Book ReviewAbout Us

REVIEW for the Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Taiwan (ed. Gunter Schubert, 2016)

Lara Momesso

In the last twenty years, with a dramatic expansion and gradual institutionalisation of Taiwan Studies, particularly in Europe, production of knowledge related to this field has increased considerably. Under this trend, Taiwan has emerged not only as an entity on its own within the discipline of area studies, but also as a case study for research within academic disciplines such as economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, to mention just a few.

While the scholarship is growing at an increasing pace, the advent of the Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Taiwan (ed. Gunter Schubert, 2016, London & New York: Routledge) cements the relevance of Taiwan Studies as an independent and increasingly significant research area. In light of these considerations, this work is without any doubts an important anthology in the field, ideal for non-specialists as well as specialists. Non-specialists could take advantage of the variety of themes covered throughout the chapters and written by leading scholars in the field. Specialists may benefit from the nuanced analyses which require more familiarity with the dynamics shaping not only the social and political reality of the island, but also past and present issues on the production of knowledge related to Taiwan.

The handbook is structured along six main thematic areas, presenting Taiwan first from within, unfolding its most distinctive political, economic, social, cultural features, and then vis-a-vis external actors, such as China, Europe, the US and other Asian countries.

The first section revolves around Taiwan’s political history and addresses important epistemological questions which will be further touched upon, more or less explicitly, throughout the whole book: How has been knowledge about Taiwan produced when the island was subordinated to external rulers? How to frame contemporary research on Taiwan in order to appreciate a subjective perspective of its people rather than the political interests of others? These have remained crucial questions until nowadays, something any scholar should carefully consider as it may have an impact on the research process. The stance embraced by the editor is to frame Taiwan, and the related production of knowledge, vis-a- vis China, as a consequence of China’s rise and Taiwan’s response to it, to the point that Taiwan is regarded as “the persistent ‘other’ of China” (Introduction, Gunter Schubert). Consequently, China is constantly emerging as an important element throughout the whole handbook.

The following two sections address traditional themes into the field of Taiwan Studies: the island’s political and economic development. The former revolves around the identity of Taiwan as a young democracy in East Asia. Whereas the latter explores the transition of the island from a “miracle” economy in the post-war years to a more recent stagnating economy. Taiwan’s democratic system is understood in light of the interplay between contradictory factors: on the one hand, important achievements occurred in the last three decades (its party system, the electoral system, an established independent media), on the other hand, unresolved problems (clientelism, an un-balanced competition between parties, insufficient monitoring during electoral campaigns, an incomplete transitional justice, a partisan media). The ‘China factor’ is stressed in the section on economic development, as a reason for Taiwan’s growing focus on economic security and national grand strategy, as well as the main target of Taiwan’s foreign investments in a phase in which the island lost its competitiveness in the global order.

Newer additions are present in the fourth section which deals with Taiwanese contemporary society and culture. This section builds on the major debates that have been discussed publicly in the civil society arena: indigenous rights, labour rights, anti-nuclear power movement, women’s movement, religion, social welfare in Taiwan. If, considering the social changes occurred in the island in the last decades, it is impossible to expect that such section could be exhaustive, on the other hand, a further problematisation of the selected social categories, by taking into consideration intersectionality, would have offered a more nuanced picture of contemporary Taiwanese society where factors such as gender, class, age, ethnicity do not generate distinct and fixed categories but intersect with each other to produce multi-dimensional inequalities.

The handbook would not be complete without a discussion about cross-Strait relations (section five) and international relations (section six), two traditional areas of inquiry in Taiwan Studies. If the latter maintains a rather traditional approach, focusing on Taiwan’s relations with state actors such as the US, European countries, Asian countries, the section on cross-Strait relations is more innovative. Reflecting more recent evolutions in the scholarship, the originality of this section is that it sheds light on the increasing relevance of non-state actors, such as civil society in Taiwan, cross-Strait capital, multinational corporations, Taishangs, mainland spouses, in shaping the evolution of the “high politics” of cross-Strait relations.

It is clear, by considering the variety of themes and issues touched upon throughout the handbook, that, as Taiwanese society, politics and economics have changed extensively in the last decades due to national, regional, cross-Strait and global factors, independent research in Taiwan Studies is also quickly evolving. Most probably as a consequence of a methodological choice to position the study of Taiwan in relationship to China, the role of Taiwan in the East Asian region and beyond may be overlooked. It is understandable that, as a crucial actor in cross-Strait relations, the study of Taiwan is strongly shaped by the study of China and vice-versa. On the other hand, it would be important to also stress that, precisely because of Taiwan’s integration in the regional and global order, related research may be significant beyond the boundaries set by scholarship on Taiwan Studies and China Studies and it could serve as a case of comparison with other social and political realities. In these terms, the weakness of this work may be identified in the incapacity of imagining the identity of Taiwan apart from China.

Lara Momesso is postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for European and International Studies Research, University of Portsmouth. She is also EATS Board member, 2014–present.