The Taiwan question is on the front burner

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 11, 2024

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Sunset over the Taiwanese capital, Taipei City. Image: Thomas Tucker, Unsplash

Welcome to This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s big news story.

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The Big Story:

Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, has a pivotal presidential election with implications that could go far beyond the island of 23 million.

  • A self-governed democracy, Taiwan is claimed by China as its territory. In a New Year message, China’s leader Xi Jinping said that Taiwan’s “reunification” with the mainland is an “historical inevitability”.
  • The US, which is Taiwan’s most significant international supporter, is watching events closely. America is bound by its own laws to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself and in August, the US Congress approved the sale of millions of dollars of military equipment and weapons to the island.
  • Some analysts fear that Taiwan is a potential flashpoint for a superpower showdown between the US and China. Western diplomats also express concerns that Beijing could escalate military tensions between Taiwan’s election day and the mid-May inauguration of its new president.

The Backstory:

  • Taiwan, separated from China by the Taiwan Strait, has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.
  • In the run-up to Taiwan’s election, Beijing warned voters against keeping in power their incumbent ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which it regards as separatist for refusing to define the island as part of China.
  • The US approach to Taiwan is governed by its One-China policy, which “acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China”.
  • Only 13 United Nations members states maintain official ties with Taiwan.

This Week, Those Books:

  • A cookbook that stirs politics into Taiwan’s signature soy sauce.
  • A cocktail of history, family lore and nature-writing from 89-mile-wide Taiwan.
  • A serving of more than 400 years of Taiwan’s colonial history.

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  • Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island NationBy: Clarissa WeiPublisher: S&S/Simon Element

    Year: 2023

    Clarissa Wei’s cookbook makes a political statement simply by highlighting the unique taste of Taiwan’s soy sauce and black vinegar. The soy sauce, she says, has both Chinese and Japanese influences and the black vinegar is more like Worcestershire sauce than the equivalent Chinese condiment.

    This is pungent stuff, in the context of Chinese attempts to convince Taiwan and the world that the island is merely an appendage of the mainland. Instead, we find that Taiwan’s food has flavours that aren’t very Chinese at all.

    US-born Wei, who worked on the book with Taiwanese cooking instructor Ivy Chen, writes: “I hope the world can see Taiwan as more than just a geopolitical chess piece or a controversial island near China with great night markets”.

    In this book, at least, Taiwan is an independent nation, in culinary and cultural terms. Wei categorises Taiwan’s cuisine by the six major historical periods in the island’s life: The 17th century Dutch and the Chinese pirate Koxinga who ousted them (and is credited with inventing the oyster omelet); 200 years of the Qing dynasty; 50 years of Japanese rule and then, after World War II, two trends in parallel – regional Chinese food via the people fleeing the Communists newly in charge of China and American influence via aid. Taiwan’s current culinary identity, the book says, harks back to the 1980s when it transitioned into a democracy.

  • Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and CoastsBy: Jessica J. LeePublisher: Virago Press

    Year: 2019

    An unusual book about multi-layered identities and belonging. Jessica J. Lee explores the history of her family and of Taiwan, as well as its lush landscape and linguistic individuality. An environmental historian, born in Canada to a Welsh father and a mother who comes from Taiwan, Lee retraces her family’s footsteps, noting the island’s unique landscape, language and politics. She does so with measured lyricism.

  • Forbidden Nation: A History of TaiwanBy: Jonathan ManthorpePublisher: Palgrave MacMillan

    Year: 2005

Veteran Canadian foreign correspondent and China-watcher Jonathan Manthorpe starts with a shocker from another pivotal election campaign: the attempted assassination in 2004 of Taiwan’s then president, Chen Shuibian. The president was running for re-election. His DPP had ousted the Kuomintang, Taiwan’s longtime party of government, from power just four years before. The rise of the DPP, with its emphasis on asserting Taiwan’s “distinct cultural identity and independence” was a “signal moment”, writes Manthorpe. He goes on to explore Taiwan’s “unhappy accident of geography”, sitting “on the strategic meeting place between the Far East and Southeast Asia” and at a point in the oceans from where it can “control the south China coast.”

Originally published at This Week, Those Books
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