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

Concentrating on three areas — social organizations, social welfare and religion — Dawley shows how local elites, who had different places of origin in southeast China, negotiated shared visions for Keelung’s development and “imparted meaning to the imagined urban terrain.”

These processes “ultimately shaped the borders and content of Taiwanese ethnicity.” Unlike the Taiwanese nationalist movement, which had largely disappeared by the 1930s, that ethnicity was maintained even under Japanese colonial rule.


For most readers, however, the sexiest portions of the book will be chapters six and seven, which cover the KMT’s arrival and rule in Taiwan, as well as the epilogue. These are where Dawley lays out his more poignant conclusions about post-World War II history and historiography.

From his basic argument that “a strongly bounded modern Taiwanese ethnic identity” was in place by the time the KMT arrived, Dawley comes to an alternative interpretation of the 228 Incident in 1947. The conflict between “islanders” and Mainlanders arose “over the difference between protecting national (Chinese) and ethnic (Taiwanese) identities,” Dawley writes.

“Rather than marking the transformation of Taiwanese ethnicity into Taiwanese nationalism, the clash represented an expression of the border defense that Taiwanese people had been engaged in since the 1930s and early 1940s,” he continues.

Retracing the same three areas of social organization, social welfare and religion, Dawley shows how KMT rule and its project of “re-Sinicization” replicated many of the same power dynamics of Japanese colonization, except that the borders of Taiwanese ethnicity were now less porous.

This expands on historian Emma Teng’s (鄧津華) earlier arguments in Taiwan’s Imagined Geography that the similarities between Japanese and KMT rule made it “impossible to speak of the ‘post-colonial’ in Taiwan’s history.” It also highlights the failure of Mainlander officials to understand how ethnic Taiwanese “forged an autonomous identity under Japanese colonization.”

In the present, Dawley links the lack of critical understanding of Taiwan’s pre-World War II history and ethnogenesis to political developments. Under KMT rule, Taiwan had no history independent of its incorporation into a narrative of modern China. With democratization and under Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rule, people remember Taiwan’s past as “the progressive accumulation of factors that made Taiwan distinct from China,” in which the Japanese colonial era acquires a nostalgic sheen.

Yet Dawley identifies an “ambivalence” toward “formal juridical independence” for Taiwan among many locals today. His explanation for this warrants reproducing in full: “Through long experience with the oppressive policies of nationalizing regimes, and the repeated rejections by national communities, Taiwanese on the whole identify most strongly with alternative forms of consciousness, and protect the borders of those identities with more dedication than they do those of the imagined nation-state.”

Agreement with these conclusions will depend on whether readers are convinced by Dawley’s basic thesis about the historical existence of a robust Taiwanese ethnicity. There is little to suggest that he is off-target, except that a concentration on Keelung occasionally lacks islandwide application, and reading historical documents for traces of how individuals imagined and practised group identity can be a difficult exercise.

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