From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Fieldnotes From History (25)—Insecurity and Culture

[a] Tradition RF
Part of an occasional Round and Square series that follows the blog’s main theme (east meets west, round meets square, and past meets present), these snippets from my early fieldnotes are reproduced as they were written by hand—and then revised on an ancient desktop computer—during my first fieldwork stay in Taiwan (1985-1987).  All entries are the way that I left them when I returned to the United States in 1987—some nicely-stated and some embarrassing. Although the series began with my assumption that the entries can stand alone, I have found that separate comments and notes might help readers understand a world that is now, well, history. These are always separate from the original fieldnote.

[b] Replica RF
My assessment here is pretty harsh, but I could not shake the feeling, seven months into my stay, that "this" was an increasingly strange place. I read the English language newspapers, of course, and expected that there would be an international "tilt" that reminded readers of the Republic of China's place in the world. It was only when I started reading the Chinese newspapers, though, that I began to realize that this was not a surface issue only for expatriate consumption. No, something else was going on, and I would continue to explore it during the twenty months I lived on the island.
—"One-party" summed up the Republic of China quite well in 1985. By 1986 (as readers who continue with these posts will see), that situation was changing.
—The competition, if it can be called that, with what people routinely called "mainland China" (中國大陸), was far more intense in 1985 than it is today. Nixon's visit to China in 1972 and Carter's recognition of the People's Republic in 1978 were catastrophic events on Taiwan (especially the latter). 1985 was, in my own hindsight, a dividing line—a kind of last stand for the statement that Taiwan was the legitimate government of China (which was still printed in the 1986 Republic of China Annual (I picked up my copy in October of 1985).  
—Although I was not aware of it at the time, the miniature world of "Window on China" in Lungtan opened in the mid-1980s, just before I arrived. There, "China" can be found a 1/25 the size. I do not think it coincidental that such a park opened during the height of what I call "the insecurities." It was envisioned (more than a decade earlier), just as the international ground was moving in new directions; it opened during a time of cultural (and political) loss. It has become a very different kind of tourist attraction today, but so, too, have newspapers and television shows taken on a distinctly different tenor. Taiwan is a very different place today than it was in 1985.

26 November 1985
The more I write, the more I think that this place would be an excellent subject for a long article. Writers and journalists have rushed to the mainland to write first-hand accounts of life there. The contrast this place presents is revealing. Taiwan is filled with ironies. It is a tiny island that thinks, and wants the world to believe, it is China. It is a one-party democracy with little tolerance for criticism. It is a society with a capitalistic economy, but central economic planning and many government monopolies. It is a society, founded on agrarian values and Confucian concepts of propriety, that can’t understand why basic Chinese values are breaking down in the rush to modernize. 

Above all, it is a little place with an oversize inferiority complex. Taiwan (aka the Republic of China) apparently thinks that China’s problems are testimony, in reverse, to its own government and economic system. Their behavior, however, reveals a deep-rooted insecurity. They make national heroes of newspapermen, tennis players, and anticommunist scholars, but not because of their reporting, their tennis, or their scholarship. They are heroes because, sometimes inadvertently, they embarrass the People’s Republic of China. 

Obscure pro-Taiwan comments uttered by a city councilman in Panama City may find their way to the headlines of the China Times. The unofficial line of the Guomindang government is “be good to your friends.”  Among their friends are a number of countries not exactly revered in world circles: South Africa and El Salvador, among others. They are friends because they hate communism and have set up diplomatic relations here. The Republic of China is isolated in world diplomacy, and they’ll take what they can get. 
[c] Temple of Heaven (Taiwan) RF

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