Friday, June 4, 2021

Review: A New Illustrated History of Taiwan

A New Illustrated History of Taiwan, by Wan-yao Chou
Available online, but try 台灣个店 or 南天書局 first

On June 4th, I didn't want to release another current affairs-focused post. I also didn't want to talk about Tiananmen Square specifically, as I have nothing unique to say beyond a generalized feeling that the attempts of illiberal regimes such as the CCP continue to wage disinformation and forced amnesia, with the goal of disintegrating democracy as system seem as viable. In fact, a book about this 'amnesia' was recently restricted in Hong Kong libraries.

But this is a good day to remember history, so that's what we're going to do. Perhaps not Tiananmen specifically as this is a Taiwan-focused blog, but history all the same. You can't see the candle I'll burn at home, so consider this my public candle, with Taiwanese characteristics.

Wan-yao Chou's A New Illustrated History of Taiwan sets two ambitious goals for itself right in the preface: first, to look at history -- the good and the bad -- without getting enmeshed in political disputes partisan politics. Chou doesn't say this openly, but it would be difficult for any writer to treat Taiwanese history fairly without several chapters straight-up smashing the KMT the way Hulk smashed Loki. Chou walks a fine line here, but ultimately lets their own actions speak for themselves. The second goal is to tell a more pluralistic, localized history of diverse voices and trajectories. Chou explicitly states that she intends to interrogate this:

Isn't the so-called "400 years of Taiwanese history" just the view of male Han as they retrace their history?

In doing so, Chou sets out to write a history that includes more people, with an emphasis on the women, Indigenous people and local activists generally left out of other general histories. 

If you didn't catch the reference, that was the writerly version of a subtweet pointing out the shortcomings of Su Beng's Taiwan's 400-Year History. Su Beng was a national treasure and he is deeply missed, but Chou is not wrong in this.

Although the value of early and imperfectly-narrated histories (such as Su Beng's work) played a vital role in pushing Taiwanese identity through the 20th century and into the 21st, she treats them as stepping stones, not final destinations in telling the story of Taiwan.

I'm pleased to say that she succeeds in her ambitions, and the book is -- not to let the cup overflow with too much praise -- masterful.

Chou doesn't take an exact linear timeline, although the book is roughly chronological. Space is reserved for a discussion of the arts and artists of Taiwan in the 19th century -- many people don't know that Taiwan boasted prominent composers and visual artists despite not having much in the way of local, formal education available to them. It reminded me of my last visit to the Tainan Fine Arts Museum, where the work of Taiwanese artists is showcased and its connection to Taiwan -- the culture, the land, the history, the people -- is highlighted.

Mid-century artist Chen Cheng-hsiung's "Old Friends" at the Tainan Fine Arts Museum (Exhibition Hall 1, in the old police station)

In the chapters of the Japanese era, she sinks into Japanese-style education more than any other writer. She is right to do so, as the education system the Japanese set up for their own benefit on Taiwan has been a quiet shaper -- a not-always-invisible hand -- of what Taiwan is today. After all, the ROC took one look at Japanese schools and thought great, we'll do that, but just change the Japanese identity indoctrination to Chinese. And so they did.

She also offers a great deal of space for Japanese-era rebellions, uprisings and political associations. I was aware of most of these, with the exception of the Chikei Incident, although I should have. That Taiwanese were talking about the preservation of their culture as a unique entity, not quite China and not quite Japan, as early as that -- and perhaps earlier -- is a point not remarked upon often enough. 

Those who insist that Taiwanese identity did not exist before the 228 Massacre are simply wrong. 228 was a match, but KMT abuse of power in Taiwan provided just some of the kindling for the more mainstream emergence of Taiwanese identity later. It was already in the country's DNA before the KMT ever even showed up. 

I appreciate deeply that Chou makes good on her promise not to simply re-tell history the way a Han male (or perhaps foreign reader) would want it told: all Great Men doing Great Deeds and their Accomplishments and So On [imagine me waving my hand very...Britishly]. These types of narratives tend to start with a short, dismissive chapter on pre-Dutch Taiwan that offers some basic information on Indigenous Taiwanese, but you'd be forgiven for thinking they simply ceased to exist at that point, they tend not to be mentioned much after that. But of course, they did not. Taiwan's 400 Year History and, to a lesser extent, Forbidden Nation, both fall into this trap, with Forbidden Nation hardly mentioning the accomplishments or contributions of Taiwanese at all, and certainly very few women. A History of Agonies is a work of its time -- more an object of inquiry than a source -- and is actively racist towards Indigenous, which the authors of the new edition acknowledge.

Women such as Taiwanese Communist Party co-founder Hong Hsueh-hung and Indigenous stories such as that of Mona Rudao (spelled Rudo in the book) feature more prominently in Chou's work, and the reader gets a much better sense of what life was actually like in Taiwan during these periods.

She even weaves the narratives of these stories into a discussion of what Japanese attempts at modern progress and education influenced the political discourse of Taiwanese intellectuals, without defending Japanese colonialism. This carries over into the most robust discussion of democratization-era and post-democratization social movements of any general history: the murders of activists and sympathizers, the courage of people like Deng Nan-jung and the White Lilies.

The illustrations in these final chapters of various social movements and people involved in them -- and the information contained in the captions that doesn't make it into the main text -- are especially interesting.

It's almost refreshing that the Great Men don't receive much mention at all. They are there, as side characters, far from the narrative Chou wants to center, just as they (and their machinations) would have been far from the daily life of your average Han settler or Indigenous resident. In other words, Koxinga comes up, and of course Chiang Kai-shek and Lee Teng-hui do too. More women and Indigenous Taiwanese appear in a single chapter of Chou's book than in all of Forbidden Nation and Taiwan's 400 Year History combined. 

The illustrations are fantastic as well. My husband offers a few as examples on his own review. Along with prose that is more engaging than the writers who came before her, these illustrations help to make a narrative with a very long timeline engaging and almost fun. It's not a novel, but you can read it at about the same pace. After all, dirge-like writing is what keeps most people away from those thick, long general histories, right? Much better to dispense with it and use imagery to drive the arc of history home, and Chou does this well.

I do have one fairly strong criticism of Chou's work, however. I don't feel she contends strongly enough with the colonization aspect of both the Qing and the KMT on Taiwan. It's mentioned, but she doesn't lean into this argument as strongly as Forbidden Nation does, and certainly not as strongly as Taiwan's Imagined Geography. That's a shame, as there is a solid case for both eras being essentially colonial ones. 

Other choices caught my eye as well: toward the end she stated both that instating a national language was a reasonable policy on the part of the KMT, with the only criticism being that they were too heavy-handed. Perhaps if they'd allowed more space for local languages, the pushback on their linguistic imperialism (which she does at least admit was the case) might not have been so strong. 

I disagree completely. It is never reasonable to force a national language on a people from the top down. It is essentially a colonial project. You can introduce a lingua franca so that everyone in your country can communicate, but you simply cannot decide it is the main and only language of a nation when you did not come from that nation. And frankly, even if the KMT were a Taiwanese party, this would still not be reasonable. It's not an understatement to say that her argument here jolted me like smashing a plate on the floor. No. It is neither reasonable nor acceptable.

Secondly, she gives "Chinese culture" the same treatment, saying that Taiwanese might have been more receptive to it if, essentially, the KMT had not been such horrible jerks. 

Perhaps. But I doubt it, because Taiwanese identity existed before the KMT ever arrived. Chou couches this in a hypothetically 'preferable' alternate timeline, but I simply do not see how that would be preferable. Of course, less White Terror is better for everyone (arguably even the KMT!), but more acceptance of Chinese cultural heritage in Taiwan is not necessarily a positive. It's morally neutral. From my side, I'm happy that Taiwanese culture is taking center stage and Taiwanese are mostly not banging on about being "Chinese" -- not that I'd have any say in the matter if they did! 

In trying to portray a centrist history that didn't lean too partisan in either direction, despite knowing that the KMT's time in Taiwan has brought more harm than good (and it has), I feel these incursions into questionable hypotheticals whose ethical fundamentals I don't even agree with are an attempt to reconcile what seems like an impossible position: tell the truth, but don't take sides. 

This is difficult to do when one side inflicted generations of suffering on Taiwan, and for all its imperfections, the other side resisted it and pushed for democracy. At that point, does neutrality offer an accurate approach? I happen to think not: these passages read like both-sidesism.

Despite these criticisms, A New Illustrated History of Taiwan, in fact, might just be the best general history of Taiwan currently available. Certainly, I haven't found any other to match it. 

My wholehearted recommendation comes with a caveat, however. Chou explores the metaphorical muscles and veins that make Taiwan what it is -- everyday life, high culture, education, rebellion, intellect, people. But in doing so, she leaves out the 'bones': the skeleton that holds it all together chronologically through a series of decisions that were, yes, made by (mostly) extremely annoying men who make it into every other book. This lack of a clear timeline will not be a problem for those who already know the chronology. 

For neophytes, however, I recommend A New Illustrated History of Taiwan with a companion volume, Forbidden Nation. Learn the whole anatomy. 

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