Monday, March 13, 2017

Taiwan: A Political History

Taiwan: A Political History
by Denny Roy

I'm trying to read more books about Taiwan, alternating between fiction and non-fiction. Denny Roy’s history is the latest one I've completed.

I’ve lived in Taiwan for a decade. I already knew the broad outlines of this land’s history. But this was the first time I read a survey of Taiwan’s post-1945 political history. I figured it was time I learned more, and indeed I did learn a lot from Roy’s book. Now, the book is not for the novice with no preexisting knowledge of Taiwanese history. Denny Roy tends to move back and forth through the decades, expecting his reader to already know the political progression from the elder Chiang to the younger Chiang to Lee to Chen. But if you’re moderately familiar with the basics, this is an informative look at Taiwanese politics from 1945 to 2003, when the book was published.

I write “from 1945 to 2003” even though the book is billed as covering the full scope of Taiwanese history. In reality, everything prior to 1895 is covered in twenty pages. The fifty years of Japanese rule, 1895 to 1945, receive another twenty-two pages. The remainder of the book’s 246 pages are devoted to the ROC era. This is fine -- there is certainly a lot to say about Taiwan under the ROC, and the starting chapters do provide necessary historical context for what comes after -- but the reader should be aware that this is not a comprehensive source of material about Taiwan before 1945.

In fact, I was a bit frustrated with the coverage of early Taiwanese history. On page 21, Roy writes of “a total of 159 sizable rebellions during the period of Qing rule, including three particularly large ‘Great Rebellions’ in 1714, 1787, and 1833”. He then goes on to describe an uprising in 1721 in which rebels seized control of a large portion of Taiwan, forcing the government to flee to mainland China. If this doesn’t qualify as a ‘Great Rebellion’, some truly epic uprisings must have been cut for space! On page 22 two rebellions are briefly described as taking place in 1786 and 1832; Roy never mentions one that happens anytime close to 1714.

Fortunately, Roy’s coverage of the 1945 to 2003 era is interesting and informative, and filled in several gaps in my knowledge of Taiwanese political history, about which I do not claim to be an expert.

To take one example, I noted a recurring theme where the ROC’s stubbornness decades ago contributed to the country’s present-day international status. It was the ROC that took Taiwan out of the United Nations: even when Chiang Kai-shek came to accept a PRC presence in the UN, he couldn’t bear the indignity of the PRC taking his place on the Security Council, and so Taiwan quit in a huff when the PRC was admitted in 1971. (p. 134-135) Similarly, there was a time when Beijing would enter into full diplomatic relations with countries that recognized Taipei, without demanding that these nations break relations with them. They didn’t need to -- Taipei would be so angered at the perceived disrespect that they would be the ones to sever ties with one more diplomatic ally. (p. 130) Well done, ROC -- that’s worked out well for you, hasn’t it? I can only conclude that ROC leaders must have been perpetually convinced that the PRC was on the brink of implosion -- not an entirely illogical belief, when you consider what the PRC must have looked like to them for the first quarter-century of its existence, staggering from one massive self-inflicted crisis to another.

To take another example, I knew Lee Teng-hui primarily for his more recent role as an elder statesman and a pro-independence figure who has decisively burned his ties with the KMT, so reading about how he was perceived when he was actually the head of the KMT was fascinating. In contrast to the impression I had of Lee in his retirement, Roy paints quite a different portrait of Lee as cunning politician - summarized on page 181 that “Lee’s desire to consolidate his power took precedence over his ideological commitment to political liberalization”. The book’s 2003 publication date means that there’s a time capsule-like quality to how certain figures are portrayed, notably the well-known anti-corruption crusader Ma Ying-jeou. Even Tsai Ing-wen makes a cameo on page 237 where she pops up in the year 2000 to clarify that Taiwan doesn’t accept Beijing’s One-China Principle.

Overall, as a relatively brief overview of Taiwanese history, Roy’s book gave me what I was looking for: I learned a lot, and several shameful gaps in my knowledge were plugged. There are still several books on Taiwanese politics sitting unread on my bookshelf, which I can read now with a better knowledge base to build on.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Things I've Read: Science Fiction Edition

There will be nothing about Taiwan here. But that's OK.

File:Seveneves Book Cover.jpg Seveneves
by Neal Stephenson

Suddenly, the moon blows up, which is never really explained. But that’s okay, because we’re more interested in what happens next. Like the Ewoks watching the Death Star’s destruction, humans of Earth are transfixed by the show in the sky until the grim truth becomes clear: According to the cold equations of physics, our civilization is doomed and the clock is ticking. Those bits and pieces of moon are coming down, and we can't stop them.

The thousand or so pages that follow encompass arguably the largest scope ever for a Stephenson novel, as all the resources of Earth are deployed to ensure that some humans survive the coming apocalypse. And then the book deals with the consequences of that. And then the consequences of those consequences. By the time the story ends, a hell of a lot has happened, is what I’m saying.

Overall, there’s a lot to like here. I’m generally a fan of Stephenson’s prose, and there are indeed some choice bits here. There are also plenty of pages upon pages of engineering geekery: we don’t get five pages of breakfast cereal, but we do get long, lovingly worked out descriptions of orbital mechanics and futuristic technology. That’s fine; many readers enjoy that sort of thing, I know.

I do have to say that there were times I felt my suspension of disbelief was under considerable duress. There were also a couple of rather remarkable narrative coincidences, and I’m still undecided about whether these things bother me enough to damage my liking for the book.

That said, it’s been months since I finished Seveneves and yet I keep thinking about it. It’s rare for a novel to persist in my brain like this.

Image result for the long way to a small angry planetThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
by Becky Chambers

We’re in a galaxy with faster-than-light travel and interstellar federations and starships where humans and aliens work side-by-side. Also there are space pirates, dens of scum and villainy, and massive interstellar wars. With all that said, our focus is on the relations among the crew of the small and fairly mundane starship Wayfarer, whose job is to facilitate interstellar travel-by-hyperspace by larger and (I’m sure they think) more interesting vessels.

This is cheerful, optimistic space opera. The interstellar lingua franca that humans and aliens use to talk to each other is rendered as hilariously colloquial contemporary American English. The ship’s techies are so blase about the wondrous indistinguishable-from-magic devices they work with that they’re free to devote considerable attention to the quality of their snack food.

Most of the scenes read like they could play out verbatim in a hypothetical TV adaptation. The feeling that this could be a novelization of a well-written sci-fi TV show is bolstered by the story’s episodic nature, as well as the fact that despite the moments of drama, action and even tragedy, the mood of the narrative keeps returning to that of a workplace comedy (and I mean that nicely).

ShadesofGreynovel.jpgShades of Grey
by Jasper Fforde

Droll British dystopian fiction. Our protagonists live in Chromaticia, a land ordered by color and governed by surrealistically arbitrary but strictly enforced rules. These people are all color-blind to varying degrees, and their social class is determined by the colors they can perceive, from red at the bottom to purple at the top. Main protagonist Eddie Russett is, as his surname implies, at the low end of the ROY G BIV class spectrum, but at least he can see a color -- that is, he’s not one of the Grey proletariat.

The writing style, and the glimpses we get of the everyday lives of these people, is very droll, but Chromaticia -- a future Britain that exists centuries after the unexplained collapse of our own society -- is a frightening totalitarian state, which could use a good overthrow.

All in all, Shades of Grey is a charming little dystopia that takes its time unfolding its true horror. Some reviewers were put off by the slow (if not glacial) pace of the plot development, but I saw that as a positive point. We readers have plenty of time to get accustomed to the rules of this strange society, and come to realize that all the odd bits that don’t initially make sense do, in fact, add up to a coherent yet highly unsettling big picture.

I enjoyed the book immensely, and I look forward to the promised future installments following Eddie’s career in Chromaticia.

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Pail of Oysters

A Pail of Oysters
by Vern Sneider

In 1953, American journalist Vern Sneider published his novel A Pail of Oysters to acquaint Western readers with the political situation in Taiwan. The ROC had come to Formosa less than a decade before, and the West saw it as a bulwark against Communism that must be supported with financial and military aid. Sneider did not write his book to bring us Chiang Kai-shek’s side of the story; he sides with the ordinary people of Taiwan who suffered under ROC rule, the White Terror, and the after-effects of the 228 Incident.

The story begins by introducing us to Aboriginal youth Li Liu, his family, and their daily struggle for existence, harvesting oysters from the coastline and trading them for rice and other necessities. Not a prosperous family even in peaceful times, their daily life is made harder by the bands of ROC soldiers (called ‘Save-the-Country soldiers’) who see it as their right to loot at will from these unimportant nobodies. When the family’s god-image is stolen, Li Liu sets off to recover it. On his adventure he meets friendly American (and obvious author surrogate) Ralph Barton, hardscrabble former prostitute Precious Jade, and Precious Jade’s brother, who goes by no name because he no longer acknowledges his tyrannical adoptive father.

The story that follows is a fairly simple one, all things considered, with a couple of big narrative coincidences that make it seem like the population of Taipei is maybe a hundred people. It is not hard to predict our heroes are not going to have a happy ending, even as the narrative teases us and makes it seem things might actually work out well for them. You know they’re not going to have a happy ending because the book’s purpose is to make people outraged. That’s not a bad thing, because sometimes outrage is warranted.

This novel is meant to raise political awareness, using the novelist’s timeless tool of taking impersonal numbers from news accounts (‘thousands executed in anti-Communist purges’) and turning the statistics back into tragedy by giving a small handful of them individual names, backstories and personalities. The number of verifiably Communist characters in A Pail of Oysters is zero, but we see how anti-Communist witch hunts can be a very useful tool for unscrupulous people pursuing their own personal vendettas that have nothing to do with politics. The book is also an interesting historical perspective on issues that, 64 years later, are still controversial and unresolved, notably expropriation of land owned by local farmers.

The book turns didactic midway through when a Taiwanese businessman with dissident sympathies, Mr. Chou, turns up to lecture Ralph Barton about what should be done for Taiwan, and by doing so crowds two of the three Taiwanese viewpoint characters out of the narrative for a large chunk of the book. Mr. Chou, whose views are never rebutted and so are presumably Sneider’s own, thinks the KMT shouldn’t be removed from power entirely, but rather sees a pro-democracy faction within the KMT that ought to be running the country rather than the authoritarians in power instead. (Presumably he's thinking of K. C. Wu and the liberal faction he represented. It's too bad that, at about the same time A Pail of Oysters was published, Wu went into permanent exile in the United States.)

One could argue that Sneider is fairly diplomatic towards the KMT/ROC, all things considered. He makes an effort not to paint ROC soldiers as uniformly evil, and Chiang Kai-shek himself is never directly criticized. Chen Yi, the military governor of Taiwan in the immediate postwar years, is the one real-life figure who does get thoroughly blamed by name in the text. Again, Sneider’s being diplomatic here -- by the time the book was written, the KMT had already removed Chen from power and executed him.

Sneider may have tried to be diplomatic, but it appears the KMT did not appreciate his helpful suggestions. The novel was banned in Taiwan, and according to the Taipei Times, rumor has it that pro-KMT students hunted down copies of it in libraries overseas and burned them (since that’s how you look like the ideological good guys, you know). The American political climate in the 1950s was not very receptive to the novel’s themes of “anti-Communist witch hunts hurt innocent people” and “the KMT is not always good” and so the book's success failed to live up to its author’s hopes.

To be honest, A Pail of Oysters is not great literature. But that doesn't mean it's not worth reading. Now that it’s available again from Camphor Press in e-book or paper form, it’s of great interest for anyone invested in Taiwan. A comparatively thin volume (I read it on a Kindle and was surprised at how fast the %-completed figure rose), it gives a fascinating historical perspective on Taiwanese history and politics as perceived by a Westerner in the 1950s.