Shared but Particular: A Proposal to Pitch Taiwan Research in Sinology and beyond

Written by Josie-Marie Perkuhn and Hung-yi Chien.

Image credit: Gate of ROC National Central Library with ROC flags by 和平奮鬥救地球/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 4.0.

24 February 2022 became a historic turning point. On that day, Russia invaded Ukraine and changed the international security order we had been accustomed to. Quickly, Russia’s actions cast a long shadow over East Asia. Beijing’s reaction is still an intriguing question. From an economic perspective, it would seem that Beijing has no interest in Russia’s war since it might vitiate Beijing’s global agenda of connectivity via the Belt and Road Initiative. As of now, Beijing is not only Russia’s largest trading partner but also Ukraine’s. Yet, the interdependence with Russia demands Beijing to side with Putin’s agenda. While Beijing has to find its own position in the reorganised international order, the encroachment of the international security architecture results in a renewed assessment of the Taiwan question. Within a few hours after the Russian invasion, many observers raised their concern about the impact on Taiwan and the likelihood of growing tensions in the cross-strait relations: the rumour was that Russia’s action could function as a ‘blueprint’ for Beijing. As far-fetched as it might sound in the first place, there are reasonable arguments for that comparison to debate. Whether fact-based or theory-driven, we propose that the disciplinary cross-perspectives research of Taiwan needs to be strengthened to understand how the escalated situation affects Taiwan’s status and the study of sinology.

A month after the attack, opinions among the academic community are still divided. How will the current international situation affect the political status of Taiwan remains unclear. Geo-strategically, Taiwan has a contested central location and is similar in strategical relevance for power expansion as Ukraine is for Moscow. Geographically, Taiwan is an island with a unique geography that hinders a violent invasion, so the assumption of being a blueprint is rather rated as unlikely. Nevertheless, the US response to the invasion of Ukraine was to send former key officials and military members to Taipei, including Navy Adm. Michael Mullen and former Under Secretary of Defence Michele Flournoy. This response can be seen as a warning to Beijing not to misuse a possible power vacuum to change the status quo. While in the People’s Republic, the two camps are bickering with each other –the patient in favour of waiting vs the impatient favouring to push forward more quickly– the current situation intensifies their polarisation. This has also been perceived among observers in Taiwan.  However, the debate seems to have diverged. Although Russia’s violent actions are perceived in Beijing as contrary to international law by threatening sovereignty, the outbreak of a ‘hot conflict’ undermines the postulated approach of harmony insofar that it counteracts their proposed “autocratic harmonic alternative.” How that impacts cross-strait relations might relate to the political party dynamics within Taiwan’s democracy and international alliances. However, while the West is distracted, the situation allows Beijing to exert even more political pressure and influence on Taipei. Given the complex political situation, citizens in Taiwan might feel threatened.

The comparison between Ukraine and Taiwan has several points of similarity. Besides the hostile powers’ territorial claims to achieve their geopolitical ambitions, a prominent aspect is the shared historical and cultural heritages with that hostile other. However, shared heritages do not always cause trouble but can facilitate communication and understanding. The understanding of shared heritages creating particular social and political situations requires in-depth knowledge and interdisciplinary approaches across perspectives of different disciplines and cultural history. In an interconnected world, a singular entity’s development is not isolated from the global context – even if perceived as placed in the periphery. As Japanese scholar Masahiro Wakabayashi (若林正丈) argues, “Taiwanese identity can be understood as a consequence of real and deep historical experiences through multiple changes of nationality of a particular peripherality. Taiwanese nationalism is an outcome of its unsettled status on the periphery.”  This is not only the self-assessment of the periphery against the background of a great power-play in international politics but also the particular political, social, and relational context of the Chinese mainland that occurred over the last century. Moreover, this development is unique in hindsight and has led to a “peculiar Taiwanese-made Chineseness.”

Furthermore, the focus on Taiwan promises value for the academic community. Taiwan is a world actor and is a subject to developing its agency via trends in international relations. It is crucial to recognise that Taiwan is a subject emerging from the global megatrends in the past four centuries. Therefore, the study of Sinology is a good example that expands over the national borders to regard the multifaceted layers of international politics and international relations. Like Ukraine, the complexity of Taiwan’s self-identification process over the last centuries influences melting together demands for cross-perspective insights of diverse disciplines.

In particular, Taiwan’s democratic system is a pioneer in Asia and is important for many researchers. Therefore, we see Taiwan as a political and social pioneer. This has become particularly clear in the successful containment of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and the pioneering position concerning digitisation. With the establishment of a digital ministry under Audrey Tang (唐鳳), new forms for participation were created, e.g. “liquid democracy.” Taiwan is also breaking new ground in environmental policy and in the awareness of the Anthropocene. It thus poses a good example of creating coping strategies when dealing with global challenges. Given the intriguing history of being confronted with challenges and creating societal solutions, an in-depth study of Taiwan in history and presence will add to the scope and understanding of the Sinitic knowledge. Language is a key to that understanding.

Today, studying Sinitic languages in free and democratic Taiwan is an attractive option for young sinologists. Taiwan also embraces the positive results of its shared Chinese heritage by founding scholarships and supporting research projects to encourage Taiwan studies. As a settler colony constituted by Chinese immigrants coming to Taiwan in different periods, Taiwan’s mainstream culture is still Sinitic. We use “Sinitic” rather than “Chinese” to emphasise the cultural aspects of shared heritage between Taiwan and China. Moreover, such a phrase avoids the People’s Republic of China’s territorial claim over Taiwan. The “Sinitic-ness” is also the reason to justify sinology’s involvement in Taiwan studies. Students of Taiwan studies need Sinitic languages to study Taiwan, namely Classical Chinese, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Hakka. They cannot learn these languages in other departments in universities. However, just as all these Sinitic languages have their Taiwanese varieties, sinologists should keep these in mind when studying Taiwan through the research tools and particular insights in sinology.

As a discipline of centuries-long tradition, how can sinology address Taiwan’s particular situations? Linking Taiwan to international academic dialogues through sinology is a potential solution. Sinologists have no intention to monopolise Taiwan or China studies but welcome more scholars to join them. However, language, cultural, and even institutional barriers segregated scholars interested in Taiwan into their communities. They need mediators, and sinologists can play this role. For studying sinology, international cooperation with Taiwan has extended intensively into various subjects and outgrows the international sinology community. A community that currently tends to be disunited by polarisation.

A broadened community would probably further polarisation and lead to diverse research topics and perspectives. Cross-cutting interdisciplinarity is what Taiwan studies desperately need now. Unlike sinology with a focus on China, which always has various issues in an extended historical spectrum, topics of Taiwan studies in Western languages over-concentrate on scientific, social problems in contemporary Taiwan. On the other side of the globe, Taiwan studies in the Japanese language also draw too much attention to Japan-related topics. Taiwanese scholars studying Taiwan, on the contrary, are usually not considered sinologists, but they do Taiwan studies. However, they typically constrain themselves to domestic issues and stay absent from dialogues with the international community.

Yet another great power’s play might lead to a new era of ‘unforgettable others’ impacting the so-called periphery. In light of the current international situation, we think that especially the academic dialogue concerning cross-cutting perspectives of shared but particular common history is duly needed for in-depth insights and ties across borders. For the discipline of sinology, we propose to pitch a focus on Taiwan research. In the future, this focus might even result in an institutionalised Taiwan focus on sinology. To strengthen the research community, joint approaches for the Study of Taiwan in all its richness of perspectives are needed to understand the complexity of how local innovation arises against the background of the 21st century’s megatrends.

Therefore, we call for a more comprehensive cross-perspective and interdisciplinary academic dialogue to encounter the current segregations and broaden the community by strengthening the interconnectivity. Although some topics, such as identity politics and the cross-strait tension, have caught particular attention in recent years, Taiwan studies still lack some ‘infrastructure’ that helps new students of Taiwan to grow upon it. With this sort of infrastructure, even if Taiwan lose its existence as an independent entity in the future, the shared discipline of sinology researching Taiwan, in particular, will last, and Sinitic knowledge will become the common heritage of human beings.

Dr Josie-Marie Perkuhn started in February 2022 as head of the joint postdoc research project Taiwan as Pioneer (TAP), hosted by the Sinology at the University of Trier. Besides her research focus on Taiwan and innovation, her research interests include Foreign Policy Analysis and China’s role in international relations. She studied political science and sinology at the University of Heidelberg, where she received her PhD in 2018. In 2017, she received a Taiwan Fellowship for her research at the NCCU. Since 2018, she is also a non-resident fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK).

Dr Chien Hung-yi has participated in the joint research project at Ruhr-Universität Bochum since February 2022. In TAP, she studies the modern education system in Taiwan and its contribution to the island nation’s modernisation. She graduated from National Taiwan Normal University in 2017 and researched in Academia Sinica (Taiwan) and National Taipei University of Education as a postdoctoral researcher.

This article is published as part of a special issue on European Association of Taiwan Studies.


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