Stéphane Corcuff of the University Lyon is a well-known and respected scholar on Taiwan, who is most famous for his research on the evolution of the post-1949 population in Taiwan, those who came to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT, hereinafter the Nationalists) retreat from the Chinese mainland.

His last book, published in Chinese in 2011, expands on that theme but digs much deeper into history. In Neighbor of China: Taiwan’s Liminality (中華鄰國:臺灣閾境性), Corcuff parallels two regimes that has ruled Taiwan in the past: the regime of Koxinga (鄭成功) in the late 1680s, and the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou along with the Nationalists he led at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

These two regimes, coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally), are built by exiled loyalists to regimes that have lost their legitimacy as rulers of China. At the same time, they must encounter the new regime that has emerged on the Chinese mainland. Koxinga established his own realm in Taiwan under the banner of fighting the newly established Qing Empire, which had vanquished the Ming dynasty. Similarly, the Nationalists fled to Taiwan and setup an authoritarian government, after being defeated by the Chinese Communist Party in China.

In his conclusion of reading the two regimes in parallel, Corcuff points out where the two ultimately diverged: whereas in the 1680s Zheng Keshuang (鄭克塽, the third and last ruler of Koxinga’s regime) surrendered to the Qing Empire, the nascent civic society in the 2010s has taken Taiwan onto another developmental trajectory away from the phantom menace of China.

In the first chapter, Corcuff tells the story of Zheng Keshuan’s surrender letters to the Qing Empire. Leading the Qing invasion of Taiwan was Koxinga’s former admiral Shi Lang (施琅), who received Zheng’s surrender in late 1863. In the letters, Zheng recognized the Qing Empire as the only legitimate ruler of all the lands, and the Qing Emperor Kangxi (康熙) was the only authoritative ruler, Tianzhi (天子) of Tianchao (天朝), the cosmological view of the world where China is the supreme.

The next two chapters fast forward over centuries and examines President Ma Ying-jeou’s Nationalist regime and his policies of closer ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Corcuff elaborates how the Nationalist regime, ruling under the name of the Republic of China (ROC), was once the sole legitimately recognized representative of “China” until 1971. However, these days the Nationalists had decided to table the sovereign disputes with the PRC regime that replaced the ROC, and instead had been earnestly building free-trade ties between the two.

Compared to Zheng Keshuan’s smooth “discursive kowtow” under the great China framework, Ma Ying-jeou could not as easily overlook the resistance from the ever-growing Taiwanese identity since 1980’s in the civic society.

In the third chapter, Corcuff has re-elaborated his research on the identity crisis of the post-1949 mainlanders (外省人, waishengren), a diaspora that was told to believe they were the ruling class within an otherwise marginalized Republic of China. Here, Corcuff suggests that after several generations of indigenization or “Taiwanization,” the post-1949 politically identity as “Chinese” as a separate political identity from “Taiwanese” has mostly disappeared.

The third or even fourth generation of mainlanders, unlike their fathers and mothers who retain strong nostalgia towards China, do not by default support unification with China, but rather consider Taiwan to be an individual political entity.

Nevertheless, in the last chapter Corcuff does not offer a manifest conclusion of his analysis of Taiwan’s geopolitical liminality (a threshold between fully a part of China and fully a separate entity); however, he applies the idea of liminality in reverse, against the marginal status of Taiwan under the great China’s Tianchao framework:

“As to Taiwan’s centuries-bound ties with China, Taiwan has not been the margin, but the threshold: Taiwan is not so much a frontiers land to criminals or disfavored officials, but an incubator for divergent worldviews. As a ‘liminal’ place for China, it helps to better understand China.
In ancient Greek, topos (τόπος) could mean ‘place’ (as in toponymie in French) or ‘concept’ (as in topic in English). As both a place and a concept, Taiwan is a crucial reference point for explaining China. Because of the sensitivity in the relationship between Taiwan and China, whenever something happens in Taiwan, social strata in China, from government officials and military officers, to intellectuals and the general public, would react in different ways, giving observers a chance to understand how China thinks about its history, identity, nation, territory, culture and international standing. And this is the reason why Taiwan is always considered to be problematic for China.” (pp. 226-27).

Approaching this topic as an anthropologist, Stéphane Corcuff offers a creative viewpoint on the Taiwan-China relationship. Taiwan plays the role as an autonomous entity amongst the international communities, but also as the threshold that refracts the complexities of China.

This book was published before the midterm election of Ma Ying-jeou in 2012, so Corcuff has yet taken into consideration the consequent social movements, such as the Sunflower Movement, into his analysis. Nevertheless, perhaps he has already predicted, five years ago, that the nascent civic society would not merely take control of defining “Taiwan” for themselves, but that Taiwan would also be redefining what “China” means to the world.

(Feature photo of the book “Neighbor of China: Taiwan’s Liminality,” by Kuan-Wei Wu)


Kuan-Wei Wu

Kuan-Wei is a freelance writer and wandering spirit in Taiwan and abroad. He consumes all types of knowledge, from sociology and political science to anthropology and philosophy, in none of which is he an expert. Now, being a good storyteller for the unspoken is one of his ideals.