bruce in person – and as always, he was accompanied by his lovely wife Kim Jung-sim – during one of the annual meetings of the European Association for Taiwan Studies (EATS) conference. Thus, I was deeply saddened to hear the news that Bruce had passed away on the 24 November this year in Melbourne after his long battle with cancer. When I met him for the first time, and then every time afterwards, I was filled with admiration for the passion and the scholarly knowledge of this veteran Taiwan scholar based in Australia.

Bruce received his PhD from Columbia University. Before he started his postgraduate programme, he also studied Early Chinese History at the National Taiwan University. Prior to being appointed as an Emeritus professor in 2014, Professor Jacobs held various posts at the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics. These include Graduate Research Coordinator, Chair of the Budget Committee, Associate Dean of Arts, Head of the School, Director of the Centre of East Asian studies, Director of the Taiwan Research Unit and ‘Concurrent Professor’ of History at Nanjing University. He was a veteran researcher in the field of Taiwan Studies. He received several grants for his extensive research on history, politics and society of Taiwan, including grants from the Australian Research Council, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation. Professor Jacobs published widely on Taiwan-related subjects. In addition to numerous articles in academic journals, he was the author and editor of many books. Then, in 2016, he gave the keynote speech at the annual meeting of EATS in Prague entitled “The Powerful and the Powerless: Re-Examining and Reframing Taiwan’s History,” in which he dwelled on Taiwan’s anti-colonial struggle and democratisation. On 16 November 2018, the Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (Wu Zhaoyu) awarded Bruce Jacobs the Order of Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon in recognition of his contributions to democratisation and human rights in Taiwan.

Bruce always gave advice to younger members of EATS and was eager to share his vast knowledge and experience. He enjoyed good food at a relaxed academic dinner and one or two beers and in the pub afterwards. One of his most outstanding qualities was his egalitarian attitude. He made no distinction between a university president or a student assistant. This was in sharp contrast to the hierarchical academic relationships that I experienced at the same time in Taiwan as an associate professor. During a workshop at the Chang Jung University Graduate Institute of Taiwan Studies to which my former colleague Yoshihisa Amae and I had invited Bruce to deliver the keynote speech, we had ample opportunity to discuss Taiwan’s developments in all its facets. Bruce insisted that all our student assistants take part in the workshop as active participants, join our formal dinner, and that they be treated with the respect they deserved.

Bruce personally witnessed in Taiwan the transformative forces of the 1970s and 1980s. A generation of young Taiwanese, together with their international networks, succeeded in ending the decades-long authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang (KMT) by means of peaceful protest. Bruce could have scarcely imagined that Taiwan would later become one of the most democratic and liberal places in Asia, where even same-sex marriages would become legal.

He was well aware of Taiwan’s contradictory developments after the lifting of Martial Law in 1986. On the one hand, Taiwan developed an active civil society; various student movements, the most recent the Sunflower movement in 2014, galvanised a young generation. On the other hand, the same students were still coerced into a very strict hierarchical system, especially at work and education, ranging from pre-Kindergarten to the institutions of higher learning. We discussed at length the way the Taiwanese academic education system is increasingly based on “quantitative achievements,” counting the activities of academic staff for promotion and increase in salary, and overlooking the more difficult to measure quality of research and teaching. Bruce remained optimistic, however, that a new generation of students would overcome these obstacles, as they would follow the example of the courageous men and women of the eighties who questioned authority and refused to be bound by a strict hierarchy. He believed that one day Taiwanese universities would allow students to enjoy a beer on campus and end the outdated strict separation of the sexes in dormitories, not to mention the strict control of students in their dormitories and private apartments by academic staff inspections.

Bruce was one of three Western professors who lived in Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s and helped me shape my understanding of today’s Taiwan: the other two were German political scientist Jürgen Domes (1932-2001) and Sinologist Helmut Martin (1932-2001). Jürgen Domes was a strict conservative who emphasised the importance of the academic hierarchy and took a neutral stance on policy: he analysed Taiwan through the lens of a democratising KMT. Helmut Martin, banished from China after the 1989 Tiananmen incident, was the first German sinologist to introduce the astounding breadth of Taiwan’s literary production, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Where Domes emphasised neutrality and objectivity, and where Martin articulated subjectivity, Bruce clearly took a stand. His distrust of the KMT can also be attributed to his personal encounters. After the 28 February 1980 murders of Lin I-hsiung’s mother and daughters, Bruce was detained, placed under house arrest and then finally barred from returning to Taiwan for 12 years.

Bruce belonged to the almost lost generation of professors who were able to be promoted without having to write long books early in their careers. Instead he was able to write books later in his lifetime, summarising his collected experience and wisdom. His two books which I recommend are The Kaohsiung Incident in Taiwan and Memoirs of a Foreign Big Beard (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016) and Democratizing Taiwan (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012). He was most recently working on Taiwan’s history.

I and all who knew him will miss him greatly!

Jens Damm is a board member of the European Association of Taiwan Studies and an Associate Fellow at the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT), Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen, Germany. Between 2009 and 2019 he was an Associate Professor at the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Studies, Chang Jung University, Taiwan. His research interests include the new media and the Internet, the Taiwanese and Chinese diasporas, and gender studies.

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