A Further Response to Sinology’s Involvement in Taiwan Studies

Written by Hung-yi Chien.

Image credit: image provided by the author.

In mid-April 2022, Dr Josie-Marie Perkuhn and I published a blog entry on Taiwan Insight to justify the involvement of sinology in Taiwan studies. Our original purpose was to “cast a brick to attract a jade” or “pao zhuan yin yu” and make the ball rolling. Our modest proposal attracted Prof. Wang and Prof. Achen’s valuable response, though in objection. They also published their article in Chinese to stir more discussion. I feel happy to see the broadened forum and reactions, but I also find some misunderstanding of our original idea from the audience, especially among Taiwanese scholars. Therefore, I am compelled to reply to Prof. Wang and Prof. Achen’s challenge.

Because my response is based on my own experiences and observations, I would single-author this reply, but Dr Perkuhn is informed. I also treat “sinology” as a synonym for “China studies;” Prof. Wang and Prof. Achen used both. These two terms have different approaches, but their distinction seems blurred in this debate. Nevertheless, my reply will concern the placement of Taiwan studies programs in universities, for a subject cannot survive without incoming students. Moreover, it further elaborates the concept of “infrastructure” in Taiwan studies. The theoretical conceptualisation of Taiwan studies is another broad issue, which is too complicated for this short article.

Rising Taiwanese Identity Did Not Guarantee Taiwan Studies in Taiwan

The strongest argument in Prof. Wang and Prof. Achen’s article is citing the rapidly growing Taiwanese identity to justify Taiwan studies as a distinct field. But unfortunately, the development of Taiwan studies in Taiwan did not support this optimism. My observation in Taiwan is quite the contrary.

I am a brainchild of the rising Taiwanese identity in the 2000s. When I finished my bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington in 2006, I felt called to study in Taiwan, my home country. I started my master’s study in Taiwanese Culture at the National Taipei University of Education in 2007. I was also enrolled simultaneously in the graduate institute of International Sinology at the National Taiwan Normal University. This dual-enrolment allowed me to take more Taiwan-related courses. In 2017, I finished my PhD from the Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages and Literature at the National Taiwan Normal University. Both of my master’s and doctoral degrees are from Taiwan studies programs.

From 2007 to 2017, despite the rise of Taiwanese identity, I also witnessed the rise and fall of Taiwan studies programs in Taiwan, especially in the field of Taiwan literature. Two graduate programs changed their names to attract more students in 2011 and 2015, and one undergraduate program was closed in 2016. In recent years, scholars in Taiwan literature have considered the Sinophone theory as a chance to internationalise Taiwan’s humanities studies. They are embracing the “Sino-” affix! Even though the number of Taiwan studies programs remained stable in recent years, many face fewer applicants, and their graduates face severe challenges in the job market. These difficulties are rarely appreciated by privileged scholars who succeed in Taiwan studies as their careers.

Taiwan studies programs are classified into two categories in Taiwan’s educational statistics: 1) literature, language, and culture, and 2) history. Strangely, there are many undergraduate and graduate programs in Taiwan culture and literature, but only two graduate programs specialise in Taiwan history. This imbalance has remained a big question in my mind since the first year of my graduate study. A possible answer may be that Taiwan literature was not a legitimate subject in Chinese literature departments in the 1990s. Therefore, the pioneers of Taiwan literature studies felt the need for a radical change by establishing a subject distinct from the Chinese literature, which resulted in the significant growth of Taiwan literature programs in the 2000s.

On the other hand, establishing Taiwan history as a legitimate subject in history departments took a moderate approach. After the lift of martial law in 1987, history departments gradually created Taiwan history courses in their curricula. New graduate programs in Taiwan also emphasised the study of Taiwan history, and the number of master theses focusing on Taiwan history grew significantly in the 1990s. All these happened before establishing two graduate programs dedicated to Taiwan history in 2004. Today, no history department can neglect Taiwan history in their curricula. History departments have trained more Taiwan history specialists than the two graduate programs in Taiwan history have done in the past two decades. People may learn from the experience of developing the Taiwan history programme about the importance of growing from the existing foundation to survive in the storm of the higher education crisis. I believe this lesson applies to all higher education institutions within and outside Taiwan.

An Elaboration on “Infrastructure” outside Taiwan

Nevertheless, I have never argued for incorporating Taiwan studies into sinology. Prof. Wang and Prof. Achen’s hypothetical question introduces their argument based on the rise of Taiwanese identity, which I have already discussed above. In fact, I argued that sinology might play the role of mediator to lower the language, cultural, and even institutional barriers and to spread Taiwan studies to the next generation. Prof. Wang and Prof. Achen also felt confused with the term “infrastructure” argued by Dr Perkuhn and me, but we have already defined it as something that “helps new students of Taiwan to grow upon” in the previous article.

I would limit the discussion of “infrastructure” to universities outside Taiwan, for Taiwan studies face more challenges in these international higher education institutes. Except for the relatively organised School of Oriental and African Studies in London, most Taiwan studies “programs” are constituted by some Taiwan-related courses. For example, at the University of Washington, my alma mater, the Taiwan Studies Program is neither an undergraduate major nor minor in the Jackson School of International Studies. If I were an undergraduate student at the UW today, I would still need to major in Asian Studies or take a China Studies minor to complete my bachelor’s degree. I have no intention of blaming the efforts across the world to organise Taiwan studies programs in universities. Still, the immaturity of Taiwan studies in international higher education today is an inconvenient truth.

Thus, it is necessary to discuss what kind of infrastructure is required to help new students of Taiwan to enter this field. I believe the most critical competencies are 1) the knowledge about Taiwan and 2) the comprehension of the languages spoken in Taiwan. We cannot and need not build a program to teach these fundamental competencies from scratch. The approach taken by most Taiwan studies programs overseas is to develop courses within the existing curricula. Each university has its tradition and establishment. In a university where sinology is available, sinology is the most viable way to implement Taiwan studies. In sinology departments, students may learn Sinitic languages and the knowledge about Taiwan in the existing program. We may expect Taiwan studies would grow up into an independent program in the future, but, currently, it still needs sinology to nurture it.

The Case of German-Speaking Countries

Prof. Wang and Prof. Achen listed several university centres for the study of Taiwan and argued that “all these centres have status independent of China studies.” This observation corresponds to an Anglo-American and social scientist’s perspective. However, in German-speaking countries, sinology departments, in a broader sense, organise the Taiwan Studies Projects funded by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education. So for example, Professors of Chinese Studies direct the European Research Centre of Contemporary Taiwan at Universität Tübingen. Moreover, two sinology professors also chair the Research Unit for Taiwanese Culture and Literature at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. At the same time, the Vienna Center for Taiwan Studies at Universität Wien is linked to the sinology department. And finally, the University of Trier does not have a research unit for Taiwan studies but rather leads the joint project “Taiwan as Pioneer” and organises it under the sinology department. These sinology departments and professors have devoted significant efforts to promoting Taiwan studies, and German and Taiwanese funding agencies recognise their efforts.

In short, I would argue that “being Sinitic” is not inconceivable. New students of Taiwan studies in overseas countries need elements of sinology to grow up. The lesson from the Taiwan studies programmes in Taiwanese universities suggests that a new discipline requires a fertile ground to nurture it. In countries where sinology is available, this “politically incorrect” discipline is inevitable to play an important role in recruiting new students to Taiwan studies. I wish all these students will be able to differentiate Taiwan from China, and we may entrust the future of Taiwan studies to them.

Dr Hung-yi Chien has participated in the joint research project “Taiwan as Pioneer” (TAP) 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), National Taiwan Normal University International Center of Taiwan Studies, and National Taipei University of Education as a postdoctoral researcher. She is the co-editor of An Illustrated History of Taipei Normal (圖說臺北師範校史, 2013 and 2016) and the author of Wild Sunflower (野生的太陽花, 2014).

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