A reporter’s snapshots capture democracy in Taiwan


Taiwan Snapshots of Democracy cover

Taiwan: Snapshots of Democracy in Action (我鏡頭下的民主時刻) is a photo book by Taiwan-based German journalist Klaus Bardenhagen (aka taiwanreporter). As well as being packed with photos it is fully bilingual with text in English and Chinese.

The book covers the period from 2008 to 2012 which was Ma Ying-jeou’s first term as president. Events are neatly bracketed by coverage of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

The collection of photos capture some of the diversity and vibrancy of Taiwanese democracy. The book shows how the place named Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall by the Chen Shui-bian administration reverted to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall under Ma Ying-jeou. This site of contest reflects the wider contest between green and blue in Taiwan politics. It also shows some of the purple through images of Falun Dafa (法輪大法), the annual LGBT Pride parade, anti-nuclear protests and the battle between the economy and the environment.

Two major events that seem to be missing from the book are the protests that erupted during the first visit of Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin in December 2008 and Typhoon Morakot in August 2009. In many ways these events and their aftermath set the tone for the first term of Ma’s presidency.

Overall the book is a little short but it serves as a very useful introduction to Taiwan for the uninitiated. It highlights the diverse and colourful nature of Taiwan’s civil society as well as its polarisation. For me it is a nice souvenir as it covers much of the period I lived in Taiwan and I observed many of the events pictured in the book.

*For details about how to order the book see taiwanreporter’s website. It is available in ebook format for Apple devices or hard copy.

Book review: Why China Will Never Rule the World

In the introduction to Why China Will Never Rule the World author Troy Parfitt sets out his motivation for writing the book. Neither academic nor journalist, he simply wants to see things for himself. However, Parfitt does not arrive in China as a naive foreigner. Instead he has already spent more than a decade living on the periphery of China in Taiwan and South Korea. This experience, combined with the author’s Mandarin speaking ability, gives the book a refreshing perspective that differentiates it from other travel books about China.

Parfitt’s journey begins in Hong Kong, another place that is on the periphery of China. It is both part of China, yet distinctly different. The opening chapters about Hong Kong and Macau provide a good counterpoint when the author’s exploration of China proper begins. Continue reading

A tale of two nations

It might seem hard to imagine now but 20 years ago there were many similarities between the political situation in Taiwan and China. Both countries had an authoritarian polity with strict controls on freedom of speech. On university campuses the party-state (KMT or CCP) maintained tight control over student organisations and political activities. The situation in Taiwan was less repressive and there was a formal opposition movement in the DPP.

In The Perils of Protest, Teresa Wright makes a comparative study of the 1989 student protests in Beijing and the March 1990 Wild Lily Student Movement in Taipei. She examines in detail the organisational and decision making behaviour of the students. The actions taken by the students in Beijing and Taipei had many similarities including the launching of hunger strikes and separation of students from non-students during protests. Continue reading

Book review: Song of Orchid Island

Cover of Song of Orchid Island by Barry MartinsonSong of Orchid Island
by Barry Martinson
Gabriel Press, Taipei, 2006
ISBN: 9868221900
purchase from Amazon.com

* * * * * 

I first learnt of this book when I heard its author, Father Barry Martinson, interviewed on What's up in Taiwan. It made me very curious to learn more both about Orchid Island (蘭嶼 or Lan Yu) and Father Barry. Father Barry is a Jesuit priest who has been living in Taiwan for about 35 years. As a young man he spent a year living on Orchid Island and was so moved by the experience that he sought to record it as a book.

The history of the book and getting it published is interesting. The original manuscript was almost lost before being recovered from a publisher in the USA. It was only because of the interest of the famous Taiwanese writer San Mao (三毛), who translated the book into Chinese, that it was ever published at all. 

The English edition was published last year. Father Barry hopes that it can help Taiwanese people to learn English. On the Taubooks website he writes,

Before, I never read much in Chinese, because I could never find anything I liked. Then, one day, about 25 years ago, San Mao mailed me her first book called, Sahara Story.

I read the book from cover to cover. It was easy to read, because I liked what she wrote. Then I realized that if you find a book you like, you really would read it, even if it were in another language.

This is reflected in the simplicity of the language in the book. And I think this reflects the simplicity of life on Orchid Island. The author doesn't try to paint a picture of the island as a utopia. Hunger and illness were serious problems on the island. At the same time the richness of the culture and sense of community combined to make it a very special place. 

I also really liked Father Barry's attitude to his work. He simply wanted to help the people and had great respect for their culture and lifestyle. This is a wonderful book that creates a great portrait of life on Orchid Island.

Book review: ABC Chinese-English Dictionary

cover of ABC Chinese-English DictionaryABC Chinese-English Dictionary
edited by John DeFrancis
University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1999 (pocket edition)
ISBN: 0824821548
Cost: NT$630 at Caves Books, Taipei

I earlier reviewed the Far East Pinyin Chinese-English Dictionary. The ABC Dictionary actually takes the organisation of Chinese words by pinyin a step further. Rather than just indexing characters by pinyin it indexes individual words by pinyin. ABC is actually a clever acronym meaning "Alphabetically Based Computerized".

It is a revolutionary approach to the language. It is easy to get trapped into thinking Chinese is a language made up of characters (字), but in fact it is made up of words (詞). Most of these words have multiple syllables, and hence multiple characters.  

Making the switch from a character based dictionary to this dictionary does take a little getting used to. It also shows that there are advantages and disadvantages to both systems of indexing. Chinese characters are without a doubt cumbersome to index. There will always be a few characters where it is difficult to figure out the exact number of strokes or the exact radical to find the character. With the ABC Dictionary as long as you know the pronunciation of the word then it is very fast and easy to find it in the dictionary. 

Sample text of ABC Chinese-English DictionaryThis dictionary is particularly useful for finding words that you hear spoken and are not sure of the meaning. It is often very difficult to find words that you hear in character based dictionaries even if you know the exact pronunciation. For example, if you hear the word jīfĕng (譏諷) you will have to look through the individual entries for about 30 characters to find the word in a character based dictionary. If you are unsure of the tone of the first syllable finding the word becomes a near impossible task. In the ABC dictionary you can find it right between jìfēn and jífēng. Even if you are unsure of the tone then it is only a matter of checking a few entries which are located next to each other. (Many Taiwanese people don't clearly pronounce the different sounds like z/zh and s/sh, so sometimes you need to cross check the entries for both sounds.)

However, when you don't know the pronunciation and have to look up the character by radical or stroke number then some of the advantage of using the ABC Dictionary is lost (it does have a radical index at the back). 

The dictionary has been compiled using lexical data from both China and Taiwan. Where there are differences in usage between the two countries this is noted using PRC or TW in the entry. Another great feature of the dictionary is that where homophones occur these are ranked in order of frequency.  

One disadvantage of this dictionary for users in Taiwan is that it uses simplified characters. Single character entries show the traditional character (where it is different), but multiple character words are only shown with simplified characters. For example, the entry for wèi shows 卫 (衛) but the entry for wèishēng only shows 卫生 not 衛生. There are radical indexes for both simplified and traditional characters at the back of the dictionary. 

The usage of the roman alphabet in some Chinese words is also included in the dictionary with entries such as A-xíng gānyán (A型肝炎) meaning hepatitis A and T-xù (T恤) meaning T-shirt. There is even an entry for kălā OK (karaoke). This reflects the contemporary usage of Chinese. (KTV doesn't get an entry though.)

One advantage of a character based dictionary is that words with similar meanings are grouped together. Words that have the same first character will often (although not always) have related meanings. For example, in a character based dictionary, shèjì (設計) meaning design would be immediately followed by shèjìshī (設計師 meaning designer) and shèjìtú (設計圖) meaning design drawing. In the ABC Dictionary shèjì is bracketed by shèjí (涉及) meaning to involve and shèjì (社稷) meaning the state or country. 

I don't think any single dictionary can cater to a language learner's every need. This dictionary is best used as a reference for looking up words that you hear. When reading texts it is probably easier to use a character based dictionary. However, this dictionary would make a very useful addition to the library of any serious student of Mandarin.

Chinese characters explained

Cover of Illustrated Account of Chinese Characters

Illustrated Account of Chinese Characters (漢字圖解)
(Chinese-English bilingual edition with Traditional Chinese characters)
Compiled by Guanghui Xie (謝光輝)
Joint Publishing, Hong Kong, 2003
ISBN: 9620420888
Cost: NT$700 at Hess Bookstore, Wenhua Road, Banqiao


There are many books on the market that try to explain Chinese characters. This is by far the best one I have ever seen.

sample text  2 of Illustrated Account of Chinese Characterssample text  1 of Illustrated Account of Chinese CharactersEach page contains the character with pinyin written above it. There is a commentary in Chinese and English. An illustration and older forms of the character help to show the character's origin and evolution. The ancient forms of the characters in the book include Oracle Bone inscriptions (甲骨文), Bronze inscriptions (金文) and Seal scripts (小篆). There is often a few common words listed that use the character, too. This can be seen in the sample texts (click on the pictures to see a larger image). 

There are 652 entries so a wide variety of characters are covered, not just the commonly used radicals. The characters are arranged into the following categories: the human body, appliances, architecture, animals, plants, nature and miscellanea. There are also indexes using pinyin and stroke numbers.  

I have found the book useful to better understand some of the more abstract and difficult characters and radicals. For while it is not really difficult to understand why 木 (mù) means wood, how do you begin to make sense of something like 藝 (yì), which means art or skill?

The book is very easy to pick up and just flick through or it could be used for more systematic study. This book would be a useful reference for learners of all levels. 

Review of Keeping up with the War God

cover of Keeping up with the War God by Steven CrookKeeping up with the War God
by Steven Crook
Yushan Publications, 2001
ISBN: 0954087305

Keeping up with the War God does not follow the chronological narrative structure of the typical travel book. Instead it is a series of random observations and jottings from travels around Taiwan. I never felt the book was disjointed though. Steven Crook writes in a wonderful crisp prose, and perhaps that is what holds the book together. 

Also it would be rare for anyone in Taiwan to take a month-long vacation and embark on a grand tour of the island. Travels tend to be of a few days taken when the opportunity arises. So the book follows a winding path around the island.

On a trek to Jade Mountain (玉山) one of Crook's travelling companions says, "What I like about Taiwan is that it is finite."The author follows this quote by writing: "But Taiwan's modest dimensions are deceptive: The island has no deserts or howling wastes, but there are mountains and valleys so inaccessible and so seldom visited that they might just as well be a thousand kilometres from the nearest city."  

This is one of the things I love about Taiwan. It is possible to find places that seem remote or forgotten even though you may only be a few kilometres from the nearest 7-Eleven. It is not even necessary to travel far from the big cities to find these places. They are often just a stone's throw from the crowded urban areas. 

The book details a number of temples and rituals associated with them. The War God referred to in the title is in the small town of Yenshui, notable only for its annual rocket festival. On this occassion huge crowds gather wearing protective gear such as motorcycle helmets and fireworks are fired directly into the crowd. 

It also discusses some of the religious rituals which are a part of every day life in Taiwan such as the burning of ghost money. Crook asks his wife why they don't just burn a spirit credit card instead of huge piles of ghost money. He notes, 'The logic of my wife's reply was unassailable: My grandmother couldn't read or write. She wouldn't know how to sign her name."'

Religion is probably the most consistent theme of the book. Although there are many other observations about Taiwanese life: the crazy traffic, the seemingly endless proliferation of small businesses and crime.   

While Crook is not always complimentary about Taiwanese culture, his passion and love for Taiwan always shines through. My only complaint about this book is that it is too short.

Understanding the struggle for democracy

cover of taiwan the struggles of a democracy

Taiwan: The Struggles of a Democracy
by Jerome F. Keating
SMC Publishing, Taipei, 2006
ISBN: 9574137708

Many people marvel at Taiwan's miraculous transformation from an authoritarian single party state to a multi-party democracy. Taiwan is often hailed as the world's first Chinese democracy. Jerome Keating looks at democracy in Taiwan from a different perspective. Instead of asking why did Taiwan become a democracy, he asks why did it take so long?

He compares the situation of Japan, Germany and Taiwan after World War Two. Japan and Germany made relatively rapid transitions from martial law to democracy while in Taiwan it took more than 40 years. 

It is the KMT, with its belief in entitlement to privilege and power, which has been the biggest obstacle to democracy in Taiwan. Meanwhile, Taiwanese identity has been shaped under successive occupiers who used the island for their own purposes without considering the desires of the native Taiwanese. 

Keating recognises that the roots of democracy extend much further back in Taiwan's history than is commonly thought. The first expression of common Taiwanese identity and desire for self determination was the establishment of the short-lived Republic of Formosa in 1895. The Republic came to an end after the Japanese arrived on Taiwan in the same year.  However, it was during the Japanese era that ideas about democracy in Taiwan firmly took root. Many Taiwanese had the opportunity to be educated in Japan and while there observed the development of parliamentary democracy. They began petitioning for Taiwanese participation in the Japanese Diet.

Taiwanese finally won the right to select two Senators and five MPs in 1945. Six months later the Japanese lost the war and the KMT moved onto Taiwan. The Taiwanese struggle for democracy was once again back to square one.  

The book includes several articles about the individuals who have made the greatest contribution to the development of democracy in Taiwan. Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) is recognised as the person who contributed the most to democracy in Taiwan. Other lesser known figures such as Su Beng (史明) and Kuo Yu-hsin (郭雨新) are also noted as men who have continually lived by their principles and tireless believed in the rights of the Taiwanese people to enjoy democracy free from oppression by the KMT or the PRC.  

These people are compared with Hsu Hsin-liang (許新良) and Sisy Chen (陳文茜), once key figures in the dangwai (黨外) movement and DPP, who later abandoned their ideals in favour of their own personal ambitions. 

The book also analyses voting patterns in Taiwan's recent elections. There has been a huge loss of votes for the KMT in the Presidential elections with the DPP making similarly big gains. The elections for the Legislative Yuan have been hampered by a "one vote, multiple member" system. This allows many candidates to be elected with only a relative small number of votes. This will change with the 2007 elections which will adopt a "single-member district, two-vote system". This should favour the two major parties and improve the quality of candidates elected to the legislature. 

Keating's book serves as an excellent introduction to the politics of Taiwan. It offers many insights into the reasons why Taiwanese politics is the way it is today. It also offers both hope and caution for the future.