label r shifted
Session A5
Coming, Leaving, and Returning: Stevan Harrell and the Reconstruction of Taiwan Studies
Weiting Guo
Department of History, Simon Fraser University, Canada

Scholars have now established that a significant branch of America’s Cold War Sinology was premised on the ethnographic researches carried out in Taiwan and Hong Kong. However, only a few have examined the intellectual contexts and experiences of the anthropologists who had respectively studied Taiwan and China and had engaged with the burgeoning field of Taiwan Studies both during and after the Cold War. With a view to fill this void, this study examines the works and career of Stevan Harrell, who has fifty years of experience with Taiwan and forty years of ethnographic research in China. Through a close reading of his studies and my interviews with him, this paper explores three major phases of his journey into Taiwan: his initial studies in Taiwan from the late 1960s to the 1970s, his shift to China from the 1980s to the 2010s, and his reconnection with Taiwan, primarily since the 1990s.


During the first stage, Harrell used his fieldwork in Sanhsia to challenge the two dominant schools of structuralism in Cultural Anthropology. His study shifted the focus from the dominant Sinological focus on Chinese culture and classics to a rural area in Taiwan, reconstructing social relations and individual practice in a miner’s village. While he confined his study to Han Chinese society—an understudied subject that had constituted a significant “others” in the eyes of Western anthropologists—, he intentionally avoided the observation of the nearby aboriginal group. Ironically, aboriginal society became a major target of his Taiwanese colleagues during the 1970s, who had studied “ethnos” and sought for a different kind of “others.” In the second stage, Harrell continued to publish and edit books on the “Chinese society” in Taiwan, while he had access to China and had a very different experience of ethnographic research there—a research that was not strongly predicated on the understanding of local language, and barely adopted a long-term Malinowski-style fieldwork as he had previously done in Taiwan. During his visits to China, especially in Fujian where many locals had similar religious beliefs and dialects with Sanhsia, Harrell was able to relocate his finding of the Fujian-migrant communities and their religious practices in Taiwan. Moreover, through his continued visit to Taiwan, in addition to his involvement in the studies of minority peoples and environmental issues in China, Harrell constantly reconstructed his views about pertinent issues in Taiwan, with a specific focus on economic growth, development, democratization, and socio-economic changes from the era of “economic miracle” to the present. In the third phase, Harrell re-connected with various scholars in Taiwan, and had supervised Taiwanese students in the University of Washington. His re-connection with Taiwan was primarily based on the contact with scholars he had met during and after the authoritarian era, while he remained connected with his familiar circle ever since his earlier stages in Taiwan. In this stage, Harrell connected with various aboriginal scholars; additionally, he visited both Han and aboriginal communities in Taiwan, including those who had re-shaped their villages and even invented collective memories under the new trend of tourism and Taiwanese consciousness movement.


In totality, Harrell not only obtained firsthand information in different periods throughout these three stages, but was also able to re-read and reflect upon his previous observation during the Cold War. Through an in-depth examination of Harrell’s long experiences with Taiwan, this paper argues that his “Sinological” knowledge and understanding of Taiwan was not only shaped by the Cold War politics and the paradigms of ethnographic studies, but was also reconstructed through his long and stagnant relationships with Taiwan, China, and the US.