Thu, Sep 12, 2019 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Becoming Taiwanese

This latest addition to the Harvard East Asian Monographs extends scholarship of Taiwanese identity into vital territory

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Becoming Taiwanese: Ethnogenesis in a Colonial City, 1880s – 1950s, By Evan Dawley.

In the summer of 1937, a group of city officials and temple managers, spanning locals and Japanese settlers, visited three prominent Taoist temples in Keelung on a mission to remove the censers in which “ghost money” was burned for the spirits.

The group was acting on a directive from the Keelung Customs Assimilation Association (基隆同風會), founded by a local named Hsu Tsu-sang (許梓桑), that banned the folk practice. But their work was not without obstacles.

Outside Dianji Temple (奠濟宮), which now sits at the heart of Keelung’s famous Miao Kou (廟口, “temple mouth”) night market, a small crowd attempted to block the way. They were arrested, and the group proceeded to remove the temple’s three censers.

Folk beliefs and practices lost out that day. But in hindsight, the ubiquity of popular religion in modern Taiwan makes it a story of resilience, rather than defeat. We are later reminded that “the centrality of religion in Taiwanese ethnogenesis helps to explain why popular religion remains so prominent in Taiwan today.”

The “ghost money” conflict is one of the more literal clashes between the forces of modernity and tradition, and the colonial and the native described in Becoming Taiwanese: Ethnogenesis in a Colonial City, 1880s — 1950s. The author, Evan Dawley, is an assistant professor of history at Goucher College in the US.

The book distinguishes itself from existing scholarship with a self-avowed focus on Taiwanese ethnic (as opposed to national) identity and a deep dive into ethnic formation from the era of early 20th-century Japanese colonization (as opposed to post-1987 democratization).

In doing so, Becoming Taiwanese aims to cast a more critical eye on oft-neglected parts of Taiwan’s history, in which “Taiwanese ethnicity was captured by, and subsumed within, Taiwanese national identity,” and the shifting sands of cross-strait relations have encouraged particular, politically-charged uses of Taiwanese history.

Publication Notes

Becoming Taiwanese: Ethnogenesis in a Colonial City, 1880s – 1950s

By Evan Dawley

426 pages

Harvard University Asia Center

Hardback: US

What results is a granular examination of Taiwanese identity as imagined by local “islanders” or benshengren (本省人), Han Chinese already living in Taiwan before World War II. This community forged their identity in contrast to the two successive groups of outsiders — Japanese settlers from 1895 to 1945, followed by Mainlanders in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government — who ruled the territory.

To reconstruct how Taiwanese ethnicity was negotiated, Dawley sets his sights on social organizations, social work and religion in Keelung. Though now largely a satellite of Taipei, his research does establish the port city’s importance as a vanguard site of urbanization in Japanese-ruled Taiwan during the first half of the 20th century, making it a crucible of modernity worth examining.

Within Keelung, Dawley further narrows his gaze to look at local elites like Hsu Tsu-sang (許梓桑), founder of the Customs Assimilation Association that removed the censers, and brothers Yan Yun-nien (顏雲年) and Yan Kuo-nien (顏國年). He identifies them as “gatekeepers” who controlled access to their identity group by negotiating interactions between the locals, Japanese and Mainlanders.

The bulk of Becoming Taiwanese covers Japanese colonial rule in rigorous detail, providing equal insight into the levers of colonial power and their application, adaptation or rejection by locals. In showing how Japanese and local elites worked sometimes at odds and sometimes together, the book avoids pat dichotomies between the colonizer and the colonized.

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