Writing the history of Taiwan’s animals

Written By Cheng Li-jung.

Image Credit: Lin Wang and Sun Li-jen License: Public Domain

In recent years, “Animal writing” is a developing issue in literary research. Many studies have given a focus on animals and social culture since the 1980s. They combined with cross-field animal research and attempted to rethink the history of animals in the context of ecological ethics and animal protection. Now it can be said that animal history is a new historical perspective and emerging field.

As early as July 2003, historian Li, Chien-hui edited a special issue on animal research in the journal “Chung Wai Literature” in Taiwan, introducing an important thesis and research of animal study and local experience. It is a pity that researchers on Taiwan’s animal history were then seldom. Still, there are now many studies on Taiwan’s animal history today. Animal studies, today, may directly influence research in other disciplines, or it may be related to the background of the times. In particular, it may be related to Taiwan’s social democratization, urbanization, and animal protection movements. 

My research on Taiwan’s animal history is also affected by social changes. In historical research, I often see biographies of human characters. Inspired by this, I began to explore in 2007, whether it is possible to write biographies of certain animals in academic research. This is because I perceive my cat as part of my family, and I want to record its life story and its ethnic groups’ history. Since there is no way to immediately master the method of writing an academic article about my cat story, I first mapped out a history of the circus in Taiwan, which was the subject of animal migration and exhibition performances. And then it seemed to open a door, leading me to an unimaginable world. I began to study the history of animal protection in Taiwan, the life of animal breeding in the gardens of large families in Taiwan, the life and death of animals in Taiwan expositions, museums and zoos, and the history of recreational hunting. I also wrote some short articles for public history websites. There are about my family memories of animal cartoons, animal burial stories, cultural history of animal specimens, and animal birth control stories.

Of course, I am not alone; like myself, many Taiwan researchers have gradually embarked on the path of animal research. Although animals were not the subject of research in the history of Taiwan in the past, some studies have been able to highlight the importance of animals in human society. However, most articles emphasize the role of people and ignore the agency of animals. Scholarly research that was more mindful of new thinking about Taiwan’s animal history was mainly written in the 21st century. This is because master and doctoral dissertations have the function of leading or reflecting major research trends in academic research. In the past two decades, there have been over 20 kinds of dissertations related to Taiwan’s animal history. Most of them are about the history of economic animals and companion animals, including cows, horses, farm animals, aquaculture, dogs, and cats. On the other hand, there is also research on stray animals, as well as wildlife-related history in Taiwan.

A new focus of writing animal history is to understand animals as a specific form of life and to write about the various cultural interactions between animals and human. For example, since the historical research coming from Taiwan Zoo not only cared about the power and education of the country, it also explored the complicated relationship between animals and people from an emotional side. A researcher used a traditional poem published in the early 20th century to describe the process of “vivisection” on experimental dogs, to excavate the early animal consciousness in modern Taiwan. I also tried to rewrite the life story of Lin Wang (pictured above), the most famous zoo elephant in Taiwan. Instead of looking at its life from a traditional national narrative, I went back to explore the biological nature of elephants. His story was about how he was brought from the forests of Southeast Asia to Taiwan. This story is to help people think about how such animals are treated in human society and how we can respond to this.

In the process of studying animal history, I got to know researchers in many different fields, including sociology, literature, public policy, philosophy, art, animal science, etc. There are even many animal advocates who care about the rights or welfare of animals. We got together because of these animals; we also read related books and held seminars. We gradually became a cross-domain community and sought a future harmonious relationship between man and nature.

By 2020, the first year of the covid-19 epidemic, animal research has also attracted academic attention. In the second half of this year, Taiwan has held more academic seminars on animals than in previous years. In the field of history, more people have seen the arrival of “animal turn.”

When Taiwan’s animal stories are written, people and animals in Taiwan’s historical stage become actors. Their encounters and mutual interactions are the content of this play. Moreover, we can also see the emergence of a unique Taiwanese historical background and geographical environment. All these actors are intertwined with time and space as one in these stories. In addition to these local factors, the future of writing animal history may also meet the needs of our new era, such as globalization and a sustainable future. This is not just about telling the story of human heroes; it concerns the agency of animals and writing stories about the close interaction between humans and animals.

Li-jung Cheng is an assistant professor of Taiwanese history at Chengchi University. Her Research interests are animal history, family history, and modern history of Taiwan. She Lives in Taipei with two cats.

This article was published as part of a special issue on animals and society in Taiwan.

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