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We Must Speak Our Name Out – On The Contradictions Of Polish Scholars' Taiwan Exceptionalism

Photography by Yu Chih-wei (余志偉)

How is Taiwan seen under the gaze of others? What might hinder people from understanding Taiwan as it is through a more realistic approach? How can Taiwanese establish and present its own subjectivity? Lin Wei-Yun ‘s (林蔚昀) insightful critique of a Polish edited volume on Taiwan might provide some meaningful clues.

Perhaps due to Taiwan’s marginal status in the international community, Taiwanese people are often flattered when foreigners show their recognition and liking of Taiwan; We are overjoyed and express our gratitude enthusiastically on social media whenever we see foreigners supporting Taiwan or speaking out for Taiwan. However, do foreigners really understand Taiwan and support Taiwan that well? Is there a divide between the Taiwan they know and support and the Taiwan we perceive? What are their reasons for supporting Taiwan? This is a very interesting and noteworthy question.

Having lived in Poland for eleven years, I have always been interested in how Poles see Taiwan. Most Taiwanese would suppose that since Poland is anti-communist and has the similar history of being oppressed like Taiwan, Poles might empathize and sympathize with Taiwan’s situation, support Taiwan, and oppose China. But according to my personal observations, the situation is far more complicated than that. Some Poles who have been to Taiwan, currently live in Taiwan, and have friends in Taiwan are indeed emotionally closer to Taiwan, understand Taiwan, and support Taiwan. But does the mere feeling of emotional connection and sympathy also mean direct support? This remains to be seen. Most Poles, nonetheless, have no idea where Taiwan is or know little about the country. How can we expect them to be empathetic? Some Poles realize the difference between China and Taiwan and understand the historical background of Taiwan and China, but they think of Taiwan as “a good, free, democratic China with traditional Chinese culture” and of the Taiwanese as “Chinese living in Taiwan.” In fact, the sinologists and government officials in Poland who think this way are by no means minority.

During the communist era, Poland and Taiwan were politically opposed to each other, and there were no official exchanges between the two. It was only after the 1990s that Polish students were able to study in Taiwan – many did not come to Taiwan for the sake of Taiwan but instead, saw Taiwan as another window to learning Mandarin. In fact, most Polish scholars – including sinologists, international relations scholars, and political scientists – define Taiwan roughly with the following stereotypes: the Republic of China, Chinese culture, and Confucianism. Even for scholars who consider themselves pro-Taiwan and like Taiwan, it is difficult to break away from these stereotypes. Only a few of them can truly treat Taiwan as Taiwan and recognize its uniqueness and subjectivity.

The “Exceptionalized” Taiwan in Taiwan’s Exceptionalism

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Taiwan Exceptionalism (Kraków: Jagiellonian University Press, 2019). Provided by Lin Wei-Yun

In March 2020, I found Taiwan's Exceptionalism, a collection of English essays on Taiwan written by Polish scholars and published in 2019. Seeing that the book aligned with my interests as it concerned both Poland and Taiwan, I asked a friend to purchase it from Poland and send it to Taiwan (However, this book has also been made available as an e-book on Amazon and Columbia University's website since October 2020).

I thought this book would tell me how Polish scholars view Taiwan’s current situation and contain many insightful analyses, but after reading it, I realized that that was not the case. Many of the contributing scholars in this collection do not understand Taiwan as it is today and still see Taiwan through the viewing frame of China.

For example, Lech Antonowicz, a retired law professor at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, argues that China is a “divided state,” and that Taiwan is not a fully independent country but rather, a “part of the larger Chinese state” and a “unique entity.” He argues that since the “divided” state of China is abnormal and might not continue, one has to consider its possible changes from the perspective of international law. In his view, there are two peaceful solutions to adjusting China’s status in international law: one is for Taiwan to accept the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” and obtain the same status as Hong Kong, but with a higher degree of autonomy; the other is to become the second China and then negotiate about reunification thereafter. “Achieving this would open the way to a broader recognition of Taiwan as a full-fledged state and the formation of diplomatic ties with many other states,” he wishfully believes. “This would eliminate most of the barriers to accepting Taiwan into various international organizations – including the United Nations, provided that the People’s Republic of China would not use its veto power as the legal successor of the Chinese state in the international community.”[1]
Lech Antonowicz, “The Legal Status of Taiwan under International Law,” Taiwan’s Exceptionalism (Kraków: Jagiellonina University Press, 2019), pp. 28-30.
On the other hand, Agata W. Ziętek, an associate professor of international relations at the same university and co-editor of this collection, believes that Taiwan has a unique position in the South China Sea. In her regard, although Taiwan, like China, advocates sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, it is more willing to negotiate multilaterally and work together for a peaceful solution as opposed to China, who remains unyielding and refuses to communicate. Taiwanese government’s attitude gives Taiwan the opportunity to become “a responsible stakeholder,” “a peacemaker,” and “a leader in regional cooperation” in the South China Sea.[2]
Agata W. Ziętek, “Taiwan’s Unique Position Toward the South China Sea,” Taiwan’s Exceptionalism (Kraków: Jagiellonina University Press, 2019), pp. 47.
However, Taiwan’s sovereign independence is indispensable for Taiwan to become a peacemaker in the South China Sea and a leader in regional cooperation. How is this to be accomplished if it turns out to be as Antonowicz proposes? While Ziętek approves of President Tsai's foreign policy, another editor of the book, Ewa Trojnar, an associate professor at Jagiellonian University’s Institute of the Middle and Far East, argues[3]
Ewa Trojnar, “Taiwan-China-United States Relations: Taiwan’s Unique Safe House for Better or Worse, ” Taiwan’s Exceptionalism (Kraków: Jagiellonina University Press, 2019), pp. 74.
that Tsai’s election to the presidency in 2016 has led to a diplomatic dark period for Taiwan, as the tendency of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which she represents, towards Taiwan’s independence has led China to isolate Taiwan internationally further. If we go back to Trojnar's 2015 publication[4]
Ewa Trojnar, TAJWAN Dylematy Rozwoju (Kraków: Księgarnia Akademicka, 2015), pp. 343-344.
, TAJWAN Dylematy Rozwoju (Taiwan – Dilemma of Development), we can see that she highly praises the Kuomintang (KMT) government’s pragmatic approach and willingness to engage in dialogue with China and argues that such a policy will gain international space for Taiwan (with China’s acquiescence) and minimize military conflicts in the Taiwan Strait, which is also in the interest of the United States.

To Trojnar, the idea of groveling and begging for compromise becomes a peaceful dialogue and a struggle for international space – a somewhat unthinkable idea for many Taiwanese today, but it is exactly the approach of the Kuomintang towards the relationship between Taiwan and China, and the tone of many of the essays in Taiwan’s Exceptionalism. In this context, sovereignty becomes a taboo subject that must be carefully avoided.

The third editor of this collection, Anna Rudakowska, who is currently teaching in the Department of Global Politics and Economics at Tamkang University, analyzes in her essay how Taiwan is represented in the Polish media. She argues that Taiwan should promote more non-controversial and widely accepted issues such as democracy, economic development, environmental protection, high standard of living/education, and international aid in order to win support. However, when invoking any topics related to sovereignty, including references to the island’s independence and international status, Taiwan “should be very careful…, since it cannot compete with the PRC for legitimacy.”[5]
Anna Rudakowska,”Taipei’s Soft Power at Work: The Image of Taiwan in Polish Daillis ”Gazeta Wyborcza” and ”Rzeczpospolita”(台北的軟實力:波蘭日報「選舉報」和「共和國」中的台灣形象),收錄於Taiwan’s Exceptionalism(Kraków: Jagiellonina University Press,2019),頁189。
The civic movement in Taiwan is also mentioned in the collection. Krzysztof Kozłowski, an associate professor in the Department of Political Studies at Warsaw School of Economics, argues that “the nature of Taiwanese civil society does not meet the standards of established Western democracies. As a byproduct of Taiwanese reactions to the Japanese occupation and to the practices that permeated the period of martial law, it is closer to the confrontational nature of post-authoritarian democratic regimes.” He believes that the Sunflower Student Movement is merely a thing of the past now, and “it has to be stated that today it is hard to identify any tangible effects of the Movement other than the suspension of the ECFA procedures.”[6]
Krzysztof Kozłowski, “The Sunflower Movement: An Example of the Dynamics of Civic Activity in Taiwan,” Taiwan’s Exceptionalism (Kraków: Jagiellonina University Press, 2019), pp. 130.

However, the Sunflower Student Movement has changed the way a whole generation of Taiwanese view Taiwan's identity and political participation. For example, many people who were previously apathetic about politics have become involved in social movements thanks to this incident, and many Taiwanese have become interested in Taiwan’s own history, including political history. None of these were seen by Kozłowski; Or, they were simply not his concern.

After closely examining the arguments regarding Taiwan’s politics in Taiwan’s Exceptionalism, I still couldn’t see any benefits for Taiwan in publishing this book. In addition to the outdated ideas, many of the sources cited and referenced by Polish scholars are quite old, and many of them are by foreign authors, with few, if any, by Taiwanese authors. Even if there are statements from Taiwanese scholars, they are mostly in English originally. Taiwan’s Exceptionalism does include a paper by Wu Der-yuan[7]
吳得源,“Exceptionalism under a Glass Ceiling? Taiwan’s Democratic Development and Challenges,” Taiwan’s Exceptionalism (Kraków: Jagiellonina University Press, 2019), pp. 110.
, an associate professor at the College of Social Sciences at National Chengchi University. However, after discussing many of Taiwan’s democratic human rights values, Wu's paper ends with the question as to “whether or not a sustainable democracy ultimately still requires sovereign statehood to protect the achievements of existing democratic institutions and values as well as to ensure its continued practices while expanding and deepening them.” However, I believe many people share my belief that the reason why Taiwan is still able to develop democracy and human rights to date is exactly because it is a sovereign and independent country.

One can’t help but wonder why the Taiwanese government would support such scholars or such an institution to do research and publish such a collection of essays – the publication of Taiwan’s Exceptionalism is sponsored by the Taiwan Studies Centre of the Institute of the Middle and Far East, a centre established by the Ministry of Education of Taiwan at Jagiellonian University – and allow this book, which may misrepresent Taiwan and undermine its international standing, to circulate worldwide?

Taiwan in the Eyes of Other Polish Scholars – Another Democratic China?

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Photography by Yu Chih-wei (余志偉)

Do the arguments in Taiwan’s Exceptionalism reflect the mainstream opinion of Polish academia? What do other Polish scholars think about Taiwan? Out of curiosity, I did some research and found out that many older and mid-career Polish scholars have either the same biased conception of Taiwan as Taiwan’s Exceptionalism or an overwhelmingly pro-China perspective.

In late 2015, Krzysztof Gawlikowski, a prominent figure in the field of Polish sinology and professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Social science and Humanities in Warsaw, gave a talk titled “China-Taiwan in the Pacific” (Chiński Tajwan na basenie Pacyfiku) shortly before the presidential election in Taiwan. Citing the I Ching and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he claimed that a divided China (Taiwan and the People's Republic of China) must be unified in order to bring harmony, otherwise it will fall into chaos. As early as 2000, Gawlikowski believed that peaceful reunification was inevitable, but it was only a matter of timing and formality, and he even predicted that it would happen within 10 to 20 years[8]
Krzysztof Gawlikowski,Wybory predydenckie na Tajwanie w 2000 r. Problem jedności Chin i Azjatyckiej drogi dochodzenia do demokracji(台灣的兩千年總統選舉。中國統一的問題以及亞洲的民主之路),Azja-Pacyfik, t. 3/2000, 頁214 – 215。

Bogdan Góralczyk, a former diplomat and associate professor at the Centre for Europe at the University of Warsaw, said in a 2019 interview that “for the Beijing government, there is no more ‘sacred’ task than unifying all of China. After Hong Kong (1997) and Macau (1999), it is now Taiwan’s turn. This is to achieve what the Chinese call ‘the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.’ That is why China has been so restrained in dealing with Hong Kong. After all, if China uses its military forces to suppress the resistance of the former colony, how will it unify peacefully with Taiwan afterwards?” In another interview in 2017, he put it more bluntly: “First of all, building a well-off society and realizing the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation require the peaceful reunification of Taiwan. Without unification, there is no rejuvenation, first with the return of Hong Kong, then Macau and lastly Taiwan.”

Some Polish scholars tend to see Taiwan as a good, traditional, and democratic China. For these scholars, Taiwan is like a repository of the essence of Chinese culture, but they fail to have a deeper understanding of Taiwan's own culture. Ewa Zajdler, chair of the Department of Sinology at the Institute of Oriental Studies of Jagiellonian University, loves Taiwan, but what she loves is Taiwan's Chinese culture. When I tried to tell her that there is not only Chinese culture in Taiwan, but also Japanese culture, American culture, aboriginal culture, and Taiwanese new immigrants' culture , she replied, “Yes, but Chinese culture is still the mainstream.”

When Taiwan is generally considered by most Polish scholars as another China, a good China, and a democratic China, and when Taiwanese are seen as Chinese living in Taiwan, Taiwan’s subjectivity and uniqueness will be ignored and erased. It seems that, in the minds of these pro-China/Chinese scholars, it does not matter who the Taiwanese think they are or what kind of future they want, because Taiwan exists only to maintain peace and stability in East Asia and the South China Sea, to democratize China, to revive the Chinese nation, and to preserve the fine, traditional Chinese culture. Even Taiwanese literature is seen as a contrast group.

Taiwanese Literature Placed in the Shadow of China

Katarzyna Sarek, the translator of the Polish versions of The Man with the Compound Eyes and The Sound of Colors and an associate professor in the Department of Sinology at the Institute of Oriental Studies of Jagiellonian University, said in a Podcast regarding the translation of Chinese literature in 2020: “Taiwanese literature embodies a possibility that allows us to see what Chinese literature can be, that Chinese writers can write whatever they want.” She also pointed out that compared to Chinese literature, Taiwanese literature is more “rebellious” (niegrzeczna) and touches on a broader array of issues (such as issue of homosexuality), and she hopes that more Taiwanese literature will be published in Poland so that Polish readers can see that “not only trauma and the Cultural Revolution, but also ordinary life is worth writing and reading about.” Hearing these words from her, I can’t help but ask: Why should Taiwanese literature take on the mission of opening up “another possibility for Chinese literature?” Besides, Chinese literature and Taiwanese literature are not the same in the first place!

Unfortunately, Katarzyna Sarek is not alone. Elżbieta Brzozowska, the editor of the long-established publishing house National Institute of Publishing (Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, PIW), also entertains such an idea. In an interview, Brzozowska talked about Taiwanese literature: “It would be very interesting to compare these two literary lines (Taiwan and China) – after all, they are derived from the same classical tradition – because it would show us what the literature of mainland China would have become if it had not undergone decades of total communist repression of artistic freedom.”[9]
“Literatura rdzennie i pierwotnie czysta Z Elżbietą Brzozowską, redaktorką, o chińskiej literaturze rozmawia Maciej Libich”(根本地、原始地乾淨的文學。Maciej Libich和中國文學的編輯Elżbieta Brzozowska對談),eleWator,nr 33 (3/2020),頁76。
Under such a stereotype, it is impossible for Taiwanese literature to be seen in its own light. PIW planned to publish an anthology of Taiwanese literature in December 2020 [ii]
The author of this article, Lin Wei-Yun, wrote a review on this book titled Na drumgim brzegu: Antologia współczesnych opowiadań tajwańskich in March 2021.
, and I am eager to know what works will be selected and how Taiwanese literature will be represented.

It is not that Taiwanese people have never experienced trauma. Taiwan has been ruled by the Netherlands, Japan, and China; Taiwanese have experienced the 228 Incident, the White Terror, and is still suppressed by China and not recognized internationally. If the people of Taiwan are able to lead – temporarily – an ordinary, free and democratic life, they have earned it through blood and sweat, and they may lose it, have it destroyed, or taken away from them inadvertently. What the Taiwanese want is nothing more than to live an average, ordinary, and normal life; to be treated as a normal country by the international community; and to have the rights that a normal country possesses. However, Taiwan has been specialized and exceptionalized and told: you can’t, you are not qualified, you are not legal, this is not yours, you can’t decide your own fate.

Among the many unbelievable statements made by Polish scholars, the most perplexing is the definition of Taiwan in the encyclopedia of the Polish Scientific Publishers (Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, PWN): “An East Asian country whose territory includes the island of Taiwan and 21 outlying islands and the Penghu Islands, located in the Taiwan Strait that separates Taiwan from China. Taiwan is formally a province of China, but in fact independent of the government of the People's Republic of China.”

How is it possible for a country to be a province of another country? Which China is the “China” referred to by the Encyclopedia? This entry perfectly demonstrates the contradiction of many Polish scholars’ views on Taiwan, which one can clearly see in the Polish historian Ewa Solska’s statement: “Facebook, Google, and Amazon are available in China, but only in Taiwan.”[10]
Ewa Solska,“Patrząc na Zhongguo”(凝視中國),eleWator,nr 33 (3/2020),頁36。

After “Taiwan Can Help”

The case of Poland may just be one example, and perhaps there are other countries whose academics view Taiwan in the same outdated and biased way. Taiwanese must pay attention to the changes in the academic, political, and media worlds abroad. When Taiwanese see scholars engaged in Taiwan studies and publishers publishing works on Taiwanese literature, we should not just be happy that “Taiwan has been seen,” but should closely examine and study what they publish, the quality of their translations, how they argue, whether their arguments are beneficial or harmful to Taiwan, and what kind of Taiwan they have in mind.

On the other hand, we must also actively promote Taiwan and tell foreigners what Taiwan really looks like and how Taiwanese understand themselves and their land. It is not enough to use the beauty of Taiwan to attract foreigners’ attention and make them like Taiwan. Many foreigners who have visited or lived in Taiwan (including Poles) like Taiwan, like its history and culture, its natural environment, its democracy and human rights; They feel that living in Taiwan is good, convenient, efficient, safe (though they complain about the traffic), and that Taiwanese people are friendly and approachable. However, can this liking be translated into real political support? When Taiwan is threatened by military and political means, can this liking be transformed into striving for and defending Taiwan, instead of staying in Taiwan when Taiwan is peaceful and safe but cutting and running when the island is in dire situation (being attacked and annexed by the PRC)?

This is a cruel question, but one that Taiwanese should ask themselves and use to examine every foreigner who says that he or she “likes Taiwan.” This is not to say that when you hear that a foreigner likes Taiwan, you have to ask: “What would you do for Taiwan?” Rather, we don’t have to express our enthusiasm one-sidedly upon hearing “I like Taiwan,” but should wait and observe to see if the other person is worthy of our friendship and dedication, and to think about what we can do in exchange for their support.

We need to find one or more things that really represent Taiwan in a powerful way and that will impress people at first glance. “Taiwan can help” managed to attract attention during the pandemic, but do we want to keep saying “Taiwan can help” after the pandemic? After the pandemic, how will Taiwan participate in the international community? If Taiwan can still help, what exactly will it help? Who will we help? And what do we want others to help us with? All these should be carefully and pragmatically thought about.

What can Taiwan promote about itself? Apart from the food and culture that Taiwanese often think of, there are many other issues that Taiwan should promote such as economic development, medical technology, democracy and human rights, LGBTQ+ rights, the Tâi-gí[i]
To learn more about theTâi-gí revival movement and the use of the language in popular culture , see this piece published by the Reporter.
revival movement, tourism and landscapes, women's issues, the integration of aboriginal title with environmental conservation and heritage preservation, the interaction between new residents and Taiwanese society. More importantly, it is crucial to develop a narrative that reflects Taiwan's identity and subjectivity, so that our readership can fully grasp that Taiwan is an independent country, why they should be interested in it, and what the benefits of working with it are. Such a narrative must be available in English (and even better in more foreign languages), so that foreign scholars can renew Taiwan’s image in their minds. Otherwise, we will fall into in the same predicament as the Polish academics mentioned earlier: we will be looking at Taiwan through the eyes of the Kuomintang, the eyes of the Chiang era, the eyes of China, or else the imaginary idea of the West about the East – not only in terms of Taiwan's culture, but also in terms of its politics.

Speak for Ourselves and Not Rely on Others to Speak for Us

Meanwhile, we must also think thoroughly about how to effectively bring Taiwanese culture onto the international stage. To promote Polish cinema, the National Audiovisual Institute (Narodowy Instytut Audiowizualny) set up a website, NINATEKA, where 7,000 audiovisual works (documentaries, animations, dramas, theatre records... many of them classics) are available for free viewing. Could we do the same in Taiwan (but with subtitles in foreign languages, as the biggest drawback of NINATEKA is that there are no subtitles for foreign audience)? We could even create cultural databases in foreign languages (English to begin with, but more foreign languages would be better if we have the capacity) and list all the links to cultural websites worth visiting (of course, these websites should also be available in foreign languages), so that it would be easier for foreigners to look for information.

The establishment of online cultural databases in foreign languages will not only make it easier for foreigners interested in Taiwan to get in touch with, understand and get closer to Taiwanese culture, but also provide Taiwanese abroad (students overseas, Taiwanese who marry foreigners, Mandarin teachers) who want to promote Taiwanese culture with more resources. After all, it can be very costly to buy books and DVDs and lend them to foreign friends. In fact, we already have many online cultural databases, such as Bank of Culture, Old House Face, StoryStudio, and Creative Comic Collection... all there is left to do is to make them available in foreign languages.

If we can set up cultural databases in foreign languages, we can also establish online museums, online news/commentary/in-depth reporting databases (and these have to be large and updated promptly), Taiwanese history databases, a TV station (that can be watched outside of Taiwan!), all available in foreign languages. Besides, we can also carry out cultural diplomacy workshops for Taiwanese young adults. We must speak for ourselves as much as we can, not just wait passively and thank people for speaking up for us, because we have no idea why they are speaking up and whether they are really speaking up for you or taking your voice away.

We must speak our names out loud, not wait for others to name us. This is the only way we can truly exist and gain recognition and respect

To read the Chinese version of this article, please click:〈林蔚昀/我們必須說出自己的名字──從波蘭學者《台灣例外論》的矛盾談起〉





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