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“Global Island: Taiwan and the World” Workshop Report

December 7, 2018

Taiwan Studies Program
University of Washington
October 18-19, 2018

Agenda and Background

From October 18th to 19th, 2018, the University of Washington Taiwan Studies Program hosted an academic workshop, “Global Island: Taiwan and the World.”  “Global Island” was the first major academic conference organized by the Taiwan Studies Program, officially established in January 2018.  The goal of the workshop was to foster and develop late-stage, cutting edge research in Taiwan studies with a small yet diverse group of scholars from across the world in an intensive reading and discussion environment. The workshop examined and explored the implications of Taiwan’s connections with the world, as well as the influence of Taiwanese society and culture on the global stage.  The theme, Global Island, was chosen to posit Taiwan as an actor and global producer of knowledge, thus moving Taiwan studies beyond traditional imaginations of Taiwan as a comparative case or within a cross-straits context.

The workshop’s initial call for proposals yielded nearly 100 submissions, indicating the vitality of the burgeoning but vibrant field of Taiwan Studies. The result was an assortment of papers from a variety of disciplines, including history, anthropology, geography, literature, law, political science, communications, and others. This diversity of backgrounds and research topics provided many opportunities for thoughtful and engaging interdisciplinary dialogue. The presentation topics were equally varied, and included new research in indigeneity, social movements, international law, drug trafficking, LGBTQ family relations, agrarian commodities, historical memory, colonialism, etc. Though the topics were varied, the one connecting thread of the research was that it centered on Taiwan; as such, despite the variety of disciplines and research topics, common themes repeatedly emerged.

Keynote Speech

One of the recurring themes of the conference was that of global networks, Taiwan’s embedded role within them, and how Taiwan connects its actions with others. The keynote lecture on the evening of October 18 by Weh-hsin Yeh (UC Berkeley) reviewed different narratives about Taiwan in its critical historical transitions, showing the complex understanding of how Taiwan has come to be, and who the Taiwanese people are. Her presentation focused on the geography and representation of Taiwan, and she showed maps and figures of Taiwan as a subject perceived by its successive colonial rulers and the West. Drawing on both established works in Taiwan Studies and also of paper presentations from earlier in the day, Yeh pointed out how fragile and delicate an attempt to theorize Taiwan could be. The island has multiple selves and at the same time, exists as the embodiment of multiple global phenomena. Thus, Yeh urged scholars of Taiwan to look beyond its geographical boundaries and engage in research that could examine Taiwan in larger contexts.

Day One

Earlier in the day, the first grouping of papers on “Global Networks and Embedded Taiwan” offered a variety of perspectives on the topic. Graeme Reade (Australian National University) presented research on youth and democracy through the lens of music festivals. His research showcased how music in Taiwan did not merely imbue political narratives, but rather that music was a manifestation of political action.  Tzu-chin Insky Chen (UCLA) presented work on immigrant cinema, focusing on the films Pinoy-Sunday and Ye Zai.  She focused on how both films sought to represent Filipino and Thai migrant workers in Taiwan in novel perspectives that challenge their typical portrayal in Taiwanese mainstream media. Jennifer Hsieh (Harvard University) presented a paper reconceptualizing assumptions of noise on Taiwan.  Noise was represented simultaneously as a symbol of modernity and as a public health risk under Japanese colonial rule, and Hsieh examines how these perceptions changed in the contemporary era with the measurement and quantification of sound.

The second grouping was organized around the idea of “Subversive Taiwan.” Wen-ning Chang (University of Washington) presented research on legal cases in international courts regarding fishing disputes. Her research examines how Taiwan acts as a unique case where its international status poses a challenge for regulatory regimes, where its exclusion would erode the effectiveness of international fishing agreements. Weiting Guo (Simon Fraser University) spoke on the life of female bandit and guerilla leader Huang Bamei.  In following the local histories and memories of Huang Bamei, Guo demonstrates the complexities of narrative formation in wartime China, and how the various images of Huang from bandit to heroine changed as she moved across space and time to end up on Taiwan. Peter Thilly (University of Mississippi) presented a chapter from his book, revolving around the lives of Taiwanese who took advantage of a legal loophole in the late Qing and Republican periods by benefitting from extraterritoriality as citizens of the Japanese empire. These Taiwanese became opium drug traffickers, crucial intermediaries between Fujianese buyers in Xiamen and Japanese colonial officials who wished to expand their imperial influence.

The final papers of the first day, on “Taiwan and the World,” saw various perspectives surrounding Taiwan’s participation on the global stage. Po-yi Hung (National Taiwan University) discussed research on tea transfer between Taiwan and the Southeast Asian highlands. His paper examined how tea became both a cash crop and a vector of political influence.  James Lin (University of Washington) presented a paper on Taiwanese agricultural devel opment missions to Vietnam during the 1960s. Those missions posited an image of Taiwanese modernity presented for an international and domestic audience that placed Taiwan at the vanguard of the Global South.

Day Two

The second day started with papers on the topic of “Reorienting Colony and Empire,” which dove into research regarding colonialism, imperialism, and Taiwanese history. Peter Kang (National Donghwa University/Academia Sinica) presented research on local historical memory.  Through disentangling the changing memories and representations of a local deity, the Red Haired Princess or the Princess of Eight Treasures, he shows how successive periods of history affected popular religion and Taiwanese identity. Wei Yi Leow (National University of Singapore) discussed colonial science and environment in Japanese-ruled Taiwan. Focusing on a Japanese plant breeder, Eikichi Iso, his paper showed how Japanese scientists produced horai rice in Taiwan, turning it into an agrarian colony.  Cheng-heng Lu (Emory University) presented a new historical narrative on Zheng Chenggong, Shi Lang, Lan Tingzhen, and Huang Shijian, prominent figures in the Qing conquest of Taiwan.  Lu argues that these figures should be seen as Hokkienese “conquistadors” of Taiwan, serving as crucial imperial intermediaries that were representative of early modern empires.

The fifth group of papers was on the topic of “Taiwan as Method.”  Yi-ting Chang (Penn State) presented her research on Taiwanese writer Wu Ming-Yi’s novel, The Man with the Compound Eyes.  She approaches the Taiwan represented in Wu’s literature as a new epistemic entity, embodying “archipelagic optics,” thus creating a multi-centered and multi-scale worldview that incorporates Taiwan’s colonial and indigenous histories. JhuCi Rita Jhang (UT Austin) discussed discourses of “coming out” for LGBTQ individuals to their families in Taiwan.  Exploring issues ranging from homonormativity to legal institutions, she demonstrates Taiwan’s potential as a location for a unique theory in LGBTQ studies.

The sixth panel discussed Taiwan’s Indigeneity and Identity. Melissa Brown (Harvard University) presented her research on Austronesian women and local (bendi) Taiwanese women’s contribution to Taiwan’s cosmopolitanism. She argued that Taiwan has been moving away from nationalism towards locally rooted but globally reaching communitarianism-based cosmopolitanism, albeit a fragile one. Douglas Fix (Reed College) also touched on Taiwanese indigenous people’s culture and identity through the lens of European and Americans writing about indigenous peoples in the 19th century. His paper analyzed how those writings classified and determined “facts” on the indigenes, including descriptions of headhunting, cannibalism, and alcohol consumption.  Jing Xu (UW) presented her ongoing project reassessing the unpublished dissertation research of prominent Taiwan anthropologists, Arthur Wolf and Margery Wolf. In returning to this data on social norms, acts of aggression, norm compliance, gathered in the 1960s, Xu seeks to understand children’s everyday lives in a Taiwan village.

Plenary Discussion and Roundtable

The workshop ended with a plenary discussion centered on the theme of “Toward a Theory of ‘Taiwan and the World” that showcased three scholars across the world working on Taiwan.  The three “thinkpieces” in this roundtable focused on the efforts made, difficulties faced and the future prospects in studying and researching how Taiwan interacted with the world.  The papers and discussion that followed provided a fruitful, yet sobering conclusion to the presentations.

Gary Hamilton (UW) spoke on the past economic achievements and current situations of Taiwanese businesses. As demonstrated in his recently published book, Making Money, he argues Taiwanese businesses after 1965 became globally linked, using a capitalist ethos to take advantage of global consumer demand. But today, Taiwan’s manufacturing industry has been caught in a dilemma regarding its position on mainland China, with rising Chinese nationalism that manifests in economic activities as well as its growing competitiveness in terms of technology.

Wu Rwei-ren (Academia Sinica) spoke on the topic “Taiwan and the World” in terms of knowledge production, comparative studies between Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, and the emergence of Taiwanese nationalism in light of Japanese colonialism and its conflicting nationality. He discussed the study of comparative literature with what he called a “global reading of local texts.” In addition to the interdisciplinary studies in English-speaking academia, a focus on studies centered around readings in Chinese and Japanese is also warranted. Finally, he identified several difficulties the Taiwan Studies field has been facing, specifically the impact of politics on academic research. This includes the denial of Taiwan’s political and academic independence, and especially problematic, a reluctance from the global progressive left to engage with Taiwan as a nation-state.

Shiho Maehara (Kyushu University), drawing upon her experiences as a Japanese scholar of Taiwan Studies who was educated in Canada, emphasized the importance of the internationalization of Taiwan Studies and how the underrepresented Japanese scholarship of Taiwan Studies might help enrich the field. Often Taiwan Studies institutions and publications across the world overlook and ignore the potential contributions of Japanese scholarship on Taiwan. At the same time, she also pointed to the difficulties in bridging the Japanese scholarship with international academia due to the language barrier and a tendency toward isolationism within the Japanese scholarly community.

In sum, while acknowledging that there are obvious obstacles that shadow this field, the roundtable reached a consensus that there is not just an academic reason to support the development of Taiwan studies, but also a sentiment of urgency and necessity to keep the Taiwanese epistemological fire burning.

The success of the workshop affirmed the interdisciplinary and global vibrancy of the field of Taiwan Studies.  Senior and junior scholars engaged in conversations over new approaches and methodologies emerging both from the uniqueness of Taiwan, as well as from new theories from other fields that provide novel lenses through which to examine social, cultural, and political processes in Taiwan.  The two full days culminated in the promise of future opportunities for understanding Taiwan and the world.

Written by Min Guo, James Lin, Samantha Sanders, Eryk Waligora, Lezhi Wang, Aaron Zhao