From Round to Square (and back)

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Fieldnotes From History (58)—Provincial Elections-s

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Fieldnotes From History."
[a] Glimpse RF
Click below for other fieldnotes dealing with Taiwan's 1985 provincial elections:
Election 1         Election 2          Election 3          Election 4          Election 5          Election 6
Election 7         Election 8          Election 9          Election 10        Election 11        Election 12
Election 13       Election 14        Election 15        Election 16        Election 17        Election 18
Election 19       Election 20
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.

The next several dozen entries in this series represent my memories—in the form of fieldnotes that were already well on their way to being letters—of Taiwan's provincial elections in November 1985. I had taken down what I call "jottings" at the time, and "now," two months later, I was ready to get a little bit more detail down in the form of fieldnotes. If you are somewhat unfamiliar with the five-stage process that framed my work habits even back then, it might be worth a quick look at the introduction to this series. Suffice to say here that in Taiwan in 1985 I was working from "jottings" to "fieldnotes" most of the time. Every month or so, I would write a letter that made it all into a more sustained narrative. Even early on, I realized how powerfully the knowledge that I would be writing letters influenced my fieldnotes. You may see it, too. It has remained my method to this day.

[b] Sustained RF
Like many fieldnotes, these were "written up" (a term I dislike, but am occasionally willing to use) after the fact. I wonder if most students of anthropology know how common this is. The implications for research, eye-witness authenticity, and historiography are numerous. It is a reality that has never gone away for field researchers of all kinds, though, and I suspect that it never will. 

Again, I wince at the conflation of "Confucian" and "traditional Chinese" here. Almost three decades ago it was easy for me to think of these terms as unproblematic. Today, I would try to express such ideas with a little more nuance. Here is one of the ways I would express that nuance: while it is absolutely true that patience with criticism was never the strong suit of Chinese imperial governments or most Chinese political thinkers, there is an exception. The concept of remonstrance (諫), which I have now studied for twenty years, addresses some of the weaknesses that traditional "Confucian" thought has with regard to critique. This is not to say that it provides for anything like a sustained engagement between government policy and opposed perspectives. It should be part of the larger discussion of politics in the Chinese tradition, though.

The goals of prosperity and harmony should prick the ears of any readers familiar with China today. The verb "to harmonize" has been used to withering effect by critics of this very perspective on government. And even though I think that the next-to-last sentence in the first paragraph of the fieldnote is a bit overstated, there can be little doubt that the step toward organized, competing factions (parties) was different in kind from most approaches to statecraft in Chinese history. Just look at the thirty-plus provinces on the other side of the Strait of Taiwan.

[c] Open RF
The most interesting thing about these sentences for me is the reference to "emotional ties." I don't remember when I thought of that, but I suspect that it came out of discussions I was having with a classmate from Carleton who was at that time doing fieldwork for her dissertation on the emotional life of the Welsh. Our letters, back and forth, deepened my perspectives on these matters, and I think it is fair to say even today that emotional passion and politics strike many people in the Chinese speaking world as unseemly. This is precisely why some people in and beyond China still speak with derision of Taiwan's (the ROC's) move toward direct elections at all levels. The televised fights in parliament and city hall give as much fuel to those on the side of "benevolence and strength" as the messiness of participation does to people arguing for a more open process.

[1] The Republic of China still saw itself in 1985 as a bulwark against Communism. Although the intensity of the "Free China" rhetoric had diminished in other parts of the world, anti-Communism was alive in Taiwan when I was there. That is why I make the specific mention to the Guomindang goal of abolishing Communism in this note. Positives such as prosperity and harmony were fine, but the rooting out of dangerous ideology (as Guomindang leaders saw it) was just as important. This is a new twist on a centuries-old political argument.

16 February 1986
Confucian political philosophy does not especially concern itself with minority interests and equal representation. It also has little patience with criticism of government policy. From Confucius onward, the Chinese view of the relation between ruler and ruled was based upon the view that the ruler represented a moral force intent upon attaining a single goal: establishing a prosperous and harmonious society. To prosperity and harmony, Taiwan’s Guomindang elite would add the abolition of Communism. Still, the very idea of competing interests with vastly different views at all levels of government is antithetical to Confucian political philosophy. When push comes to shove, the masses defer to their leaders.

Traditional Chinese political philosophy stresses that the relationship between a leader and follower should not be based upon emotional ties—the kind of ties all too easily created by an electoral process. Confucianism has no time for demagogues. Taiwan’s Guomindang elite fears demagogues—from separatists to Communists—and they fear the role elections may have in encouraging them. This is the crux of the problem behind the plan to open the energies of the island's people, and one of the main reasons why the party is wary of the process. 
[d] Wary RF

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