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Politicians in the Republic of China

Politicians in the Republic of China

Jonathan Sullivan08 Oct 2014Leave a comment


Written by Alex Calvo.

Tilman Aretz, Politicians in the Republic of China 中華民國人物百科: Register and Explanations (Taipei, 2014).

The advent of the Internet is prompting an intense debate on the future of books and other printed materials. While there are many who claim that the pleasure of reading a novel or history book in paper will always prevail over the convenience and savings of an electronic version, not many would argue along the same lines when it comes to reference books. Actually, they are often seen as prime targets for a wholesale move to the digital domain, with proponents of such action often citing, among other reasons, easy updating and the fact that these are not works people read for pleasure or to gain a foothold on a discipline, but rather to simply check a fact or find some details.

Thus, the first question that comes to mind when reviewing the second edition of “Politicians in the Republic of China 中華民國人物百科: Register and Explanations” is whether we really need a traditional paper book listing all sorts of office holders, election results, government departments, and the like since that is basically what the book is about. The answer is yes, we do, and the reason is that while this may what this book is mainly about, it is certainly not what it is just about. Such lists may take up the bulk of the text, but they are accompanied by concise but very well-written introductions to each topic. For example before listing the ROC presidents and their terms, the book (pages 27-28) provides an overview of the powers of the office, its significance in the island’s political system, and the election and succession rules. This is followed by a look at the most important agencies under the presidency.

This approach means that, although for some readers the book may simply be a source of concrete details for their writing and research, for many others it can provide a brief yet comprehensive introduction to the constitutional and political system of the Republic of China, both in its early era where it ruled China and after coming to be identified with the Island of Taiwan. I must confess that when I purchased a copy I did so with the former role in mind, but ended up reading the whole work from end to end. This allowed me to learn many interesting details about the political history of the ROC and Taiwan. Since many of the ROC’s government agencies, offices, and posts, have been reorganized (or even appeared and disappeared) in the more than a century covered by the book, the text makes an effort (and succeeds) at guiding the reader through what may otherwise be an incomprehensible jungle. It covers in some detail, for example, the Taiwan Garrison Command and the Planning Commission for the Recovery of the Mainland, which no longer exist. The National Assembly is also covered in some depth. While the book, as the name makes clear, is written from a ROC-centric perspective, its pages reflect very well the gradual (and still incomplete) transition from Chinese government in exile to Taiwanese national government. It is not something directly addressed but which can be read in between lines as one goes through the text.

Another advantage of the book, and one which will make the book particularly useful to both legal and politics scholars and students of Chinese is the comprehensive translation of original terms. This goes as far as covering the different transliterations of a given name when more than one is used. The text also provides a bilingual version of all sorts of place names, and, for example, of the questions in the different referenda held in Taiwan. For scholars well versed in Chinese this can be very helpful when it comes to ensure consistency in writings. For those still learning the language it can be an opportunity to gain useful vocabulary, and provides an added incentive to read the explanatory sections.

While mainly dealing with domestic institutions, “Politicians in the Republic of China” does not ignore foreign relations. Thus it includes, among others, a very useful list (pages 129-132) of countries recognizing the ROC (noting all changes and recognition switches between the PRC and the ROC). Once again this is accompanied with a brief but up to the point explanation of Taiwan’s international status and foreign affairs, which includes for example a useful comparison with the two Germanies. Lists of ambassadors and equivalent figures is limited to the US and Japan.

Also covered are the different referenda, both national and local, held in Taiwan since 2004 (pages 281-287), with not just the questions as explained above but a breakdown of results and an explanation of the rules. Another section I found particularly interesting was that devoted to the “Secessionist states on ROC territory before 1945” (pages 288-290), covering a wide assortment of entities, from the well known Manchukuo (1932-1945) and Chinese Soviet Republic (1931-1937) to those non-specialists may not be that familiar with, such as Mengkiang (1936-1945).

The main sources employed by the author include the Republic of China Yearbooks, the Directory of Taiwan (published by “Taiwan News”, formerly “China News”), different ROC Government websites, the ROC Central Election Commission, and a number of Taiwanese newspapers. When key details were not publicly available he wrote directly to the relevant government agency.

To sum it up, this book can be seen as a combination of a reference guide to the political system of the ROC and Taiwan, providing extensive lists of office holders and other details, and an introduction to that political system, with an explanation of its main entities and government agencies and an overview of their evolution over time. It shows how, by providing added value in the form of myriad explanations, one can turn what would otherwise be a useful but dry collection of facts into a much more useful product appealing to a wider range of audiences.

The author, Tilman Aretz, is a German sinologist who keeps a “China-Taiwan Blog and Database” and is based in Taiwan, where he works for the Foreign Affairs Ministry. He has previously written The Greater China Factbook (2007, Taiwan Elite Press, Taipei).

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his academic work is accessible here.

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