Thursday, June 21, 2007

Japan Focus: Taiwan in the Chinese Imagination, 17-19th Century

Emma Teng, who has written an excellent book on Taiwan, discusses some aspects of it at JapanFocus:

The legacy of Qing imperialism for modern China has been profound: because the People's Republic of China (PRC) now claims sovereignty over virtually all the territory acquired by the last dynasty, the impact of Qing expansionism continues to be felt by the people of Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and other former frontier regions. Separatist ("splittist" in PRC jargon) movements in all these areas have met with staunch opposition from the Chinese state, which considers such lands inseparable parts of China's sacred territory. Hence, the PRC claims Taiwan--which was a Japanese colony between 1895 and 1945 and which has been ruled by a separate (and recently democratic) government as the Republic of China (ROC) since 1949--as "sovereign territory" that must be returned to the Chinese motherland with due speed. Ironically, the "territorial integrity" that Chinese nationalists seek to defend is based on a territorial image of "China" created by an invading Manchu dynasty, and not the older Ming image.

Of the former Qing frontiers, Taiwan is of particular interest because the question of the island's sovereignty in the postwar era remains unresolved and hotly contested: Is Taiwan de facto a "sovereign state," or is it, in the words of the U.S. media, a "renegade province" of China? [9] Taiwan's relationship to the PRC and the question whether Taiwan might officially declare independence were leading issues in the 2000 presidential race in Taiwan, and remain hot-button topics. In an attempt to influence the outcome of that election, the PRC issued a thinly veiled threat of force: "To safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and realize the reunification of the two sides of the straits, the Chinese government has the right to resort to any necessary means." [10] The "Taiwan issue" (involving arms sales to Taiwan) is the prickliest thorn in U.S.-China relations and has the potential to bring the two powers into armed conflict. [11] The geopolitical importance of Taiwan combined with Taiwan's emergence since 1987 as a "Chinese democracy" has contributed to the growth of Taiwan Studies as an important new field in Asia and the United States.
And on writing about Chinese colonialism:

Although the primary focus of Taiwan's Imagined Geography is the Qing construction of Taiwan's imagined geography, in writing this book I also hoped to challenge prevailing preconceptions of "the colonizer"and "the colonized"by examining a non-Western imperial power. The presumption that colonizers were European and the colonized non-European is deeply entrenched both inside and outside the academy. The very notion of studying "Chinese colonialism"thus seems alien to many. On more than one occasion, I have been asked: "What do you mean by "Chinese colonial travel writing'? Do you mean European colonial travel writing about China?"The idea that "imperialism" is essentially a Western phenomenon has also been reinforced by scholars of modern China's "postcoloniality,"who have tended to focus on China's historical experiences with Western imperialism while ignoring China's own history as an imperialist power. [13] This is due in no small part to the PRC's ardent denials that the Chinese were ever anything but victims of imperialism; hence official PRC discourse refers to Qing expansionism as "national unification,"and talk of "Chinese imperialism"is heresy. [14] I seek to remedy this situation by asserting that China's postcoloniality must also be understood in terms of the legacy of Qing expansionism.

The whole article is interesting; it opens with the diary of an early Qing official named Yu Yonghe who came to Taiwan in the late 17th century, more fully told in Out of China, Macabe Keliher's wonderful tale of his trip.

1 comment:

Jeremiah Jenne said...

I'm glad you posted this. We had to read Emma Teng for a seminar last year. She's part of a new-ish wave of Qing historians (Peter Perdue, James Millward, James Hevia) who are trying to 1) get away from a too simplistic Qing=China interpretation and 2) place the events of the Qing within the context of global colonialism and empire. As Teng and others have argued, the Qing Empire was an expansionist empire, whose territory is now claimed, somewhat uneasily, by the PRC and--at one time--also by the ROC.

It is not an accident that those territories brought under Qing control through expansion (Xinjiang, the Tibetan Plateau, Tibet) are the places and people giving the current regime such fits.

Did western imperialism have destructive and negative consequences for the Qing and the people of what is today China? Absolutely. But this doesn't mean that the Qing themselves were not also actively engaged in their own imperialist agenda, the effects of which still play an important role in the geopolitics of today.

Thanks for posting this.