The Politics of Explaining Taiwan

The Politics of Explaining Taiwan

Outlines of Taiwan and Thailand
Mail to Taiwan often gets sent to Thailand

Imagine if, when writing a paper on Donald Trump, you had to start your paper by saying the following:1

The United States emerged from the thirteen British colonies established along the East Coast of North America. Numerous disputes between Great Britain and the colonies following the French and Indian War led to the American Revolution, which began in 1775, and the subsequent Declaration of Independence in 1776. The United States embarked on a vigorous expansion across North America throughout the 19th century. . .

Now imagine you had to write not just one boring paragraph, but several pages or even a whole chapter like that … every … single … time you wrote about the United States. And imagine every article you read about the United States did the same thing. And in pretty much the exact same words as well. Wouldn’t it begin to drive you up the wall after a while? Well, that is exactly what is it like to be a Taiwan scholar!

I recently quipped about this on Facebook and a number of Taiwan scholars chimed in with experiences of being forced to add such sections to their papers. Others who, like me, work on indigenous issues in Taiwan said that they had to further justify their use of the word “indigenous” to describe those people who on whose behalf a national political movement was waged in the nineties specifically to gain the right to use this term. And still others offered examples from other disciplines or regions where they too had to provide such explanations every time they wrote about their subject matter.

Recently movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #metoo have politicized the act of offering explanations. Both women and people of color are fed up with having to explain racism and sexism to white men, and one can sympathize with the burden of being forced into the role of educator just because you have chosen to speak out against your own oppression. In an age where information is just a Google search away, surely we can expect people to show that they’ve done their homework before they ask to be educated? While having to write a short history of Taiwan for a book or journal article isn’t comparable to the experiences of oppression that are at the center of these movements, engagement with these movements online has had the side effect of making me more aware of how the demand for explanations can be political.

As an academic one often feels it is one’s job to provide explanations whenever they are requested, but now I have begun to wonder if there aren’t times when we should put our foot down and say that certain forms of ignorance are the reader’s responsibility to rectify, not that of the author? I sometimes wish I could just include a link to “Let me Google that for you!” instead of having to predigest Taiwanese history for my audience. But the real problem is that nobody would demand these histories if it wasn’t for the fact that Taiwan’s own government (until the end of Martial Law in 1987) and the government of the People’s Republic of China both had a shared interest in sowing confusion about the history of Taiwan in order to portray Taiwan as part of China.

There is even confusion over the source of confusion with regard to Taiwan’s history. One of the explanations you’ll often see is that Taiwan is a “small” country. But that isn’t true at all. Taiwan’s population is close to that of Australia and more than twice that of Greece or Sweden. Economically, Taiwan is ranked number 22 by GDP, just between Argentina and Sweden. In terms of area Taiwan is larger than Belgium or Haiti. Nobody is expected to explain Greece, Sweden, Argentina, Belgium, or even Haiti in the same way that they are expected to explain Taiwan. Taiwan only seems small because on most maps it generally appears alongside China whose size overshadows Taiwan.

Which brings us back to the politics of explanation. How should we as scholars respond to this disinformation campaign? Should we welcome the opportunity to continually remind people of Taiwan’s unique history? Or should we refuse to explain anything beyond what is absolutely necessary for the specific argument we are making in any given academic publication? Personally, I frequently try to adopt a third approach: explain Taiwan’s history but in a way that challenges even the standard official histories one finds in most publications. The question, “How does Taiwanese history look different when viewed from an indigenous perspective?” is one that has driven much of my academic work. But, as I can attest, this is difficult and time consuming. Many scholars, however, seem to welcome the necessity of constantly having to regurgitate the contents of the Wikipedia page on Taiwan history. The obligation to do so means that many articles on Taiwan have about one fifth to one quarter less original content because so much space is taken up with historical background. For a scholar eager to get out numerous publications in a short amount of time, this can be something of a relief, and I think it explains the cookie cutter feel to much Taiwan scholarship. I can’t help but feel that eliminating these de rigueur histories of Taiwan from our scholarship will lead to a general improvement in the quality of those publications as well.


  1. The following is liberally adapted from the Wikipedia page on the United States

P. Kerim Friedman is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan. His research explores language revitalization efforts among indigenous Taiwanese, looking at the relationship between language ideology, indigeneity, and political economy. An ethnographic filmmaker, he co-produced the Jean Rouch award-winning documentary, ‘Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!’ about a street theater troupe from one of India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs).

4 Replies to “The Politics of Explaining Taiwan”

  1. Kerim, I agree with everything you say here. I wonder, however, if an improvement in the quality of academic publications about Taiwan should be our number one priority. I am reminded of something advertising guru David Ogilvy said about creatives (clients, too) eager to abandon long-running campaigns and do something new. Our audience, he said, is a moving parade. While we, the ad guys, may be bored with something we have seen too often, the message may still be fresh and effective for people who haven’t seen it yet. It could be argued that since Taiwan is so often off the radar, except when China is in the news or a typhoon or earthquake strikes the island, and news about Taiwan disappears so rapidly in the 24-hour news cycle, every possible opportunity should be taken to tell Taiwan’s story—even in academic papers that few will ever read.

  2. John, I think there is a lot of great work being done now. The problem isn’t that. The problem I was talking about is that there is also a lot of cookie cutter stuff out there as well. A lot of that is due to how Taiwan’s Ministry of Education changes looks at academic promotion…

  3. I agree with your assessment. Yes, there is a lot of great work and, yes, there is also a lot of cookie cutter stuff. Just noting that the particular form you were describing, repeating the oft-told history of Taiwan, might have a political value at cross-purposes with a desire for academic originality.

  4. Kerim I sympathise with your frustrations. And note a similarly annoying need to repeat myself when discussing sizeable overseas Chinese communities whose histories should be common knowledge (at least in my opinion). But then again, I actually quite enjoyed your summary of US history and thought it did a lot to unpick the methodological nationalism that underpins so much ethnography. As someone not from the US, I’d like to see more of that kind of writing. Perhaps the solution is to expect everyone to clarify what they see as the dominant historical narrative of the place they are writing about. It would show solidarity in decolonising anthropology by repeating the often overlooked Colonial aspects of almost every existing nation-state, and remind everyone that nations are not ‘given’ in any kind of ahistorical/apolitical sense. It would also help us as readers know a little about how the author situates themselves in this narrative. Good ethnography should start from some decent historical contextualisation, right? Perhaps we should remind everyone to cut some more cookies?

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