Written by Gunter Schubert.
Image credit: ERCCT.
It was a spring day in 2007 when I entered the commercial building at Tun Hua North Road, where the headquarters of the Chiang Ching Kuo Foundation (CCKF) were located on one of the upper floors. I came to meet Chu Yun-han in his capacity as CCKF president and introduce to him my idea to establish a Taiwan research centre at the University of Tübingen. I had prepared a detailed presentation and pondered every detail that could jeopardise my proposal’s consistency. I had met Chu Yun-han before, at academic conferences and during conference dinners, many of which he had hosted. He had a formidable reputation as a scholar of East Asian political development and political economy, one of the “godfathers” of the Asian Barometer Surveys, and editor of high-profile publication projects, many of which were conducted with his colleagues in the U.S.—the country in which he had studied for his PhD and which he knew exceptionally well. His particular agenda at the CCK Foundation was less clear to me at the time. But I knew that he had strongly backed the establishment of the European Association of Taiwan Studies in 2004, which the CCKF has financially supported ever since. Hence, I thought that I could give it a try and convince him to bring the foundation into setting up a European research platform for Taiwan scholars at my university.
It was the first time that I met Chu Yun-han alone. He received me in his office, formally dressed, as always, in a suit with a necktie, polite, and with a smile on his face. Not much small talk; we went straight to business. I may have talked for about 15 minutes during which he just listened. No question. At the end, just two words: go ahead!
This was not only the beginning of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) but also of a professional and amicable relationship that I have increasingly cherished over the years. Whenever I came to Taipei, we met—sometimes for dinner or coffee somewhere outside, but mostly in his office over a simple lunch. When I came in, he had two biandang (便當) ready, and we sat down. We talked about ERCCT business, Taiwan politics, and the world. Never too little time and never too much, just lunchtime. Discussing with Chu Yun-han over anything was challenging. He was smart, charismatic, outspoken, and, of course, well-informed. I enjoyed these discussions a lot. His perspective on Taiwanese politics was controversial, but it was always well-reasoned and full of detailed knowledge. Intellectually, Chu Yun-han was an enrichment to me—no matter if I agreed with what he said or uttered an alternative viewpoint. I can say, matter-of-factly, that he was one of the most impressive minds I have met in my academic life.
What is striking in Chu Yun-han’s legacy is his focus on developing the field of Taiwan studies, particularly in Europe. This may have been related to his critical thinking on Taiwan’s relations with the U.S., which turned increasingly negative during the last years of his life. He wanted Taiwan to become better known in Europe, probably because he hoped that the “old continent” could or should become a counterweight to Taiwan’s over-dependence—economically, militarily, and intellectually—on the United States. Although he had been academically socialised in the U.S. and, to my best knowledge, enjoyed his many professional and personal ties to that country very much, he travelled Europe widely and supported promising initiatives to promote and institutionalise Taiwan studies. The ERCCT became one of the four CCKF Overseas Chinese Centers, but Chu Yun-han also made sure that all the other centres and platforms in Europe could count on CCKF support. In fact, he was a decisive driving force in the positive development of European Taiwan studies over the last two decades. This is a legacy that will remain in the hearts and minds of European Taiwan scholars.
Chu Yun-han was a man who kept some personal distance from his colleagues, even those who were close to him. This may have been due to both professional and personal reasons. However, he was a devoted, empathetic, and kind person. I remember when he quietly hummed along to the music of a classical concert we attended in Tübingen many years ago, moving his body back and forth. I also recall the emotional way he praised the former president of my university for supporting Taiwan studies during an evening reception, widely quoting Confucian sayings from the Analects. And I recall the respectful and patient way in which he commented on his fiercest critics in Taiwan.
Undoubtedly, Taiwan has lost one of its most formidable social scientists and academic entrepreneurs, a personality of high integrity and abundant energy both in his academic endeavours as in his devotion to the CCKF. The international community of Taiwan scholars feels his loss deeply.
Gunter Schubert is Professor of Greater China Studies at the University of Tübingen. He is director of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) which was established in 2008 by the CCK Foundation and the University of Tübingen.
This article was published as part of a special issue titled “In Memoriam: Yun-Han Chu, 1956-2023.”