label r shifted
Session A2
Assessing the State of Taiwan History and Historiography: An EATS Outlook
Niki Alsford
School of Language & Global Studies, University of Central Lancashire, UK

I am often asked: Why Taiwan? Why, as a social/transcultural historian, have I chosen this island as my focal research point? Why not, is my often trenchant reply. It is as argued by Shelly Rigger, as if there is a ‘widespread expectation […] that anyone who invests the time and effort to learn the language and history of China naturally will choose to study the [PRC]’. Like Rigger, those of us who have chosen to study Taiwan have often done so because we are better encouraged to ‘make comparative links within and beyond the boundaries of East Asia.’ Yet to do so, according to Margaret Hillenbrand, has ‘several predictable downsides’. Most prominent of these is the scale of conservatism, or ‘the degree to which aligning like with like keeps each contrasting object safe within its settled groove rather than making their encounter creatively disruptive’. A rendering to such a problem, Hillenbrand argues could be achieved by operating Taiwan studies as a merger. So instead ‘of the side-by-side, sealed-off methodologies of comparativism’ the studying of Taiwan would achieve greater integration into the disciplines if we were less possessive about it. In the process of ‘letting go’ Yet, do all disciplines (both within the humanities and social sciences) require such rigid deconstructions?  My feelings are: not yet. A simple survey of papers submitted to the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS) over the past 10 years clearly identify a growing interest in the field and this growth can also be seen in the number of submission to history and historiographical panels.


As such, the quest to situate Taiwan, and its history, as a field of study still continues to accompany a flow of dirges. Shelly Rigger herself has argued that Taiwan Studies occupies ‘a marginal position’ within the field of Chinese studies. Whilst at the same time acknowledges that those who are interested in China cannot ignore Taiwan entirely. Shih Shu-mei, on the other hand though, sees the study of Taiwan as being ‘an impossible task’ since ‘Taiwan is already written out of mainstream Western discourse due its insignificance’. This pessimistic outlook continued for much of the early noughties. Rubinstein’s keynote speech at the Sixth Annual Conference of EATS in Madrid, Spain in 2009, carried the title: ‘Is Taiwan Studies Dead?’ The following restless, edge-of-the-seat, Q&A session though was enough to re-energise him into believing that the field, far from being dead, had taken up a whole new life. The title of the conference paper in 2009, however, prompted Jonathan Sullivan in 2011 to publish an article in the China Quarterly on a similar question and whether Taiwan Studies was in decline. Sullivan, who is much more sanguine than Shih, argues that rather than lament the ‘vigorous growth of China and China studies’ those engaging with the study of Taiwan should seek ways to ‘adapt to these conditions and thrive’.

            Thus, the following survey (though by no means exhaustive) is an effort to chart the evolution of Taiwan history and historiography through the submitted papers to the annual EATS Conference. Attention to this is important as scholars of Taiwan seek to define the field as thing unto its self.