The year of the Sheep sucked and the year of the Monkey is not looking too good either in my honest opinion. The academic community has lost some of its finest.

Most notably in June 2015, we paid our respects to Stanford anthropologist Arthur P. Wolf. Then in December, the community was shaken by news that Benedict Anderson (Professor Emeritus of International Studies at Cornell) had passed. Two weeks later, anthropologist Sidney Wilfred Mintz too, died. As we (in Taiwan and some of us abroad) prepared for our annual lunar New Year celebrations, news broke that Philip A. Kuhn, the Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History and of East Asian Languages and Civilisations at Harvard, had died as well. Then, more recently, we were saddened by news that Italian novelist and literary critic, Umberto Eco, had died in Milan at the age of 84. Then in March 2016, news broke out that historian Asa Briggs had passed as well.

As I sit in utter depression in my office weirdly wondering who might be next, I have decided to write this op-ed piece and think how each of them are connected to the study of Taiwan.

Arthur P. Wolf was a renowned scholar who studied in Taiwan after spending many years on the island researching household demographics. Arthur, with his then wife, Margery Wolf, began his journey in Taiwan as part of the Fulbright Program in the 1950s. Both Arthur and Margery focused their studies on the southwestern regions of Taipei in New Taipei City’s Tucheng District. Wolf was working in a period where Taiwan acted like a surrogate for China, which was closed to all but some foreigners. With them, to help carry out research, the couple would bring their students who would later go on to define the field of Taiwan Studies: Emily Ahern, Steven Harrell, Steven Sangren and Robert Weller. Some of them appeared in his 1978-edited volume Studies in Chinese Society, which brought together a number of important studies on Taiwan. Among the included works were Myron L. Cohen’s Developmental Process in the Chinese Domestic Group, Burton Pasternak’s The Sociology of Irrigation: Two Taiwanese Villages, Margery Wolf’s Child Training and the Chinese Family, Emily Ahern’s The Power and Pollution of Chinese Women, Donald R. De Glopper’s Doing Business in Lukang, and Stephen Feuchtwang’s School-Temple and City God.

When the United States switched recognition in favour of the People’s Republic of China on January 1, 1979, the way in which people studied Taiwan shifted as well. Murray Rubinstein has argued that the field emerged to form a kind of ding-an-sicht; a term that refers to an opportunity for Taiwan to be studied ‘in and of itself’ and not as part of something else. This emerging nationalism at the start of the 1980s coincided with the release of Benedict Anderson’s most influential book: Imagined Communities. Although Taiwan has only a single reference in the book (appearing on p. 96 and concerning itself with the Japanese annexation in 1895), the book provides a framework that is relevant for those who study Taiwan’s identity and nationalism.

For Anderson, the definition of a nation is one that is formed by an imagined political community. It is imagined as being inherently limited and sovereign. Thus, Anderson argues that the three terms, community, limited, and sovereign, are central to the problems posed by nationalism. A nation is imagined as a community because a nation is always conceived as being something deeply rooted in the past. Millions have willingly died over the past two centuries in the name of this “community” in spite of its known inequalities and exploitation. It is sovereign because the nation was created during an age of Enlightenment and/or through revolution. It destroyed the hierarchical dynastic orders and the divinely ordained entity that had previously governed it. Finally a nation is limited because even the members of the “smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” Moreover, it is limited because no nation has ever imagined itself as being conterminous with mankind.

The London Review of Books ran an interesting piece this January called Frameworks of Comparison: Benedict Anderson reflects on his intellectual formation. The piece is an abstract from Benedict Anderson’s forthcoming memoir: Life beyond Boundaries. In the memoir, he talks much about the use of “comparison.” Anderson uses this to address how nations gain self-awareness by pitting themselves against, or matching themselves with, others through the exercise of national imagining. This concept too, has been used by others. Shelly Rigger, a political scientist at Davidson College, well-known for her work on Taiwan, wrote in her state of the field article for Issues & Studies in 2003 that “Taiwanese cultural nationalism developed only after the movement for democratization was under way (p.63).” Rigger was thus confirming sociologist A-chin Hsiau’s argument that Taiwanese nationalism is a “politically-inspired construction.” Christopher Hughes, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, would even go as far as to argue that Taiwan is “post-nationalist” pointing towards the differentiations between politics and cultural identity. Understanding Taiwan comparatively has produced a substantial body of work that has been at the very front of scholarly debate across academic disciplines.

The importance of the use of comparison is particularly notable in Sidney Mintz’s seminal work Sweetness and Power. In it, Mintz traced the history of sugar production and its consumption by examining the relationship between slavery, class, consumption and industrialisation. The notion of understanding Taiwan in comparative perspectives is now the title of a journal that contextualises processes of globalisation by using Taiwan as a site of comparison. Led by Stephen Feuchtwang and Shih Fang-long at the London School of Economics, the journal also forms part of a Taiwan research programme. The multi-staged development of the field of study reflected the major transformations that were occurring in Taiwan in the late 1980s.

The period that followed began to see Taiwan/Taiwanese replacing China/Chinese on book titles. Hill Gates (Arthur P. Wolf’s widow by his second wife) wrote an interesting book that reflected on societal changes occurring in this period. Chinese Working Class Lives: Getting by in Taiwan was published in 1987, followed by Marc Cohen’s Taiwanese at the Crossroads. In early 1990, Sidney Mintz was in Taiwan as an invited Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Academia Sinica. Although his own research never turned to Taiwan, he had a close relationship with those who did do research on the island.

Arthur Wolf had, in August 1976 along with Myron Cohen, organised a weeklong gathering at Wentworth-by-the-Sea in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to discuss the state of Taiwan anthropology. Attending this clambake were some of the most prolific scholars working on Taiwan. Sidney Mintz did not contribute a paper to the proceedings, but he did attend and wrote a wonderful afterward in the edited volume that followed (The Anthropology of Taiwanese Society). The 1980s and 1990s were not only a period that affected the field of Taiwan Studies. But, American scholarship on Chinese history also became, according to Paul A. Cohen in Discovering History in China, “far more integrative than the earlier generation of China-centred studies and [addressed] major questions pertaining to Chinese history in general in the late imperial and republican periods.”

Among this generation of scholars was Philip A. Kuhn. Kuhn is most remembered for his wonderful tome Soulstealers, a fantastic book that surveys the social and economic history of the Qianlong period and the mass hysteria that broke out in 1768 when it was feared that sorcerers were roaming the land and stealing people’s souls. Philip Kuhn’s work was important in relaying the life of everyday people in imperial China. Kuhn never wrote on Taiwan. However, his Liu Kuang-ching Lecture, delivered at the University of California, Davis in 2004, was a very important approach to how Taiwan can be represented in a Sinophone world and not necessarily as part of China. Kuhn maps the mass emigration of Chinese people and parallels it to the arrival of Europeans onto Asian shores. He argued that Chinese settlement in Taiwan in the seventeenth century is part of a much wider discourse on Chinese “modern emigration” and on China’s expansion overseas.

The next thinker is Umberto Eco, who died on February 19. A novelist, literary critic, essayist and semiotician, Eco is not known for anything related to Taiwan. However, I felt compelled to add him. I like his work. Yet, it is perhaps in his literary criticisms that a reference to Taiwan can be made. Eco pioneered the idea of “open text,” a form of text that allows for multiple interpretations by the readers in contrast to “closed text,” which confines the reader to a single representation.

In the 1983 work of Pai Hsien-yung, Taibeiren [Tales of Taipei People], Pai reflects on the experiences of the Chinese Mainlanders who fled to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War. Although called “Taipei people,” their memories of, and longing for, their homes in China created part of their identity. Since Pai considers the role of the novel as one being an allegorical tale, Pai’s novel evokes multiple layers of interpretation. For instance, in one of the most famous narratives, The Last Night of Madam Chin (金大班的最後一夜), the story centers on Madam Chin’s last night as a “serving girl.” In the story, she approaches a young man and attempts to teach him to dance. The young man is shy and is unsure how to react, but shortly follows her lead. As she whispers the dance steps in his ear, “one-two-three…one-two-three…” the story comes to an abrupt end. The manner in which this is compositionally written allows a reader to interpret both its meaning and its subsequent ending on his or her own.

Then on March 15, 2016, I woke to the shocking news that the great Lord Asa Briggs — a pioneer of both history and education — also succumbed to that greater force of nature. Although space does not permit me from going into great detail, I feel it necessary to at least pay lip service to this wonderful, wonderful scholar, and one who has been so instrumental to my study of social history. His visionary contribution to the disciplines of history is extensive. I’ll end instead on an interesting anecdote. In 1943, Asa Briggs joined Bletchley Park, in Hut 6, as part of the famous team to crack the Enigma code. Reputedly, in the next hut (Hut 7) cracking Japanese naval codes was Shoki Coe, a legendary figure in Taiwan’s self-determination movement.

Sadly, we must say goodbye to these wonderful scholars. As I return to my research on Taiwan’s social and intellectual history, I shall end this op-ed with a short quote by Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” So, good bye Arthur. Farewell Ben. Cheerio Sid. Adieu Phil. Ciao Umberto. And, hopeful lastly, so long Asa.


(Feature photo by Mehran Heidarzadeh)


Dr. Niki Alsford

Dr. Niki Alsford is a Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences, in Prague and is a Research Associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS, the University in London. Prior to moving to the Czech Republic, Niki Alsford was a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of History at SOAS. His most recent publications include: Chronicling Formosa: Setting the Foundation for the Presbyterian Mission, 1865-1876 (2015) and A Barbarian’s House by the River Tamsui: One House and the History of its Many Occupants, which was published with the Journal of Family History (2015).