'Why Taiwan Matters': A Book Review

By Owain Mckimm, Special to The Wild East

Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse.
Shelly Rigger
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (29 April 2011)
ISBN: 978-1442204799
Pages 232 (Hardcover)

Why Taiwan Matters is a strange title for a book. No one would write a book called Why America Matters, because the answer seems too obvious to even pose the question; or even Why Fiji Matters, because even though it may not obviously be throwing punches on a global scale, the assumption that it needs to ‘matter’ in any other sense than existing for its own sake is a ludicrous one.

However, Taiwan — as is often the case — is the exception, and it is Taiwan’s limbo-like status which makes the island such an able candidate for Shelly Rigger’s analysis of what it means to be a geopolitical, cultural and sovereign entity.

As Brown Professor of East Asian Politics at Davidson College in North Carolina, Rigger has over twenty years of experience in visiting and studying Taiwan. Though large sections of this book cover familiar territory for people already well-read in Taiwan’s ancient, colonial and modern history (sections on Qing rule, Koxinga, Japanese occupation and the early KMT era are dealt with swiftly and by the book) it’s the sections on Taiwan’s economy, family structure, art and youth culture, local politics, international relations and national identity that really set this book apart from any other political history.

Rigger begins many of her chapters much as a travel writer would, with an observation on a particular scene or aspect of Taiwanese life. Her second chapter, ‘Building Taiwan’ begins with a description of a class of third-graders squatting on a viewing platform on Taipei’s Seven Stars Mountain, overlooking a sulphurous volcanic vent. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, summing up perfectly the muddled dichotomy of cities and wild mountains in close proximity that make up much of the island. About to embark on a potted history of Taiwan, Rigger squares our perspective firmly into place; ‘these Taiwanese school children,’ she writes, ‘can feel their island home exhaling.’ It’s a reminder early on in the book that being on Taiwan means a lot more than simply being on the right or wrong side of history. The ‘island home’ is isolated, adrift, but very much alive, and the people on it have a deeper connection with it than can be expressed by a simple recitation of historical events or in any ostensible social divisions.

According to Rigger, such divisions manifest themselves most prominently in language. Even though Taiwanese were educated in Japanese during the colonial period, they continued speaking their native languages, Hokkien, Hakka, and Aboriginal languages, at home and in daily life. After retrocession however, ‘Taiwan was like a Babel’, even those who had attempted to learn Mandarin during the handover years discovered to their frustration that ‘Most Mainlanders were not officials, but soldiers […] their hometown dialects were as different from Mandarin as Hokkien and Hakka.’ It was the introduction and enforcement of Mandarin as a national lingua franca that reflected the most fundamental desire of the ROC government: to replace the island’s many disparate identities of Hokkien, Hakka, and Austronesian ‘with a unified Chinese identity’.

Ironically, after the fierce ‘ethno-nationalism’ of the Chen Shui-bian years, which emphasised the Creole nature of Taiwanese society, and put a great deal of focus on speaking Hokkien (and Taiwan’s other ethnic languages) as a sign of national identity, Rigger suggests that today, Taiwanese youth are still far more prone to turn to Chinese as their language of choice for communication: ‘Young people chafe at the suggestion that their affection for and loyalty to Taiwan are revealed in their language choices.’

But converse to its original purpose, the Chinese language is now the plaything of a specifically Taiwanese identity – which expresses itself in the newly evolved shorthand text-speak ‘Martian’, combining roman lettering with Chinese characters. To young Taiwanese ‘language is a tool for communication, not a marker of ethnic solidarity.’ Rigger even quotes a college student whose father bemoans Hokkien as having ‘become a political commodity’. She describes a new generation of Taiwanese who refuse ‘to be dragged into their grandparents’ culture wars’, who naturally claim a shared ‘Taiwanese’ identity, who re-claimed the old derogatory redneck stereotype ‘Tai ke’ and turned it into something national and, in its own way, fashionable.

While chapters like these are astute observations on modern Taiwanese culture and its evolution, do they really succeed in showing why Taiwan matters not only to the international community, but also to its own people, and to our modern world and its political values? Not explicitly, but Rigger’s book is full of these disarming tableaus.

The chapter ‘From Farmers to Manufacturers’, which details Taiwan’s economic success, contains a very important digression from economic history into Taiwanese community culture. After 1949 Taiwan had become the ROC’s sole mode of survival, and if the KMT were ever going to recover the mainland, it needed a stable, powerful economy to give the recovery a fighting chance. ‘The ROC’s survival no longer rested on mobilizing Taiwan’s economy in service to the mainland; now the ROC would survive only if it could build Taiwan’s economic and military power independent of the mainland,’ Rigger writes. Enabling technocrats to make and execute economic policy was one of President Chiang’s most inspired moves, and along with two phases of land reforms which allowed farming families to become land-owners, laid the foundations for Taiwan’s development.

Rigger states that the ‘Land to the Tiller’ program ‘rested on the belief that family farming was more efficient and productive than tenant farming.’ And that this focus on a family-centric industry did not stop there, but rather became the cornerstone of Taiwan’s manufacturing boom-period of the 60s and 70s. The exports goods that Taiwan provided to the world during this period ‘were almost always manufactured in small, family-owned factories linked together in production networks clustered around dusty village crossroads.’

Following this comes a discussion of the Taiwanese informal money lending system: hui. This system, which grew out of the difficulty these family-owned businesses encountered while trying to borrow money (Taiwan’s banks were not very strong at this point), involves a group of people, maybe friends or business colleagues, each pitching in a monthly amount of money and taking turns in taking the whole kitty once a month. It’s an ingenious system where one can actually even earn some interest by waiting out the other members who bid each month for the pot, but it relies heavily on the trust between the people involved. A dishonest member could cut and run after taking his share and deprive the others of monthly payments. ‘What makes hui possible is the dense network of relationships in which they are embedded. […] If the co-worker disappears, that co-worker knows you will find him or her […] 23 million people are fewer than you’d think when they’re squeezed together on an island the size of Denmark.’

This kind of observation makes the reader astutely aware that Taiwan is an island built on relationships, mutual support and strong ties, be they familial, ethnic or business related, and it is impossible for an island that involves its people so strongly in its political and social dynamic to be considered irrelevant.

Rigger’s writing is beguiling, often digressive and pleasantly accessible amid subject matter that is ostensibly quite dry, but the subtlety of her prose is perfect for making one look freshly on Taiwan’s issues and the relationships which underpin and more often than not, unite them.

No chapter does this more successfully than ‘From “Free China” to Democratic Taiwan’ which focuses on the island’s bumpy path to democracy, but takes as its key point the history and dynamics of two opposing politicians. One is Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu , the other is Taichung mayor Jason Hu. On paper these two politicians couldn’t be more polarized, the author notes. Chen is an Yilan-born, Hokkien-speaking politician who spent six years in prison after the Kaohsiung Incident. She was fed with dissident literature from a young age and was a key figure in forming the DDP. Hu, however, was born in Beijing less than a year before the Communist victory and is the son of a military officer. He is Oxford-educated and spent time working as a teacher in Britain and Taiwan before joining the government as an aide to president Lee Teng-hui. Though he was part of ‘thousands of Mainlander youths who grew up surrounded by reminders that the mainland – not Taiwan –was their true home,’ the government which he joined in 1990 was a lot different from the ‘Old KMT’ that fled the mainland in 1949. Both politicians have had to adapt and temper their views on cross-strait relations and ‘ideology does not drive their decision making; they are preoccupied with the practical problems of governance.’

While both mayors have held talks with Beijing officials, both have equally expressed solidarity as Taiwanese, and a cynicism towards China’s motives and approach to cross-strait affairs. Hu’s humour is picked out in particular by Rigger as she quotes the mayor in a 1996 interview as responding to the claim that China is like an 800-pound gorilla in Taiwan’s living room with, ‘Not only do I have an 800-pound gorilla in my living room, that gorilla happens to think he’s my brother!’

But both have also expressed a surprisingly pragmatic approach to dealing with the mainland. Rigger quotes Chen as saying ‘China is huge – it can easily eat us up. If we in the DDP have a China policy that isn’t rooted in a good understanding of China, then it’s really dangerous.’ What the reader infers from this, though it isn’t explicitly stated, is that Taiwan is a country whose politicians have changed because of its people. A democratic Taiwan is one that exists for the sole purpose of preserving the interests of the island’s 23 million people, and while the international moral dilemma of ignoring such a phenomenon in the name of self-interest is discussed in the book’s final chapter, Rigger has already made her case.

Throughout Why Taiwan Matters, Rigger portrays Taiwan as a complex, rich and sophisticated country, so much so that the idea it could conceivably not matter becomes a ridiculous one. And the feeling of affront and incredulity that one gets while reading the final chapter is more than powerful enough to drive the point home. An excellent and well-researched cultural/political breakdown of Taiwanese society, this book not is not only interesting but thoroughly enjoyable, and also manages to turn the reader into a fervent polemicist — a remarkable feat in just over 200 pages.

Owain McKimm is a freelance writer based in Taipei, and can be reached at: owain.mckimm@googlemail.com

3 thoughts on “'Why Taiwan Matters': A Book Review

  • August 30, 2011 at 3:54 am

    Sounds like a very interesting book.I look forward to reading it.I agree with Steve that American’s comments are nonsensical.I have been a resident of Taiwan for more than 20 years and I have met very few locals who actually believe in that ROC stuff.Even the KMT have stopped talking about reclaiming the ‘mainland’.Just about everyone I know thinks of Taiwan as a country,but doesn’t want to upset the “gorilla” next door.It seems to me that Japan has had a huge influence here,far more than China.Most of the young people are into Japanese fashion,music,cartoons and comic books.And look at the most popular cars…Toyotas,Hondas,Mitsubishis,Suzukis etc.

  • August 20, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    Great review of an important new book about the complexity of the Taiwanese situation! But, @American: Please clarify your argument? It seems self-contradictory and slightly nonsensical?

  • August 15, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Taiwan is not a country, in Taiwan, the ROC flag flies at all government institutions, and Taiwan is one of the islands under that government.

    Just because communists pressured the world (via UN) to try to not mention the RoC (a founding member of the UN) exists,does not mean it does not exist.

    there is no taiwanese constitution… there is a republic of china constitution.

    Sun Yat Sen’s dream lives on… regardless of the ‘taiwanese independence movement’ and the communist chinese who want to destroy it


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