Sunday, 23 February 2014

Contested Nationalisms on Taiwan

"In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community - - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

Photo source: Xinhua News Agency (

        Benedict Anderson, leading authority on nationalism, delivered his lecture “Western Nationalism and Eastern Nationalism” in Taipei in April 2000, barely one month after Taiwanese nationalist Chen Shui-bian won the Presidency with 39.3% of the votes in Taiwan’s second direct presidential election.

        Arguing that there are no important distinctions between nationalisms along East-West lines, he offered a new typology. Creole nationalism is pioneered by settlers from the Old Country. They may share language, religion, etc., with the metropole, but increasingly feel alienated from it and develop new identities based on new history, demographic blending of settler and indigenous peoples, etc., perhaps moving toward independence if the metropole is distant or oppressive (Anderson 2001: 33-34). Official nationalism, in response to popular nationalisms, is a state attempt to impose unified national identity on diverse subjects (Anderson 2001: 35). Linguistic nationalism, the type we know in Québec, is based on the belief that each true nation is marked off by its own language and culture (Anderson 2001: 40).  

        Melissa Brown’s approach (2010), analyzing identities constructed in social experience and distinct from ideological rhetoric, makes it possible to better understand Taiwan’s nationalisms. Chen Shui-bian, to a certain extent, had ridden a wave of Hokkien linguistic nationalism, a reality reflected in the fact that all political candidates felt compelled to campaign in Hokkien (even if they sound as awkward as Stephen Harper speaking French). Linguistic nationalism, which emerged from subordination of Hokkien to the “new national language of Mandarin,” was part of Taiwan’s ethnic conflict. It remains the Achille’s Heel of the Democratic Progressive Party, as it alienates ethnic minorities (Mainlanders, Hakka and indigenous) uncomfortable with Hokkien. Official nationalisms were experienced in the Imperialisation (皇民化) of the Japanese period and the Sinicisation of the Republic of China. As Brown observed, these ideologies were not convincing when they conflicted with real discrimination in social life.  

        Taiwan seems to be moving toward creole nationalism, as Anderson suggested with his anecdote about a student, born in Taiwan to parents who arrived with the KMT in 1949, who reported “trying to be Taiwanese” (Anderson 2001: 33). This may also explain the rising numbers of people since 2008 who identify as Taiwanese and not Chinese. It is not surprising that President Ma Ying-jeou had to affirm an identity as “New Taiwanese” during electoral campaigns and felt compelled to honour a “Taiwan spirit” in his first inaugural address.

The future is uncertain, especially as a rising China “turning to official nationalism for renewed legitimation of its rule” (Anderson 2001: 38) seeks to annex Taiwan. History shows that alienation from the metropole can push creole nationalism toward independence; and that official nationalism often falters. Brown reminds us that governments can influence identities, “shifting claims by reshaping social experience” (Brown 2010: 466). The challenge, for Beijing’s leaders and counterparts on Taiwan, is to create a positive social experience with China for Taiwan’s elites and ordinary people. Only in circumstances of equality does renewed Chinese nationalism on Taiwan stand a chance.


Anderson, Benedict. 2001. “Western Nationalism and Eastern Nationalism.” New Left Review 9: 31-42.

Brown, Melissa. 2010. “Changing Authentic Identities: Evidence from Taiwan and China.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16 (3): 459-479.


Saturday, 8 February 2014

Chinese Culture or Taiwanese Culture? An Epistemological Quandary in Anthropology

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        There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the 1990s, as post-colonial anthropologists vilified the history of the discipline as handmaidens of colonialism. Taiwan was no exception. Hong and Murray accused American anthropologists of colluding with ethnic domination, “looking through Taiwan to see China” (Hong 1994, Murray and Hong 1994, Hong and Murray 2005). Chiu (1999) similarly criticized Taiwan-based anthropologists for complicity in domination of indigenous peoples, although some anthropologists supported a nascent indigenous rights movement. 

        Part of the problem is the assumption that anthropologists study “culture,” hence the need to debate politics of writing culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986). Hong mused, “Gatekeepers confronted with our earlier writings had expressed discomfort that it was ‘political’ to write ‘Taiwanese culture’…not recognizing that writing ‘Chinese culture’…is also political” (Hong 1994: 7). Also unrecognized here is that the study of “culture” – the mainstream “Boasian” approach in America – is only one intellectual school among many. British social anthropologists have long argued that culture is too vague of an abstraction to be of scientific use (Radcliffe-Brown 1940: 2). One problem, exemplified in the Taiwan debate, is that cultural boundaries are arbitrary.

        An alternative is to write dispassionately about nationalism, as has Charles Stafford. It is no coincidence that Stafford studied with Maurice Bloch, whose work in Marxism and cognitive anthropology led him to emphasize ideological dimensions of culture. Stafford begins on a materialistic note, showing that Beicun is socially different from received ideas about “Chinese society” because it is a fishing village with weak patrilineal institutions. He observes that Chinese Nationalists have been on Taiwan only since the 1940s, and that clan organization has less complexity and power there than on the Mainland (Stafford 1992: 369).

        The originality of Stafford’s approach is that he examines the cognitive worlds of individuals, especially conflicting loyalties to state and family. He reveals the sentiments of Beicun people, who were formerly Japanese and threatened by Allied bombings, but are now required to study Sun Yat-sen’s nationalism and (men, at least) serve in a Chinese military (the ROC). People perceive a certain opposition between village and school, as “both the schools and the army are viewed with some scepticism as institutions controlled by non-Taiwanese” (373). In the end, both nationalist and kin-based ideologies “face a dilemma when confronted with women” (375). Women, finally, have much more power than imagined by either nationalist or patriarchal constructions of Chinese culture.

        As Bloch wrote, “the constructed image of a still, permanent order that spurns exchange, movement and, in this case, women, is in the end self-defeating” (Bloch 1989: 163, cited in Stafford 1992: 375). Culture has long been tied to nationalism, which makes cultural anthropologists seem complicit in nationalist ideologies that in any context are inevitably about power and domination. Avoiding the intellectual strictures of this concept, as do Bloch and Stafford, is certainly a good idea for anthropologists eager to study structures of power in any society. Viewed from social anthropology, the problem with culture is more epistemological than political.

Chiu, Fred Y.L. 1999. “Nationalist Anthropology in Taiwan 1945-1996: A Reflexive Survey” In Jan van Bremen and Akitoshi Shimizu (ed). Anthropology and Colonialism in Asia and Oceania, pp. 93-112. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus. 1986. Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hong, Keelung. 1994. “Experiences of Being a ‘Native’: Observing Anthropology.” Anthropology Today 10 (3): 6-9.

Hong, Keelung and Stephen O. Murray. 2005. Looking through Taiwan: American Anthropologists’ Collusion with Ethnic Domination. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Murray, Stephen O., and Keelung Hong. 1994. Taiwanese Culture, Taiwanese Society: A Critical Review of Social Science Research Done on Taiwan. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1940. “On Social Structure.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 70 (1): 1-12.

Stafford, Charles. 1992. “Good Sons and Virtuous Mothers: Kinship and Chinese Nationalism in Taiwan.” Man 27 (2): 363-378.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Anthropological Critiques of the “Chinese Family Firm” on Taiwan (and What Happened Next)

In the 1970’s, as Latin Americanists wielded Dependency Theory to blame Northern imperialism for poverty in the South, Hill Gates (1979) wrote an important essay about Taiwan’s development model. She argued that, although Taiwan’s rapid industrialization seemed to disprove Dependency Theory’s assumptions of underdevelopment, its economic structure actually masked hidden costs and disguised exploitation in export-driven development. Through Marxist class analysis, she concluded that the petty bourgeoisie exploited itself by sending its youth to work temporarily in factories, a dynamic that kept wages low and prevented the development of a working class identity.

A generation later, as leftist scholars digested the implications of the end of Communism in Europe, anthropologists borrowed post-structuralist analyses from Foucauldian “discourse” and Said’s “Orientalism.” Susan Greenhalgh argued that Taiwan’s family firms resulted from 1) a regime of export-oriented “flexible accumulation,” 2) a bi-ethnic structure that restrained Native Taiwanese to business, and 3) an anti-big business bias on the part of the government (Greenhalgh 1994: 751). She concluded that this business model exploited mostly women and younger men. More sanguine discourses (e.g. Harrell 1985), “inadvertently contributed their expertise to a palpably conservative and anti-feminist intellectual-cum-political project” (Greenhalgh 1994: 768). 

Although both of them note ethnic tensions and show awareness of the massacre of February 1947 (especially Greenhalgh 1994: 766), neither seemed fully aware of the nationalist sentiments that were already under the radar screen of political scientists (Mendel 1970) and would soon dominate Taiwanese political life. Employing the Marxist idea of false consciousness, Gates even argued that an “exaggerated” sense of ethnicity “helps to obscure a perception of social class which could lead to class consciousness and the taking of power by the masses” (Gates 1979: 388). Events quickly by-passed the best of anthropological reflection.

Just a few months after Gates’ article, pro-democracy activists protested in Kaohsiung and were arrested, sparking a democracy movement and the eventual formation of the Democratic Progressive Party. In December 1991, the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly, still dominated by politicians elected in China in 1947, resigned, with the first direct legislative elections in 1992. Greenhalgh thus published her article at a watershed in Taiwanese history, noting in footnote 4 that “Taiwan studies” was recently developing. For both Gates and Greenhalgh, however, there was still little reason to doubt received wisdom that Taiwan simply represented Chinese culture.   

Gates seemed prescient in her conclusion: “Before too much longer, cultural involution in Taiwan and social change in the People’s Republic will have truly made them separate nations” (Gates 1979: 405, emphasis added). By referring to Geertz’s concept of involution, unproductive intensification in detail, she contrasted involution of Chinese culture on Taiwan to presumably more positive “social change” on the Mainland. Developments on both sides make these articles seem a bit dated, as more than half of the Taiwanese say they are not Chinese, and the PRC now embraces cultural nationalism rather than socialist internationalism. The historical context has changed, but without these early critiques, we would not have the Taiwan Studies of today.

Gates, Hill. 1979. “Dependency and the Part-time Proletariat in Taiwan.” Modern China 5 (3): 381-408. 
Greenhalgh, Susan. 1994. “De-Orientalizing the Chinese Family Firm.” American Ethnologist 21 (4): 746-775.
Mendel, Douglas. 1970. The Politics of Formosan Nationalism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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A personal note: Both of these articles influenced my intellectual development greatly. My research projects for two decades were originally inspired by Greenhalgh’s sentence: “They also discouraged the discovery of subjugated knowledges, including those of women, subordinate ethnic groups, and the smallest and most vulnerable entrepreneurs, that might form the basis of a new understanding of contemporary Taiwan economic life” (Greenhalgh 1994: 768). I am thankful to both authors for the inspiration and encouragement they have given me over the years.