Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book Review: The Politics of Locality: Making a Nation of Communities in Taiwan

My close friend Drew strikes a pose in front of the old market in Hsiluo.

The Politics of Locality: Making a Nation of Communities in Taiwan
Lu Hsin-yi
2002, Routledge,164pp

People often view Taiwan as a former colonized territory that must be fashioned into a nation, but it would be more accurate, as Lu Hsin-yi does in the excellent The Politics of Locality: Making a Nation of Communities in Taiwan, to say that Taiwan is a collection of localities in search of a nation. In this book Lu tells the story of the burgeoning of "the local" in the narrative of Taiwan nationalism since the end of martial law, and of how "the local" is constructed and constructs itself in the search for the authentic core of a sustainable Taiwan nationalist narrative.

A slim book at just 164 pages, it nevertheless contains a meaty and idea-dense explication of The Local in the context of Taiwan nationalism. There are six chapters, but the core is three studies of community projects and community in Tanshui, I-lan, and Baimi, a small town south of Suao on the east coast. Two chapters on nationalism, community, and local culture front the book, and the final chapter weaves the disparate threads of the local narratives into an insightful discussion of Taiwan, communities, and nationalism.

In Taiwan, Lu narrates, the growth of the local, and local communities, grew out of the democratization of the island after the lifting of martial law and the resultant explosion of interest in the local. Taiwan culture, long suppressed by the KMT, was deliberately opposed to the faux, idealized, Chinese culture brought from China by the retreating mainlanders. The KMT deployed that culture in an attempt to destroy the local, even changing the street names to reflect places in China, thus burying much local history. But the renaissance in things Taiwanese led to a massive shift in the cultural pattern, as Mandarin became devalued in favor of Taiwanese. Taiwanese folk art and artists were rediscovered and celebrated. Even in the antique market, Chinese high culture was superseded by a preference for local collectibles.

The Taiwanization movement of the 1990s owes much to the deliberate policy of Lee Teng-hui to build local culture as a way to encourage Taiwan nation building. In 1993 Lee Teng-hui began to promote the idea of Taiwan as a "living community" (shengming gongtongti) and the idea of communal sentiment (gongtongti yishi). In 1994 the Integrated Community-Making Program was begun by the Council on Cultural Affairs. This was followed by a proliferation of culture workers in the local communities, the development of Taiwan studies as a discipline, and textbook reform. Community organizations mushroomed.

Lu then moves on to discuss the individual cases. Tanshui, familiar to most every foreigner in Taiwan, underwent extensive urbanization in the late 1980s that did grave damage to the city's historical sites. In 1990 the Hobei Cultural and Historical Society was established in the city, becoming a model for other non-governmental historical societies around the island. Lu focuses on many of the debates, including the struggle over widening of a major artery along the river. She also gives background on the political factions that dominate the town, providing a glimpse into how Taiwan used to be run:

"There were two major pai (factions) in Tanshui -- Li pai and Chen pai, which have been archenemies ever since the first township election in 1951. Traditionally the KMT would alternate its nomination between the two factions in each township election. In 1981, however, the KMT decided to skip the nomination process and let the two factions compete against each again in KMT's nomination process. According to the old logic, Chen pai would get the nomination as Li pai had ruled the town for 8 years. The Li faction objected, however. Their reason was that they didn't get any help from the KMT in the past two elections as the elections were open and no one was nominated. Therefore the KMT owed them a nomination this time." (p70-1)

The article goes on to discuss how when a Chen pai member was picked because of his better education, the Li faction was enraged and township councilman from the Li faction boycotted many of his innovative projects. Eventually the opponents of his projects successfully sued him and got him suspended from the mayorship. Many of the projects petered out or were defeated by developmentalists who had far more political power than the preservationists, a common pattern in Taiwan.

I-lan, where community building began earlier under the brilliant administration of Chen Ding-nan, and Baimi are also discussed in minute detail.

This is an incredibly useful and insightful book that will repay close study, far too thick with ideas and observations to even begin to touch in a small review like this. I highly recommend it. Often gems are hidden in the footnotes, like the observation that college students in Taiwan join student associations from their hometowns when they travel to the university -- thus taking their locality with them wherever they go. Lu closes it with what is practically an epitaph for community development in Taiwan....

"Zhuang's remark characterized an ironic facet of Taiwan's contemporary community making program: that this supposedly grassroots-oriented project was initiated by the central government, directed by governmental workers and planners, and financed mostly by governmental subsidy. In Biami's case, for example,the community has received over ten million NT of subsidy (US$30,000) to development its unprofitable wooden clog industry. A major proportion of the funding, it should be noted, was used to support a unique profession of "community planners;" they were mostly young professionals who worked closely with certain communities. Although not residing in those neighborhoods, they often took charge of the community affairs (especially cultural events), wrote grant proposals, and occasionally made organizational decisions for the residents."(p165)

With the KMT in power everywhere, what will happen to attempts to build community-based nationalism in Taiwan?

1 comment:

Melissa said...

Another author I would highly recommend is Yuan-tsung Chen of "Return to the Middle Kingdom". As engrossing as any historical novel I’ve ever read, this book is a must for anyone who wants to understand the origin of Modern China.