A Century of Development in Taiwan: From Colony to Modern State

Edwin Pietersma

The combined scholarship published in A Century of Development in Taiwan: From Colony to Modern State is a well-timed overview of – and introduction to – the changes and challenges faced by Taiwan in the past and in contemporary times. Or, as China scholar Edward Friedman shares in the Foreword: “Learning about Taiwan has led me to re-think history.”

After the introduction (Part I), the book is divided into four thematic parts: identity, politics, and international relations (Part II); economic development (Part III); societal and educational development (Part IV); and literature and cultural development in Taiwan (Part V). It consists of 14 chapters,[i] all written by prominent scholars in the field of Taiwanese and Chinese studies. Evenly divided among the four parts, the chapters provide a critical review of “the evolution of socio-cultural, economic, and national identity since the enlightenment movement in 1920s” (p. 3). In Part II, June Dreyer provides an overview of the international relations and politics of Taiwan in the post-war period and how this has led to its current status. Yi-Shen Chen shows in his chapter how Taiwan gained its ambiguous status today via treaties and changes in 1951, 1971, and 1991. Following this, Lung-Chich Chang discusses the role of indigenous communities in the creation of a new Taiwan-centered subjectivity, as interpreted by historical scholarship. In addition, Shiau-Chi Shen shows how polls reveal the emergence of a “civic Taiwanese identity” (p. 84) after the 1980s.

In Part III, Frank Hsiao discusses how the Taiwanese economy was staged and developed as a specific policy of the Japanese colonial government. Peter Chow seems to continue this by discussing how the ripple effect of Japanese industrialization combined with the turn to the United States in the post-war period, characterizing Taiwanese economic development as “learning by export” (p. 156). The article written by Hong-Jen Lin discusses how banking and the New Taiwan dollar – originally a colonial invention and the national currency since 2000 – exemplify changes in the official international status of Taiwan and are heavily subjected to national (identity) politics.

Part IV focuses on societal and educational developments in Taiwan. Here, Hsin-Huang Hsiao identifies how Taiwan needs to be regarded as a constantly “self-mobilized society” between 1920-1937 and between 1975-2020 (p. 198). The chapter by Wan-Yao Chou compares how the colonial government of Japan and the so-called “KMT/ROC party-state” of 1949-1997 educated the Taiwanese youth in national identity, history, and ethics.[ii] Here, she shows how the Japanese colonial government invoked a difference between country (Taiwan) and nation (Japan) and used the setting of Taiwan to invoke Japanese nationalism, while the KMT-regime omitted Taiwan in their reinterpretation of history to strengthen national Chinese consciousness. Lastly, Doris Chang discusses how the colonial system educated Taiwanese girls. This, in turn, provided a catalyst for women to fight for more representation, resulting in Taiwan having the highest position in Asia in terms of women’s rights.

In the last part (Part V), the focus is on literature and cultural development. Here, we have Yin-Chen Kang discussing how Chinese and Japanese theaters developed in Taiwan between the 1920s and 1960s. She shows how the political situation determines theater: the decline in the 1920s led to a Japanized modernization, but the emergence of TV and the suppression of these colonialized forms of theater by the KMT led to its permanent decline. The chapter by Jasmine Chen focuses on a similar topic – namely, the development of Taiwanese opera as a hybrid performance in Taiwan and an example of nostalgia for the Japanese past, which managed to survive in Taiwan despite the suppression of the KMT. Yeh’s chapter discusses the development and current status of modern literature, showing the complexity of this history by discussing the silencing of Taiwanese authors during the KMT-period, the return to Chinese cultural roots in the 1970s, and the redirection to repressed history from the 1980s onwards. The last article – written by Shih – discusses the appreciation of Taiwanese literature embedded in the discourse of Taiwanese identity and political status through the case study of the life of Taiwanese activist Chiang Wei-Shui (1890-1931) and the interpretation of his work in the post-war period.

As the discussion above shows, this collection of essays is rich in material and approaches to the modern history of Taiwan. It provides a fascinating, in-depth account of 100 years of history and complexity. For this reason alone, scholars cannot ignore this work. At the same time, however, articles rarely interact with each other. This is a shame, as many articles touch upon similar issues and tropes – e.g., Kominka or Japanization, development, and identity politics. This makes information redundant at times, given that several articles touch upon very similar topics that could benefit greatly from each other. All of the chapters assume the 1920s as a starting point, described by Chow as the “turning point when Taiwanese intellectuals started to promote the unique enlightenment campaign” (p. xix), which Masahiro Wakabayashi describes as the intellectual spirit that would pressure and manipulate the colonial government, as well as a starting point of ‘decolonization’ of Taiwan (p. xvii-xx). Beyond this, there is little discussion of this starting point, which would have aided with comparing Taiwan to other Japanese colonies at the time (e.g., Korea). This also applies to other key concepts, such as the Japanization or Kominka movement. These topics, however, deserve critical analysis and discussion on their own. In addition, it requires readers to have quite some background knowledge about Taiwan, making the book linger between an introductory work and a collection of essays for specialized readers.

In conclusion, this work does not help us to re-think Taiwanese history, but rather provides scholars with information that can help us to support arguments in a more theoretical or ideological sense. All chapters are strong individually and are helpful for both beginning and more advanced scholars. They also provide a lot of factual and background information. Therefore, we can expect this book to be a prominent source of help in the field: not necessarily as a way to rethink Taiwan, but as a rich source for a specialized understanding.


[i] This excludes the introduction written by Chow.

[ii] The debate about Taiwan politically is often subjected to ideological understandings of Taiwan. Notably, most authors withhold from making any strong statements, focusing instead on factual representations of Taiwan’s ambiguous status. One of the few authors who strongly advocates their opinion in favor or against is Chou, who is known in her work to be a critic of the KMT.