- Taiwan’s Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683–1895 by Emma Jinhua Teng
Emma Jinhua Teng’s book examines the changing and often conflicting ways in which Taiwan—its peoples, landscapes, flora, and fauna—was depicted in Chinese travel accounts from the time the island “entered the map” of the Qing empire to the end of the nineteenth century. Teng paints an intriguing picture of the debates that emerged concerning the colonization of Taiwan and official Qing policy towards the island’s indigenous peoples. She demonstrates how classical Chinese concepts of place, geography, and human nature were used by opposing groups to promote vastly different approaches to the island. She also traces the development of genres such as cartography and “ethnographic albums,” showing how changing attitudes to the island’s indigenous population reflected the shifting interests of, and debates within, the Qing court.
Given the current intellectual fascination with the history of Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan, this book’s publication is timely. It broadens the boundaries of debates about colonialism and post-colonial studies in Taiwan—sometimes provocatively. For example, if Japan’s fifty-year rule of Taiwan can be understood as colonialism, asks Teng, then what of the Qing conquest of the island? Can we even talk about post-colonialism in the Taiwan context?
Yet the book’s main contributions are those which it makes to the study of colonialism and imperialism in other contexts. Teng suggests that we re-assess the similarities, differences, and points of connection between the Chinese colonialism of the Qing era and European “high imperialism.” As a starting point for this argument, Teng focuses on the Rover Incident of 1867 and the Mudanshe Incident of 1871—events that presaged full-scale Chinese colonization of Taiwan in its entirety and which alerted the Qing court to the possibility of Japanese, American or European annexation of the island’s East Coast. Teng’s approach is innovative in that it does not simply compare China’s subsequent colonization of Eastern Taiwan as being akin to European expansion in other parts of Asia. Rather, she suggests that we look for “meeting points between Western and Chinese colonial discourses” (255) in order to better understand both. In this regard, Teng is making a significant contribution to the study of imperialism overall, and is suggesting that it is time to move beyond the confines by which colonialism is seen as the exclusive practice of Western men. Teng is challenging us to explore new understandings of territorial expansion as it was undertaken by Asian and other non-European empires.
Aware that her work will be of interest to scholars beyond the realm of Taiwan or China studies, Teng has clearly gone to great lengths to render the Chinese texts she has translated and referred to in lucid yet concise language. Particularly impressive is her effort to explain terms and phrases that are known to historians of the Chinese-speaking world but less familiar to others (e.g., her use of terms such as “transmontane” for the Chinese “houshan”; and her careful explanation of the ideas of “raw savages” and “cooked savages” in Chinese colonial discourse). This stands her work apart from the poor prose that has infected much Taiwan-studies scholarship in recent years.
In the book’s introduction and epilogue, the author points out that her research is relevant not only to historians, but also to modern political issues, namely debates over Taiwan’s international status. Yet whilst Teng argues most of her points well, there is something awkward about the main argument she raises here—i.e., that calls for Taiwan’s “reunification” with the Chinese mainland are based on a colonial rationale.
Teng is justified in making this argument—but it is only half the story. Taiwanese “nativist” (bentu) nationalism—that celebrated by the island’s leadership and its allies in academia today—is just as much a product of Qing colonialism as are Beijing’s claims to the island. Yet Teng seems too...