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In Search of New Perspectives, Methods, and Finer Factors of Identity Formation - from East Asia to the World

Feng-yi Chu

The 2015 Annual Taiwan Studies Programme International Conference, sponsored by the Taiwan Studies Programme of the Asian Studies Centre at St Antony's College, University of Oxford, was held on September 4th and 5th 2015. Researchers from Taiwan, Japan, India, Ireland, U.K. and from across Europe gathered to discuss research oriented around the conference theme: 'In Search of New Perspectives, Methods, and Finer Factors of Identity Formation—From East Asia to the World'. The 15 papers presented in the conference can be categorised into three groups. The first collection of papers addressed the discursive characteristic of identity formation. Siniša Malešević's presentation provided an appropriate starting point. Entitled 'Do National Identities Exist?' his paper pointed to the three key elements in the construction of national identity — the cumulative bureaucratisation of coercion, centrifugal ideologisation (e.g., nationalism), and the envelopment of micro-solidarity.

Atsuko Ichijo's paper, 'Multiple Modernities and Discourses under Japanese Imperial Rule', demonstrated the influence of ideas. On the one hand, she reviewed several political ideas (e.g., the world-historical standpoint) that emerged in the debate around the concept of modernity in wartime Japan. On the other, she argued that although ideas might contain elements supporting or justifying Japanese imperial expansion, and even the Pacific War, they, with their open natures, also offer a space in which even the oppressed can engage subjectively and challenge Japanese hegemony.

The work of Wong Horng-luen then offered an inspiring approach to theories of conflict, or more precisely war. Drawing on the ideas of Judith Butler, Erving Goffman, William Sewell, and Pierre Bourdieu, Wong developed the concept of 'frame of war' to explore the ways in which war and its legacies have profoundly shaped people's understanding of the world. He argued the two frames of war— the Great East Asian War (GEAW) and the Asian-Pacific War (APW)—can help us comprehend contemporary political debates in Japan, to re-theorise the development of modernity, and to explain the formations of Japanese identities.

Chan Ya-hsun, in her paper 'The East Asian People's Solidarity in the Inter-war Period Social Movements—the Perspective of the Anarchist-Bolshevik Debate in Japan', further explored the complex interaction between political discourses and identities. She explained that in the interwar period, the concept of 'East Asia' and the idea of 'people' were diversely interpreted in Japan, and the appeal of East Asian solidarity was marginalized when both the Japanese authorities and factions of the socialist movement were undergoing struggling for the concentration of power. Her analysis displayed how definitions of a generic label can vary and change under the influence of discourses and socio-historical development.

Chu Feng-yi's paper, 'Subject of Nobleness: Identity as Value-oriented Discourse (Case Study on Chinese and Taiwanese Identities in Taiwan)', linked political discourses and identities on an individual level by proposing a theory that views identity as value-oriented discourse. Chu argued that in essence identity is merely a generic idea that is incapable of provoking people's emotions or of mobilising people; only identity associated with value-oriented discourses has that capability. He argued that political discourse exercises its influence by associating with an identity and giving it certain political values. These values confer upon identity the power to urge its audiences to take political action, including supporting that identity.

Shen Shiau-chi's research on 'Dynamics of National Identity Change in Taiwan, 1991-2013' examined the changes in the Chinese and Taiwanese identities of people living on the island over the past two decades. Taking a statistical approach, Shen diverged from previous research by viewing the two identities as non-exclusive. Hence her research discovered two developmental phases of Chinese and Taiwanese identities in Taiwanese society: From 1991 to the late 1990s the number of people claiming Chinese identity decreased, while the number who embrace a dual identity (possessing Chinese and Taiwanese identities simultaneously) increased. In the second phase, roughly from 2001 to 2013, the number of individuals claiming dual identity decreased, while those claiming Taiwanese identity rose. She thus suggested the dual identity is the buffer for the transition from Chinese to Taiwanese identity.

Shih Fang-long‘s work, 'From National Identity to Existential Being: An Identity Transformation during Taiwan's Sunflower Occupation', focused on the recent transformation of identity in the Sunflower movement, a large-scale student and civic movement that occupied Taiwan‘s legislature in March 2014. The change, Shih believed, was initiated once again by the operation of discourses that go beyond the KMT‘s Chinese nationalism and the DPP's Taiwanese nationalism. She drew on Sartre‘s idea of 'an existential being' and characterized the newly emerged sense of being with rather depressing elements, such as failure, hopelessness, emptiness and nothingness.

While these papers stressed the mechanism of ideologisation in identity formation, the second group of papers explored the cumulative bureaucratisation of coercion. In his paper 'Crafting Aboriginal Nations: Presbyterian Church and the Imagination of Aboriginal National Subject', Ek-hong Sia delineated the aboriginal national subject proposed in the aboriginal nationalist discourse in Taiwan. The subject is imagined as a multi-layered collective of Austronesian aborigines composed of currently sixteen aboriginal nations, while each nation is comprised by numerous aboriginal communities. Sia found the imagination of the multi-layered aboriginal national subject is strikingly similar to the structure of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, and he argued that the conceptualisation of the subject has been unintentionally influenced by the Church‘s institutionalised evangelism.

The paper offered by Daiva Repeckaite, 'Ethnically Privileged Migration and Culturally Disadvantaged Identity in Japan and Israel', addressed the immigration policies followed by Japan and Israel which favour immigrants who share the same ancestry as the native population. The institutional policies disclose not only how the overseas diaspora is imagined and interpreted, but also how the collective national subjects are constructed. The overseas diaspora of the same ethnicity is included in national collectives, and they are integrated into nationalist narratives which attribute their exile to historical forces.

In her paper 'Weeping Qingdao Tears Abroad: Place, Scale and Distance in Overseas Chinese Print Networks', Rachel Leow took Chinese print networks in Southeast Asia as her research subject and examined the individual and collective identities they formulated during the 1919 May Fourth movement. She argued that the multiple local contexts influenced how overseas Chinese newspapers reported and discussed the movement. Chinese nationalism, and hence the idea of Chineseness, was re-scaled and re-placed and ought to be understood as a product of specific local conditions, histories, and geographies.

Abhishweta Jha and Seema Sharma's work, 'Re- Examining Caste Identity from the Perspective of Children in Rural India', analysed the construction of caste identity amongst children in rural areas. With the qualitative data they collected from a village case-study, the paper argued that the process is carried out in three phases. First, immersed within a broad socio-cultural and political context of caste, children in the village learn the generic concepts of the caste system, categorise and identify themselves, and ascribe caste traits to others on the basis of the system. Next, the children assimilate norms and practices of their caste. The third stage is identity engagement. On the one hand, children favouring their caste or those believing the system to be unchallengeable or unbreakable, tend to maintain their identities as well as the system. On the other, children disliking their caste would either negotiate or reject the classification system. Their research also suggested that there has to be a catalyst if counter dialogue on caste can happen, and therefore engagement with multiple institutions—such as policy making and implementation or social movements in communities—are needed for emancipation.

The third collection of papers emphasised the methods of exploring identity from the individual perspective, since no matter how significantly institutions and ideologies exercise their influence, identity is indeed a personal matter. The presentation by Stéphane Corcuff entitled 'Wang Shi, a Portrait' explored the formation of identity among ordinary Taiwanese. His interviewee, Wang Shi, is a middle-aged film worker and is labeled as waishengren (mainlander) because his father came to Taiwan with the KMT government in the late 1940s. This background may explain why Wang fervently embraced Chinese identity in the past, supported the KMT led by waishengren leaders, and opposed native Taiwanese politicians, such as Lee Teng-hui. However, Wang started to question these political stands, as well as identities, after watching a documentary (Hand in Hand), which depicts the love of a native Taiwanese couple, Dr. Tian Chao-Ming and his wife Tian Meng-shu, and their dedication to Taiwan's democratic reform. Corcuff demonstrated how a Taiwanese waishengren’s identities and political views developed and changed in parallel to specific social and historical contexts and during the course of a single lifetime.

The paper presented by Guo Ting, 'The Cosmopolitan Quest for Composure: An Episcopalian Family in Shanghai, 1890s to 1980s', employed a biographical method to delineate the ways in which a Chinese individual's personal, national and cultural identity were shaped by Western cultures and Christian ideologies. Using the case of P.C. Chun (1892-1960), a Columbia graduate, state legislator and an Episcopalian in Shanghai, the paper demonstrated how a political ideal for China as a nation can be envisioned through the lens of liberal Christianity, while in turn liberal Christianity provided an intellectual source for the formulation of personal identity.

Shaw Chih-Suei‘s research engaged with the debates about how East Asian composers of classical music interpret their identities, and how these identities are reflected in their work. It is conventionally believed that the music of the first wave of world-renowned Asian composers, such as Chou Wen-Chung (China), Toru Takemitsu (Japan) and Isang Yun (Korea), are often tinted with an 'East-meets-West' optimism, while the work of a later generation of composers, like Tan Dun (China), are marked by anxiety over being straitjacketed as mere expressions of nationalism or regional culture. However, by analyzing the works as well as the different identity strategies of two composers, Chen Yi (China) and Unsuk Chin (Korea), Shaw's paper showed that an East Asian composer can reject the stereotypical cross-cultural optimism to establish her or his own authorial voice within the realm of the Western classical music tradition. She further argued that this new strategy should be viewed as another way of manifesting identity politics.

Finally, the work of Agnes Hsiao, 'Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence—An Ethnographic Analysis on the Survivors', explored the entangled relationship between memories, emotions and identities of White Terror survivors in Taiwan. She elicited two major emotions in her interviewees' reports—trauma and shame—and contended that these survivors indeed perceive themselves as 'adversaries' instead of 'victims'. This means their silence not only reflects their victimhood, but is also a social practice that continues to consolidate the survivors' identity as adversary.

At least three key themes emerged among the papers presented in the conference. Firstly, identity should be regarded as a phenomenon which is forged and shaped by various social discourses. Studying an identity is to study the social discourses, ideologies, and values that urge the individual to claim (or to reject) the concerned identity. Second, the formation of identity is often affected by various organisations, including states, political parties, schools, churches, media and the press, etc. The change of identity is usually catalysed by institutions, or activated by discourses produced by them. Third, the factors that trigger and urge individuals to claim and to reject certain identities can be particular worldviews offered by ideologies (e.g., the conceptualisation of 'nation' or 'modernity', or religious beliefs), social hierarchies imposed by the majority, ethnic classifications, and various social and moral values, etc. In addition, emotions, such as the aspiration for solidarity, the sense of belonging and attachment, and the desire for composure from past trauma and personal shame, also play a significant role in shaping the formation of identity. The conference clearly shows that identity certainly matters and continues influence the way we interact with each other; and that our understanding of identity is enriched by a genuinely multidisciplinary approach to its research.

Feng-yi Chu worked as convener for the Taiwan Studies Programme in the Asian Studies Centre of St Antony‘s College, University of Oxford. He is a DPhil candidate in Oriental Studies, University of Oxford.