by Lev Nachman
Photo Credit: [email protected]/WikiCommons/CC
The following piece is a response to three articles last year in the Taiwan Sentinel, “The Golden Age of Taiwan Studies” by Dafydd Fell, “Securing the ‘Golden Age of Taiwan Studies'” by Gunter Schubert, and “Developing Taiwan Studies as a Sustainable and Diverse Field” by Ming-yeh Rawnsley.
I KNOW I am late to the conversation, but like every other graduate student, my end of the term research as a Ph. D student and TA responsibilities caught up to me.
The most impactful piece of advice I received as an MA student applying to Ph.D programs was not to go into Taiwan studies, because it is “career suicide.” I have received similar advice with kinder words from other China scholars who discouraged myself and other students from focusing too much on Taiwan or other “tangential” topics within China studies. Instead, I have been told to self-describe myself as a China scholar and to make sure that, whatever my dissertation research becomes, China should be my main case study. I recognize their intentions were good—my odds of publication, future employment, funding, fellowships, etc, will go up if I focus on China, not Taiwan.
I struggled with my advisor’s advice for quite some time and still think about it to this day. At one point, I did change my application to be more China-centric and less about Taiwan. Even though in the end, I declared Taiwan as my main interest, I still find myself questioning my own research agenda because of how it may limit my future prospects.
Fortunately, I am currently at an institution with professors and advisors from both the China studies field and the political science field who encourage me to continue to research Taiwan. However, I recognize that I am privileged to be in this position, when many other graduate student friends who initially were in Taiwan studies have since changed their research agendas to focus more on China, either because they think this is more pragmatic for their future career prospects or due to pressure from their advisors.
At best, it seems that many within the China studies field find topics within China more urgent or interesting, or at worst many still do not take Taiwan studies seriously. As a graduate student, I have already encountered both perspectives. I do not think we need to convince other Taiwan scholars we are in the golden age of Taiwan studies, but other China scholars that we are.
As Dr. Fell pointed out in his article for the Taiwan Sentinel, it is difficult to convince students to take a course on Taiwanese politics instead of Chinese politics. As graduate students, we face the challenge of picking a research topic that is both true to our passion and will create the path to a future in academia. Ideally, we can have both, but given the current state of academia, many of us will understandably opt for pragmatic research that leads to a future career.
For us Taiwan studies grad students, that often means leaving the Taiwan studies aspect of our research to focus more on China. Even though many of us feel equally passionate about topics within China as we do Taiwan, the pressure we face to prioritize China over Taiwan makes the prospects of seriously engaging with Taiwan bleak. I would feel more encouraged that we are in fact in a “golden age” of Taiwan studies if the greater China studies field did more to acknowledge, support, and encourage graduate students to go into Taiwan studies. Although I am specifically advocating for Taiwan, I would also encourage others to make the same argument for Hong Kong studies, Xinjiang studies, Tibetan studies, etc.
Interestingly, I often have an easier time justifying Taiwan as a case study to political scientists who do not focus on China than to actual China scholars. Many who study democracies or post-authoritarian states find Taiwan to be a novel and interesting case. One piece of advice I have for fellow Taiwan studies graduate students seeking funding is to look beyond East Asian/China study centers to other research centers that intersect with Taiwan. Or, seek out the handful of Taiwan studies institutes in the US, such as the North American Taiwan Studies Association.
It has been very exciting to follow the conversation sparked by Professors Fell, Schubert, and Rawnsley, all of whom I admire as established Taiwan scholars, regarding whether there is a “golden age” of Taiwan studies” at present. As an aspiring academic, I hope my perspective helps keep this important conversation going. I recognize I am new to academia and my perspective is limited. I am also hardly the only Taiwan studies graduate student learning to navigate the complicated world of academia. Since starting graduate school, I have been thrilled to meet so many other young academics that are just as excited to talk about Taiwanese politics as I am. I look forward to hearing more perspectives from both professors and graduate students alike.