Written by Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley.
The European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS) held its 12th Annual Conference at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, on 8-10 April 2015. The annual EATS conference is a major academic event in the expanding field of Taiwan Studies. It offers an ideal forum for researchers from within and outside Europe to discuss relevant research and further the development of international and transdisciplinary collaboration. The tradition of holding the conference in a different European city each year is a testimony to the Association’s vision to facilitate the development of Taiwan Studies throughout Europe. Each annual conference has been co-organised by EATS and another European academic institution.
The main theme of the conference was ‘(In)Visible Taiwan’, addressing issues about Taiwan and Taiwan Studies that may appear paradoxical from multiple perspectives. For example, while democratisation is arguably the most significant development in modern Taiwan, what are the hidden challenges that need to be identified and resolved? While some may praise Taiwan’s economic power, others may be disappointed by the lack of global recognition of Taiwanese brands. Is the perceived ‘problem’ a real problem? If so, why? And are there any solutions? Given the difficult international situation that Taiwan faces, how should we put Taiwan’s effort in claiming an international presence – politically and culturally, officially and unofficially – into context? How may we evaluate Taiwan’s (in)visibility? Moreover, how have the contributions of artists, writers, filmmakers and various cultural and creative workers sustained, enriched and articulated Taiwan’s vibrant and multi-faceted cultures? How may the scholarly communities of Taiwan Studies further engage with different sectors and stakeholders to advance our understanding of Taiwan?
The thematic approach triggered an enthusiastic response from a wide range of disciplines and the organisers received 105 submissions this year. After a blind review process, 56 papers were accepted and divided into 16 panels during the two and a half-day convention. Panel sub-themes included: (1) Great divergence between economic interdependence and political conflict in East Asia, a special panel organised by the Taiwan Democracy Foundation with invited guests from Australia, Taiwan and the US; (2) Expression of identity and nationalism; (3) International relations and informal diplomacy; (4) Approaches to Taiwan Studies; (5) Domestic development and party politics; (6) Intersectionality in Taiwan: Han dominance and marginalised groups; (7) Cross-strait interactions and the impact; (8) Literature; (9) Governance and challenges; (10) Tangible and intangible of cultural heritages; (11) Migration, cosmopolitanism and social change; (12) Popular culture and creativity; (13) Revisiting China-Taiwan-Hong Kong relationship; and (14) Mapping the unseen: Taiwan’s invisibility and marginality. In addition, two MA panels were organised by the conference to offer students from various institutions and subject backgrounds open consultation on their dissertation topics.
Three characteristics of the 2015 EATS Conference in Krakow are worth noting: First, the ways the participants endeavoured to engage with the issue of (in)visibility made it one of the most thematically driven EATS conferences to date. In the opening keynote presentation, Professor Gary Rawnsley of Aberystwyth University discussed Taiwan’s visibility and invisibility from the understanding of public diplomacy and the concept of soft power. Rawnsley said that Taiwan is locked into what Professor Joseph Nye has called a ‘disabling environment’, a set of structures and relationships that limit Taiwan’s international activity. However limit does not mean impossible. Agency is also responsible for making a nation-state visible or invisible. As Taiwan’s mechanisms for international communications and public diplomacy are ill-equipped to do the job, Rawnsley argued that Taiwan has indeed soft power; what it needs is more effective public diplomacy.
In the closing keynote session, Professor Chris Berry of King’s College London explored some of the cinematic symptoms of Taiwanese anxiety about the island’s global (in)visibility and the conditions engendering it. Berry argued that the recent Taiwan commercial cinema manifests this anxiety in two contradictory ways: On the one hand, Taiwan filmmakers are migrating to mainland China and immersing themselves in an emergent Chinese-language cinema industry. This industry is a trans-border assemblage centred on Beijing, in which Taiwan becomes invisible. When Taiwan film companies and filmmakers participate in this assemblage, they collaborate in the process of making Taiwan invisible, for example turning Kaohsiung into a generic ‘Harbor City’ in Black and White: Dawn of Assault (2013). Alternatively, when making films entirely for the Taiwan audience, they are more likely to producefilms that make mainland China entirely invisible in Taiwanese culture and history as seen in Wei Te-sheng’s Cape No.7 (2008), Seediq Bale (2011) and Kano (2014).
The thematic framework allowed both social scientists and scholars of arts and humanities to interact with each other, encouraging a cross-fertilisation of ideas that enriched the debate. In this way, the EATS Conference in Krakow appealed simultaneously to different disciplines, which was one of the goals that the organisers strived to achieve.
Second, EATS has devoted to nurturing younger generations of students and scholars in the field. Since 2011, EATS has designed initiatives to cultivate emerging researchers and to encourage their work by establishing the Young Scholar Award (YSA). In 2014, EATS set up the Library Research Grant (LRG) to assist Europe-based postgraduate studentsto visit European libraries where they can find resources for dissertation research. The MA panel is also a mechanism EATS created to enhance the participation of MA students. This year EATS received the highest number of MA submissions. The organisers increased the number of MA panels to two in order to accommodate the maximum number of MA presentations, and thus made the Krakow convention one of the most student friendly conferences.
The 2015 YSA winners were Wei-lun Lu of Masaryk University and Joycelin Yi-hsuan Lai of the London School of Economics. Lu’s paper, ‘What’s in a Name? The Interplay of Metaphor and Synonymy in Lee Teng-hui’s Presidential Rhetoric’, takes different names of Taiwan as synonyms (including ‘Taiwan’, ‘ROC’, ‘country’) and analyses how they are individually associated with different conceptualisations of the same political entity by examining a representative collection of Taiwanese presidential speeches. Lu’s research does not only shed light on the influence of social context on language via use of linguistic data from Taiwan, but also demonstrates the exciting potential offered by bringing to Taiwan Studies the expertise of political linguistics and corpus cognitive linguistics.
Lai’s paper, ‘Imaging “Taiwanese” in East Asia: The Taiwanese intra-Asian idol dramas in the twenty-first century’, examines how ‘Taiwanese’ has been represented in the Taiwanese idol dramas that accepted funds and filming support from East Asia. The essay argues that the depictions of the Taiwanese in relation to non-Taiwanese characters are mainly determined by one factor: the self-other relationships in hard and soft power, which determine how the Taiwanese view the East Asians and how the latter view the former in return. Lai discovers that on the one hand, no particular hierarchical relation is depicted in the programmes. The positive representations of East Asian characters indicate that the Taiwanese idol drama industry needs the East Asian market. On the other hand, the national and cultural identity of the represented Taiwanese characters remains ambiguous. As the characters can be seen as ‘Taiwanese Chinese’ whose home is Taiwan, it minimises any potential political and cultural conflict for the audiences. In other words, the images of the ‘Taiwanese’ in these programmes have fulfilled the economic imperative of the idol drama industry.
The 2015 EATS Conference awarded Library Research Grants to three fascinating projects: Martin Boyle of Kent University for his research trip to the East Asian Library at the University of Leiden to research cross-strait policies; Sue Nguyen of Charles University in Prague for her study on ‘Sunﬂowers and Umbrellas: “Confucian Protest” in Taiwan and Hong Kong in 2014’ by consulting the SOAS Library; and Tzu-yu Lin of Edinburgh University, also for a trip to SOAS Library, to conduct research on ‘The Invisible Agents of Japanophone Taiwanese Literature’.
Finally, the strong performance of scholars based in East European institutions marked the third characteristic of the 2015 EATS Conference. As the table below indicates, West Europe remains dominant in the field of Taiwan Studies; researchers based in the UK, France, Germany and Austria collectively produced 31 papers at the Krakow convention. However, in recent years the number of accepted papers from East Europe has increased steadily. The number of papers from East Europe doubled since 2014. It is becoming apparent that East Europe is showing an increasingly strong interest in Taiwan Studies. As the 2016 EATS Conference will take place in Prague, this is a trend we may well observe.
Table 1: The number of papers accepted by EATS conferences according to geographic origin, 2004-2015
Dr Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley is Associate Fellow, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham and Research Associate, Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London. She is also the Secretary-General, European Association of Taiwan Studies. Image Credit: CC by Mark Kao/Flickr.