Newsletter No. 55 (January 2010)

Taiwan Studies in Australia

Philippa Riley

PhD Candidate
Asia Institute, the University of Melbourne


Taiwan Today – Chinese Studies Postgraduate Conference 2007. (Photo: CSRG @UoM)

Taiwan’s complex history and culturally diverse society is well worth scholarly attention. The home to several significant academic institutions and libraries, and with a government keen to foster international links, Taiwan offers researchers support for their projects. The Taiwanese have a democratically elected government and enjoy a higher average living standard than people in some parts of the region. Taiwan, half the size of Tasmania but with a population slightly greater than Australia’s, has significant trade, education, and family links with Australia. Australia is Taiwan’s sixth largest source of imports, and the third most popular overseas education destination for Taiwanese students. Taipei can be reached from Sydney by air in less than ten hours. With these advantages, and despite Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation, the field of Taiwan Studies is growing in Australia.

Taiwan Studies promotes the understanding of Taiwan as a distinct research field within which interdisciplinary conversations over a broad range of issues are possible. Australia-based scholars are pursuing Taiwan-related topics in areas of the social sci­ences, human­i­ties, lan­guage and culture that range from Taiwan’s democratisation, to cross-Strait relations, economic development and religion, identities, popular culture, sexuality and art practices. No one method or discipline dominates the conversation.

Internationally, an institutionally supported area of inquiry explicitly identified as “Taiwan Studies” burgeoned in the 1990s as Taiwan’s democratisation brought with it demands for attention to the specificities of Taiwan, in contrast to the post 1949 Kuomintang regime’s portrayal of Taiwan as China. As the Australian scholar Mark Harrison has observed, the construction of the field of Taiwan Studies is itself implicated in contests between nationalist ideologies and agendas.

During the Cold War, Taiwan was more accessible to Westerners than the Chinese mainland and was viewed as being representative of Chinese society as a whole; so many Australian scholars went to Taiwan to study Chinese language, society and culture. Most Australian Chinese Studies specialists have studied in Taiwan and retain an interest in it, even though the focus of their research is China, rather than Taiwan in particular. Others see the Chinese influence as but one of many strands in Taiwanese society and culture, and pursue questions from their discipline with Taiwan as their research site.

Australian academics working on Taiwan do not currently enjoy the benefits that come from frequent interaction with interested others that are possible for colleagues in North America, Japan and Europe as a result of their respective Taiwan Studies associations. The first North American Taiwan Studies Association (NATSA) conference was held at Yale in 1994. NATSA is one of several Taiwan-focused groups in the USA. Since 2004, conferences of the European Taiwan Studies Association (EATS) have been held at various European Universities.  The Japan Association for Taiwan Studies (JATS) is based at Osaka International University.

Few Australian universities offer Taiwan-centred courses for undergraduate students, but the number of courses will rise in 2010. In 2010 the University of Tasmania will deliver a new course called “The Political and Cultural History of Taiwan.” Macquarie University’s Department of International Studies offers “Chinese literature from Hong Kong and Taiwan,” and Melbourne University’s Asia Institute has “Taiwan and Beyond: Chinese Settler Cultures.” In the second semester of 2010, the Faculty of Asian Studies at the ANU will kick off its new Taiwan Studies Program with a course called, “Taiwan: History and Culture.”

In the absence of an association whose membership list might identify Australian-based scholars who work on Taiwan, what follows is an incomplete and brief survey of these scholars.

J. Bruce Jacobs, Professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University, is a specialist in Taiwan politics and society. Jacobs’ research focuses on Taiwan’s democratisation, Taiwan nationalism, cross-Strait relations and the history of Taiwan. He currently supervises several PhD students in various aspects of Taiwan Studies.

Griffith University’s David C. Schak, Adjunct Associate Professor at Griffith Business School, has expertise in Taiwanese society, social change, Taiwanese Buddhism and Taiwanese business.

At the ANU, John Makeham, Professor of Chinese Studies at the Faculty of Asian Studies, teaches and publishes on Chinese thought and the development of academic disciplines in China and Taiwan.

The ANU has appointed a new Senior Lecturer in Taiwan Studies.  Liao Hsin-Tien, who is currently Associate Professor at the National Taiwan University of Arts in Taipei, will take up the post mid-year. Liao’s areas of expertise are visual culture and visual sociology, postcolonialism and cultural discourse, cultural sociology, art criticism research and Taiwanese art history.

Mark Harrison’s research covers politics and contemporary culture in China and Taiwan. Currently in Taiwan undertaking research, Harrison is Senior Lecturer in Chinese in the School of Asian Languages and Studies at the University of Tasmania.

At the University of Western Australia, Associate Professor Chen Jie focuses on Taiwan’s foreign policy, foreign relations and Taiwanese NGOs.

Fran Martin, a Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the School of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne, has published on sexualities, film, fiction and popular culture in Taiwan.

Taiwan Research Reading Group Film Screening, 2009.  (Photo: TRRG @UoM)

At the University of Melbourne (the institution with which this author is most familiar) in addition to Fran Martin researchers in a number of disciplines have published or are working on Taiwan topics. At the Asia Institute Du Liping is interested in traditional Chinese marketing systems and the social aspects of economic behaviour; Carolyn Stevens in the influence of Japanese popular culture; Sander Adelaar in Austronesian languages; and Lewis Mayo in cultural politics, colonial identities and diaspora Chinese identity.  David Holm, currently in Taiwan at National Tsinghua University, examines Taiwan cultural phenomena in conjunction with wider research on Chinese regional cultures. Sean Cooney at the Law School has examined labour law and civil society. He has also done some work on the legal relationship between Taiwan and the PRC. At the School of Social and Political Sciences, Jui-Shan Chang works on the comparative analysis of social trends and cultural ideals of elites in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. These projects at the University of Melbourne are just a sample of what is being undertaken at Australian universities.

Several Australian early career researchers have benefitted from involvement in Taiwan focused networks in Europe and elsewhere. Mark Harrison, who completed his PhD at Monash University, taught at the University of Westminster in London from 2002 to 2008, and was involved in EATS. Another Australian scholar, Jeremy Taylor, who trained at the ANU and is now at the University of Sheffield, is currently working on 1950s Hong Kong produced Hokkien films; and the Chiang personality cult. In 2009 he collaborated with two North American based academics to organise a workshop at Queens University Canada called “Re-assessing Chiang Kai-shek: An International Dialogue.” Taylor has published a series of important articles and book chapters on Taiwan in a variety of research areas.

Many around Australia are keen to encourage greater interaction among academics and graduate students with an interest in Taiwan; and the University of Melbourne is playing a part. A University of Melbourne Asia Institute public lecture and conference with a Taiwan theme is planned for December 2010. The conference is tentatively titled, “Spatial Cultures and Cultural Spaces in Taiwan: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.” Furthermore, two student groups affiliated with the University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association (GSA) provide opportunities for graduate researchers at the University of Melbourne and others to meet. The purpose of the Taiwan Research Reading Group (TRRG)(plate2) is to facilitate scholarly exchange between students and academics with a research interest in any aspect of Taiwan’s culture and society. The group meets monthly at the Asia Institute. The Chinese Studies Research Group (CSRG), formed in 2004 with the support of the East Asian Collection at the Baillieu Library, also provides a forum for the presentation of Taiwan-related research. In December 2007, the CSRG hosted a one-day postgraduate seminar, “Taiwan Today.” (plate 1) It is hoped that these initiatives will contribute to the development of greater dialogue among Australia-based scholars of Taiwan, and thus to the growing field of Taiwan Studies in Australia.


Australia. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). “Taiwan Brief–March 2009.”http://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/taiwan/taiwan_brief.html

Crook, Steven. “Taiwan Studies Goes Global.” Taiwan Review 57, 10 (1 October 2007). http://taiwanreview.nat.gov.tw/ct.asp?CtNode=119&xItem=24694

Jacobs, J. Bruce. “Taiwan Studies in Australia: An Overview.” Issues and Studies: A Social Science Quarterly on China, Taiwan and East Asian Affairs, 43, 1 (March 2007): 217-243.

Harrison, Mark. Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Storm, Carsten and Mark Harrison. “Methodologies, Epistemologies, and a Taiwan Studies.” In The Margins of Becoming. Identity and Culture in Taiwan, edited by Carsten Storm and Mark Harrison, 7-18. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2007.



TRRG: send an email to taiwan_reading_group@yahoo.com.au to join the mailing list. See also www.gsa.unimelb.edu.au/gradstudentgroupdetails/, and on facebook.

CSRG: www.lib.unimelb.edu.au/collections/asian/CSRG/CSRG.html, also on facebook.


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