I’m writing a novel set in Taiwan, and as part of that process, I’m reading scholarly studies of the island. It’s noticeable how fond these scholars are of Taiwan, and as it’s a fondness I recognise in myself and in many other Westerners I knew while I lived there, I thought I’d discuss it a little and see where my thoughts end up.
Some background info: Taiwan is a relatively small island off the coast of China, with a population of around 22 million. It’s a democracy, and its economy, according to the numbers on wikipedia, is about the 25th largest in the world. However, whether it is a country or not is still uncertain. According to China, Taiwan is merely a renegade province, and the Chinese government has repeatedly suggested that if Taiwan were to declare formal independence, there would be war. As a result the country continues a strange wobble between de facto independence and official invisibility. Taiwan is only able to enter international organisations such as the WTO, the WHO, and FIFA under the Beijing-pleasing name, “Chinese Taipei.”
Mark Harrison, in his book “Legitimacy, Meaning, and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity,” claims that academics working in the field of Taiwan Studies are, by defintion, involved in and supportive of Taiwan’s bid for real nationhood. He argues that to study and write research on Taiwan as a distinct entity means that one must inevitably support the idea that Taiwan is an entity separate from China. Part of this is perhaps, as he suggests, simply a matter of language: if books are produced with titles like, “The Minor Acts of Daily Life: Popular Culture in Taiwan,” then those books must imply that popular culture in Taiwan is a meaningful, distinct thing, something different to popular culture in China. An essay in that book, “The Making of Gay and Lesbian Identity in Taiwan,” by Scott Simon, seems to prove Harrison’s argument. Scott Simon describes Taiwan’s increasing acceptance of gay people and gay communities as a narrative moving alongside its development as a post-martial law, post-dictatorship modern society. Taiwan’s political development as a democracy is cause and effect of its relatively enlightened views of homosexuality. And it is America, not China, that Simon uses as his comparative model; Taiwan can be treated as a society of the same species as the wealthiest nations of the West.
There’s clearly a pragmatic reason for someone studying Taiwan to hope that China doesn’t assimilate it–no one wants their research area to disappear. However, I believe that Taiwan also offers an emotional appeal to a certain kind of person, to a visiting foreigner who is interested in asking questions and figuring things out, an appeal hard to match anywhere else in the world. I know that since leaving Taiwan, I continue thinking about the island constantly, want to write about it more than I think anywhere else I’ve been, and I look back on the conversations I had there as being among the most interesting I had anywhere.
There is a great intellectual appeal to a country that might or might not exist. Something fascinatingly liminal is present in modern-day Taiwan, a country without a clear future or clear past (was it always part of China? Was it Japanese? Was it always a distinct place? People disagree). And while many, many parts of the world are uncertain, Taiwanese people are, I feel, unusually self-reflective and eager participants in conversations about their island’s strange status and history. Taiwan is a place where everyone is willing to talk about their uncertainty, to a highly sophisticated level, and, at the same time, talk about their immense cultural confidence, as inheritors of Chinese culture thousands of years old; when I moved to Syria, and attempted to have similar conversations, I found it far harder (I’m sure it being a police state contributed to this).
A warning, now: once you become interested in Taiwan, you can’t let it go. I was recently reading an Iron Man comic (I think it was “Five Nightmares“), and when Iron Man flies in and out of Taipei, it’s obvious to my awakened eyes that Marvel is trying to avoid causing trouble with the Chinese Communist Party. Certain panels imply that Taiwan is part of China, as if Tony Stark exists in a parallel universe, where “Chinese” flying dudes can give him chase and be destroyed.
It’s sickening that both my government and America’s government have fought incredibly expensive wars (expensive in every way) to create democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet in Asia there is a real, already existing democracy, and neither Europe nor the US are willing to anger China by recognising it. It puts our claims to be supporting freedom around the world into stark relief.