BOOK REVIEW: Comparatizing Taiwan

A wonderful collection of essays provides future direction for the field of Taiwan and comparative cultural studies
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Niki Alsford

Mark Twain once wrote that “comparison is the death of joy.” On reading Comparatizing Taiwan, I have to disagree. It was a joy. It was a joy because many of the essays in this collection highlight the fact that similarity does not necessarily mean sameness. As one who works on Taiwan in comparison, I recognize that the “same-same-but-different” formulation has been a most workable catchphrase.

Shih Shu-mei (史書美) and Liao Ping-hui’s (廖炳惠) edited volume is an ambitious attempt to rethink the scholarship on contemporary Taiwan from a separate area of study to one that is all-encompassing as a “site and a product of relations with other entities” (p. 1). For Shih and Liao, comparisons in areas such as culture, geography, history, politics, and economy acts open up Taiwan as a model for studying small nations.

Yet it is here that I am troubled. While I do understand the methodology of asking the question “Does Taiwan really need to be situated globally in order to bring out its richness?” — one that I would firmly answer with a resounding no — I have issues with Taiwan being referred to as “small.” My problem with the Taiwan-as-small narrative doesn’t stem from an overly patriarchal or protective sense, but is rather in line with what Bruce Jacobs of Monash University has reiterated time and again in both his lectures and publications and which identifies Taiwan as a middling sort. It has the 54th largest population (similar to Australia), the 22nd largest GDP in 2015, and its total area (in square km) is larger than Belgium. Nevertheless, it is by “comparing,” I suppose, that one is able to come to such conclusions in the first place.


In their introduction, the editors point out that a factor behind such labeling exists due to the fetishizing of some academics to study the large. In so doing they wittingly (or not) assign Taiwan and other similar areas of study to the margins. This may well be welcome by Shih and Liao, who write that “The fact that Taiwan studies has largely been marginalized within area studies may therefore be a blessing in disguise. Being a latecomer to areas studies can be advantageous in surprising ways” (p. 5). According to them, this may provide the “advantage of bypassing area studies completely.” This, of course, is not a bad thing. For one thing, it is well known that area studies have faced a degree of scrutiny over the past decade or so, not least because many scholars have chosen to seize upon notions of transnationalism — and this, given its divergent histories, naturally stands in polar opposite to certain theories proposed within the field of area studies. And this serves as the point of departure for Comparatizing Taiwan.

The wonderful collection of essays presented in this volume serves an important interest and future direction for Taiwan studies and perhaps methodologically for those engaged in comparative cultural studies elsewhere. The compendium consists of 13 chapters organized over two sections. The first part, titled Taiwan in Comparison, opens with Frank Muyard, whose rousing paper “Comparativism and Taiwan Studies […]” offers an alternative to the study of the nation. Muyard argues that too frequently Taiwan has been read in a like-with-like comparison with other East Asian nations. Muyard offers an alternative by contrasting Taiwan with areas within the New World (Quebec in his case) that also experienced aspects of settler colonialism. By setting himself out to discuss the implications of an attempt to comparer l’incomparable, Muyard concludes that much can be gained by developing comparisons that set out a framework which acknowledges how cultures and societies converge and diverge in their socio-historical experiences.

The open text to which this edited volume is mediated centers on Taiwan as an island-nation caught in a web of superpower high politics — both historically as well as contemporarily. Rather than comparing Taiwan as a place-with-place, the second chapter by Wu Chien-heng (吳建衡) examines the work of three scholars and their interpretation of the ending of Orphan of Asia by Wu Zhouliu (吳濁流). The novel begins during the protagonist Taiming’s childhood in Japanese colonial Taiwan. Taiming’s Japanese education and graduation from a prestigious college unwittingly alienates him from his family, peers, and extended community. The book follows his long journey to find a sense of belonging. The protagonist is accused of spying for China and Japan, and experiences the horrors of war and the feeling of powerlessness and anger under colonial conditions. Naturally, the novel’s ending is melancholic.

Wu, however, proposes that the ending should not be read so pessimistically, but rather should charter a new debate concerning the relationship between power, identity and politics in Taiwan. The trans-colonialism presented in this essay opens the possibility for Taiwan scholars to look at spatial alternatives for comparison. The island theme in some of the following chapters expands beyond the horizons of Taiwan studies to explore ways in which Sinophone literature can be read. For Huang Yu-ting (黃鈺婷), “Taiwan is not a singular island, allegorically or literally” (p. 6), but rather is one of fluctuating nihilism. Instead she offers the alternative to “imagine comparative entities, no longer as islands, but as archipelagos.” For Huang, this serves “a dual purpose of allowing instability and complexity with each term, while maintaining its positive identity that makes comparison with others still meaningful” (p. 81). The archipelago analogy thus serves as an interconnected narrative with different clusters of islands within a confine. Although I am not entirely convinced by her argument, it nevertheless succeeds in raising some fascinating channels in analyzing Taiwan.

The first part ends with a continuation of this island/archipelago theme by exploring the similarities between the Caribbean and Taiwan. I personally feel that this is a challenging proposal given the complexity of the colonial histories involved, not least the fact that the Caribbean is made up of numerous islands (with genuine archipelagos), each with different socio-historical pasts and cultures. Yet Hsiao Li-chun’s (蕭立君) effort warrants credit for raising an alternative thread to making Taiwan relevant and significant. Comparing Taiwan literature with that of the Caribbean, as forms of creolized literature, is bold. Still — and I think this is commendable — Hsiao seems to thrive in wrestling with these difficulties and complexities throughout the chapter. As a result, the chapter raises an important critique of Euro-American centrism that exists within departments of Foreign Languages at Taiwanese universities — and by extension similar departments elsewhere.

Given the title of the book, it is not surprising that the concept of “comparison” figures prominently. That said, the second part of the volume attempts to shift the discourse slightly to focus on issues of conjuncture and contingencies. The essay by Shih Shu-mei on the transnational formation of Taiwan feminism is interesting in that it observes differences within colonialism. This recognizes the problems in translating localized feminist practices. And by exposing the fault lines of indigenous displacement, Shih responds to dispossession within Taiwan and the U.S. through the lens of settler colonialism. This almost diasporic experience is continued in Margaret Hillenbrand’s essay on Pai Hsien-jung’s (白先勇) Taipei People in comparison with James Joyce’s Dubliners. While accepting the incredible similarities within the texts, she strives to avoid the conservatism associated with the like-with-like comparison to equally note the distinctiveness of their content.

The volume ends with a thought-inducing essay by Wu Jieh-min (吳介民). “Taiwan after the Colonial Century” traces the economic evolution of Taiwan’s industries through the Japanese colonial period into the early years of the Republic of China and probes current cross-strait trends with China. A book that has largely been dominated by essays on literature, this felt a bit awkward, though nevertheless interesting, yet I wasn’t convinced it was the best way to end. Nonetheless, Wu’s chapter brings us back to the looming question of Taiwan contrariwise to China and the looming threat to its existence.

For Shih and Liao, this “disappointment” is all part of their chosen narrative. The 13 essays are, in fact, “13 acts of imagination,” an alternative interpretation of Taiwan.

Despite my reservations with the ending, the most commendable aspect of this volume is the experimental quality that it brings to the discussion. Routledge, the book’s publisher, should be commended for acknowledging not only the nuances and peculiarity Taiwan offers to scholarship, but also allowing space for the eccentric and unconventionality that researchers on Taiwan tend to possess.


Comparatizing Taiwan
Shih Shu-mei and Liao Ping-hui, eds
320 pp, Routledge, 2014


Dr. Niki Alsford is a Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences, in Prague and is a Research Associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Prior to moving to the Czech Republic, Alsford was a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of History at SOAS. His most recent publications include: Chronicling Formosa: Setting the Foundation for the Presbyterian Mission, 1865-1876 (2015) and A Barbarian’s House by the River Tamsui: One House and the History of its Many Occupantswhich was published with the Journal of Family History (2015).

One Response to “BOOK REVIEW: Comparatizing Taiwan”

April 21, 2016 at 11:11 pm, Richard C. Kagan said:

This book is an excellent contribution to the study of Taiwan because it broadens the argument to include other cultural and historical experiences. In my and Doris Chang’s article on “Chen Chu, A Cosmopolitan Leader of Human Rights and Democracy,” we argued that Taiwan was picking up the 19th century baton of Cosmopolitanism that had been initiated by Kant, Marx, and other political theorists prior to WW2. This political step that traveled outside of national democracy was initiated again in the late 20th century. Taiwan’s democratic leaders have long understood the need to expand democracy institutionally and culturally. Here is the penultimate paragraph in this work.
“As the mayor of Kaohsiung, Chen has played a key role in shaping the cosmopolitan character of southern Taiwan’s largest city. Chen’s policies have combined the basic elements of a cosmopolitan political system, which attempts to describe and apply a system that transcends the boundaries of the nation-state. This is accomplished advocating a “non-communitarian, post identity politics of over lapping interests and heterogeneous or hybrid publics in order to challenge conventional notions of belonging, identity, and citizenship.”
For a comprehensive definition of cosmopolitanism, see the introductory chapter of Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context, and Practice, edited by Steven Vertovec and Robin Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).”

I look forward to reading the book in review to further my knowledge about Taiwan’s intellectual and political role in our world view and knowledge.


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