Taiwan Studies and Sinology: A Curriculum Perspective

Written by Henning Klöter.

Image credit: Humboldt University of Berlin by Sami Mlouhi/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 4.0.

The past months saw a controversial debate about the position of Taiwan studies vis-à-vis sinology. Whereas the debate has revealed much of the issue’s complexity, some important arguments that have been hinted at arguably need to be foregrounded more explicitly. In her “further response” of 30 May 2022, Hung-yi Chien makes an important argument by distinguishing between Taiwan studies inside and outside Taiwan. The significance of this distinction cannot be overstated. In fact, this very distinction highlights aspects of the debate that would otherwise get confused. To state the obvious, applying the same criteria to the institutional embedding of Taiwan studies inside and outside Taiwan is virtually impossible. The need to distinguish the inside from the outside becomes especially obvious when we look at the curricular embedding of Taiwan studies. Unfortunately, this aspect has not received much attention in the debate.

The contributions by Perkuhn and Chien, Wang and Achen and again Chien mention some successful examples of Taiwan studies centres and associations in the US, the UK and mainland Europe. The core of Wang’s and Achen’s argument is that all of them can and should do without sinology. So far, so good. But if we look at the sustainability of Taiwan studies, we need to look beyond centres and associations and ask how the field can attract new cohorts of students and what they expect to learn. In other words, we need to discuss how the study of Taiwan should be integrated into existing curricula or whether Taiwan needs a curriculum in its own right. To the best of my knowledge, except for SOAS in London, none of the centres mentioned in the previous debate comes with an independent Taiwan studies curriculum.

In most cases, studying Taiwan in Europe is integral to sinology or China studies. The two are sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes distinguished in that the former represents philological, literary, and historical approaches and the latter the shift to social sciences. In any case, whereas Wang and Achen argue against the “proposed integration of Taiwan studies into sinology,” it is obvious that this integration is already firmly established on a curricular level. But what are the reasons behind the ongoing curricular liaison between Taiwan studies and sinology described and defended by Perkuhn and Chien? I am not in a position to say anything about universities other than my own, but I assume that some of my experiences in curriculum development during the last 15 years can be generalised, at least to some extent. Generally speaking, there are two different answers, one is conceptual, and one is pragmatic.

The conceptual answer runs as follows: Any serious Taiwan studies program or curricular trajectory should aim at training students to understand Taiwan through texts written or spoken in a language that is of primary relevance to Taiwan. For more than 70 years and arguably much longer, this language has been Chinese. Thus, it is no coincidence that European students usually come to Taiwan (as a site of learning and a field of study) as Chinese language students. Against this background, it must be emphasised that the outstanding role of Taiwan’s Chinese language centres in fostering students’ interest in Taiwan tends to be neglected. Students enjoy high-quality Chinese language courses and a broad range of extracurricular activities that help them connect with various themes and topics relevant to Taiwan studies. Not to mention vibrant and diverse campus life, which often creates emotional bonds with the host country. My own trajectory towards Taiwan studies that started some 25 years ago would be unthinkable without these experiences. The same is true for my own students, be they undergraduate seminar participants or PhD students, who take an interest in or even focus on Taiwan.

In fact, the development in Europe over the past 20 years has shown that sinology or China studies can be beneficial to Taiwan studies. Established in 2004, the European Association of Taiwan Studies is now a firmly established and recognised academic institution; there are book series and one successful journal devoted to Taiwan studies. I assume that many (if not most) active members and contributors have a background in sinology or China studies. To be sure, one can argue that the study of Taiwan requires a broader range of linguistic competencies than “just” learning Chinese and that the linguistic link between Taiwan studies and sinology could be modified accordingly. There is certainly nothing to say against this, but the specific language competencies depend on the specialisation within Taiwan studies.

The pragmatic answer is shorter and unrelated to Taiwan but university bureaucracy. Establishing new graduate or undergraduate courses is a long and tedious process subject to strict scrutiny according to criteria such as student numbers, the long-term outlook in terms of intake and output, student perspectives on the job market, etc. Since resources are limited, and universities need to curb the overall number of programs, thresholds are inevitably high. Thus, it is very unlikely that an independent Taiwan studies program could evolve or survive under such administrative constraints. To put it plainly, why have a program for an annual cohort of, let us say, four students?

Irrespective of these constraints, there are also convincing conceptual arguments against establishing such programs. On the one hand, I share the reservation that a nexus with sinology could marginalise Taiwan. As pointed out above, reality has proven that this is not a necessary consequence of linking the two fields. On the other hand, it can be argued that an emphasis on Taiwan’s distinctness could conceal its various entanglements. A serious curriculum should not play the former off against the latter. Concretely speaking, understanding Taiwan’s distinctness within the multiple contexts of its linguistic, cultural, religious, economic, and political (dis-)connections is one of the remaining challenges of Taiwan studies. Thus, instead of separating Taiwan conceptually, creating curricular spaces that do justice to this complementarity is necessary without downgrading Taiwan to a footnote.

I do not mean to say that the curricular liaison between Taiwan and China studies is the only alternative to a ‘Taiwan only’ program and therefore set in stone. But instead of enforcing on Taiwan the conceptual mindset that underlies China studies, i.e., the definition of a region in terms of political boundaries, one could also question this very concept and try curricular alternatives, for example, by creating broader trajectories in (East) Asian Studies that systematically complement regional foci and transregional perspectives. This is the approach we take in my home institute, the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. On a conceptual level, this approach avoids the awkward necessity of reproducing potentially misleading notions of political belonging. Moreover, in the case of Taiwan, it also allows for a more systematic curricular integration of ties with Japan and Southeast Asia. In practice, however, my seminars on Taiwan are mostly attended by Chinese language students who plan to study or who have returned from a study stay in Taiwan. Against this background, the recent announcement of the Taiwanese government to re-open borders for international students is expected to boost Taiwan studies.

Henning Klöter (PhD Leiden University, 2003) is a Professor of Modern Chinese Languages and Literatures at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and is currently director of the Institute of Asian and African Studies at the same university. He has previously held positions at the universities of Göttingen, Mainz, Bochum, and Taiwan Normal University. His major publications are Written Taiwanese (Harrassowitz 2005) and The Language of the Sangleys: A Chinese vernacular in missionary documents of the seventeenth century (Brill 2011). His current research is concerned with language planning, multilingualism and language variation in China and Taiwan.

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