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Journal of World History 13.1 (2002) 205-207



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Book Review

Taiwan: A New History


Taiwan: A New History. Edited by MURRAY RUBINSTEIN. Armonk NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1999 . Pp. xiv + 520 . $69 .95 (cloth); $27 .95 (paper).

Scholarly research regarding China's frontier regions overwhelmingly focuses on Han-"barbarian" relations in Owen Lattimore's "inner Asian frontier" and the more traditional sites of cross-cultural intercourse along the Silk Road and Great Wall, or occasionally it examines the southern and southwestern fringes of empire. A much-welcomed counterpoint to this landlocked concept of the Chinese frontier is the [End Page 205] volume Taiwan: A New History, edited by Murray Rubinstein. Although there is nothing "new" in the sixteen chapters contributed by thirteen Taiwan specialists, what makes this volume significant is the fact that for the past 400 years, la isla Formosa has been a dynamic maritime/ island frontier zone with multiple influences that have affected its historical development. It is a uniquely "modern" frontier, colonized by Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans, and therefore, an engaging case study.

Taiwan offers a rare "laboratory" environment to compare and contrast the colonial policies of the mercantilist Dutch, Ming loyalist/rebel Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), the Qing government and the Guomindang (Nationalist Party), and imperial Japanese authorities on the island. The chapters by John Wills, John Shepherd, Chen Chiukun, Robert Gardella, Harry Lamley, Peter Chen-main Wang, and Murray Rubinstein explore (some in more depth than others) common problems faced by occupying powers: relations between the new immigrants, local authorities, and the Taiwanese aborigines; opening new lands to cultivation, irrigation, and other forms of economic exploitation; methods to culturally assimilate local inhabitants (both Han and aborigine); changes in the social structure, the crisis of identity, democratization of the political system, and other consequences engendered by the political economies of colonialism and modernization.

One of the most fascinating contributions is Peter Weller's "Identity and Social Change in Taiwanese Religion." Weller examines the particularly flexible and syncretic characteristics of religious practices imported from mainland China to the mercurial island environment. Arguing that the absence of strong state authority for centuries bred unorthodox forms of Buddhism, Daoism, and popular religion, Weller traces the history of decentralized worship through the arena of backwoods temples and households. Deviations from mainland orthodoxy are numerous: the important role played by women in the realm of spiritual affairs; the blending of aboriginal and Han practices that centered around the belief in magic; the popularity of spirit mediums; and the ubiquitous worship of "immoral" deities such as outlaws, gamblers, and prostitutes. Even after a formidable state presence manifested itself in the guise of imperial Japanese and Guomindang governments, these "heretical" beliefs persisted, have now become legitimized, and are thriving in the unbridled Mammonist frontier of Taiwanese capitalism.

Another intriguing pair of chapters, written by Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang, illuminates the role of literature in the twentieth century, and its attempts to forge a distinctively Taiwanese identity in the crucible [End Page 206] of multiple cultural/political influences. During the Japanese colonial era, the impact of traditional Chinese, May Fourth/New Culture/baihua, Western, and Japanese literary styles on academic circles precipitated contentious debates over form, substance, and cultural identity. Similarly, in the post-1949 period, Chang describes how the Cold War climate and Mandarinization policies of the Nationalists did not stifle artistic freedom. On the contrary, she argues that Taiwan's literati proved that the pen was mightier than the sword. The acrimonious intellectual debates, Rashomon-like portrayal of socio-economic changes on the island, and scathing attacks on government policies in journals, newspapers, and magazines accelerated the downfall of totalitarian Guomindang rule and led to a truly pluralistic--and proto-democratic--society in the late 1980 s.

A final theme that pervades the volume is the notion of Taiwan as an ethnic frontier, along with the slippery concept of cultural identity. What does it mean to be "Taiwanese" today? That depends upon whom you ask. The two chapters penned by Michael Stainton investigate the genesis of the Taiwan's original Austronesian inhabitants (yuanzhumin), relations...


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