From Isolated Nation to Island Nation: Searching for Taiwan’s Place in the Wider World 

Written by Fiona Lin and Sam Robbins

Image credit: Taiwankengo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This article is the conclusion to a special series of translations from “Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour (尋找台灣味”). Each article is an abridged and translated version of a chapter from the book. Find all published articles here.

Notes from Fiona Lin: publisher of Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour 

2020 was the year that covid spread across the world. Because of this, the annual ‘Taipei international book festival’ had to be held online, and thus all the events, speeches and panels that major Taiwanese book publishers had planned had to be rethought. Everyone gathered online to share about new books. Reading is perhaps one of the best ways to calm the soul during the pandemic.

“Searching for Taiwan’s flavour: Agricultural Tales from across Southeast Asia and Taiwan”, written by the “Geography Team” from the Department of Geography, National Taiwan University, was released into the world under these circumstances. Luckily, the publishing date coincided with the online book festival, allowing authors to record videos introducing the book. Moreover, Taiwanese president Tsai Ying-Wen even recommended the book.

One year later, after many invitations to panels and interviews, this book based on stories fieldwork painted a picture of Taiwan’s connections to the world, especially Taiwan’s connections to Southeast Asia, which continued to attract much attention. By the end of 2021, this book was listed as one of the ten best books of the year at “Openbook’s book of the year awards”, the annual book awards in Taiwan. Po-yi also became a podcast host telling stories of Taiwanese food culture. 

Like a triage of synchronised stars, two books that dealt with similar themes were released in Mandarin in the same year. One was “Worldviews: The Origin and Journey of the Montane Plants in Taiwan”, published by Spring Hill Publishing; the other was “War, Trade and Piracy in the China Seas 1622-1683”, published by Acro Polis, all of which were received well by readers. 

“Worldviews” uses geography and biology to cover millions of years of history to explore how the alpine plant diversity that the Taiwanese are so proud of happened came to be. Finally, “War, Trade and Piracy” uses new historical material to place Taiwan in maritime history and explores how the Ye family and the Cheng group created trade links with Southeast Asia and India. 

All coincidences are reunions after an absence. 

Perhaps the fact that these three books were published at the same time is not a coincidence but rather reflects the sense in the publishing world that instead of focusing on the anxiety of Taiwanese identity, there is perhaps an alternative and more stable root that can be taken. Instead of focusing on “What is Taiwan” and “What isn’t Taiwan”, these three books take a much wider viewpoint and, by incorporating viewpoints from other corners of the earth, can reflect on one’s own position in new ways. Instead of being navel-gazing and narrow-minded nationalists, we can take a more cosmopolitan and global approach to understand the values and meanings of our own home. 

We don’t focus on what is the “real Taiwan” and instead focus on Taiwan’s connection to the wider world. The authors of this book use their data from fieldwork but break with traditional academic style and instead draw on the power of narrative to tell stories of how people and objects interact. This strategy is key to revealing what this book is most trying to say: “Taiwan” is not something that is limited within national borders; it is a process, it is a becoming. In each story, each character that appears, whether they are business people in Southeast Asia, farmers, or indigenous people, are also considering how to establish and maintain a business. They are figuring out how to grow and mix Taiwanese tea, or contemplating how to sell Taiwanese vegetables to a Thai market, or trying to use High Mountain tea to promote more local businesses. Each chapter is a unique story. I am thankful to these young people who are willing to spend time and effort turning their theses into moving stories. Because it is only through stories that we can help more readers come to appreciate that borders are constantly in flux. 

Crucially, this isn’t just about establishing a new Taiwanese identity but rather a process of constant reflection for all upon this island on how to have an open and thoughtful form of national identity. I am happy that “Searching for Taiwan Flavour” can be part of this process by using food, drink, nature and business in the foreground. 

Notes from Sam Robbins, Translator and Editor of Taiwan Insight’s special issue on Searching for Taiwan’s flavour. 

2020 was the year that I challenged myself to read more avidly in Chinese and to better familiarise myself with publications coming out of Taiwan. It was through my Professor, John Chung-En Liu, that I first heard of Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour, and motivated partly by his recommendation—and due to my own ignorance of Taiwanese agriculture—and also how the book promised to connect Taiwan to Southeast Asia, I decided to purchase a copy. 

Whilst I knew the book’s topics would be interesting, I didn’t expect to be so captivated by the storytelling used to discuss these topics. I had expected a somewhat academic and distant take on Taiwan’s agriculture and global connections. Still, I found myself following the authors through winding mountain paths, through the streets of Hanoi, and on journeys that rarely ended near where they started. These journeys were also often sojourning through time. There are stories of homecomings, new beginnings, and transformations told from the perspective of those experiencing these shifts in their daily lives. Indeed, the book feels deeply intimate: searching for Taiwan’s “flavour” is not just a question of what people eat but how people live. 

In a fashion that seems to parallel many of the choices many farmers and workers make throughout the book, my own project to produce an abridged translation of the book arose as somewhat of an accident. I had originally expected to ask Po-yi to write a summary of the book as a whole and then include excerpts from a couple of chapters. Nevertheless, to my surprise, all book authors were interested in this collaboration. I am thankful for each author who found ways to condense their original stories into a much-condensed version for Taiwan Insight to publish and for helping me polish the translations of these pieces. I am also thankful for the help of the Taiwan Insight team, who helped proofread and refine these pieces. Of course, for those who can read the original text, until a complete translation comes out, nothing will beat the intimacy and depth of the full book. But at least for now, we have a shortened record of some of the many stories that lay within searching for Taiwan’s flavour.

Food has always had the power to bring people together, and writing about food has its own ability to make us aware of our sometimes unexpected connection with others. Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour does just this. It helps place Taiwan and Taiwanese food in dialogue with various political, economic, and global forces without losing sight of the people who make and grow the food. Whether it be through edible birds nest grown in Malaysia or Taiwanese apples grown on remote mountain farms, Taiwanese flavours are as diverse as the island itself, and there are many more stories of this flavour that remain yet to be told. 

Fiona Lin is the publisher for “Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour (尋找台灣味)”.

Sam Robbins is the Translator and Editor of Taiwan Insight’s special issue on Searching for Taiwan’s flavour. 

This article is the conclusion to a special series of translations from “Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour (尋找台灣味)”. Each article is an abridged and translated version of a chapter from the book. Find all published articles here.

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