It’s nearly impossible to find foreign-language books about Taiwan in Taiwanese bookstores. This needs to be fixed, perhaps with incentives from the government.
It’s a complaint that anyone who pays attention to Taiwan has heard time and again over the years: We Taiwanese are isolated, repressed by China, and unfairly ignored by the international community. Although there is absolutely nothing false in that statement, Taiwan’s response to this predicament (the public and the government) has often been far too passive — and this starts here at home.
From the outset, it is important to establish the fact that isolation is the offspring of ignorance, of the audience not knowing of that which is being isolated in the first place. Through a sustained and globe-spanning propaganda campaign, China has been hard at work broadcasting a narrative that, little by little, has succeeded in casting Taiwan into the shadows. By dint of an unrelenting assault on the very symbols of Taiwanese statehood (flags, diplomatic presence, participation at multilateral events, presence at academic settings and in the media, and so on), China has sought to isolate Taiwan by rendering it nonexistent in the global imagination.
It goes without saying that the proper response to such a formidable campaign is to be proactive: to use “soft power” and make as much noise as possible so that Taiwan doesn’t fade into oblivion. Doing so is all the more important in the midst of a global retrenchment in traditional media, which in recent years has had a detrimental impact on the number of foreign correspondents who are based in Taiwan and thus led to a higher incidence of articles about Taiwan that are datelined Beijing.
Although some progress has been made in reaching out to foreign media and academics through Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA)-sponsored visits to Taiwan, far more ought to be done to make Taiwan an appealing object of study. One area in particular where Taiwan has fared rather poorly is in making Taiwan knowable. Besides film documentaries and promotional campaigns targeting potential tourists abroad, books — about history, political science, social science and fiction — remain an effective instrument by which to educate foreign minds about the intricacies and complexities of Taiwanese society.
Every time I visit a foreign country, I make it a point to hit the bookstores to see what’s on offer. Without exception, bookstores will have large, and usually very pregnant, sections offering selections of books about the country’s history, society, politics, and literature. In every case, those sections tell the visitor: We’re interesting, we’re proud of who we are, so come explore and learn more about us…
Sadly, that isn’t the case with Taiwan. While bookstores here have impressive selections of works about Taiwan in Chinese, the offerings for foreign visitors — the millions of non-Chinese-reading foreign tourists and expatriates — constitute slim pickings indeed. As I observed in my book Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait (English version nowhere to be found in Taiwan), Taiwan’s ability to make people connect to and with it is hampered by this inexplicable lack of effort in making itself accessible to those who want to learn more about it.
Granted, this could boil down to booksellers concluding that the non-Chinese-reading market is too small and therefore unprofitable. But if that indeed were the case, how can we account for the large collections of books in English about China offered at various bookstores in Taiwan? See, for example, the impressive sections on Chinese history and political science at the Eslite flagship store in Taipei’s Xinyi District.
Then brace yourself, here’s the English-language section about Taiwan…
Now don’t get me wrong; the sections about China are surprisingly good — better, in fact, than at many bookstores worldwide, and they are updated regularly. How, then, can we explain the deplorable lack of material about Taiwan, especially when we know that hundreds of books about its politics, history and society have been published in the past decade, many by large and reputable publishing houses? (Before you argue that e-books are the cause of and solution to this, try to explain why there are so many books about China in stock.) When I see the handful of books about Taiwan, almost in solitary confinement on the bottom shelf, it tells me that the bookstore — and the Taiwanese — cannot be bothered. Maybe they think their country is uninteresting, of no interest to, or beyond the comprehension of, foreigners. (This, obviously, is false: Taiwan is hugely complex and a fascinating case study in important subjects such as colonialism, post-colonialism, democratization, religion, and Sinology.) If that’s what book vendors in Taiwan think, then please stop complaining about being ignored or misunderstood by the outside world.
When I see the handful of books about Taiwan, almost in solitary confinement on the bottom shelf, it tells me that the bookstore — and the Taiwanese — cannot be bothered. Maybe they think their country is uninteresting, of no interest to, or beyond the comprehension of, foreigners.
The asymmetry in English-language literature about Taiwan and China in Taiwan is embarrassing and unforgivable. This needs to be remedied, and not in the limited way that previous Kuomintang (KMT) administrations did, by sponsoring (and giving away) books written by foreign academics that promoted a narrow (and pro-KMT) take on Taiwanese history. With incentives from agencies such as the Ministry of Culture, select bookstores — including shops at ports of entry — should have respectable stocks of foreign-language books about Taiwan. The MoC should also communicate with reputable book publishers that have a history of releasing solid research about Taiwan to remain abreast of new and upcoming releases and facilitate the works’ entry into the Taiwan market (conversely, publishers of Taiwan series should bombard the MoC until it does something to fix that all-too-fixable problem).
If bookstores won’t do it themselves, then the government should find alternative ways to making foreign-language literature about Taiwan available to visitors from abroad, who surely could learn a thing or two about this extraordinary place and bring that knowledge with them back where they came from. Buying a book often is a spur-of-the-moment phenomenon; that’s why I spend so much time at bookstores. I like to be surprised, to be drawn in by a book’s cover, or a title that piques my curiosity. And I’m sure this is true for many people. This won’t happen, though, if there’s nothing to catch my attention.
China is already doing a pretty good job at isolating Taiwan within the international community. Taiwan can do a few things to counter this, starting with greater efforts to make itself available as an object to be studied by the general public.
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