Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Review of Taiwan's Imagined Geography

Taiwan's Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895
Emma Jinhua Teng
Available at Bookstore 1920s on Dihua Street, Amazon and Book Depository UK (with free shipping!)

This is likely to be a short review, by my standards, not because I did not like this book, but because I liked it too much. It's easy to write reams about a flawed tome; a far more difficult task is writing about something one has no substantive quibbles with.

I was immediately impressed by this book for two key reasons: the first was its thickness compared to the chunk of time it covers and the narrowness of its focus on that time: the book provides historical narrative, but its purpose is to support the main point: a cut-through of travel writing on Taiwan by Chinese colonial visitors. Teng begins and ends her investigation in Qing-era Taiwan, exploring only briefly the accounts of earlier visitors if they add to that narrative, for example, discussing what Shi Lang, who captured Taiwan (from the Zhengs of Koxinga fame), said about the place before it was ever really incorporated into Qing holdings, and what a Chinese visitor in Japanese-era Taiwan had to say about losing a part of what he called "my China".

The second thing that impressed me was how engagingly it was written, for a book that has real scholarly heft (in fact, in some parts where she begins quoting other academics, it differs little from textbooks you absolutely would not read for pleasure, and yet it remains pleasurable). If I had to compare it to anything, I'd say it's Taiwan's version of A Distant Mirror (name drop: hands in the air if you've read it!)

Unless you are already an expert in the field, you will learn quite a bit from this book, almost all of it relevant to what makes Taiwan what it is today. You can see the roots of many issues of identity and politics taking shape, from indigenous issues to questions of nationalism and the historical roots of, as well as a well-deserved challenge to the legitimacy of, China's claims to Taiwan as Chinese "since antiquity."

Spoiler alert: not only did China have no claim on Taiwan whatsoever until the Qing dynasty came and kicked out the Ming loyalists, but for most of the ancient history of China they were either unaware of its existence, or barely-aware, not not really caring. There are various historical reasons for this, including the conception of what was included in "China". Even when the Qing did hold Taiwan, they only controlled its Western plain, considering the mountains a 'hedgerow' or 'screen' protecting China proper, until the late 19th century when they realized that other powers might be interested in taking it. For much of the time before that, they considered it barely worth their time, a drain on coffers rather than a treasure adding to them. And, finally, there is a case to be made that the Qing treated Taiwan more as a colonial holding than an integral part of its territory.

You can read about all of this in the book, and I was aware of all of these points well before I read it. I mostly added the above paragraph so that the next time some pro-China troll comes along I can link or copy-paste rather than repeat myself.

The part that interested me, and will presumably interest you, is the various ways in which the colonial travel writings and associated maps Teng includes reflect the changing attitudes of China towards Taiwan during this time, from a 'ball of mud beyond the pale of civilization' to a 'treasure island', spending quite a bit of time on how Taiwan and its indigenous tribes were perceived as 'other', and what exactly it means to consider Taiwan more a colonial holding of the Qing than a frontier territory.

If I could come up with any one criticism of this book, it's that at times I would have actually liked to dive a little deeper into a straight accounting of history. I don't hold that against Teng: it's made clear at the outset that Taiwan's Imagined Geography is not meant to be that, and I won't criticize the book for something it was never meant to be. I would have also liked if she'd spent just a bit more time deconstructing the veracity of the claims of the various writers: she makes it clear that as narrators they are often unreliable, but does not make it her business to analyze exactly how.

Now, I did say above that despite being a scholarly work, Taiwan's Imagined Geography is eminently readable. However, I am a person with something of a scholarly bent. I'm no professor, but I can and do read this sort of stuff for fun (and in my defense my husband is a much bigger nerd than I am), and I am more than happy to learn, in great detail, about various aspects of Taiwan past and present. If you are not this sort of person and prefer more general reading, or are interested in Taiwan more in passing, you might find it more of a slog than I did. But if you liked A Distant Mirror - despite it being on an entirely different topic - you will love this book.

And I guess that wasn't a short review at all.

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