Abstract

Overshadowed by its massive cousin just to the west, the island and civilization of Taiwan is easily overlooked but has long been a bastion of great intellectual activity on all disciplinary fronts. Many of us in Chinese studies visit Taiwan regularly, use its resources, mingle with Taiwan-based academics, present our research there, and take time to enjoy what it offers in cuisine, art, music, and natural beauty. A much smaller number of us focus our research on Taiwan itself, and the way that research is carried out is fraught with the problems of a contested epistemological geography. Some center their research solely on Taiwan. Others take a comparative approach. In my opinion, both of these ways of organizing and presenting ones findings are acceptable, and the litmus test for judging research on Taiwan should be the intrinsic quality of that work and not based upon whether one is a “pure” Taiwan studies scholar or not. All this stems from Taiwan's continued ambiguous and indeterminate status in the world politically and ethnically. This problem will not go away soon, but that does not mean we should shrink from it. The motivation for writing this short piece came from my reading of Emily Baum's (2011) review of Yomi Braester's new book Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Conflict (2010).

Overshadowed by its massive cousin just to the west, the island and civilization of Taiwan is easily overlooked but has long been a bastion of great intellectual activity on all disciplinary fronts. Many of us in Chinese studies visit Taiwan regularly, use its resources, mingle with Taiwan-based academics, present our research there, and take time to enjoy what it offers in cuisine, art, music, and natural beauty. A much smaller number of us focus our research on Taiwan itself, and the way that research is carried out is fraught with the problems of a contested epistemological geography. Some center their research solely on Taiwan. Others take a comparative approach. In my opinion, both of these ways of organizing and presenting ones findings are acceptable, and the litmus test for judging research on Taiwan should be the intrinsic quality of that work and not based upon whether one is a “pure” Taiwan studies scholar or not. All this stems from Taiwan's continued ambiguous and indeterminate status in the world politically and ethnically. This problem will not go away soon, but that does not mean we should shrink from it. The motivation for writing this short piece came from my reading of Emily Baum's (2011) review of Yomi Braester's new book Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Conflict (2010).

My goal is not to argue against the substantive points of Baum's book review but rather to take issue with one comment in it that implies a deeper assumption and carries great ramifications. The book covers a large amount of material in film, theatre and visual arts that depict the urban upheaval that has occurred in three Chinese (speaking) cities in the past half-century: Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei. Of the chapter on Taiwan, Baum states: “the fact that Taiwan's historical trajectory diverged so radically from mainland China'sas with the development of a comparatively relaxed political environment for Taiwanese filmmakersweakens the author's justification that Taiwanese film provides an instructive comparison to PRC urban history” (Baum 2011, 508). I could not disagree more. The overriding trend in scholarship on Taiwan is to emphasize its uniqueness and particularly its differences from China. Generally speaking, this is an important corrective to research on Taiwan from decades ago, much of it based on anthropological case studies that attempted to extrapolate Chinese cultural traits from the data collected in Taiwan. At the time it was impossible to conduct the sort of local fieldwork in China necessary to carry out a proper ethnographic project. Additionally, for over thirty years the political ideology on Taiwan, ruled by the Guomindang, demanded that Taiwan be viewed as part of China, that its history was Chinese, and that its people were, to one extent or another, culturally, linguistically, socially, indeed ethically, a subset of a Chinese identity. We certainly have come a long way, and I am not disputing the need to examine Taiwan in its own light, in all its internal diversity, and to give voice to those aspects of Taiwanese society that were suppressed for decades. Indeed, the nativist movement in Taiwan carries with it in most cases, if not all, a strong desire to see Taiwan freed from the irredentist grip of the PRC. Taiwan now enjoys a robust, one could even say raucous, political culture in which elections at the municipal and national level are hotly contested and often won by tight margins. This much is fundamentally different from the PRC.

On the other hand, there are merits to the further consideration of aspects of Taiwan's culture in conjunction with those same aspects in mainland China, and, in fact, in Hong Kong and Macau too. The chapter on Taiwan in Braester's book deals with the interesting but tragic fate of the so-called juancun 眷村, or soldiers' villages, in Taipei. The soldiers' villages were small enclaves of the demobilized soldiers and their families from the War of Resistance and Civil War who followed Chiang Kai-shek and the GMD to Taiwan in their retreat. They were composed almost entirely of mainlanders. The soldiers' villages vividly demonstrate an important fact about the mainland émigrés into Taiwan: many were not rich, nor did they control much political capital. Important for our argument is the recognition that in Taiwan they were often looked upon by the majority population, made up of Hokkien or Hoklo speakers, with suspicion, and there were ethnic tensions between the groups. The juancun sub-ethnicity was a group living in exile, a group whose allegiance was with the notion of a cohesive China that some day they would restore through a counterattack on the Communists, or so the story goes. Their status in Taiwan historically speaking was highly unstable, and the destruction of their dwelling communities is a physical emblem of that instability. They simply cannot be understood purely within the context of Taiwan itself, since their identity hinges on the nostalgic beckoning to that past on the mainland. At the same time, the manner in which their enclaves were dealt with, adjudicated by the Taiwan government and highlighted frequently in the media, were indeed quite different from the way disenfranchised communities in Beijing or Shanghai were handled. But this does not mean they cannot be compared or contrasted.

In fact, another dimension of the comparative framework is to look at the conceptual affinities and dissimilarities between Taipei and Shanghai given that they were both colonial enclaves at least to an extent. Beijing had its own modern occupiers as well, but they did not plan the city. Rather, they utilized the well-honed geomantic principles of traditional Chinese urban planning to work within the existing structure. Ironically, the city has changed more radically both under Mao and under the current modernizers than it did in the first half of the twentieth century. With Shanghai and Taipei, external forces had the opportunity to wield great influence on the evolution of two major urban centers, if not sole influence, and the way they did so says much about them, just as it says much about the local inhabitants of these urban centers. Comparing them is not tantamount to saying they were subjected to the same political forces, or even the same kinds of forces, but it does allow us to tease out similarities and differences. And the Japanese invasion of the mainland ushered in Taiwanese businessmen who settled in places like Beijing, only to eventually return to Taiwan after the war. So, an important question to ask would be: what does the colonial urban development in East Asia reveal to us about these large spaces and about the specific historical details of that period? Inserting Hong Kong into the mix, in my opinion, would add a third leg onto the stool of colonial urban projects among Chinese speakers, but as Braester points out in his book there is substantial scholarship already in existence on the Hong Kong question and one inevitably must establish manageable parameters for a book project. Nevertheless, if I were to nitpick, it would be on the side of urging Hong Kong be brought into the equation rather than on subtracting Taipei from it. The main point is that as scholars we need to eschew a hypostasized and positivistic notion of “China” as synonymous with mainland China and instead recognize that the entire Chinese-speaking East Asian milieu is extremely complicated, contradictory in some ways, not easily dissected, and that political borders do not always mark the terminus of scholarly inquiry.

Indeed, I would make the opposite argument that Baum implicitly embraces in her review. Several important books have appeared in the past two decades that promise to deliver on the entire span of modern China – from the late Qing to the present, or the whole twentieth century. Many of these books are fine examples of meticulous research, careful analysis, theoretical savvy, and insightful, sometimes paradigm-shifting, conclusions. But the overwhelming majority of them only contemplate mainland China. I can see how a book length project on a specific period, such as the May Fourth, the Maoist Era, or the Post-Mao period of liberalization would warrant such a concentrated approach. Book-length projects that choose a more expansive range that includes the early modern period, the Republican Era, the Maoist Era, and the Post-Mao period, however, would only be enhanced and improved by devoting some attention to Taiwan, and other aspects of the “greater” Chinese experience as well. I say this because, first, each of these individual periods is quite different from the others already – different political systems and in some cases regimes were in place, different intellectual coteries, journals, initiatives and activities predominated. This is no less true for Taiwan. Conversely, there are resonances between these periods as well, and those resonances in many cases carry over to Taiwan as well. Several prominent May Fourth intellectuals, for example, ended up in Taiwan after 1949, or closely associated with it. In spite of efforts to ban the publication of leftist authors in Taiwan during the White Terror period, some important authors were still widely available, and some Taiwanese authors have testified to the fact that under the table, as it were, their teachers would pass them copies of the banned writers too. Thus, the division of intellectual space between mainland China and Taiwan cannot be as easily established as one might wish. If we were to look at popular culture such as music, videos, fashion, cinema, and commercial art, we would see that many of the contemporary cultural icons in China are the same for Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even Japan and South Korea. With the advent of the internet, it is virtually impossible to corral this powerful social force, and as it is not explicitly political, the PRC government makes little effort to do so. Economically speaking, the business relations between the PRC and Taiwan have grown exponentially. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese live in Shanghai alone. Commerce stops for no one.

I am not suggesting that scholars attempt to diminish or ignore the particularities of Taiwan or attempt to conflate culture on the island with that in mainland China. Critical differences such as government and media structures exist, and they have an enormous effect on other social realms. The nativist movement in Taiwan is a potent force politically and the next presidential election will be prophetic in terms of who inhabits the landscape. Nevertheless, there are some models out there for how literary and cultural studies, especially of works that span the modern era, can be enacted in ways that are inclusive of Taiwan without denying these special circumstances. Michelle Yeh's Modern Chinese Poetry (1991) chooses to investigate poetry mainly from formal and thematic standpoints that do not dwell much on precise historical details and distinctions, except insofar as the subject matter has all been produced in the modern era. This enables her to consider poets and poems side-by-side in ways that would be anathema to one who drew a hard and fast line between mainland China and Taiwan. A consistent tendency in the work of David Der-Wei Wang is that, with few exceptions, he includes in his broad discussions of literary themes in modern China examples and close readings of literary works published in Taiwan. His The Monster That Is History (2004), for example, brings together readings of such diverse writers as Liu E, Lu Xun, Jiang Gui, Zhong Ling and Jia Pingwa. The benefit of discussing such far-flung literary figures between the covers of one book is that one can follow a particular theme through works that heretofore one might not have thought share features. Edward Gunn's linguistically based work Rewriting Chinese (1991) is very precise in its dissection of syntactic features of Chinese and in tracing types of figurative language used in literature. His research demonstrates that there are some stark differences between all phases of modern Chinese history, not just Taiwan and mainland China. More recent examples of book length works that are more encompassing than the norm include Linchei Letty Chen's Writing Chinese: Reshaping Chinese Cultural Identity (2006), which extends the discussion of “Chineseness” to Taiwan, Chinese Americans, and ultimately global culture, and Gary G. Xu's Sinascape: Contemporary Chinese Cinema (2007), which restricts itself to contemporary Chinese (language) cinema but illuminates general trends happening in all Chinese communities. It ends by indicating how and why Hollywood is impacted by trends in pan-Chinese cinema.

All these are laudable examples of my thesis: book length projects can and should move beyond political boundaries. They do not have to. But by foreclosing the attempt or desire to do so simply because Taiwan is different politically, ethnically, and now even socially from mainland China, the Chinese studies community risks closing itself off from fruitful comparisons and contrasts that will doubtless lead to a better understanding of the complex world of East Asian culture.

Bibliography

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Journal of Asian
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