De-stereotyping Taiwan

Jaewoong Jeon

A Japanese agricultural official in the 1930s quipped, “What can be done with incentives in Taiwan has to be done with coercion in Korea.” This offhand remark appears to contain a grain of truth in retrospect. Not only do we know that Koreans were definitely more recalcitrant during colonial rule, but we also observe a greater degree of colonial nostalgia in Taiwan into the present. Is this difference the result of “national character?” In contemporary academic discourse, any such stereotypical designation would be immediately criticized for being an “essentialist” approach. An easy way to preempt such criticism is to talk about the effects of “globalization” and “hybridity” instead. It is simply safer not to talk about “national” difference between Korea and Taiwan. But such “ambivalence” comes at the cost of attempting to make any cultural explanations.

In my comparative project, I find myself facing a difficult question: am I trying to say that Taiwanese were more “docile” in the face of colonial domination than Koreans? Does an analysis which uses the concept of “national” difference not have the inherent problem of overwriting individual differences and stifling individual voices? Yet, it certainly appeared to me true that contemporary Taiwanese people are more kind than Koreans—the latter group including myself as a South Korean citizen. There could be numerous cultural explanations. Taiwanese could be kind especially to foreigners because of the precarious status of Taiwanese nation (how many countries recognize its statehood with pressure of the mainland China?). Yet, it could also be true that Taiwanese are kind because of the Taiwan economy’s increasingly heavy dependence on international tourism, most recently from South Korea. Seen this way, their kindness and smiles might be what Arlie Russell Hochschild called “emotional labor.” They might be “acting” kind to invite more tourism. Here I am not trying to give a definite answer to the puzzle. But I am trying to confront the “cultural” difference—rather than being “ambivalent”—and to figure out what many such differences could mean.

My dissertation studies the emergence of global capitalism in Korea and Taiwan from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, and attempts to explain the divergent responses of people in Taiwan and Korea during Japanese colonial domination. Fortunate to have the generous support of a Division of the Social Sciences 2015-2016 Research Grant, I have spent a good amount of time in Taiwan since last fall. This opportunity allowed me access to many resources for the first time. Affiliated with Academia Sinica, a premier national research institution in Taiwan, I was able to not only utilize its excellent archives but also interact with fellow researchers, both local and visiting from around the world. I benefited heavily from frequent meetings with Dr. Chih-ming Ka, an excellent scholar whose work includes Japanese colonialism in Taiwan and Qing governance of aborigines in Taiwan. Discussing texts, sources, and my project with local scholars at Academia Sinica on a regular basis, I was able to sharpen my arguments and change the structure of my dissertation. For various comments on my work and a deeper understanding of local historical discourse, the numerous informal conversations that I had with my colleagues proved to be equally crucial. Additionally, I organized a weekly reading group with Taiwanese history students that allowed to understand the local scholarship and helped me to read Chinese texts more quickly.

Yet it was through my everyday life that I was able get a clear sense of the country and build confidence to do a truly comparative study. The differences between Taiwan and Korea have been countless and novel. As a historian who is studying Japanese colonization, I could not help but being puzzled to see the magnitude of positive feeling Taiwanese appeared to have for the island’s former colonizer—in the street signs, on TV ads, in newspapers, etc. Taiwanese appeared to be serious Japanophiles. I may be getting closer to the danger of the abovementioned stereotyping with these statements; but my research is not about discovering differences in “national character” per se (e.g. Taiwanese are more “docile” than Koreans), but about divergences in socioeconomic structure that produced the different response to colonial rule, the different memory of the colonial experience, and the imagination of different “national characters.” Understanding the complexities of human life, what I focus on is the divergent response of people in Korea and Taiwan under similar terms of domination within Japanese modern social structure.

If understanding the status of contemporary Taiwan is not straightforward (renegade Chinese province? independent nation?), the task of untangling its history has proved just as daunting (Dutch-Spanish colony, Ming loyalist base, Qing province, Japanese colony, the Nationalist base, and independent minded island). As such, my time in Taiwan allowed me to realize the complexity of history in Taiwan and, thus, the violence of imposing a unitary “national” history. Partha Chatterjee spoked of the inevitable production of “fragments” in the process of nationalist imagination. But it was only through the close reading of documents and travels to various places in Taiwan that made me realize there were voices hidden between the cracks of contemporary Chinese and Taiwanese nationalism. One obvious group whose voice has been relatively obscured is that which is labeled “aborigine” in Taiwan. But it took me some months to understand that Taiwanese society is divided even among what is often collectively known Han Chinese. I also discovered that the “ethnic” feud among various Han groups began during the Qing dynasty. I do not accept these various categories as “essential,” but I think it is very important to see how these categories were made essential. Understanding this process helps me understand not only the various responses of Taiwanese in the face of Japanese capitalism, but also the complexity of comparing Korea and Taiwan. Considering the multiplicity of Taiwan, I am led to rethink the supposed homogeneity in the Korean peninsula, and vice versa.

Going back to what the Japanese agricultural officer said, were Taiwanese more “docile” than Koreans? The answer depends, perhaps, on what one means by “Taiwanese.” My research in Taiwan convinced me that my dissertation, which cannot avoid dealing with the abstractions of stereotype and nation, needs to start from concrete examples to lessen the crime of epistemological violence. Yet, I am still heavily interested in abstraction—how do we understand the world without any abstraction? Capitalism, the abstract force that I am writing about in my dissertation, is both empirical (what is really going on?) and theoretical (what is its nature?). This means that I need to locate capitalism in Korea and Taiwan in the global capitalism to show how capitalism in Korea and Taiwan was made possible by the global forces beyond simply colonial Japan. How, in other words, did capitalism make “Korea” and make “Taiwan” out of their disparate and sometimes warring parts? On the flip side of the coin, how did it undermine their bounded nature as peninsula and island, kingdom and province? I discovered that I must document the process of making for the stereotype that the Japanese officer uttered. That requires the unmaking of stereotypes to see the concretes before going back to an exercise of abstractions. In so doing, I hope to write what William H. Sewell Jr. called a “concrete history of social abstraction.”


Jaewoong Jeon is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History.