Today, in the embrace of demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into the horror, it plummets from despair to despair. When will it reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of this final hopelessness, will a miracle that goes beyond faith bear the light of hope? A lonely man folds his hands and says, “May God have mercy on your poor soul, my friend, my fatherland.

Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus: The Life of German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as told by a Friend.

Quo Vadis Formosa?

In the post-Sunflower Movement Taiwan, a promethean and quixotic magnum opus has been unbound from the desk-drawers of Wu Rwei-ren (吳叡人), one of Taiwan’s foremost political-sociological academic and omnicompetent public intellectual.

Against multiple empire states of mind, Wu takes his readers, or more precisely his fellow Formosans, on a pilgrimage to find salvation for Taiwan’s multilayered existential paradox. It is the geopolitical quest Quo Vadis Formosa? (Where goes Formosa?) paraphrased from Liao Wen-kuei’s (廖文奎) 1946 French essay during his exile, and it is the question that has haunted Wu for most of this Formosan Merlin’s life.  

As a collection of his essays during the past decades, the thesis of this magnum is also as paradoxical as the question it seeks to solve: In Mandarin, the book is titled Thoughts Bound: When Taiwan Rejoins the World, while in English the title is Prometheus Unbound: When Taiwan Reclaims the World. With repeated emphasis on intellectual redemption and salvation in pursuit of national identity and nation-building like themes in a rondo, Wu weaves together individual Camusian L’Étranger intellectualism with the grand project of nation-building for Taiwan’s independence, which produces a text that is a literary allegorical labyrinth that the fellow pilgrim must decipher. Perhaps not coincidentally, the word Ilha (island) has been omitted from Formosa, as if Formosa is much more than just an accidental geological phenomenon.

We see this in Wu’s direct response to Liao’s question, as Wu explains both the singular meaning and the universal significance of Formosa.  In his Grundrisse-esque chapter titled “Quo Vadis Formosa?” – In the Shadow of the Capitalist Leviathan (p. 344), Wu explains Taiwan’s fundamental transformation from an agrarian bureaucracy to a modern capitalist state:

As for its singularity, Taiwan as a “common periphery among multiple power centers” or an “interface” between hegemons…is a “fragment of/f empires” of the Qing, Japan, the Republic of China, and the United States of America. It has always borne the brunt of the struggles, assimilations, and formulation between these empires. Hence, Taiwan’s own formation of its nation and capitalism was heavily influenced by  international geopolitical factors, which results in its unique characteristics.


But as for its universality, as Taiwan “develops” from a local Gemeinschaft and pre-capitalist economy to an étatisme Volkswirtschaft, and finally a part of the global neoliberalist hierarchy, its people also experienced the same cultural, social and psychological changes as the rest of the world. In this sense, the subtext of “Quo Vadis Formosa?” is really “Quo Vadis Homo Sapiens?”

Contemplate the question of Quo Vadis Formosa through the Hegelian dialectic, Wu admits his personal Gramscian pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will (pessimismo dell’intelligenza, ottimismo della volontà). In short, the singularity of Taiwan’s circumstances befalls Wu on despair, but the universality of Formosa is his final hope.

The formation of national identity and nation-building is the inevitable path for the “fragments of/f empires” as the response against the overwhelming suffering caused by conflict amongst hegemons. For these small fragments such as Korea, Ryukyu, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, nation-building is a lilliputian dream–a tiny, humble desire of the unrecognized pariahs of the world.

Furthermore, an organic solidarity should be the underlying architecture onto which an “imagining community” for the forgotten states, a utopian polis à venir, is built, because this project is a Beckettian quest, a Sisyphean ordeal; and only as such can this project, under Bloch’s Principle of Hope, be the liberation for the pariahs.  

Wu and his fellow pilgrims are not alone; his revolutionary pilgrimage is joined by intellectuals like Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and Benedict Anderson, who led Wu’s mind out of the narrow confines of Formosa to the metaphoric Mt. Olympia view of the world. In his correspondence with Benedict Anderson, Wu mentioned an autonomous and spontaneous intellectual community as the Promethean avant-garde towards the salvation for pariahs. Wu references the academia on Taiwan Studies in Japan, which regardless of Japan’s colonial and geopolitical legacy with Taiwan, is still the optimal accession of a foreign desire to understand Taiwan (p.80):

Only in Japan is there a long tradition of an indigenous Taiwan Studies movement, and a completely Japanese, independent and active Taiwan Studies Association, with highly intellectual and disciplined scholars. The North American Taiwan Studies Association (NATSA) is organized by Taiwanese graduate students, while the small programs scattered throughout the United States and Europe are mostly supported or directed by the Taiwanese government…


This also reflects our peripheral status in global politics, but even though Taiwan Studies in Japan is still marginalized, as a disciplinary subject in Japan Taiwan Studies is still the most well-rooted and prominent among anywhere outside of Taiwan (and in many areas better than Taiwan itself).

Wu delivers this sentence with angst, as an exhortation for intellectual activities on Taiwan Studies in Taiwan. Nevertheless, Wu envisions a nation-building project orchestrated and progressed not by politicians and bureaucrats, but by worldwide intellectuals sympathizing with small nation like Taiwan, in order to help with architecture of a utopian polis à venir — a polis civitas et libertas.

Polis Civitas et Libertas

Wu proclaims himself as a Nietzschean-Kantian idealist who shares some nostalgia for the old Japanese Yamato Spirit. However Wu rejects a nation-building project entangled with the reckless ring-wing nationalism that came to the forefront at the break of the millennium (p.102):

An alliance of right-wing nationalists has dominated the Taiwan-Japan political relationship during the turn of the twentieth-first century. This alliance is built on the basis of common geopolitical interests between Taiwan independence advocates and the Japanese “Anti-China” right-wing, and the approval of colonialism. This alliance of Taiwanese and Japanese right-wing nationalism began during Taiwan’s democratization and localization in the 1990s, when a very convoluted Taiwanese historical consciousness emerged.

The right-wing strand of nationalism emerged again at the end of history; the decline and fall of the Koumintang authoritarian regime under the third wave of democratization and liberalization progressed alongside Taiwanese localization and national identification. Taiwan’s society entered a period of fierce debate over modern ideals on state (independence vs. unification) versus government (left vs. right). However, international Realpolitik seems to have predetermined that the discourse on Taiwan’s nation-building could only be monopolized by the right-wing alliance of nationalists, while the old left is straddled with nostalgia for the (post-) Maoist Fatherland and despise any nation-building on the island. Such nationalism, monopolized by the old right, was based on homogenous blood, language, custom, and culture.  

A polis civitas et libertas as an asylum for intellectual refugees is how Wu designates a political and social blueprint to justify his progressive nationalism. To resonate across Hannah Arendt’s Aristotelian framework, the Pariah Manifesto prescribes a Taiwanese nation-building project centered around a constitutional state, and public spheres of speeches and acts, and solidarity with others national movements in Hong Kong, Ryūkyū, and other fragment nations. In his Blacktide Theory (p. 339-40), he idealizes the radical politics of the Sunflower generation against empire states of minds and neoliberalist hegemony:  

The flux of the Blacktide current symbolizes the ripening Taiwanese nation-state and the seeding of self-rejection. The Blacktide is the desire for freedom, for equality, for identity, and for liberating the world, against global capitalism and geopolitics. It is a desire for redemption from the filthy and the unjust, a drive to united under civic nationalism while diversify along ethnicity, class, other burgeoning identities, and social-autonomous anarchy.


If, a new Taiwan nation-state could not realize, but distort and suppress such will to liberation, then the Blacktide shall return to wash over any political barrier in order to establish new polities. This is proven by Taiwan’s formation as a nation over centuries. Its origin is heterogeneous, external, top-down; but its realization is autonomous, internal, and bottom-up. It is bestowed a polity, but also begets a will.

Nevertheless, could this polis be another clean, well-lighted place? In the nation-building of the past decades, raison d’état divided the elites and non-elites. Those that stand with the government render themselves as intellectual elites by fiat, but fell prey to empire states of mind and seduced by the neoliberal global market. Could this polis still be veiled and ignorant that the speechless subaltern, the governed, would not need to be advocated and hence substituted by avid and eloquent intellectuals?

Amor Fati, Amor Mundi

Paraphrasing from Hannah Arendt’s masterwork The Human Condition, Wu Rwei-ren shares his romantic passion with the public sphere and the real world where we live (p. 388):

If such dire straits is Taiwan’s common destiny, then we must reveal our passion in return; and therefore reclaim this world more firmly, for this is our world, too, despite how unfair it is against us.

On his belief of intellectual redemption as an academic, Wu preaches a Promethean quest from Ilha Formosa toward the Earth, whereas knowledge should be the sole galvanizer to the brave new world. Moreover, Wu believes that intellectuals should not be cynical like experts and bureaucrats when encountering and reclaiming the world, which makes the impossible possible.

Taiwan is the periphery amongst the empire states of minds, a fragment of/f empires. Its people is a mixed breed and shut out by international law, the pariah of the world system. Nevertheless, at the margins is where free, diverse intellectual progressivism would thrive and blossom, not solely for geopolitical strategic considerations but also a cosmopolitan awakening at the dawn of perfect peace. For his Lilliputian Dreams of small and perfectly formed nations of pariahs standing in solidarity, Wu conjures the ideal of civil nationalism, while such dispositif would empower avid intellectuals or speechless subaltern.

For Formosa, although both external and internal circumstances seem to be leading towards more suffering, come what may, as in Paul Valéry‘s poem:

Le vent se lève!… Il faut tenter de vivre! (The wind rises… We must try to live!)  

Wu Rwei-ren left his nostalgia with messages in the bottle for a utopian polis à venir, the principle of hope that what is hoped for is realized from real painstaking ordeals, as his concluding remark (p.363):

When hope is not promised through history, though,
We still stride on, hoping against hope,
envisage the wind rises.

Prometheus Unbound: When Formosa Reclaims the World. (Wu Rwei-ren). Taipei: ArcoPolis, 2016.

(Feature photo of Prometheus Unbound: When Formosa Reclaims the World, by Chieh-Ting Yeh)


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.