The development of Pacific Studies in Taiwan

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Edwin Yang talks about the development of Pacific Studies academic tradition in Taiwan. Though focused on the establishment of Pacific theory native to Taiwan, it is also relevant to Pacific discourse in other establishments and to any current or future scholars with an interest in the Pacific.

Whenever I think of the Pacific, visuals of a vibrant, colourful paradise stir in my mind. Sunlight, blue skies, palm trees, white sands, and people wearing flowered shirts, listening to relaxed Hawaiian music…then, retuning to Taiwan and what appears in front of me is faraway removed from my imagination – the highway from Taoyuan International Airport to Taipei seems endlessly grey. With such a contrast you can’t help wondering – how can a Pacific island like Taiwan be so lacking in the flavours of the Pacific.

The range and core of Pacific Studies

All Pacific research theory must start from the word ‘Pacific’. The word comes from early European navigators, who thought that in comparison to the Atlantic Ocean, this sea was tranquil and peaceful, hence Pacific Ocean. Though the framework and scope of Pacific research remains ambiguous, at the very least it includes the central Pacific islands, namely those which are normally referred to as Pacific islands; at the very most however, we can include the areas surrounding the Pacific Ocean and even the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Another commonly used expression is ‘Oceania’. A word as ambiguous as ‘Pacific’, scholars have pointed out that this definition includes Malaysia, Australasia and Polynesia, implying the inclusion of mainland Australia and the islands of Indonesia and Malaysia. There are huge discrepancies between the wide and narrow definitions.

Pacific research centres tend to make the Pacific Islands the nucleus of their studies, and then extend to other areas related to their own individual subject or expertise. These central Pacific Islands are traditionally divided into three main groups – Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia. Here, I will also discuss the main points from this narrow definition before extending the more inclusive definitions.

Creating a tradition of Pacific Regional Studies

Here my definition of Regional Studies is ‘one area continuously accumulating and conducting general research on another specifically defined region.’ The difference between this method of knowledge accumulation and that of subject-specific research is that the research subjects are at the core of the studies, rather than part of the classification framework. For example, the Australian National University holds symposiums with a specific region as the main topic. In recent years they have held the Indonesia Update, the Vietnam Update and PNG Update, bringing together scholars from a wide range of subjects to exchange and share their information on a common region. The Regional Studies consciousness is even stronger in the Japanese academic world. Scholars of the same region often work together and are sometimes eager to surpass their individual specialisations. The style of this academic research still lays stress on continuity and inheritance, but also attentively grasps the societal trends and changes of the region in question.

There is another main mission of Regional Studies, which is to provide another channel for understanding and communication between one’s own society and that of the research subjects. In addition to academic research, scholars can also help the media and publishing circles deepen their knowledge of specific areas, in turn giving the general populace much easier access to related information. For example, in Japan and Australia you can find many specialized Asia-Pacific libraries, publishing houses and bookshops and there is daily news on all major regions in Asia; thus gradually generating interest in the region from within their own societies. This, in turn, is beneficial to academic research, as without interest from the wider populace, the flow of students would ebb and research continuity would be far more difficult to maintain.

It could be said that Taiwan is yet to establish a tradition of Regional Studies. [1] Fortunately, of late there have been some more visible developments and the academic world has begun to take note of these trends.


Don’t adhere to arbitrarily drawn up boundaries

Taiwan’s Pacific Studies must begin from the Pacific Islands, yet even this traditional definition poses some problems. The Pacific Island definition is worth discussing. Should New Zealand be considered a Pacific Island? It’s also worth questioning whether Australia classifies or not, since Australian aborigines are usually treated as a separate research subject from Pacific Islanders. [2]

Artificial boundaries between Asia and the Pacific also pose problems. For example western scholars still divide New Guinea by its political boundaries, thus West Papua which is administrated by the Indonesian government is considered as part of Asian studies, whilst Papua New Guinea is considered part of Pacific Studies. There is little sense in these divisions and many academics completely disregard them. Looking at a map, the islands of Taiwan, Philippines and Indonesia are all connected and any division is likely to cause problems.

These human defined ranges should therefore not be considered as absolute and unchangeable. For example The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders mentions Okinawa and Malaku[3]. If they are considered only as a part of Japanese or Indonesian national history respectively, then they are doomed to be neglected and thus we completely fail to meet the realities of historical interactions. Thus if we rigidly adhere to arbitrarily defined classifications, many important historical questions will be removed or neglected.

Develop our own Pacific concept

In Taiwan we often see the word Asia-Pacific; however, it rarely brings to mind these Pacific islands. This is largely due to the influence of America. Since the Pacific war, in order to establish relations with other Asian nations, the US constantly emphasised Pacific inter-relations. They coined the phrase Pacific Rim to connect all these nations together. In a similar vein, Taiwan also adopted the term Asia-Pacific; however, the islands at the centre of the Pacific Ocean were neglected in this concept.

From various publications we can see that different countries stress different points, reflecting the different demarcations and boundaries they adhere to. Because of this, the ambiguity of the word Pacific will always remain. In reality every country can decide its main focal points, starting with the country’s Pacific ideology and identity and what type of Regional Studies it is trying to develop. If Taiwan wants to develop its Pacific research, it needs to develop its own unique concept of the Pacific. The difficulty is in what type of Pacific thought should Taiwan be striving for. Here I will raise a few basic propositions:

  • Taiwan must view Pacific Studies as a subject in its own right, not merely as a part of Asia-Pacific studies.
  • Taiwan’s Pacific research must focus on the Pacific Islands, this is critical to giving a Pacific character to our research.
  • Taiwan must strive to establish its own Pacific identity and we must include Taiwan as part of the Pacific rather than approaching Pacific research from the eyes of the outsider.
  • When defining Pacific Studies, ‘Pacific Rim Islands’ can be an intermediary between the concepts of ‘Pacific Rim’ and ‘Pacific Islands’, and should be a key theory, highlighting Taiwan’s existence and location in Pacific studies. (In terms of specific regions, ‘Pacific Rim Islands’ can be divided into four main parts: Pacific Islands, New Zealand and Australia, Marine South East Asia and Marine North East Asia; however they are in fact all interconnected.)
  • Marine South East Asia begins at the Taiwan islands and spreads south towards the Philippines, Indonesia, Timor and Papua. Marine North East Asia begins on Taiwan Island and stretches north to Okinawa and the Japan islands. In this way the history of the Taiwan Islands is naturally included within.

Existing Austronesian and Historical studies can form the pillars of future research

31Compared with History in the Pacific, it seems that Anthropology, Linguistics and Archaeology are able to cross the boundaries implemented by artificial geographic divisions more easily and sensitively. Furthermore, Austronesian research spreads to all the islands in South East Asia and the Malaysian peninsula; it goes as far west as Madagascar, north to Taiwan, south to New Zealand and east to Easter Island. Taiwan is naturally included within these parameters, and furthermore it is now often added that ‘Taiwan could be the original home of the Austronesian ethnicity’.[4] Thus Taiwan’s Pacific research should use the pre-existing Austronesian research as a foundation to expand upon and link the Pacific Islands, South East Asia and Taiwan together.

Taiwan already has research strengths in China Sea and Taiwan history; these could be very useful in combination with our resources and access to North East Asia and Japan. Since historical studies of these Pacific areas often rely on Chinese and Japanese sources, this could be seen as Taiwan’s forte where important contributions to Pacific history and to the aforementioned ‘Pacific Rim Islands’ could be made.

The conditions are ripe, but for the final driving force

Taiwan and the Pacific are related on many levels. While Taiwan marks the Northern point of the Austronesian diaspora, it is also closely linked to Austronesian origins; the geographical link is obvious, Taiwan is an island in the Pacific; political and economic links are also plentiful. These multi-faceted links often form the motivation for Regional Studies. Therefore, one could say that the special interest necessary for a normal country to engage in studies of a specific area, are all existing. The conditions are ripe, all we need is a final driving force.

So where does this final driving force lie? I think it lies in finding a Pacific identity, concept and character. It is recognizing that Taiwan is a member, an insider, a link in the Pacific chain and viewing the Pacific from this angle. It is conjunctively attempting to understand both Taiwan and the Pacific. Though a Regional Studies tradition is not built overnight, starting late is not a problem, so long as we are resolute that we want to move in this direction. With support for long term Pacific research objectives, we can develop more detailed interrelationships[5] between Taiwan and the Pacific, thus making it a worthy direction to pursue.

Translated and abstracted from the Chinese article in Renlai#78 by Nicholas Coulson. Updated from the original, published in the Journal of Eastern Taiwan Studies in December 2000. All images courtesy of the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.

[1] The writer actually distinguishes between the term 地域研究used in Japanese academia and 區域研究 traditionally favoured by Taiwanese scholars. He uses the 地域研究 as 區域研究 brings to mind the American tradition of Area Studies which is focused on the studies, rather than on the area.

[2] Neither Australia or New Zealand, consider New Zealand as a Pacific Island. ‘Islanders’ refers only to Pacific Islanders. The problem is that the Maori of New Zealand are unquestionably Polynesian, making Maori research an important link in Pacific Island research. New Zealand has accepted and been influenced by Maori culture and it has now become a major emigration destination for Pacific Islanders. In linguistics, Australian aborigines are not considered to belong to Austronesian language systems, yet some are none the less considered to be of Austronesian ethnicities. Different scholars have different interpretations of whether ‘Australasians’ includes all Pacific Islanders.

[3] Donald Denoon, The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders. (Cambridge University Press, 1997) Pp.36.

[4] Read Peter Bellwood, James J. Fox and Darrell Tryon, “The Austronesians in History: Common Origins and Diverse Transformations” In Peter Bellwood, James J. Fox and Darrell Tryon eds. The Austronesians: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. Canberra: Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, ANU, 1995, pp.1.

[5] The word the author uses for interrelationships, 連帶關係, was originally from the Japanese, a term coined by Takeuchi Yoshimi, used as the loosest and most comfortable terms possible in his version of Asianism.

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:35
Edwin Yang (楊聰榮)


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