A Dialogue about Situating Taiwan Research within Academia

Written by T.Y. Wang and Christopher H. Achen.

Image credit: HK Quarry Bay 太古城中心 CityPlaza mall shop Eslite Bookstore Taiwan studies items July 2021 by CHANGIMN SANGO Leigcz/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 4.0.

The tensions between Beijing and Taipei raise the question of what the field of Taiwan studies can do to reduce polarisation and the threat of war. A recent post by Josie-Marie Perkuhn and Hung-yi Chien argues that “the shared historical and cultural heritages…can facilitate communication and understanding” between Taiwan and China. However, they are concerned that scholars studying Taiwan have been segregated into their own narrow community, focused too much on Taiwan domestic issues and not engaging enough with sinology studies generally. They suggest that “academic dialogue concerning cross-cutting perspectives of shared but particular common history is duly needed for in-depth insights and ties across borders.”

To achieve broader intellectual connections for Taiwan studies, Perkuhn and Chien make a creative suggestion: “Linking Taiwan to international academic dialogues through sinology is a potential solution.” They suggest that the study of Taiwan should be integrated into broader structures focused on “Sinitic” people generally—sinology. “With this sort of infrastructure,” they propose, “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.”

The proposed integration of Taiwan studies into sinology might be purely intellectual, with individual scholars adopting a broader geographic range for their work and perhaps a more interdisciplinary style as well. But intellectual integration tends not to occur when scholars occupy different university centres, often located in various campus buildings. Integration usually requires a shared centre, perhaps the sinology “infrastructure” that Perkuhn and Chien have in mind. They remark: “In the future, this focus [of Taiwan research] might even result in an institutionalised focus on sinology.” They do not spell out their preferred institutional structures, but we feel that it is important to think through not just the intellectual consequences that would follow from embedding Taiwan studies within sinology but the organisational changes that likely would be needed as well.

At present, most university centres for the study of Taiwan have a structure that places them within East Asian or Asian studies, but not in a sinology centre. For example, the Centre of Taiwan Studies at the University of London is part of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). At the University of Nottingham, the Asia Research Institute houses the Taiwan Studies Programme. In the U.S., Taiwan studies programs at the University of Texas, UCLA, the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Washington, and the University of South Carolina have similar arrangements. In addition, the University of California, San Diego, has a free-standing centre for Taiwan studies.

Critically, however, all these centres have status independent of China studies. They are not blended into sinology centres. They have the same organisational standing as programs for China, Japan, and Korea.

Parallel developments have occurred in professional organisations. In political science, the field we know best, Taiwan studies were a marginalised part of China studies forty years ago. In 1990, a group of scholars established the Conference Group on Taiwan Study (CGOTS) as a “related group” of the American Political Science Association (APSA). The goal was to change the status of Taiwan studies from a peripheral field within China scholarship to an independent research group that treated Taiwan as worthy of study in its own right. The interdisciplinary North American Taiwan Studies Association was created in 1994 for the same reasons. The European Association of Taiwan Studies followed in 2004.

All these university centres and international research organisations devoted to Taiwan are organised differently than Perkuhn and Chien seem to recommend. They are not part of a sinology “infrastructure.” Instead, they have their own standing.

Why has this organisational pattern been developed, copied, and then endlessly recopied? The reason is simply that no other structure would give Taiwan the same prominence, and no other structure would provide the same focus and intellectual exchange about Taiwan that makes sustained research productivity possible. As Perkuhn and Chien note, Taiwan has offered ample topics for scholarly research across disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Voluminous studies have been generated on such important issues as languages, identity, environmental issues, LGBTQ+ people, social justice, democracy and cross-Strait relations, much of it done with an interdisciplinary approach. The recent volume, Taiwan Studies Revisited by Dafydd Fell and Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, reviews the history and success of the field. Thus, the right organisational structure enhances clout, accumulates resources, and galvanises productivity.

None of this should be a surprise. One of the key insights of the classic twentieth-century political science pluralists was that organised groups have power, and most unorganised groups do not. Hence, the ubiquity of scholarly organisations representing particular groups and interests. An equally important pluralist insight, less well-remembered but repeatedly rediscovered, is that weak minorities within organised groups are routinely ignored or overridden by the majority. If you want to be consequential, you need an organised group, and it has to be your own group.

Evidence for that proposition is all around us. Does anyone imagine that a British Isles Political Science Association would give Ireland equal attention? No such organisation exists. Instead, we have a (British) Political Studies Association and a Political Studies Association of Ireland, each with its own professional journal. Ireland is not simply a derivative culture easily understood as an alternate version or special case of the larger country next door. Similar arguments apply to Austria, Canada, and several other countries worldwide, each of which has a distinct identity in spite of sharing a majority language and culture with an adjacent larger country.

If a smaller country has its own scholarly associations and publications, the interesting and intellectually consequential developments that occur within its borders do not have to struggle with the limited space and limited attention spans of journal editors at the internationally dominant journals. Precisely due to the longstanding forum provided by CGOTS for political science scholars of Taiwan, Taiwan scholarship has become a very visible part of American political science. The APSA has allocated ten virtual panels to CGOTS for its 2021 annual conference and seven in-person panels for its upcoming 2022 conference, both likely the highest number of panels assigned to a related group in recent memory. Similarly, since 2018, the interdisciplinary International Journal of Taiwan Studies has been published at the University of London, with growing influence. Thus, on both sides of the Atlantic, the dedicated organisation has made a difference.

Yet, why not fold all this into sinology? Perkuhn and Chien correctly point out that Taiwan and China share the same cultural heritage. But does that imply that Taiwan studies are, in the end, a branch of sinology? This raises the issue of Taiwan studies most sharply. Whatever its eventual political status, is Taiwan, in the end, simply one aspect of a broader Sinitic culture? If so, then it is hard to see why Taiwan studies should not be incorporated into sinology. Separating it seemingly makes no sense and contributes to artificial polarisation, the last thing that China-Taiwan relations need in the current era, as Perkuhn and Chien note.

What this view ignores, however, is the rapidly growing Taiwanese identity on the island, particularly among the younger generation. More than 60% of the island citizens now view themselves as Taiwanese, while fewer than 5% are Chinese identifiers. They share a cultural heritage with China, but shared cultural heritage is one thing, and national identity is another. For more than a century, Taiwan’s history has diverged from the mainland’s. In our view, it is much too late to think of Taiwan’s culture as a derivative or alternate version of Chinese culture.

If Taiwan has become distinct, and if most of its citizens possess a distinct identity, then shouldn’t we have a distinct field of Taiwan studies, with its own centres, academic organisations, and publications? And shouldn’t it be the case that “an institutionalised Taiwan focus on sinology” is the wrong direction to go? Thus, we beg to differ with Perkuhn and Chien on their proposal to incorporate the study of Taiwan into sinology. Of course, sinology will always influence the study of Chinese-language areas like Taiwan; the two research fields can never be entirely separated. Perkuhn and Chien are certainly right about their central point that the more the two sides of the Taiwan Strait know about each other, the better off each will be, and the safer the rest of us are likely to be. Taiwan studies can help with that dialogue, as they note. Thus, we have every respect for the thoughtful contribution that Perkuhn and Chien have made.

We believe, however, that Taiwan’s distinctness requires focused scholarly attention from those who study it. The academic infrastructure that will make real progress and productivity possible is one in which the study of Taiwan is its own academic specialisation, equal in standing to the study of China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, or any other part of Asia with a distinct identity. In our opinion, the distinct institutional structures for Taiwan studies that have developed should be continued and strengthened. Journals dedicated to research on Taiwan should also be encouraged and strengthened to make them visible and widely cited as flagship publications like China Quarterly.

In our view, sinology may perhaps once have sufficed as an umbrella for Taiwan studies, but those days are gone. The field of Taiwan studies has grown to maturity, and it can stand now on its own two feet.

T.Y. Wang is the Department Chair of Politics and Government at Illinois State University and an ISU University Professor. He currently serves as the co-editor of the Journal of Asian and African Studies and was the Coordinator of the Conference Group of Taiwan Studies (CGOTS) of the American Political Science Association.

Christopher H. Achen is a professor emeritus in the Politics Department and the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus at Princeton University. He has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1995.

Achen and Wang coedited the Taiwan Voter, which was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2017.


  1. I highly recommend interested readers to take a look at these forum discussions: (1) Linking the Taiwan Studies and China Studies Fields (https://brill.com/view/journals/ijts/1/1/article-p193_193.xml); (2) Linking Taiwan Studies with the World (https://brill.com/view/journals/ijts/1/1/article-p209_209.xml); and (3) Delimiting ‘Cross-Strait Studies’: Kua’an vs. Liang’an (https://brill.com/view/journals/ijts/4/1/article-p163_163.xml). Many experienced scholars from different countries/regions have contributed to the discussions.


  2. [Josie-Marie Perkuhn] On a side note: We are happy to have contributed to this very interesting academic debate on the Taiwan Research and Taiwan Studies. We acknowledge the courtesy of sharing the piece prior publication with us for granting a response. Although I drafted the following comment already two weeks ago, I was encouraged by other colleagues to comment this publicly for deepening the discussion. In addition, I am aware of a much more profound answer written by my colleague and co-author Dr. Chien. Yet, I would like to roughly reply my humble response:

    From my point of view, I truly think that in times of declining student numbers in East Asian Studies, to split sources might not be the best way to pursue the goal of creating more interest and profound knowledge about the region. To understand where I am coming from, the disciplinary separation of Modern Chinese and Classical Chinese might be a good case to draw from. If Taiwan Studies is excluded from Sinology this would politically create, in my perspective, to give way parts of the Chinese Culture to the nation-driven politics of the PRC instead of emphasising the shared history. Yet, I do understand that there is a reasonable debate about how Taiwan is not a land-driven or land-defined subject but an ocean defined subject, so it should be researched in contrast to land-defined definitions, as presented at the EATS 2022 by colleagues from the UCLan, i.e. Prof. Niki J.P. Alsford in his key note. Coming from the study of International Relations, I probably will have to need more time to grasp that thought, yet, I am open to further thinking.

    In my personal view, I am convinced that to strengthen the focus from within the Sinology department would do good for the Taiwan research agenda and create more benefits, including: first, China Studies does not equal the study of PR China; Second, a spill-over to political China-strategy will have to include the knowledge of the Cross-straits relations and the importance of Taiwan to world politics in history and presence. (I think it would be a mistake to exclude this in institutional struggles about who’s field of study it is and it would probably segregate the students more, which might lead to blind spot the importance after all.) Third, an institutional integration within East Asia Studies sounds reasonable; as an academic Child of the tendency to Area Studies or East Asian Studies that took place in the last 15-20 Years in Germany I want to stress that we should not be misunderstood in our support for that. I am truly sorry, if that was misleading.

    Once again, just a quick summary of my notes distributed in a private E-Mail correspondence. As leader of the Postdoc-Research Team “Taiwan as Pioneer”- (TAP) we would be happy to continue that academic talk and see this dialogue as positive as timewise needed.

    Liked by 1 person

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