Communist victory in 1949 sealed China off from Western journalists, missionaries, Sinologists, tourists, and pretty much everyone except for the occasional leftist sympathizer. For some anthropologists, however, Taiwan provided an excellent substitute destination. Looking Through Taiwan (2005) examines how this displaced anthropological research often involved willing complicity with the authoritarian Nationalist (KMT) rule, a complicity which was the result of the alignment of the authorities’ desire and the anthropologists’ self-interest to sell the fantasy of Taiwan being China.

Co-author Keelung Hong, born in Taiwan in 1943, experienced anger as a boy growing up under what was in effect colonial rule. Like many Taiwanese of that era, he “recalls being punished for speaking Holo as a schoolchild and thirsting for broadcasts in the majority language.” Still, he excelled academically and did post-graduate studies in the United States, earning a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Berkeley, and worked as a research scientist. He retired from the Liposome Research Laboratory (LRL) at the University of California, San Francisco, and returned to Taiwan, where, in 1997, he co-founded a biopharmaceutical company. The other co-author, Stephen O. Murray (born 1950) is a scholar based in San Francisco, with an impressive list of publications on sociology and anthropology.

Before completing Looking Through Taiwan, the pair had already worked together, including co-authoring Taiwanese Culture, Taiwanese Society: A Critical Review of Social Science Research Done on Taiwan (1994) which examines much of the same ground. Although controversial, the 1994 book was more ignored than rebutted. Veteran professor of East Asia studies Murray A. Rubinstein has called it “a declaration of war on mainstream scholarship about Taiwan.” Speaking of a 1996 edition – toned down and with material added – Rubenstein says it “contains much that is useful, even if the rhetoric does sound somewhat strident at times.”

Looking Through Taiwan presents several core arguments which are hard to refute. Hong and Murray say that American anthropologists overemphasised the similarities between Taiwan and China:

Researchers who wanted to study China were welcomed by a government pretending to be China. Writing in English about a timeless, essentialized Chinese culture and society in Taiwan was the safest kind of free speech for a regime that until the end of the 1990s restricted other kinds of discourse—especially any discourse about ethnic differences and Taiwanese autonomy. In return, social scientists were grateful for a chance to study at least something they could label “Chinese” in their publications (thereby getting more attention for them).

American researchers working in Taiwan minimized the differences between the island of Taiwan and continental China. Some anthropologists, the authors say, treated Taiwan as if was “an embalmed Ming-Dynasty theme park for aliens to visit and make their careers writing about as ‘Chinese.’”

The authors also highlight anthropologists’ choice of safe topics such as kinship and folk religion (ignoring covert protest aspects and presenting it as part of China’s ancient tradition). While no individual anthropologist can be fairly faulted here, collectively it was a failure of the field.

Looking Through Taiwan is a book of startling intensity. It’s extremely rare to see so much anger in an academic publication. Time and again as you make your way through the chapters you wonder if you’ve walked in on a personal squabble. More than a squabble, a feud even, in the case of the authors’ animosity toward anthropologist Margery Wolf. In other words, the book is compelling reading.

Margery Wolf (not then an anthropologist) and her anthropologist husband Arthur Wolf spent 1959-1960 doing fieldwork in Taipei County, which resulted in several titles, including Margery Wolf’s The House of Lim: A Study of a Chinese Farm Family (1968). Although it’s an excellent book, notice the “Chinese” in the name; many such works from the 1950s through to the 1970s lacked a “Taiwan” or “Taiwanese” in the title. Margery Wolf used some of the material gathered in 1960 to write A Thrice-Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism, and Ethnographic Responsibility (1992), and it is this book which comes in for the most detailed and harsh criticism from the authors of Looking Through Taiwan. Wolf’s A Thrice-Told Tale grew out of a paper “The Woman Who Didn’t Become a 
Shaman” (originally published in the American Ethnologist) in 1990. The book looked at a case of possible “shamanic possession” (I say possible because the woman was judged by villagers to be mentally unstable rather than a “shaman”) of a Taiwanese woman from three different angles: her old field notes, an essay, and a fictional story.

 The multiple criticisms made against her work seem damming. There are language problems with the original notes and interpretations – and ignorance of basic facts and terms related to the subject; most obviously the use of “shaman” in the Taiwan context. Taiwan doesn’t have shamans – they are best described as “spirit mediums.”

Keelung Hong says he wrote to Margery Wolf following the publication of her paper in the American Ethnologist, but she did not respond. It was this unwillingness from her and other anthropologists to address criticisms and engage in discussion, which, he says, led to him writing Looking Through Taiwan.

Although the book makes valid complaints, and is a must-read for anyone interested in the social sciences in Taiwan, I wish it were a little less polemic. Too often it is dialled up to eleven, such as when Keelung Hong writes: “it seems that American anthropologists are afraid of democracy and believe that they must depend on authoritarian states to force people to be studied by ignorant aliens speaking (if usually awkwardly) the language imposed by that state.”

The repeated charge that Americans “fled” democratizing Taiwan is unnecessary overstatement. Similarly, there are lines here or there in the book which prompt a double-take. For example, early on in a section summarising recent political changes, there is a striking claim: “Taiwan is now more democratic, with a
freer press, than the United States.” It’s not given any caveat or explanation. Why such casual throwaway contention? Wouldn’t it be wiser to keep one’s gunpowder dry for the main points of the book?

Thankfully, the situation described in Looking Through Taiwan, whereby anthropological research on Taiwan was done through a prism of the country being considered a substitute for China, is much less of a problem today. However, the book remains extremely relevant for two main reasons; firstly, researchers (and others) working in China today face choices that earlier generations of anthropologists had to make regarding authoritarian-era Taiwan. Secondly, the false equation of Taiwan with China continues in a wide range of writing and it has done harm in fostering unrealistic expectations that an increasingly prosperous China will follow Taiwan’s path to democracy. Yes, the two places shares elements of history and culture, but the differences should not be overlooked: Taiwan’s frontier history, the centuries of international maritime trade, its aborigines, the fifty years of Japanese rule, and American influences make it unique. The push for democracy in Taiwan had a central ethnic element – pushback against the domination over the majority Taiwanese by a refugee minority of Mainlanders – which does not apply to China.

Looking Through Taiwan: American Anthropologists’ Collusion With Ethnic Domination is published by the University of Nebraska Press, and is part of a their Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology series. Special mention needs to be made of University of Nebraska Press’ very reasonable prices; they have among the very best value hardcover books I’ve come across from an academic publisher.

Looking Through Taiwan is available from the university press, Amazon.com, and various other retailers.