A Reflection on ‘Taiwan Studies’ as a Discipline in and of Itself

Written by Niki Alsford.

Image credit: SOAS Centre of Taiwan Studies/ Facebook.

Debates surrounding the positionality of Taiwan Studies are cyclical. Every academic entering or existing within the field gets ‘Formosan Anxiety’ at some point over the discipline’s future. Some scholars, both past and present, are more pessimistic than others.

Back in the early noughties, this pessimism sat predominately within American academia. Shelly Rigger, in 2002 argued that Taiwan Studies occupied ‘a marginal position’ within the field of Chinese studies (p. 50), whilst at the same time acknowledging that those who are interested in China cannot ignore Taiwan entirely. Shih Shu-mei, the following year saw the study of Taiwan as being ‘an impossible task’ since ‘Taiwan is already written out of mainstream Western discourse due to its insignificance’ (p. 144). She continued, observing that ‘Taiwan was all but illegible to most, since knowing Taiwan does not carry ‘value’, either symbolic or material, as the significance required for value production is either missing or not recognised’. This pessimism crossed the Atlantic in 2009 and surfaced in the keynote speech at the Sixth Annual Conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS) in Madrid, Spain. Murray Rubinstein of Columbia University carried his keynote title: ‘Is Taiwan Studies Dead?’ After the talk’s delivery, a restless, edge-of-the-seat Q&A session followed. That moment, Rubinstein reflects, was enough to re-energise him into believing that far from being dead, the field had taken up a whole new life.

The title of the keynote speech in 2009 prompted Jonathan Sullivan two years later to publish an article in the China Quarterly that posed a similar question: whether Taiwan Studies was in decline and to what extent the study of China impacted it. Sullivan argued that rather than lament the ‘vigorous growth of China and China studies’, those engaging with the study of Taiwan should seek ways to ‘adapt to these conditions and thrive’ (p. 718). Fast forward to 2015, when the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) hosted the Second World Congress of Taiwan Studies, a congress in which Taiwanologists proposed to (re)define the state of the field for Taiwan Studies.

An energised Murray Rubinstein gave the opening Keynote Speech for the congress. He addressed the crowd of gatherers on the state of the field. He expressed his belief that the writings of Taiwan can be disseminated into four periods, each of which having been written at critical junctures in Taiwan’s past. He termed the first of these junctures a proto-period: one that extends from the accounts of the Dutch in 1604 that was followed by a lengthy prelude extending to 1959. Rubinstein used the date as an important marker with the arrival of the American Fullbright/Foundation Scholarly Exchange researchers who came to see Taiwan as a surrogate for the closed China they wished to study. For Rubinstein, this second period ended abruptly in 1978, shortly before the United States shifted diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. This ‘international limbo’ period covered the years from 1979 to 1999 in which ‘Taiwan as China’ started to be put to bed and the field of study began to change radically. Rubinstein argued that this was truly a distinctive first period in the study of modern Taiwan. Moreover, Taiwan Studies began to emerge as a kind of ‘thing in and of itself’ in which Taiwan was represented as a new ‘historical-political-economic socio-cultural entity’. The period that followed, I have argued elsewhere, was a ‘A New Hope’ for the field, and one that extended from the start of the noughties when the field evolved within the larger contexts of significant political change within Taiwan.

Each of these periods reflects differently on what Taiwan is and what Taiwan isn’t. My understanding follows that Taiwan, geographically speaking, sits on the edge of a continent. That continent is Asia. Equally, Taiwan sits on the edge of an Ocean: the Pacific. How one frames Taiwan depends largely on what questions are being asked. Thus, Taiwan can be understood in its relative and absolute landscapes. Taiwan is an island. This is absolute. Taiwan’s mountain range extends from the island’s north to the south. This central backbone is too absolute. Its history of settlement, migration, conflict, and colonialism has developed its landscape in a relative context. How one interprets this thus depends on whom one asks. In their recent article, Josie-Marie Perkuhn and Hung-yi Chien argue that an emphasis on the historical and cultural heritage shared by Taiwan and China can facilitate communication and thus reduce the potential for future conflict. The basis for this analysis rests predominately on language. Although this proposal is not new, it continues to form the basis of most constructivist views on Taiwan’s international relations. What is more, since education in Taiwan is conducted predominantly in Mandarin, and with most of the population speaking a Sinitic language at home, it is understandable why this view is presented so often.

The short-sightedness within the Perkuhn and Chien debate rests within their call for a broader intellectual connection between China and Taiwan, with a proposal that the field of Taiwan Studies, as an academic discipline, should accompany and join wider academic dialogues in Sinology to avoid self-segregation and polarisation. The problem with this suggestion is that it is predicated on a monocultural way of viewing Taiwan and one that considers the island through a colonial lens. However, attention to this was made by the authors in using the term ‘Sinitic’ rather than ‘Chinese’ to avoid relating their proposal to current territorial claims made by the PRC. Perkuhn and Chien are not the first to propose a change of tack. For example, Gunter Schubert at Tubingen University has regularly touted the need to shift toward a more ‘Cross-Strait Studies perspective’ in understanding Taiwan. This was elucidated in the Tubingen Manifesto that Schubert unveiled at the Third World Congress of Taiwan Studies held at Academia Sinica in 2018. In it, Schubert proposed that Taiwan Studies could make an effective argument only as a complement to China Studies. In the same vein, Margaret Hillenbrand has suggested that Taiwan Studies should operate as a merger. So instead ‘of the side-by-side, sealed-off methodologies of comparativism’, the study of Taiwan would achieve greater integration into the disciplines if we were less possessive about it.

The foundation of this ‘Formosan Anxiety’, I believe, rests predominately in the many hats that, as academics, we are expected to wear. I am fortunate that my research and my teaching focus on Taiwan and its wider connection to the Asia Pacific region. Although my academic training has positioned me to be able to teach and research China, I am not expected to do so by my institution. This reality, however, is not shared by many of my colleagues, and as such, it is my view that this contrasting expectation leads to periods of anxiety within the state of the field.

To conclude, Taiwan Studies exists as an academic discipline because those who engage with it—whether in the continental or oceanic stories—care deeply about it. Debates surrounding its positionality will continue in an almost cyclical context because the anxieties academics have about the future of the field are shaped by the very concerns that we are all facing in a continued onslaught on languages, humanities, and social sciences at academic institutes across the globe. The future-proofing of the discipline rests in encouraging our students to engage with and think about Taiwan. After all, it is a brilliant island to study.

Niki Alsford is a Professor in Asia Pacific Studies and Head of the Asia Pacific Institutes at the University of Central Lancashire. He is also a Research Associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS, University of London. Alsford’s research focuses primarily on comparative anthropology within the Asia Pacific region. Chief among these is an engagement with Taiwan Indigenous studies and its links to wider discussions on Austronesian migration and the maritime cultures of Pacific islands. His present work bridges the cognitive divide in environmental discussions between Indigenous knowledge and climate science. He is the author of Transitions to Modernity in Taiwan: The Spirit of 1895 and the Cession of Formosa to Japan, published by Routledge in 2017. In addition, he is book series editor for the Taiwan series at BRILL and the Korean series at Routledge.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Reflections on Taiwan Studies”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s