Time for Taiwan Studies

The growing research field of Taiwan studies approaches Taiwan as an entity in its own right rather than a subset of scholarship on China.

The increasing global focus on Taiwan is also reflected in the expansion of Taiwan studies, a relatively new field of academic research that frames how the world sees Taiwan. 

Taiwan studies examine the island nation’s anthropology, pre-history, colonialism, and many other facets, providing academic insight when it has never been more in demand. Generally thought to have emerged from under the shadow of Sinology in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Taiwan studies have become an increasingly important and well-funded area of research.  

A form of soft power for a nation without many diplomatic allies and reduced political influence, Taiwan studies have spread across the world. Particularly influential organizations that propagate its dissemination are the North American Taiwan Studies Association (NTSA), a non-profit that was founded in 1994, the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS), established in 2004, and the Japan Association for Taiwan Studies (JATS). 

There are university-based Taiwan studies programs in North America, from Alberta in Canada to Texas and Washington, and all points between. The Taiwan Democracy Project is based at Stanford University, while there was a donation last year of US$2 million via the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office to back a Taiwan studies program at the University of California (UC). The same year, an alumnus at UC San Diego gifted US$5 million to the founding of a Taiwan studies center.  

A total of 45 resource centers that promote Taiwan studies have been established worldwide since 2012 through Taiwan’s National Central Library (NCL). This initiative follows a government policy promoting “Chinese culture with Taiwanese characteristics.” Meanwhile, the retreat of China’s Confucius Centers in recent years has given Taiwan space to promote traditional Chinese language tuition through the government-backed Taiwan Center for Mandarin Learning program. 

Scholarly lens 

As Max Woodworth, an associate professor of geography at Ohio State University whose areas of expertise include both China and Taiwan, puts it, the U.S. started looking at China through a more contemporary scholarly lens after the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949).  

“All the area studies are products of the Cold War, when area knowledge was lacking and vital,” he says. “Nostalgia for the Republic of China (Taiwan), bitterness over ‘losing’ China to the CCP, and various, in my opinion, romanticized notions of lost democratic or capitalist possibilities in China were also a big part of the field. Very few people in China studies took Taiwan seriously as something worth studying in its own right, aside from a few anthropologists and linguists.” 

Woodworth adds that Taiwan eventually began to be seen as a subject of intrinsic interest, as well as a “democratic counter-example to China.” 

One of the foremost figures in Taiwan studies is Dafydd Fell, director of the Center of Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and joint founder of EATS. His areas of expertise include the intersection of civil society and party politics, which culminated in his book Taiwan’s Green Parties, published last year. 

Fell notes that multiple strands were involved in the development of international Taiwan studies, judging China studies departments as just one of these. “In more institutional form, we only start to get Taiwan studies organizations in the 1990s, such as the North American Taiwan Studies Association. Europe started a little later. Looking back, the founders of the EATS came from a variety of academic disciplines, and most would probably not see themselves as Sinologists.” 

The field of Taiwan studies has grown significantly in the last five years, Fell says. In Europe, there are at least 10 active teaching programs – organized by centers of Taiwan Studies as well as special projects resulting from MOUs between the Taiwan government and academia – and “progress in the realm of publication is also so exciting,” he says. As examples, Fell cites the Routledge Research on Taiwan Studies series, which has published almost 40 books over the last decade, and the International Journal of Taiwan Studies (IJTS), which was established in 2018 and has become well-read and influential in the field.  

Backed by Academia Sinica, EATS, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, IJTS is the “first internationally collaborative, multidisciplinary, and peer-reviewed academic research journal in English dedicated to all aspects of Taiwan studies,” according to the nearly 340-year-old Dutch publishing house Brill.   

Fell feels the role of Taiwan studies is to raise interest in Taiwan, inform through media engagement, and advise governments on handling relationships with Taiwan. But he is more circumspect when it comes to formulating political solutions or the issue of independence versus unification.  

“That might be the goal of some, including funding bodies, but I don’t believe most scholars in Taiwan studies would take that position,” Fell says. “While these are topics that are popular subjects of research in international Taiwan studies, most scholars focus on analyzing rather than prescribing how Taiwan should handle relations with China.” 

He also suggests that the “old method” of Taiwan studies, which regarded Taiwan as only having a 400-year history – a Chinese and Eurocentric viewpoint – has partially been replaced by scholarship on subjects like Austronesian migration out of Taiwan. “Taiwan has so many inspiring stories,” he says, adding that a lecture series on contemporary Indigenous peoples in London from 2017-2020 attracted a substantial audience.  

One of the attendees was Tobie Openshaw, a longtime resident of Taiwan originally from South Africa. An affiliated research fellow at the University of Central Lancashire and Auckland University of Technology, he describes SOAS and its Taiwan Studies Summer School in glowing terms, referring to the alumni as “family.”  

Deep pockets 

This year Openshaw returned to London to give two talks, including one titled “Searching for the Koko’ta’ay,” which covered the recent finding of a 5,500-year-old female skeleton in Taiwan that links to the myths of “little people,” or a Negrito population among Indigenous communities. 

Many Indigenous tribes celebrate the existence of these people through festivals and other activities, and have passed on stories about them by word of mouth for thousands of years. Along with archeological, linguistic, and ethnological evidence, the myths testify to the existence of Negritos – thought to predate the Austronesian migrations – who are related to people living today in the Philippines. This information and more will be turned into a book that Openshaw is co-editing.  

Such a vibrant world of Taiwan studies and its further expansion would not be possible without deep pockets and willingness to fund it. As such, it is unsurprising to find the Taiwan government is the primary source of funding, mainly via the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Science and Technology, and Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, along with mixed private and public funding sources like the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange (CCKF).  

The latter, which was set up in 1989, supports EATS  and, according to the organization’s website, it annually underwrites US$4 million of “grant-making activities” in North America, Europe, the Asia-Pacific, and developing regions. It provides scholarships and backs projects that have produced thousands of articles, dissertations, and books.  

“This funding has been critical to the development of the field, and it has gradually been increasing since the late 1990s,” Fell notes. “One problem has been that many of these funding grants have been short-term and project-based, but overall, the amount of funding available for the field has increased rapidly over the last couple of decades.”  

Another grants body, the Ministry of Education Taiwan Studies Project, finances graduate and undergraduate courses on Taiwan Studies and sponsors scholarly visits and exchanges while providing a platform for academics to attend fora and conferences. It also finances publishing, databases and archives, and activities such as workshops and exhibitions.  

Max Woodworth adds: “At the end of the day, the money spent on this sort of thing is less than a rounding error in the overall budget. It’s very sustainable and, I think, a completely legitimate investment in terms of building networks and disseminating knowledge about Taiwan.” 

There has been financial backing for Taiwan studies since the martial law period in Taiwan (1949-1987), “when writing a phrase like ‘Taiwan’s sovereignty’ would get you thrown in jail or worse,” says Ian Rowen, associate professor in the Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages, and Literature at National Taiwan Normal University. 

“This funding was usually addressed toward ‘Chinese studies’ or ‘Sinology,’ in line with the rhetoric of the Republic of China,” Rowen says. “The more recent reframing of such funding as for ‘Taiwan studies’ follows the general domestic shift away from the language of ‘The ROC’ in favor of ‘Taiwan’ – the recent passport redesign, placing ‘TAIWAN’ further front and center and shrinking ‘ROC’ is one example of this. Based on all available data, such moves are in line with long-term trends in public opinion.” 

While Taiwan studies is a broad multidisciplinary field, it also has a political dimension. Controversially, perhaps, Taiwan studies often appear to support the idea of independence; this at a time when China has doubled down on its promise to “reunify” the “renegade province” by force, if necessary.  

The hard line adopted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stance was underscored at the 20th National Congress when the constitution was amended to incorporate the “overall precise and resolute implementation of the one country, two systems directive” and made black-and-white its “resolute opposition and suppression of Taiwan independence.” 

As Woodworth puts it: the discipline of Taiwan studies provides “academic ballast to the idea of Taiwan as distinct.”  

“If Taiwan were part of China, there would be no need for Taiwan studies,” Woodworth says. “So, I’d situate the move for Taiwan studies as an academic field at least partly within the project to elevate Taiwan as a sovereign entity, which also tracks with the timing of the founding of major Taiwan Studies associations in North America and Europe.”    

“Area studies fields are always deeply political in orientation, even though the work tries to be serious and rigorous,” he adds. “People with power and money understand that knowledge production is a major arena of geopolitical power.” 

Woodworth continues that China-based Taiwan scholars likely don’t see any need to join international Taiwan Studies associations and their conferences or publish in their journals. He notes that this is partly due to the fact that these projects would be executed in English, “but also, by doing so they’d be tacitly endorsing Taiwan studies, which I think is frowned upon for obvious reasons.” 

“Unavoidably political” 

For Rowen, the naming and promotion of Taiwan studies are “unavoidably political.” Still, he argues this is also the case with Japan and Korea studies, which receive significantly more financial support from their respective governments. “Perhaps such political stakes are more visible when a state’s sovereignty is contested.”  

While Rowen believes Taiwan’s “widely misunderstood” geopolitical status makes its scholarship an urgent matter, he, like Fell, also acknowledges that Taiwan studies are more than just political football. He says Taiwan offers an “especially rich site to examine ethnicity, nationalism, democratization, indigeneity, settler colonialism, empire, urbanism, new media, environmental conservation,” and much more. 

“Life here is so vivid that portraits of it are not only important and fascinating in their own right, but can be used to build social theory that can shed light on other places and processes,” Rowen says, adding that he has done just this in his book, “One China, Many Taiwans: The Geopolitics of Cross-Strait Tourism,” which will be published in January by Cornell University Press.  

Marcin Jerzewski, who heads the Czechia-based European Values Center for Security Policy’s Taiwan office, has also written extensively about the role of soft power in Taiwan studies. He believes that its status as a separate discipline (rather than as a subset of China studies) is a manifestation of respect for Taiwan’s individuality.  

As for how this translates into political influence on a global scale, Jerzewski is also clear. “Taiwan is introduced to people who do international studies, and this will shape the minds of future elites. They will pay more attention to Taiwan as a separate entity from China, and people such as future diplomats, think tankers, and academics will shape the way they think.” 

Jerzewski sees the future direction of Taiwan studies as more “Taiwanized.” Instead of looking through a China lens, he would prefer Taiwan studies followed in the footsteps of the New Southbound Policy, introduced by President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration. This would mean strengthening ties with ASEAN, South Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the wider world, rather than China.  

Taiwan would become a springboard to East Asia and embrace multiculturalism, partly through immigration. Like other Taiwan studies academics, Jerzewski points out how completely different Taiwan is from China in terms of political and gay rights, conservation, activism, cultural and indigenous affairs, and social justice.   

Further “Taiwanizing” Taiwan studies would also make the argument, of course, for a nation that has been and is separate from China, bringing with it significant international ramifications.