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WoWasis book review: ‘A New History of Taiwan’ by Hung Chien-Chau

Written By: herbrunbridge - Sep• 20•11

Joe Hung at his book launching (photo CNA)

Noted Taiwan newspaperman Hung Chien-Chau (also known by his English name, Joe Hung) has admirably faced up to the daunting task of writing a history of his country in A New History of Taiwan (2011, ISBN 978-986-86637-3-2), an updated edition of his 368 page book of 2000. Hung is a veteran journalist who serves as Chairman of Taiwan’s central News Agency, and has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University in Washington, District of Columbia. This 483 page book reads well-enough to be a novel, and provides fascinating historical data on historical eras ranging from the advent of indigenous aboriginal groups through the national elections of 2008.

Some of his best writing concerns the Ming and Qing conflicts during the time of Koxinga, the Japanese era of 1895-1945, 20th century industrial and public works projects, and the post Chiang Kai-shek period. From our perspective here at WoWasis, the most fascinating part of the book delves with the election process and the various regimes that have held political sway over the island in the last two decades. We’ve seen the parliamentary fisticuffs on television, and Hung reveals the tensions that drive these passions, including some wonderful insight into the corruption and bribery scandals that rocked the nation.

With the exception of the map on the rear cover, there are no maps in the book, which would have been helpful for the Western reader. In particular, we would have benefitted from maps of various eras, showing place names, which changed along with history. The book itself is very nicely designed, with a lovely wraparound cover, stitched binding with integrated bookmark, and pages made of paper that enhance the reading experience.

Perhaps where Hung shows his writing and analytical chops best are the several pages in which he critiques the young people of Taiwan, in terms of their economic and social habits, including the influence of superstition on their lives:

“Still another task, which is a much harder nut to crack, is a sort of moral
rearmament to curb the hedonistic penchants of young adults. People in their
20s belong to what is popularly called the “strawberry generation.” They
look nice, red and shining, but are extremely fragile like strawberries. Unlike
their grandparents who experienced war, most of these young adults have
been pampered almost their entire lives and detest hard work. They would
do almost anything to get a quick buck. They are Machiavellian, convinced
the end justifies the means. One public opinion survey asked college students
whether they would cheat in examinations. Eight out of every 10 respondents
told their pollsters they would cheat just to get high grades, even though they
knew cheating was wrong. Honesty is no longer their best policy. And they
have role models to look up to: corrupt political leaders from President Chen
Shui-bian on down. The rapid proliferation of colleges and universities, one
lamentable outgrowth of the education reform recommended by Nobel laureate
Lee Yuan-tseh, has led to an increasingly high jobless rate among new college
graduates. Taiwan now has more than 180 degree-granting institutions of
higher learning, the highest density of university population in the world, which
has resulted in a coinciding fall in the quality of higher education. Quite a few
of these young college graduates who can find no jobs chose to end their lives
out of despair. They were true strawberries, not tough enough to survive the
harsh struggle for existence. But by far the greater majority of young people
believe life is for them to enjoy. Fun is easily available because banks are
more than willing and ready to give them credit to buy it. These banks, overly
eager to extend consumer credit to people who they know are unable to repay,
have issued credit, debit and cash cards almost indiscriminately, helping create
millions of “card slaves” in the last two years of the first decade of the 21st
century. They are slaves in every sense of that word, for they have to toil for
the rest of their lives to repay their card debt. Taiwan’s suicide rate has soared.

“Moreover, an increasingly large number of young people are turning
ever more superstitious. Geomancers and quack “religious” gurus are raking
in billions of dollars. Again, the young people have good examples to follow.
Frank Hsieh, for instance, knelt before a once-convicted quack to beg for divine
help to beat his Kuomintang rival Wu Den-yih in the Kaohsiung mayoral
election in 1998- Hsieh won. His guru. Sung Chi-li, was convicted of fraud for
claiming a magical ability to levitate and openly said he took Hsieh to the Eiffel
Tower in reincarnation, though they both did not leave Taiwan. And Hsieh did
not deny it. President Chen seemed intent on imposing the rule of magic, too.
He showed an amulet he never parted with and claimed it saved him from the
assassin’s bullet on March 19, 2004 and helped him survive what he called a
“soft” coup d’etat that followed. The term referred to a conspiracy of retired
top brass who tried to persuade their former colleagues in active duty to resign
en masse to topple him. He even had tens of thousands of replicas of the
amulet made and distributed them to his supporters, young and old, claiming
the look-alikes would help them fulfill whatever wishes they might have.
Many Cabinet ministers consulted geomancers as to how they should rearrange
their offices to insure they could keep their portfolios. At the suggestion of a
geomancer, these top government officials would spend millions of dollars to
have old trees removed, gates razed and new ones made, while a long tunnel
still under construction was opened to “traffic” a dozen times on auspicious
occasions. Matsu, the goddess of the seas, was paraded in New York to call
for divine support to facilitate Taiwan’s entry into the United Nations using
the name Taiwan. A recent poll shows seven out of every 10 college students
believe ghosts bring them bad luck. Nothing has been done to slow down this
superstition bandwagon.” 

Pretty tough societal analysis for what is ostensibly a history book, and it’s commentary such as this that makes the book so readable. This is an important book that is recommended to anyone wishing to sort out the dramatic events that continue to influence the politics and culture of Taiwan.

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