The Invisible Armada

The temptation of a mental “continental drift”

By Alain Brossat

7 September 2022

At the rate things are going with regard to the mental drift of the continents in Taiwan, there will soon no longer be a Taiwan Strait, but an island floating freely in the vast maritime expanses of the Pacific, ever more emancipated from terrestrial and human geography, ever further from the Chinese continent. The risk of such a drift is of course that it ends up leading the island to the immediate surroundings of the northern part of the American continent, until becoming, for example, in the bay of San Francisco, a kind of Chinatown bis or maybe a floating casino called Democratic Taiwan...

What this innocent joke would like to point out here is simply this: if today, in Taiwanese academic circles and beyond, "the historical status of Taiwan has acquired a new dimension of understanding or apprehension" (quote from the invitation to the conference provided by Google translation from Chinese to English) , this, clearly, is not due in the first place to “the rise of maritime history” which, finally, would make it possible to interpret this history from a point of view different from that of mainland China. Rather, it is obviously the direct and verifiable effect of a political reorientation, driven by the governing elites, the purpose of which is to draw an ever thicker boundary between the destiny of mainland China and that of Taiwan.

Arguably, for pragmatic reasons, academic elites and specialized academic knowledge must align with this political shift. But then, it must be done openly, and without practicing avoidance of what is at stake here – the subjection of university research and teaching to impulses and decrees from the political sphere, from the media soft power and story-making. This for the good reason that, in a society which strongly displays its democratic quality, the Academia, as a sphere dedicated to the production of autonomous knowledge, to independent research, the Academia (or, as we say in French the University, a term distincly close to universality) as an institution and a singular form of power is not supposed to be the servant of the political institution(s) nor to sing in unison with it.

Actually, the very idea according to which the new historiography of Taiwan should no longer be written at all "from the point of view of the history of mainland China" (quote again from the invitation to the conference), decried here as "traditional", is a revisionist proposal under disguise: what needs to be said first and foremost appears to be that the new Taiwanese historiography should be written entirely from a point of view emancipated from the destiny of the "continental" Chinese world, as the history of a specific national identity whose primary quality would be to be maritime and entirely specific.

Once again, the academic sphere is, in its very principle, a space for free discussion where the most heterodox and most innovative proposals must be heard, but in which, on the other hand, the statements put forward cannot be content with being political or ideological proposals embellished with academic cosmetics. There is certainly a lot to be said, both in genealogical and descriptive terms, about the diversity of the components of which today's Taiwanese "identity" is made, with its multiple facets; but if it appears that the motive of identity is today above all a war machine intended to "perform" the separation of the historical and cultural destiny of the island from that of the Chinese mainland; so the very terms of the research appear biased because they are caught in political and ideological folds that impose their conditions on them.

What is the alleged “ Taiwanese national identity”the existence of which is posed here as an indisputable presupposition, an acknowleged fact? This in a country whose very name is the subject of perpetual dispute, whose emblems are imported and subject to endless quarrels, whose population is constantly divided, as soon as the narration of the island's history, recent or ancient, is at issue?

In Taiwan, what “proper identity” is made of is precisely the fact that this supposedly compact and singular “identity” is made up of everything that makes it irreducible to the canons of national identity borrowed from Western history – the more it aims to assert itself as compact and singular, for primarily political reasons, the more it flees towards myths and settles in the imagination – the figure of the symbolic aboriginal ancestor, on a land overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Chinese and where the first peoples were slaughtered, pushed to the mountains, stigmatized – among a multitude of other things...

In its very principle, revisionism, in history, is salutary insofar as it outlines new perspectives for research, promotes new modes of problematizing the historical objects and questions at stake in a given field of research – here, the question of the "formation and composition of Taiwanese culture" - one could also say, in terms borrowed from Nietzsche, via Michel Foucault, of its genealogy . But if there is one thing that remains constant, it is the fact that questions of genealogy, placed under the sign of the multiple, the heterogeneous and the complex, cannot be reduced to the conditions of a quest for identity and its origin – on the contrary, it constantly tends towards simplification, towards oneness, towards the purity or singularity of the “roots”. In the present world there is a whole frenzy of identity, especially on the scale of peoples, social groups and nations, the specificity of which is to be turned towards separation from others, towards the affirmation of particularizing singularities. If it is a question of deploying, in the present case, a whole series of rhetorical operations consisting in affirming that the insular character of Taiwan is what separates and removes this human ensemble from mainland China, that Taiwan is not so much the Chinese world as one component among others of a vast Chinese-speaking archipelago, that Taiwan is above all a crossroads of cultures and histories and, in terms of populating, a mosaic – then, the overdetermination of this reorientation of research by politics is, in the present we inhabit, only too evident.

What I see, as an outsider, in Taiwan, in all dimensions of life, and in particular everyday life - is still and always the massive fact of a Chinese world – even if it differs in more than one way from that of the continent.

There are, it should be stressed, many different varieties of historical revisionism and not all are of equal quality. As far as I am concerned, I have learned a lot from the "revisionist" current of Soviet history, essentially originating in the United States, inspired by authors such as Moshe Lewin, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Arch Getty and which seems to me to have profoundly renewed the understanding of Stalinism as a "total" phenomenon. On the other hand, the historical revisionism of conservative or even neo-nationalist inspiration which developed in Germany in the 1970s around authors such as Erich Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber, on the history of the Third Reich, inspired me much less - it is not for nothing I imagine, that the great democratic moral witness of Germany in post-war Western Germany, Jürgen Habermas, was unleashed against this current. And all this to say nothing of those whom the highly respected historian of the ancient Greek world, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, designated as a "small despicable sect", these improvised historians who, in France, led, in the 1980s a noisy and nauseous campaign aimed at questioning the existence of the gas chambers in the Nazi extermination camps; an infamous rewriting of the Nazi crimes designated in France by the term "negationism" - based on the negation (the denial) of the existence of the gas chambers.

Historical revisionism is therefore not always synonymous with the renewal of research, the promotion of new issues. It seems to me that one of the peculiarities of Taiwan that we could endeavor to problematize rigourously is the absence of a consensual national narrative constituting the basis for an appropriation of the historical and cultural past, of a collective memory that the people of the island, in their great majority, would have in common. This is not just about the history that is taught to children, but about a whole heritage made up of stories, images, emblems, traces, dates, famous names and figures, landmarks chronological records and sites (etc.) - everything which, in European nation-states (among others) constitutes the common fund of a national memory. It would not be a question of saying that, in these countries, this memory would be compact and placed under the sign of unanimity, but at least that it constitutes a territory of collective memory on which a national community gathers - even so to argue and fight about it.

The extreme fragility of this common fund seems to me to be one of the specific characteristics of Taiwan and, at the same time, one of the reasons for which one cannot take at face value the idea that this human and political entity would constitute a "normal" nation-state, that is to say aligned with norms borrowed from Western history. A single example: the day of the National Day in Taiwan is commemorated an event (the founding of the Republic of China) which occurred in a space other than that of the island and at a time when the latter was placed under another sovereignty than that which asserted itself with the foundation of this Republic. This simple example suffices, I believe, to specify the irreducibility of Taiwanese history to the supposed universal model of the nation-state. This without taking into account that simple and massive fact: we should not forget that modern history understood as history of the formation of the system of nation-states and history placed under the regime of the generalization of the model of the nation-state is made before all of the sum of the disasters and catastrophes to which it led – two world wars, a voracious colonization of the world by European and American imperialisms and their Asian emulators (Japan), therefore anything but a “model history” to which the absolute urgency would be to rally and conform... The frenzied normalization of peoples pushed to enter the mold of the nation-state does not necessarily lead to the best results: see how we went, after the Second World War and the extermination of the Jews of Europe, from a people in the diaspora to a Jewish “nation-state” where racial supremacism, apartheid and conquering impulses thrive – with in particular the illegal occupation of the Palestinian “West Bank” (Cisjordania).

It seems to me that a tension, if not an inconsistency, can be detected between two statements: the one that affirms the singularity of Taiwanese history, in the face of mainland Chinese history, and the one that aims to "normalize" this history by defining it as "national" and therefore by granting the political entity "Taiwan" (whose official name is Republic of China) the status of a nation-state. But then, if Taiwan is a nation-state "like the others", like France, for example, or the United States, what is this singularity of a Republic-of-China-that-is-all-you-want-but- China made of?!

Each time I undertake to reflect on what could be the true specificity of this singularity, what I point out is what, distinctly, distances and separates Taiwan from national state general normativity – even if the latter would be inscribed in a broad spectrum, making room for the plurality of “models”.

Whether we take the question of heroes, that of landmark dates, that of commemorations, sacred places, monuments, books symbolizing national unity, victories and defeats (etc.), glorious moments and dark pages - all this infinitely varied heritage which constitutes the material of a national-state memory in so many other countries, does not, precisely, in Taiwan, have the status of a common and shared heritage: it is for the essential a battlefield on which all sorts of factions and memorial communities clash, in the greatest disorder.

A single example of this singularity of Taiwanese history and culture, precisely insofar as it resists their normalization under the conditions of the supposed political modernity that has imposed itself since the end of the Second World War: Taiwan is the only post-colony that I know where the memory of colonization (as the collective memory of the descendants of the colonized) is so evanescent; the only post-colony where the collective historical experience of colonization is so little rooted in the perception of the present and in shared political feelings and attitudes.

The eclectic and ornamental patrimony of the traces of colonization thrives almost everywhere and tends to replace, in the collective memory, a shared knowledge of what the colonial condition was for the inhabitants of the island, with its inevitable procession of segregation, spoliation, violence and crimes. I cannot judge the quality and diversity of the work of historians specializing in this period and whose works are published in Chinese, but what strikes me, and often appalls me, is the way in which the political calculations of short-term interest, in the present (Taiwan and Japan being embarked in the same boat of the effort undertaken to contain the rise in power of China, orchestrated by the United States), tends to push back any post-colonial consciousness and therefore to nurture a denial of colonization as a form of violent and predatory domination, often to the benefit of a low-level nostalgia, when it is not, downright an idealization of the colonizer on background of denial of the intrinsically criminal and illegitimate character of colonization – when I spoke above of revisionisms of doubtful quality, that is also what I had in mind.

What the current debates on "Taiwanese identity" seem to me essentially made up of is quite clear: a combination of presentism (the disease of the time, on a planetary scale, linked to the crisis of historical consciousness), of a presentism placed under the sign of the political opportunity of the moment, and of reconfiguration of the past, of the fabrication of narratives and the production of a memory made to measure for the political orientations of the day.

The instrumentalization of the past, the manipulation of collective memory and the involvement of power elites in the production of historical narratives which are the permanent temptation of all political regimes today as yesterday are deeply rooted in Taiwan's political life. This trait is particularly marked today, as shown, among other things, by the interested use made by those in power of the motif of “transitional justice” and of the memory of the crimes perpetrated by the despotic regime of Chiang Kai Chek. But conversely, when reasons of pure political expediency demand it, the account of the crimes of the old regime will be amended, at the highest level of the State, by shedding a new and almost flattering light on the profile of the son and successor to the dictator...

In Taiwan, from this point of view, the famous joke of Soviet origin largely prevails: it is not only what tomorrow will be made of that we do not know – but yesterday, as well , due to the extreme variability and volatility of more or less official accounts of the past. Hence the perpetual waltz of emblems, statues, school programs concerning the teaching of history, etc.

What, in this country, overdetermines any serene discussion of an academic nature on the question of identities, is in the first place the absence of a founding narrative (of the country's history), both validated by tradition , shared by the vast majority of people, and endowed with scholarly legitimacy. Koxinga, this liberating hero and demi-god himself who gives his name to our university, Koxinga himself is for part of the opinion of this country, an impostor, the agent of a power foreign to the island and a persecutor of the aboriginal populations... Each place of memory is, in this country, rather than a place of gathering and the element of a general device intended to produce common identity, a bull-ring. This general regime of discord about the past did not even spare the Japanese engineer who designed a huge dam at the time of colonization – benefactor of the country, pioneer of the irrigation of an entire region for some, vile agent of the predatory colonialism for others...

I note that this regime of generalized discord about the past induces, in terms of the uses of collective memory, procedures that are the opposite of those that are common in my country: if one is part of a critical perspective vis-à-vis, in particular, the colonial past of France, he-she has to start by breaking the consensus and entering into a struggle against it: to fight so that the streets, schools and other public places which, from all eternity, carry the names of some great colonial massacrers be given another name, or, as in England, bustle about overthrowing the statues of local glories and notorious slave traders...

In such a context, to bring out decolonial counter-narratives and establish their legitimacy, it is necessary to fight against the denseness of what is called in France the national novel (le roman national) , this amalgamation of stories from the past peopled with myths and founding legends, more than historical facts. In Taiwan, there is not, for historical and geopolitical reasons, the equivalent of such a "novel", with, at the same time, its aggregating, unifying, and self-mystifying function... But, as a consequence, from a decolonial perspective, we, in this country, do not really know where to start fighting. I am a little stunned when I discover that in Magong, the main town of the Pescadores (Penghu) archipelago, there is a plaque in good place in memory of Admiral Courbet, whose only merit in this case was to bomb the city there as part of a colonial predatory expedition, killing a few dozen civilians and coldly massacring Chinese war prisoners – this on the sidelines of the so-called Tonkin campaign which allowed France to extend its empire in Indochina.

From the point of view of the inhabitants of the Pescadores and more generally of Taiwan, since this archipelago is today attached to the ROC, is it not obvious that this French admiral was here in his works (a massacre) only a colonial bully to curse rather than celebrate? Do the Algerians of today celebrate the memory of the French generals who conquered their country half a century before Courbet came to try to establish in Taiwan a bridgehead of the French colonial empire (there are traces of this failed attempt near Danshui also)? If, then, for many young Taiwanese today, the retreat of Chiang Kai Shek and the remnants of his administration and army to the island in 1949, with the subsequent establishment of his authoritarian regime, if this apparent to an occupation , even a colonization, what about the operation led by Courbet, the perfect incarnation of European expansionist banditry in East Asia and gunboat policy? What is this plaque doing on the walls of Magong, signaling Admiral Courbet's passage through the Pescadores archipelago, as if he were a distinguished guest rather than the imperial brute he was?

If we want at all costs to focus on questions of identity rather than origin and becoming, then there is no doubt that the denial of the colonial which is on this island the thing best shared - this represents a serious identity disorder. The Nippophilia that is rampant in Taiwan today, whether it is futile because it is fueled by cultural industries, fashion, consumer habits or whether it results from political injunctions, tends to relentlessly weaken among the population's (this in particular among the younger generations) any sense and collective consciouseness of what Japanese colonization was, of what historical subalternity and subalternism are made of and of what the lasting effects of such a collective condition can be.

Actually, in terms of alienation from the collective memory, it is difficult to imagine a worse nightmare than that of a former colonized country which would be so amnesiac of this sequence of its past that it would worship its former colonizer. I am well aware that I work on a superb campus established at the time of Japanese colonization, that my office is located in an old building which retains all the character of that era. I sometimes think of the Japanese colleagues who preceded me in this space and of whom I imagine that they were not all settlers imbued with a feeling of cultural and racial superiority over the inhabitants of the island and enthusiastic supporters of the southward expansion of the “Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”, with all its dire historical consequences. But the retrospective respect that I can dedicate to these kind phantoms from the past does not prevent me from keeping the memory of the massacres, in particular of the aboriginal populations, which accompanied the bringing to heel of the inhabitants of the island by the Japanese colonizer; it does not cover the knowledge that I have of the institutional discrimination of which the inhabitants of the island were victims and which, in particular, practically prevented them from having access to public life, to political responsibilities – not to mention the rest - the devil is in the details : I recently read that in the various brothels existing in Tainan under the Japanese era, the most rigorous discrimination existed between Japanese and local people – the Taiwanese “customers” would not be allowed to enjoy the company of the same girls as the Japanese - This is what one might call the signature of the Colony, whether Japanese, French, British, Dutch or otherwise – the separation of blood, of human species, of races, the systematic and institutional subalternization of the colonized and this is something that cannot be erased as a “detail of history”, if we want to talk about collective identity – identities, rather, here in Taiwan. This is maybe what we should, on the contrary, begin with – the continuity of a history of subalternization.