taiwan: democratic, energetic, and its own place

Within a month of returning to the United States from a month-long visit to Taiwan, I was feeling discombobulated and a bit gloomy.

Back in Jackson, MS, where I live and teach political science, I found myself having to keep from doomscrolling, what with my worrying about the depressing political state of things in the United States. The mass shootings, the book bans, internecine party wars over who would be Speaker of the House, the ongoing culture wars, and, of course, the 90-odd Trump indictments in two states and the District of Columbia–all of it was a bit much.

Along with finding myself stuck in the muck of reading about American dysfunction came a bit of a creative block. I stopped and started on videos and blog or newsletter entries about my experience and travels, but thought they lacked something. I would redo a video and spot more pronunciation and minor factual errors. Eventually, I indefinitely delayed putting a video together since my priority was to finish trip reflections and a higher education curriculum project required by the trip’s sponsor.

Several months later, Taiwan was not in the news the way it had been before I took my day-long journey to the Asia Pacific island, from Jackson, MS to Taipei. Coverage of tensions between China and Taiwan had been eclipsed, like so much else, by the Hamas militant group’s October 2023 attacks in southern Israel and the ensuing Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Even today, though, Taiwan’s recent history has much to show the world, given how anti-democratic currents are still being felt in the developed world. These were felt in Israel before October 7. As I type, the situation for democracy in the United States still seems iffy as well, going into another federal election year.

Before going further into why Taiwan’s experience has some relevance to the world now, however, I should explain how I came to visit the island.

Application, Pandemic Delays, and … We’re Set

My Taiwan story starts in what can seem like another epoch now, the pre-COVID-19 pandemic era of late 2019. It was then that the political science department chair at Jackson State University, where I was then a visiting faculty member (read: contingent faculty) in the department, told me about the opportunity to apply for participation the Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar in Taiwan. For those not in the know, Fulbright-Hays, although associated with and funded through the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright international scholarship program, is administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Its purpose is increasing international understanding, as with the State Dept. program, but it has more of an education focus, particularly with its summer seminars. Those sent educators at the elementary and secondary level, as well as faculty in higher ed, and have them develop curriculum projects to encourage the internationalizing of what those faculty teach back at home.

I was chosen as an alternate before COVID hit. Flash forward three years, three delayed seminars in a row, regular messages from the Education Dept., and I was asked if I wanted to go to Taiwan. A few months later, me and fellow grantees took part in weekly virtual orientation sessions, full of info about Taiwanese culture, identity, politics, international engagement, and the like, hosted by an Asian Studies center at George Washington University. In June, we were off.

Weeks of Scurrying, Learning. Then, Seeing Lessons.

Upon getting to my hotel around 9 p.m. in the busy Ximending area of Taiepi, a shopping and entertainment district, I spent at least two-and-a-half hours roaming around, ostensibly looking for a USB-A to USB-C converter (which was easily found–electronics and mobile phone-oriented purveyors abound in Tapei), checking out everything from high-end apparel stores to arcades, the offerings at the 7-11s, and selfie studios, outdoor martial arts and dance demos, and three-story, densely packed Japanese grocery store with a cute, video game-sounding theme song playing over its PA on repeat. The Japanese influence was obvious, with the cartoons everywhere. I was tired, and Ximending was hot and humid, but I was having a grand time.

Among the sorts of things I saw on my first night and full day Taipei, and throughout the my time there, are shown below.

What followed was day after day after day of discovery, curiosity, puzzlement, and awe, much of it experienced with a group of faculty members from across the U.S. (mainly social science people, with a few education specialists and an English professor who sent trip-and-lecture-oriented poems to our WhatsApp group-chat every day). We attended near-daily lectures about topics ranging from Taiwan’s domestic politics to the island’s indigenous peoples, Taiwan’s half a century spent as a Japanese colony, the country’s environment and native wildlife, and its economy. We toured museums galore and breathtaking national parks. We ate what seemed like entirely too much delicious and often-spicy food until I came home and realized after checking a few times that I weighed less than before. (I still think a good name for a photo book about the trip would be, “There’s Always a Fish,” referencing the whole fish that would come at the end of every multi-course Lazy Susan revolving table meal.)

After a time, three main themes or question areas started to emerge for me, among them:

  • The tangled issue of Taiwanese national identity, with influences from Dutch and Japanese colonial rule (50 years of it before the end of World War II), decades of significant Han Chinese immigration under the Qing Dynasty, and post-WWII authoritarian rule under Chiang Kai-Shek and Chinese nationalists there after they fled mainland China amid the Chinese Civil War, and ongoing tensions with the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, Taiwan has a small indigenous population, but it is likely where the Austronesian peoples originated.
  • The strength of Taiwan’s liberal democracy and commitment to civil or human rights and liberties, with a higher ranking from the nonprofit, U.S.-based Freedom House organization for its Freedom of the World map than the United States. (Most intriguingly to many in our group, it has legalized same-sex marriage and more tolerance of LGBTQ persons than any other East Asian country.) It is still a young democracy, with its martial law era having ended only in the late 1980s, but it is a stable and vibrant one.

I have posted links below that get into Taiwan’s colonial history, identity, and relations with China. The Freedom House report on Taiwan is also listed below. Otherwise, I found its identity issues ridiculously tangled and full of contradictions. Here is a place, I thought, where more people than ever identify more as Taiwanese than anything else. Even so, Taipei’s major attractions include a museum full of Chinese treasures, art, and artifacts, and then a national memorial to Sat Yun-Sen, the founder of modern China.

I heard from panelists and locals alike about the debate over how to recognize and separate the country from its colonial past. In some cases, all these issues came up at the same time, as in a national photography museum in Taipei, with exhibits involving the Chinese Civil War, photos from rural China by a Taiwanese photographer, post-WWII street photography by a Taiwanese man raised in Japan during the colonial years, and the like. (As a person born and raised in the American South, I fully grasped the idea of living with a tangle of cultural contradictions.)

Meanwhile, I started wondering, after a time, what best explained Taiwan’s commitment to democracy. I examined scholarship on Taiwanese civil society and participation, considered comments I heard before and during the trip about how the situation with China shapes Taiwanese thought, and learned about its more communal culture. Ultimately, its relatively low level of inequality, combined with its high level of development (with its dominance of the semiconductor industry being a strong indicator there), helps explain Taiwan’s success. But its historical experience is significant there as well, as are its thorny relations with China.

And that brings up the third theme:

Constantly having a consistent, if low-level hum of anxiety about China in the background and central to its politics, but also something Taiwanese people would love to hear less about. American influence can also not be discounted. But Taiwan is its own place, with a distinct history (including a tragic early history and mass slaughter of dissidents under the Republic of China banner with the “white terror” era–on that’s the subject of a national human rights memorial and museum on Green Island, off the main island’s, aka Formosa’s, east coast).

Next …

I will leave the China topic at that. Otherwise, what I want to highlight with any further blog entries at Cosmic Ray’s is the country’s beauty, the color and feel of its densely populated cities, and its liveliness. What surprised me the most, however, was how much more gorgeous its countryside was than I ever expected, so that comes next. A sampling is shown below.

Links of Interest

Freedom House: Taiwan Profile

BBC Taiwan Profile

China & Taiwan: A Really Simple Guide

Taiwan’s Rocky Road to Democracy

What is Taiwanese Gua Bao?

Night Markets in Taiwan

National Palace Museum (Taipei)