Taiwan, Taiwan Studies, and Taiwanese IdentityAbout Us

Since the early 1990s, people in Taiwan have increasingly claimed themselves to be nationally Taiwanese and some have sought international recognition of Taiwan’s status as an independent sovereign state. This political development has not been welcomed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which upholds a ‘One China Policy’. Consequently, the rise of Taiwanese nationalism could potentially trigger conflict among the great powers in the region, including the United States and China. Therefore, not surprisingly, this small island has become ‘attractive’ among diplomatic practitioners as well as academics. Many scholars, both on the island and abroad and covering multiple disciplines, have devoted themselves to this subject – the rise of Taiwanese nationalism. Moreover, this rapidly growing body of literature on Taiwanese nationalism has been part of a broader trend, namely the formation of Taiwan Studies, a relatively newly established subject compared to other divisions of Area Studies or East Asian Studies such as Sinology or Japanology.

Indeed, in the past three decades a body of Taiwan-centred research has emerged that focuses exclusively on the island’s political, social, and economic transformations. In the West, most notably in the United States and Europe, the number of studies on Taiwan has increased dramatically, while their substance has shifted from being a component of Sinology/China Studies, a remnant of the Cold War, to being Taiwan-centred. Now, examine the island itself: its distinctive history, culture, politics, geography and society. Likewise, in Taiwan, a vast amount of research has been produced and a great number of scholars and graduate students devote their energy to the study of ‘Taiwan. The number of publications on Taiwan Studies in Taiwan’s academy increased from fewer than 50 volumes in 1985 to over 450 volumes in 1995 (Wang 2003: 154). The number of masters and doctoral theses on Taiwan, either in Chinese or any other languages, also grew from 73 in 2004 to over 200 in 2013 (Hsu 2014: 5-6). In Taiwan there were over 2,000 masters and doctoral theses on Taiwan completed between 2004 and 2013. In2015, there are now at least sixteen academic journals concerned exclusively with Taiwan publishing research by the island’s academics.

This mushrooming of Taiwan Studies in academic circles enjoys institutional support. Each year, universities and academic associations in Taiwan hold a number of conferences on the subject. In the West, through the efforts of Taiwanese scholars, the North American Taiwan Studies Association (NATSA) was inaugurated at Yale University in 1994, marking a new epoch of Taiwan Studies. It holds an annual conference in different institutes throughout the United States and Canada, with about one hundred participants each year. In 2015, NATSA held its 21st annual conference in Harvard. NATSA encourages submissions on any subject within the field of Taiwan Studies, including politics, economics, and social development, as well as issues related to Taiwan’s cultures, languages, history, environment and education. Likewise, in Europe, a similar association initiated by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London – the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS) – was established in 2004.

Moreover, it is not only academic associations that have been established – several research and teaching institutes have also been created. For example, following the first Department of Taiwanese Literature set up at Aletheia University in Taiwan in 1997, and the first Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature at National Cheng-Kung University in 2000, there are now at least twenty-five academic institutes or research centres S Taiwan, Taiwan Studies, and Taiwanese Identity Yih-Jye Hwang 22 established under the title of ‘Taiwan’ or ‘Taiwanese’ throughout Taiwan (the Institute of Taiwanese Literature, Institute of Taiwanese History, etc.). These conduct research on, and provide teaching about, Taiwan. The creation of these institutions fostered and increased local multi-disciplinary research on Taiwan.

In this way academe plays a role in shaping and re-shaping national identity in Taiwan. The significant role that the intellectual plays in the rise of nationalism (or the construction of national identity) has been widely discussed. Various terms such as language, history, geography, culture and literature are often affixed to the word ‘national’ across assorted academic disciplines. In the case of Taiwan, ‘Taiwanese-ness’ is also subject to multiple intellectual discourses and processes of knowledge production. Each discourse helps to draw lines between the Self and the ‘Other’ and addresses ‘Taiwanese-ness’ in different ways. The discourse of Taiwanese identity represents what ‘Taiwanese-ness’ is, gives meaning to the identity of ‘being Taiwanese’, and fixes ‘Taiwanese’ as a focus of identification on the island. Hence Taiwanese identity has been made, refined or reified by the actions of, among others, intellectuals who have explicitly or implicitly furnished the materials for a particular logic of ‘us’ and ‘them’. As such, knowledge systematically forms the objects and subjects of which it speaks.

Moreover, this process of construction is not unidirectional. A particular discourse of ‘Taiwanese-ness’ also makes certain forms of knowledge possible, conditioning the content of knowledge produced. What counts as valid knowledge in relation to Taiwanese identity both constrains and enables the ways in which further knowledge is produced and reproduced. Subsequently, knowledge production involves a complex set of practices that keep in circulation certain statements, utterances and conducts, while silencing other statements, utterances and conducts. One cannot just ‘say’ and ‘do’ what one wishes to ‘say’ and ‘do’. These complex sets of practices involve power, thereby implying the production of exclusion and inclusion. Indeed, only certain discourses are disseminated in society, thereby certain forms of subject are formed. Thus, identity is a question of which and whose statements, utterances and forms of conduct emerge and which do not. It is a site at which different discourses interact, intersect and compete; and it is about the politics of the appearance and disappearance of certain statements, utterances and modes of conduct.

This short article finally suggests that on the one hand there is a need to create a sincere genealogy of the different modes to which the people on Taiwan are made subject, and to expose the beginnings and developments of the current subjectifying discourse. As a field of research, Taiwan Studies needs to be involved in exposing power relations that exist within society at any given moment in order to consider how marginal and subordinate groups are oppressed by the dominant group. On the other hand, if intellectual discourses contribute to the idea that there is such a thing as ‘Taiwanese-ness’, and help attribute the qualities, features and characteristics attached to it, we ought to ask what types of Taiwan Studies (and thereafter Taiwanese identity) are required. When a specific discourse limits or excludes alternative ways in which Taiwanese-ness can be constituted, and many other alternative political possibilities – subjectivities – are omitted, repressed and made to disappear in the discursive formation of ‘Taiwanese-ness’, the field itself needs to be critically interrogated. A more open, tolerant and inclusive study of Taiwan is at stake. Taiwan Studies as a field of study is a normative project. To echo the statement made by the new president of the NATSA at its annual conference at Harvard University (June 2015), ‘Taiwan Studies is not only rigorous scholarship, it is, in a way, knowledge of the people, by the people, for the people’.

Hsu, Hsueh-chi (2014) ‘Taiwan Historical Research 2004-2013: Retrospect and Prospect’, 2014 Taiwan Historical Research: Retrospect and Prospect Conference, Taipei, December 5-6, 2014.
Wang, Fu-Chang (2003) Ethnic Imagination in Contemporary Taiwan [當代台灣社會的族群想像] (Taipei: Qunxue).

Yih-Jye Hwangis a Lecturer of International Relations at Leiden University College, Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs, Leiden University.