chapter
Introduction: why Taiwan? why comparitize?
BySHU-MEI SHIH AND PING-HUI LIAO
Pages 10

How does one study a small island nation, Taiwan, under the shadow of superpowers? How does one make it relevant to the larger academic community beyond Taiwan studies? The answer we propose, and the exercise we activate in this volume, is to “comparatize.” Comparatizing Taiwan takes “Taiwan” not as a discreet or separate object

or area of study, but as a site and a product of relations with other entities and areas in terms of culture, geography, history, politics, and economy. “Comparatizing” here is a transitive verb that acts directly upon the word “Taiwan,” so that “Taiwan” itself becomes an open term that acquires specific meanings in relation to that which it is compared to. “Taiwan” as an island nation, a multi-ethnic society, and a global economic node acquires its changing identity in history through its geographical location vis-à-vis other islands and continents, its role in the oceanic crossings of indigenous and settler cultures, and the geopolitical as well as economic formations of empires and nations. The exercise here is not only to situate Taiwan globally, comparatively, and relationally in order to bring out the richness of Taiwan, but also to offer a model for studying small nations. Our contention is that a putatively minor node such as Taiwan in the infi-

nite web of relations that is our world has important things to say and lessons to offer our world, and, specifically, to academic scholarship that tends to be cowered by the power of size and to fetishize the study of large nations such as China and the United States. Caribbean thinker Édouard Glissant once noted that “complexity occurs initially in small countries and archipelagos before resonating in the big continents and big countries” (Diawara 2010). As the site of crossings of colonizers, settlers, merchants, and goods, island nations such as Taiwan and the Caribbean islands have seen a rich confluence of cultures, where peoples, cultures, and languages were either forced to mix or did so voluntarily, due largely to colonial conquest and their crucial role in world economy. The question of “Why Taiwan?,” therefore, is also about how scholars of islands and small nations might offer the world not only the vision of complexity that Glissant speaks about, but further to give an account for and due credit to the movement of complexity from islands and small nations to continents and large nations. Studying Taiwan, then, is also a methodological exercise that

offers a model of study of islands and small nations through the method of comparatizing, where “Taiwan” is placed under the pressure of comparison and safeguarded against insularity, is always the site of encounter, and achieves its multitudinous meanings through these comparisons and encounters. Encounters are moments of comparison; comparisons are themselves enactments of encounters. Comparatizing Taiwan examines Taiwan’s many relationalities, material as well

as symbolic, over a significant historical and geographical span, and views Taiwan in relation to other islands, cultures, or nations, even those that may not seem to be immediately relevant. Depending on the objects and areas brought into comparison with Taiwan, we will gain different insights, and this is how the exercise of comparatizing leads us to uncharted territories. When Taiwan is situated variously in terms of its relations within the crucial ChinaJapan-US triangle, or situated in relation to Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, or even the seemingly remote Caribbean or Mediterranean, we can be expected to confront different issues and arrive at divergent implications. For Taiwan’s role in the China-Japan-US triangle, political economic issues will tend to be prioritized, while, when it comes to Southeast Asia, usually the attention may be focused on the contemporary migration of laborers to Taiwan from Southeast Asia. Considering the history of settler colonialism by the Hoklos and the Hakkas on Austronesian Taiwan in relation to other Han settlements in Southeast Asia or other settler colonialisms in such island nations as Australia and New Zealand would yield very interesting results, especially since many Pacific islanders, such as the Maoris in New Zealand, are also Austronesians. Seen from the vantage point of Taiwan as their originary homeland, we can trace the dispersal of Austronesians all the way to the Hawai’ian islands to the east and all the way west to the east coast of Africa. Foregrounding indigeneity brings us a set of insights that are otherwise not easily available: there is a distinct difference between the settler perspective and the indigenous perspective. If we take the maritime history of Taiwan seriously, Taiwan emerges as a

nodal point for maritime trade among China, Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas, and this places Taiwan in a global map of the movement of goods and peoples. Mexican silver, as we know, passed through Taiwan in its itinerary from Mexico to China during the time of China’s Ming dynasty. The “Oceanic Taiwan” (haiyang Taiwan) perspective can be about Taiwan’s relationship to the oceans, the importance of the ocean to island culture, similar to the “tidalectics” of the Caribbean as proposed by the Caribbean poet Kamau Braithwaite. It is a dialectics of tides and lands that articulates a unique oceanic imaginary for the Caribbean peoples for whom the sea is as significant as the land in defining who they are. Similarly, the oceanic imaginary for Taiwan is not just an academic proposal, as evidenced by the Foundation of Ocean Taiwan (Haiyang Taiwan wenjiao jijinhui) and other similar organizations in Taiwan working on media, educational, environmental, legal and other causes related to understanding Taiwan in terms of

oceans rather than land masses. According to their website, one of their goals is to “reconstruct an ethics of the ocean” (haiyang lunli chongjian). This is a very different trajectory from the oceanic expansionism of European colonialism. We are talking about ethics, environmentalism, love of one’s homeland, without the expansionist underpinnings. Here is a model of oceanic imagination that is open, dialectical, and specifically honors the oceanic cosmopology of the indigenous Tao tribe in Taiwan. This oceanic imagination also offers an effective critique of the mainlander Kuomingtang (KMT) regime’s continental imaginary: earlier, Taiwan’s job was that of recovering the mainland (i.e. China) or otherwise KMT has ruled the island as if it were a continent. If we take Taiwan’s political situation under the shadow of China seriously,

we may compare Taiwan culture and society in relation to other cultures and societies that must also survive under the specter of powerful neighbors and settlers, such as Ireland, Palestine, and Georgia. The tranquil revolution of Francophone Quebec to gradually depart from the French empire can also be a model to consider the Han settlers’ gradual nativization in Taiwan. In each case, indigineity is a crucial force of mediation for the relationship between the old sending country (France and China) and the receiving country (Canada and Taiwan), constituting the triangular structure of settler colonialism. Issues such as sovereignty claims, land rights, ecological justice, and cultural rights are central to indigenous peoples as to all who share their lives on the (is)land, because a true decolonization must involve not just the settlers but also the indigenous peoples. If we take Japanese colonialism seriously, we can examine not only Tai-

wan’s colonial history vis-à-vis other Japanese colonies such as Korea and wartime Malaya, but also enact a kind of comparative colonial studies along at least three other lines: (1) with the other colonial powers who went to or through Taiwan, such as the Dutch and the Manchu; (2) with other colonial and post-colonial situations produced by Britain, France, the United States, Germany, and even other minor empires such as Italy; and (3) with historical empires such as the Russian and the Ottoman empires in terms of their settlement practices and their management of multiculturalism in the context of empire. The colonial and post-colonial studies angle to the question of Taiwan is in fact limitless, because Taiwan has had the (mis)fortune of having been colonized continuously, or, as Shu-mei Shih argues in this volume, “serially.” The marginalization of Taiwan in post-colonial studies is therefore all the more surprising, although, in the final analysis, it is an illustration of the most insidious kind of Eurocentrism. Since Taiwan has not been colonized by the European empires of the British and the French in the nineteenth century, it was not included in such prominent post-colonial fields of study as Anglophone studies and Francophone studies. Instead, Dutch colonization was too short and too long ago, and Japan is not a Western empire and does not receive the same kind of intellectual attention as do the French and British empires. Somehow, even in the critique of empires, Western empires get all the attention, as if they were the only ones worthy of critique. If we consider

that criticism is an act of labor, and all acts of labor produce value, then the critique of Western empires produces further value for Western empires. What initially might appear to be negative value-since we are critiquing themparadoxically becomes a form of valorization let in through the back door. If you study Western empires, your work belongs to post-colonial studies. But if you study non-Western empires, your work belongs to area studies. This is the unfortunate ecology of disciplines and fields in the United States due to the legacy of the Cold War. The necessity to create a field of Sinophone studies, which examines

entanglements of multiple empires, especially non-Western empires of China and Japan in relationship with European empires, in Sinitic-language communities around the world and the minority areas of China, is here selfevident (Shih et al. 2013). The inter-imperial approach, as also proposed by Laura Doyle (2013), is sorely needed in the study of Taiwan, especially since both Western and non-Western empires have criss-crossed their paths in Taiwan. And this inter-imperial approach must situate within the post-war American empire, the empire that often gets displaced as an object of critique because it falls within the discipline of American studies rather than postcolonial studies. The American role in the formation of Taiwan during the Cold War and after has profound implications for Taiwan studies. If we consider the fact that Taiwan is practically a US protectorate, that

one of its aspirations is to be as close to the US as possible, including the extreme proposal of Taiwan becoming the fifty-first state of the United States, the study of Taiwan is as much about the looming presence of the US as that of the other hegemonic presence, China, that actively marginalizes Taiwan on the international stage. For this reason, Taiwan as an object of study has claimed a limited space in the field of political science and anthropology, with numerous scholars weighing on the future of Taiwan-China (or cross-strait) relations, and Taiwan-US relations, offering analysis as well as predictions. Taiwan is either a “hot potato” in US-China-Japan relations or an inevitable “conflict zone” as China’s expansionist enterprise clashes with American world strategy (Brown 2007: 1; Wachman 2007). At best, Taiwan offers an example of how a maturing democratic country has ingeniously deflected China’s military threats and other regional challenges (see Rigger 2011, for example). It is not an exaggeration to say that this kind of work has so far dominated Taiwan studies in the American academy, with the exception of a handful of humanistically informed studies (see Chang 2008; Wang and Rojas 2007; Liao and Wang 2006; Ching 2001; Teng 2006). While this kind of work is very useful and we also offer a sociological take on these issues in the essay by Jieh-min Wu, we think it is also time to move beyond these and other positivistic studies and to involve humanists in thinking about new avenues for Taiwan studies, precisely to engage, more creatively, in the imagination of the possible futures of Taiwan. Culture, we contend, has as much, if not more, to offer in this imagination. Comparatizing Taiwan is a series of such acts of imagination.