Sun, Aug 14, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Cartoons graphically explicate Taiwan's history

Ten paperback volumes with a bilingual history of the country in cartoon form is a bargain and a boon for students of all ages

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

A History of Taiwan in Comics
Third Nature Publishing Co Ltd

Paying NT$1,200 isn't too much for a remarkable venture indeed -- 10 paperback volumes, each of over 180 pages, containing a bilingual history of Taiwan in cartoon form, all in full color. But it's only when you look into these books that you discover what an enormous amount of in-depth historical research and tactical skill has gone into each of them.

The set has many virtues. Firstly, the books are in Chinese and English, and hence will be a godsend to students of either language whose mother-tongue is the other one. The excitement of the narrative will carry you along, and your linguistic proficiency will improve almost without you

noticing it.

Secondly, these books perform what I would have thought was a near-impossible balancing act. They combine accessibility for quite young readers with a really astonishing level of historical sophistication.

On the one hand continuity is provided by a modern boy called Tai and a modern girl called Wan who skip around the island and give a point of entry to young imaginations. Thus, in Volume 3, Tai asks "Was Jheng Jhihlong really loyal to the Ming court?" with Wan replying "You're pretty sharp! You already see the flip side!"

Yet at the same time -- and this is the set's real glory -- the historical detail at times feels as if it's approaching graduate studies level. Take the issue of the origins of Taiwan's Aboriginal population. Look at Volume 1 and you'll discover this isn't glossed over with some vague generalities. Instead, the opposing theories are

explained, and the archeological sites supporting one side or the other of the argument illustrated.

For the book to reach out so gently to the youngest readers, then, rather than condescending to them, to offer instead serious historical material many adults will learn a lot from is a truly stellar achievement.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this balancing act between accessibility and seriousness is repeated on another level. Different interpretations of a particular event are often offered. What characterized relations with China at various points in history? What was the nature of the Dutch episode in the 17th century? Was Japanese rule beneficial or exploitative? What were the results of the KMT take-over in 1945? What really happened on Feb. 28, 1947?

Every one of these controversial questions is faced head-on, and in many cases opposing interpretations are offered. It's rather as if a stage acrobat, having performed one near-impossible feat, nonchalantly follows it up with another.

The issue of Japanese rule is a good example. On the one hand you see Taiwan' s citizens suffering under colonial rule, with their human rights abused. But on the other you watch the modernization that Japan brought with it. And somewhere in between the two you also get the mid-way analysis that, yes, Japanese rule did bring improvements, but they were largely to serve Japanese eco-nomic interests; but the Taiwanese benefited nonetheless.

In the last analysis, this refusal to come down heavily on one side or another is an educational lesson in itself. Education in Asia has too often been a case of learning by rote, but that is the last thing offered here. Look at the evidence and make up your own minds. This is the moral of these highly colorful volumes.

This is an approach that is expected by adults, but will be enormously beneficial to children. And these fine books will, I hope, be extensively used in local schools.

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