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BOOK REVIEW: The great Confucian virtue

‘A Passage to China’ by academic Tsai Chien-hsin looks at the tradition of loyalism as it presents itself through Chinese, and especially Taiwanese, eyes

By BRADLEY WINTERTON  /  Contributing reporter

A PASSAGE TO CHINA: Literature, Loyalism and Colonial Taiwan By Chien-hsin Tsai

Let us consider the state of academic books. Their authors usually write them because publication is necessary for promotion and tenure. And publishers publish them because they know a certain number of university libraries worldwide will buy a copy, thus guaranteeing a modest, but assured, profit.

Where does the general reader stand in this? By and large, nowhere. Some celebrated academic authors, such as Frank Dikotter or in an earlier age A.J.P. Taylor or Christopher Hill, will be read by the discerning public, but the rest must be satisfied with the attention of a very small coterie.

Whereas most modern intellectuals prefer to examine and celebrate modernism when contemplating the Far East, A Passage to China by University of Texas at Austin academic Tsai Chien-hsin looks at the tradition of loyalism as it presents itself in Chinese, and especially Taiwanese, eyes.

If loyalism, or loyalty, a great Confucian virtue, was originally to the great motherland of China, how were Taiwanese meant to feel when suddenly becoming citizens of the Japanese colonial empire in 1895, then becoming citizens of a society controlled by the repressive Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) after 1945, or when being lured by the Green politics of the Democratic Progressive Party into the dream (so this author calls it) of a total independence from China? Loyalty to what, they may well have asked.

But China had experienced such challenges to the concept of loyalty before, especially with changes of imperial dynasty such as when the Mongols conquered the Southern Song and established the Yuan dynasty in 1271.

This was a difficult book to follow, at least for this reviewer, and it can safely be said it is not likely to recommend itself to non-specialist readers. Anyone bold enough to venture into its pages should be prepared for sentences such as this one: “This double perspective rereads and elucidates the dialectics between modernity and tradition.”

Publication Notes

A PASSAGE TO CHINA: Literature, Loyalism and Colonial Taiwan

By Chien-hsin Tsai

360 pages

Harvard East Asia Monographs

Paperback: uS

If you’re OK with that, then fine; go ahead. But citing as it does Derrida and other post-structuralist gurus, this is a hard book for non-believers in that system to come to terms with.

The author proceeds to examine the approach to loyalism in Taiwanese writers such as Chiu Feng-chia (丘逢甲), vice-president of the short-lived Republic of Formosa (台灣民主國) who tried to persuade Peking to stop the Japanese take-over of Taiwan, then retreated across the Taiwan Strait when he saw he had failed; Lien Heng (連橫, 1878-1936), author of General History of Taiwan covering 1,400 years (a scope still to be equaled); the Hakka writer Chung Li-ho (鍾理和, 1915-1960), with whom Tsai focuses on hospitality and the guest; and Wu Chuo-liu (吳濁流, 1900-1976), author of Orphan of Asia.

Their responses are predictably what is often called “nuanced.” Not so, however, in the case of China’s intellectual historian Liang Qichao (梁啟超, 1873-1929) who in his 1899 essay “On Patriotism” (or “On Loving the Nation”) stresses that a love for one’s nation is rooted in love for one’s family, as Confucius had originally said. This sentiment, as Tsai points out, appealed to traditionalists and reformers equally. It finds its modern-day echo, of course, in every Asian country.

Tsai is especially interesting on Gu Hongming (辜鴻銘, 1857-1928), a loyalist who eventually became a chief advisor to the Dowager Empress Cixi (慈禧太后). Despite having been educated at some of the best universities in Europe, not to mention being born in British Malaya, he became a champion of China against its Western enemies, and a strong supporter of the Boxer Rebellion. (This is despite Tsai calling his translations of Confucian classics “playful”). The UK writer Somerset Maugham visited him in 1922, over a decade after the fall of the emperors, and Ku told him that he still wore his queue to symbolize his loyalty. “I am the last representative of the old China,” he told Maugham.

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