Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fallows on "Taiwanese" Soft Power

James Fallows, longtime reporter and commentator, writes on NextMedia Animation:
In the most recent of my frequent paeans to Next Media Animation of Taiwan, I mentioned that the relatively small population of Taiwan was enjoying considerable creative and pop culture influence now -- especially compared with mainland China -- with resulting "soft power" benefits for Taiwan in general. (The latest NMA animation, by the way, is about the pending SF ban on circumcision.) A reader with a Chinese name has an explanation...
The "reader's" explanation sounded plausible but the final two lines should set off your alarm bells as to what desires are shaping his interpretations.

More interesting question: just what the heck is Taiwanese soft power anyway? Is NMA an example of it?

NMA is owned by Jimmy Lai from Hong Kong and is a company from outside Taiwan. Its world-renowned animations are on popular topics in the west and the animations that become famous do not introduce local political or cultural stuff to the outside world. To the extent that it raises Taiwan's image in the world it represents a positive force, but I'm hesitant to label it Taiwanese soft power. It is more like a typical innovative Taiwan OEM operation that happens to produce animations rather than electronics. In that sense it is quality-manufacturing-as-soft power in the way that our world-famous bike and electronics and machinery industries are soft power.

Where does Taiwan's soft power reside? In the millions of Taiwanese who travel, study, live and work outside Taiwan. In the experience of people who come here and fall in love with the place. In the export of things like bubble tea. In second generation locals of Taiwanese descent all over the world. In our excellent manufacturing reputation. In our historical links to outside colonizers.

Fallows' reader points to the cross-pollination of the popular entertainment industry in Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China. Pop entertainment in those cultures is largely the same shallow artificial construct of cash, song formulas, and plastic surgery. Is the effect of pop culture NMA as powerful as, say, daily interaction with the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese who live overseas or the thousands of small- and medium-sized businesses who act as suppliers to the global supply chain? Where would you locate Taiwanese soft power?
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums! Delenda est, baby.


Anonymous said...

Is bubble tea really Taiwanese (as in, exclusively Taiwanese, rather than something from Southern China/Taiwan)? There are lots of places which sell 'tapioca drinks' (which, aside from the fact that they occasionally substitute the tea with fruit juice, are basically the same a bubble tea) in California, generally in stores run by Cantonese-speaking Chinese-Americans. I suppose it's possible that it was invented in Taiwan and later became popular in the Cantonese-speaking world.


Anonymous said...

Honestly, I don't know anything interesting/remarkable coming out of Taiwan. Japan, China, even Korea is far far more interesting in these matters.

Herman said...

I've been seeing this phrase "soft power" in the newspaper for about half a year now. I though it was an expression coined by some Westerners. Some syndicated Chinese newspapers picked it up and then people started to use this term. I just saw the animation about oil, in the FREQUENT PAEANS link, and I have to say, wow, this soft power is something else. It's as good as Doonesbury.

Casting political connotations aside, I see "soft power" correspond to a traditional Chinese philosophy called "Taoism." Some understand Taoism from I-Ching, the fortune divination of hexagrams. Some know it from the concept of Yin-yang, or Chi, or Chi-Gong (the three are not exactly related). In the original text "Tao Te Ching" by the founder of Taoism, he stated at the very beginning, "the word 'Tao' is not the real Tao, and it is not 'the way' that you typically hear about." In some commentaries it is explained as "'Tao' cannot be described or explained. Yet, as we attempt to described it, we have to come up with a concocted name or example. So we use the word 'Tao'." In English, this corresponds to situation of "the map is not the territory", or "the flag is not the country," or "the name of a person is not that person himself".

Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, used water as an example for "Tao" in serveral passages in Tao-de Ching. Water is soft and yielding. It flows to low levels and adapts itself into whatever constricting environment it's in. Yet it can destroy obstacles in its path as tsunami and flood can.

"Soft power", like anything else, has meaning only when you put it in some context. So, in the context of "why do you like Taiwan?" Suppose the answer is night-market or food, then those two items can be called the soft power of Taiwan attraction.

Food, I learned from an authentic Chinese scholar, Mr. Lin Yu-tang, counts for half of Chinese cultures. This is the quintessential Chinese soft power. If China wants to conquer the world with hard power like guns and bullets, we know everybody who's not Chinese wants to stop China. But if China wants to conquer the world with soft powers like money and Chinese cuisines, well then, what's your chance against it in the long run? Some Chinese/Taiwanese businessmen/factory owners don't understand soft power. They gave in to the temptations of big profits and ordered the use of cheap poisonous additives into their food products. Soft power works for the long run. Hard power aims for quick return. A bit like what Yoda said about how the Darkside differ from the Force: the Darkside is quicker.

I'm interested in topics like "how can people have decent living standards without having to exploit other people and the environment to the point of destructiveness?", or "can we live sustainably?" If you have ideas on devising realistic "soft power" to tackle such problems, I'd be so glad to hear them.

Okami said...

TO paraphrase Stalin: How many divisions does this soft power have?

Long time reader and sometimes anon commenter said...

Next Media Animations are done in Taiwan because 1) they have the animation / CGI talent 2) they have the bilingual talent to write the hilarious scripts.

Taiwan is uniquely a multiethnic democracy in East Asia. What other country can make that claim? Japan and Korea are too nationalistic and homogeneous. China is not so homogeneous but it's neither democratic nor stable nor environmentally livable let alone "friendly" (financial talent often refuses to live in China just based on air quality). I guess Thailand and Singapore are democracies. Sort of.

In the long-term, Taiwan is economically advanced yet culturally and politically interesting (in a modern way, not the mystical 5000 year history bullshit) and in the long run it's where world-class talent will want to live and despite my misgivings about the educational system here at times, yes even raise their kids.

Herman said...

Ah, a joke. Very good Soft Power.

Detective Wang (Peter Sellers) of the fortune cookie school says: "The Answer very simple. The Question ... very difficult." Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) of the Maltese Falcon school says: "This could only mean one thing. And I don't know what it is."

Dixteel said...

Taiwan has a lot of unique and interesting aspects in terms of soft power, as LTRSAC pointed out. It is in a lot of things that you cannot just see with eyes and quantify with numbers, you have to experience it.

But IMO, soft power is a bit overrated. If you don't have the hard power (be it economic capability, infrastructure, sufficient military and functional government) to back it up, soft power means absolutely nothing. It is like a computer. You can have hardware without software, but you cannot have software without hardware. You need both to have a useful computer, and they are both important.

Furthermore, in terms of soft power, it depends a lot on personal preference. For example, a lot of people like Japanese comic and anime, but a lot of people don't like them.

So I agree that Taiwan needs to continue support an environment that foster and encourage soft power development, but don't forget hard power.

OzSoapbox said...

What do you mean Taiwan has multiethnicity, 99.9% of everyone here is Asian!

The fact that people from overseas (regardless of how long you've lived here) are universally reffered to and grouped as foreigners and not by their designated country of origin (Australian, American, English etc.) shows Taiwan has a long way to go before multiethnicity is sizeable enough in society.

That and the fact that people stare at you like you have some sort of horrible disease and don't belong.

Claiming Taiwan is multiethnic is laughable (and please don't go on about Han vs. everyone else - Asian is Asian).

Anonymous said...


That is just like Aborigines. They only formed a group identity after sharing an experience in dealing with the ROC government as "other" or "different".

This simply makes us Taiwan's ethnic foreigners as we are forced to interact with the ROC government as the same kind of people.

David said...

Ozsoapbox, Asia is vast continent. The diverse peoples that live on it are not of a single ethnicity.

Dixteel said...

Actually, OzSoupBox, that's one thing I don't like about North America, is the way people categorize people in large ethnicity group like "Asian." It leads to stereotyping etc. Plus, there are actually differences (and sometimes huge differences) between people in different Asian countries. So personally I don't actually like the "multi-ethnicity" term or policy because then all you see is skin colors, not the fine difference and details of different cultures.

SoCalExpat said...

85c is Taiwan's most powerful soft power. It has already blitzkrieged big mainland cities like Shanghai and left the chicom pastry shops gasping for life. 85c is now poised to invade the USA.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, why are some people so uneducated about ethnicities. You call everyone in Taiwan "Asian", yet I can tell the difference between Hakkas and Minnan, especially the women. Not every individual of course, but significantly beyond random.

Let's put aside appearance and talk about language. The linguistic distance between Hakka and Taiwanese is GREATER than that between Italian and Spanish. For Aboriginal languages, 12 of the 13 Polynesian linguistic BRANCHES are in Taiwan. What do you think the distance between the Sinitic languages and Polynesian languages is?

These are groups of people that have fought several wars against each other over the last 400 years. You call them all "Asian" yet they can tell the differences amongst each other and were less 100 years ago quite adamant about those differences.

It's good that there are unifying cultural and political experiences now and that they for the most part all live in peace. But man, calling them all simply "Asian"... Tell me, what scientific evidence can you show me that there even exists an "Asian" ethnicity?

OzSoapbox said...

At the end of the day you can squabble about how proficient you are at discerning the various minotiry ethnicities that live in Taiwan that nobody outside of Taiwan cares about.

But the fact remains that 98% of the population in Taiwan are Han Chinese.

Ergo Taiwan is not a multiethnicity society, the minorities are just too small to be of a sizeable factor. Just take a look at the political remarks made against Aborigines last week completely dismissing them.

Statistically yes, there are different ethnicities living here, but functionally Taiwan is a mono-ethnic society, and that's what counts.

I'm not trying to dismiss the different cultures in Asia as obviously their different. But lets not pretend the populations living in the region don't share distinct similar biological traits.

If you dropshipped a random person from Asia into the middle of Africa, America, Europe etc. and asked what ethnicity they were what answer do you think you're going to get?

Anonymous said...

If Taiwan is multi-ethnic then so is China... I would say, that while Hakka, Minnan, etc. are certainly different, the bigger Chinese/Taiwanese/Huaren (whatever you want to call it) identity allows to subsume 99% of the people. So yes, there is a qualitative difference between "ethnicity" that still allows the individual to blend in with the majority and "ethnicity" (think of Welsh, Irish, British) and one that completely locks you out from the majority (in Taiwan only the really Aboriginee Aboriginee..., skin color in the US, etc.).

Anonymous said...

I would wager that those scripts are written by expat Americans.

The CGI work is interesting, but its not what sells the product to Americans.

Anonymous said...


Can you please define Han Chinese without inserting political ideology... and then read a little more about the construction of the Han Chinese ethnic identity and that 98% figure. It is not as concrete and indisputable as you present it. Read some Dru Gladney. Basically... it is a bullshit idea created to suit modern Chinese nationalism. tsk tsk!!

Anonymous said...

Here you go Oz. Start on page 81.

Anonymous said...

I'm with OzSoapbox on this one. Taiwan is not multiethnic. The percentage of Han Chinese outweighs everyone else by so far that their values dominate almost every conceivable social situation.

Dixteel said...

OzSoupBox, a lot of people including me would agree with you that Taiwan is not multi-ethnicity society. And it does not have to be to have strong soft power. It might become one and it might not, but it is not something that is important. As long as Taiwan continue to keep and improve free flow of information, cultural exchange etc, it would be fine.

But you do have some small points that I think is disputable:
1. 98% Han Chinese: this is not accurate and disputable. A lot of Taiwanese have aboriginal blood etc, and a lot of people who don't think they are aboriginals actually are (this is messed up due to Qing Dynasty's sinolization program and the later Imperial Japan's governing). And the term "han Chinese" is not well defined.
2. remarks against aboriginals: these are made by one KMT politician. A similar poor remarks was made by KMT Ma a few years ago as well actually. These remarks are not just political, but racist, and they caused quite an outrage in Taiwan. I am quite certain most people in Taiwan do not agree with him.
3. Your final question: I think it really depends. For example, I think if the person is Filipino, he/she will actually say Filipino, not Asian. Similarly, Japanese usually will say they are Japanese. But I think more often people ask " where are you from?" or "which country are you from?" not "what ethnicity" etc, don't they?

OzSoapbox said...


Can you please define Han Chinese without inserting political ideology...

Sure. What 99.9% of people in China and Taiwan look like.

and then read a little more about the construction of the Han Chinese ethnic identity and that 98% figure.

The technical aspects are irrelevant. To the world at large this is what they see when they come here and for those of us living here (not just on a holiday) it's the daily reality.

Not saying it's good or bad, but there's definitely stuff all variety of people living in Taiwan ethnicity wise.


98% Han came from Wikipedia. Personally I don't care what blood you have in you but more what you look like.

It's like those nutjobs in Australia that identify as Aboriginal despite having some ridiculous fraction of Aboriginal blood (1/16th or lower) and looking as white as they come.

Nobody is ever going to look at them and think 'yeah, Aboriginal'.

Bloodwise it might be inaccruate, but feature wise it's dead on. The amount of people who don't look Asian living in Taiwan is negligible.

remarks against aboriginals

The fact that this isn't the first time speaks volume.

And as for outrage, can't have been that great if they just went and did it again.

From Turton's commentary it sounds as if despite being rubbished by the KMT they're still going to overwhelmingly throw their support by them.

If aboriginals had any societal, political or cultural clout in Taiwanese society do you think a political party is going to get away with comments such as those made by the KMT?

They get away with it because non-Han people don't exist in Taiwanese society. They're (like us) all on the outside.

As for 3. Mate, you're delusional if you think your average European/American/Australian et al. can pick a Phillipino or Indonesian without asking them.

99 times out of 100 you're just going to get 'yeah they're Asian', which drives home my point about ethnicity.

It wasn't so much about how the people of those countries identify themselves as how the world at large classifies their ethnicity (purely on looks).

Dixteel said...

OzSoapbox, you have some valid points. However,

The KMT official did get punished, but not severely enough IMO, and I think a lot of people are not satisfied with it. In this area, Taiwan does need improvement, but it is not like people don't care.

Certainly you cannot tell people's background simply by looking at them. I cannot tell Germany from Spanish neither, etc. But it is often good to know others' background. For example, when you are doing business with others, it might be good to know this type of things because they do make a difference. Hence I don't like putting people in large ethnicity group, especially simply by look, because at best it is pointless, at worst it can offend others.

Anonymous said...

A lot of stuff above is mildly racist and recklessly ignorant at best...

OzSoapbox said...


Knowing definitely and myself I do try to find out where the people are from that I meet in my travels.

I was getting more at the fact people can't tell the difference without asking and simply label a great deal of Asians as 'Asian' if asked.

I too don't like grouping people into large ethnicity groups. I always refer to people as where they come from (American, Taiwanese, Japanese etc.).

The irony of course being that in Taiwan where I come from is irrelevant, I'm just another foreigner who doesn't belong.


Yes, yes... and ignorant and xenophobic and offensive and, come's the PC brigade, choo choo!

Shame someone is always ready with the R word whenever ethnicity is discussed.