Saturday, June 26, 2021

A Concise History of Taiwan (Bilingual Edition) Review, and more!

The Concise History of Taiwan: Chinese-English Bilingual Edition
By Tai Pao-tsun, translated by Ruby Lee

I know I haven't been blogging that much in the past week or so: in part I needed a break, but I've also been busy with other things. I did a podcast with Startup Taiwan on the Bilingual by 2030 initiative (similar to my other podcast with Taiwan Context on the same issue). And perhaps you've noticed an article in the Taipei Times about my debilitating insomnia-driven push to get Last Week Tonight to do an episode on Taiwan. While I'm not spending a huge amount of actual time on this, I did take the time to give the Taipei Times an interview. The petition is still going, so by all means please do sign. 

But mostly, it's that these days I live in front of the computer for work, so I just haven't wanted to spend more screen time blogging. But anyway, down to business. 

A year or so ago, I realized that Brendan and I had, combined, managed to read almost every general history book on Taiwan in existence in English, and that no direct comparison exists. So we made a final push. I'd been working through the politically subjective works (think Taiwan's 400 Year History) while Brendan read the drier tomes (such as Taiwan: A New History, which is more of a collection of articles than a true general history). We both read the works we consider to be most seminal (Forbidden Nation and A New Illustrated History of Taiwan). 

Then, just as we were about to write the piece together, another publication popped up on my radar: The Concise History of Taiwan: Chinese-English Bilingual Edition by Tai Pao-tsun, translated by Ruby Lee. As it is indeed concise, I thought I'd give it a review before including it in the longer article. 

The book itself lives up to the name: it's not particularly thick, and with half the pages in Mandarin and a double-spaced font, it can be read in an easy day. It follows the same notion of how to cover history as many other 21st century publications (this was published in 2007): rather than a chronological telling of events, it covers areas of interest. Specifically, these are Indigenous Peoples, Immigrants, Colonization, Towards a National State and Taiwanese and World Citizens (which has the least clear title and is also the least clear chapter). Chapters 1-3 look at the whole of history, although only Chapter 1 goes into pre-written Indigenous history, and only at the very end does the narrative follow a clear chronology, from KMT authoritarianism to democratization.

I appreciated certain elements of this book: the clear case for Taiwanese sovereignty without fiery political soapboxing or outdated references to long-dead compradores. (I admire what it would have meant at the time for Su Beng to call them out by name, and the fact of their existence is worth including, but in 2021 I'm not sure we need a list.) I noted the attempt to discuss Indigenous affairs through the modern era, rather than relegating all discussion of Indigenous culture to "prehistory". And anyone could improve on Ong Iok-tek's (A History of Agonies) abject anti-Indigenous racism.

In some ways, Tai outdoes Chou Wan-yao: at no point does this book pretend that it is in any way acceptable for an occupying foreign government to force a "national language" on a people who've never spoken it before. (I've said it before and I'll say it again: this was the single worst line of reasoning in Chou's book, which was otherwise a delight to read. It brought the whole thing down.)

In others, however, the Concise History leaves a lot to be desired. The chapter on immigrants considers Taiwanese with Han ancestry to be immigrants, which is correct (or settlers, or colonizers: choose your discourse) and handles this well. It then covers "New Taiwanese" (the KMT diaspora that accompanied the 1940s occupation) and it handles the topic critically but fairly. It even covers immigration from Southeast Asia. But -- I dunno man, call me selfish -- a single sentence pointing out that there is a small community of long-term Westerners who also call Taiwan home would have been appreciated. Truly, just a sentence would have been enough. I don't want Westerners in Taiwan to take up too much space when we are a tiny minority of immigrants, but we do exist. 

In Colonization, Tai considers the Dutch and Japanese eras, but completely elides the Qing colonization and the ways that the ROC is itself a colonizer of Taiwan. Other historians have dealt with this in different ways: Su Beng was anti-Qing but pro-Han immigration. Manthorpe (Forbidden Nation) says obliquely that there is a case to be made for both the Qing and the ROC to be considered colonizers. Chou (A New Illustrated History of Taiwan) doesn't quite take that step, but she does offer up all the objective evidence for coming to that conclusion oneself. 

By not engaging with the issue at all, Tai is essentially saying that there is no need to question whether the Qing and the ROC acted as colonizers: it is assumed by their exclusion from this chapter that they did not. I disagree, strongly. What is the justification for this? How did they act meaningfully differently from any other foreign occupiers? Is it because some people still argue that the legal structures that kept (and keep) these governments in place are not generally considered "colonial", even if the actions of the government absolutely are? Is it because the colonizers came from China, so they aren't different enough to be "colonizers"? None of these options is convincing, so it doesn't really matter which assumption informed Tai's thinking. 

One final matter must be dealt with: the translation. I don't want to say too much about this, as I am not against a non-native speaker doing a translation, and don't want to come across otherwise. However, there are some real issues here. Some of these are mildly humorous rather than overtly confusing ("The Taiwanese are a generous and tolerable people" -- a stereotype, but I understood what was meant).  Other areas, however, simply don't cohere well, and small mistakes come across as unprofessional, such as calling the DPP the "DDP". 

Even native-speaker translations benefit from a good editor, and that's what this book needs, too. Translators are not editors and shouldn't be asked to do both jobs: in an ideal world, there's funding for both. It's a shame that dedicated and sincere Taiwanese voices are perhaps not being heard more widely because the funding just isn't there to hire a good editor. 

There are reasons to choose this particular book, however. Like every other general history we've read, it takes a pro-Taiwan stance. Honestly, I think this is because reality leans pro-Taiwan: the case for Taiwan is based on certain objective truths, such as the traumas of the authoritarian era or the simple fact that the Taiwan is not currently controlled by China, and does not wish to be a part of China, period. There's probably another reason at play, however: if you're so in love with the concept of Taiwan-as-China, why would you write a history book focusing on Taiwan? You'd probably just write a history of China and include Taiwan as a small part of it. 

(Which, incidentally, is exactly how China would treat a subjugated Taiwan: as an unimportant backwater, a footnote. That is, after the genocide.) 

And it is short: if you are a newcomer to Taiwan and don't even know things like the fact that the ROC is a decorative name underwriting a concept on life support, that Taiwan was once a colony of Japan, that the KMT have an awful history or that there even are Indigenous Taiwanese, this is a quick way to get up to speed on the basics. That said, Forbidden Nation covers most of that as well, and is only a little bit longer. 

Mostly, I'd recommend A Concise History of Taiwan: Chinese-English Bilingual Edition for one specific purpose. If you are looking to read about Taiwanese history and want to actually practice your foreign language skills, this could be a place to start. Say you studied Mandarin in college, maybe spent a year in China but also learned to read Traditional characters. Then you move to Taiwan because -- let's be real -- it's a better country to live in. You can read Chinese but aren't that well-versed in local history. Start here, and read in both languages. Or say you've lived here for awhile and your Chinese reading comprehension is okay. You already know the history, so you want to practice reading in Chinese on a topic you're already familiar with -- the way Taiwanese teens read Harry Potter in English after having seen the movies or read the books in Mandarin. Perhaps you need the English there to support you. 

In those circumstances, this would be a good book to pick up. A learner of English could do the same, although I'd warn them to be aware that the translation is not always polished and clear. However, if we're considering English as a lingua franca or an international language, it's good enough for that purpose. 

A Concise History of Taiwan: Chinese-English Bilingual Edition is available on, and the price is quite attractive.

1 comment:

Dave Trouba said...

Thanks for this review and, as always, for your fantastic analytical pieces, commentary and more. You are amazingly productive -- I am jealous :). Seriously, I will get this book alone on the advice that it is helpful for a learner of Chinese (with both languages side-by-side) and a lover of history. Cheers!