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

Thu, Sep 12, 2019 - Page 14

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.

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.

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.

What is for sure is that despite being a serious historical tome, Becoming Taiwanese provides some unexpectedly of-the-moment insights into Taiwan’s present.