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  • On the State of the Humanities in Taiwan
  • Fan-sen Wang (bio)

Prior to the 1990s, the humanities were well respected in Taiwan and held a prominent place in society. The first reason for such high regard for the humanities in Taiwanese society lies in the fact that humanistic knowledge served as an extremely important source of social authority in imperial China. Historically, China possessed a long tradition of valuing scholarship and emphasizing its importance to the work of imperial administration. In general, only those who were able to pass the imperial examination successfully could serve in government positions. Under this system, scholars had to pass exams whose content revolved around the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism, which have since become part of the traditional classics taught in the humanities. In this respect, the traditional Chinese saying to "appoint only scholars as prime ministers" indicates that while the emperor may be a conqueror or may have inherited the throne through heredity, the top official of a state must be a scholar who has passed the imperial examination with flying colors. Thus, the ideal state was to be jointly ruled by the emperor and this class of scholar-bureaucrats.

Over the past two millennia, humanistic knowledge has carved its own unique position in Chinese society. The social status of the traditional carriers of culture, at least as an ideal, was greater than that of those who wielded power and authority. This status was to a great extent altered in 1949. During the Cultural Revolution, China witnessed several decades when educated individuals were belittled as "stinking intellectuals." In contrast, Taiwan preserved the prerevolutionary traditions of cultural and knowledge production, making it possible for scholars to maintain their place of prominence in society throughout the period.

The second reason for the high value placed on the humanities in Taiwan is that for nearly half a century a significant number of leading intellectuals in Taiwan were scholars of the humanities. After 1949, Hu Shi, Fu Ssu-nien, and later Yin Hai-kuang—all advocates of liberalism and renowned scholars in the humanities—were indicative of this trend. Although representative figures of the Kuomintang (KMT, often referred to as the Chinese Nationalist Party) such as Chiang Kai-shek and his son did not officially welcome the presence of these liberal intellectuals, the KMT had no choice but to adopt an attitude of respect toward these scholars, who were major figures in both academia and the broader public sphere. Such scholars continued to enjoy high status in Taiwanese society and naturally became powerful supporters for funding the humanities and advocating for the field's importance to society. Their support [End Page 177] enabled the humanities to maintain a foothold in Taiwan despite a collective infatuation with scientific advancement and economic development that marked the Cold War era.

From the late 1970s on, a new generation of humanities scholars rose to public prominence through Taiwanese media. Figures like Yu Ying-shih, Hsu Cho-yun, Li Yih-Yuan, Yang Kuo-shu, Lin Yu-sheng, Chang Chung-tung, Chang Hao, and Hu Fu made significant contributions, either directly or indirectly, toward the removal of martial law and the democratization of Taiwan. At the same time, their strong presence in the press empowered them with the ability to protect the value and status of the humanities on the island. However, in the late 1980s, the prominent role played by scholars in the humanities in mainstream Taiwanese society began to wane. The most straightforward explanation for this phenomenon is society's sudden gravitation toward utilitarianism and the concomitant transformation of society's figures of reverence and objects of veneration. Today, the share of the public's attention enjoyed by tycoons in the electronics industry far surpasses the share occupied by politicians, scholars, and other public figures.

The second reason for the decline of the humanities in Taiwan is somewhat unexpected. In the wake of the country's successful democratization, the doctrines of liberalism no longer possessed their previous sense of urgency. Scholars in the humanities who had previously contributed to that very success of liberalism found themselves no longer the focal point of society. Simultaneously, a group of highly...