A New Perspective on Taiwan

Author: Huang Yaqin, Editor of TELDAP DVD


“In Taiwan, one who studies the history of past dynasties has access to a group of highly concentrated historical materials. However, when it comes to studying Taiwan’s history, one enjoys no similar body of resources as the information available is all but fragmentary.”

In 2008, I was sitting in the office of the director of the Institute of Taiwan History at Academia Sinica, face to face with professor Hsueh-chi Hsu, conducting an interview on the introduction of the Digitization of Historic Museum Collection from Taiwan Deposited in Foreign Countries.

I looked at the professor doubtfully with a big question mark in my head. Why is it that when we try to study Taiwan's own history, we encounter the problem of obtaining only scattered pieces of information?

The professor continued to explain, “In the past dynasties, Taiwan had been viewed as either a border area or a colony, so information on Taiwan from those times is mostly from the government's point of view. Nowadays, if you want to study Taiwan's political history, no problem, there is ample information. However, information on the history of urban civilization or other similar folk materials is very rare.”

At this point, the question mark in my head only grew bigger, tightening my face with puzzlement. Where did the materials that should have existed go? Probably seeing the look of confusion on my face, Professor Hsu hastened to add, “As you know, Taiwan's geographical location allows frequent contact with foreign countries. The foreigners took away those valuable data as soon as they left Taiwan and returned to their own country. If we can find and retrieve the information, bit by bit, collectively they can play a significant role in the research of Taiwan's history. The professor then described her project’s current progress in detail, including several pieces of Taiwan-related information recovered from Japan, Korea, America, Britain, mainland China and even Russia. Some are personal letters and documents; others include writings, photos or anthropological archives about the people of Taiwan.

She spread out some pictures on the table. Each one was a fragment from the books and data that has been scattered abroad. Today some of the information is being digitized and preserved by the local government. Some, however, has been piling up on the side due to insufficient manpower and has grown mottled and fragile over the years.

Professor Hsu's project team started with four people. Together, they have been continuously collecting information from overseas, traveling back and forth, taking pictures, making records and arranging interviews with various international institutions. There is a feeling of great excitement about discovering so many precious historical materials related to Taiwan, but at the same time, an anxiety forms after they see for themselves how the data might not have been well cared for and protected. Professor Hsu's biggest worry is that she might not have enough time to save this group of scattered information before it is lost to neglect. Therefore, she hopes to spend more time and pool more people’s efforts to carry out the project. She speaks about this library of historical information as if it were her own child, every word revealing deep concern. It is that mother-like warmth which inspires others to care for the precious books and records with her.

It dawns on me that not only do official data bring us to know Taiwan’s history, but that letters, pictures and works inherited from our predecessors are all very much a part of history. Collecting these data is like piecing together a puzzle. Just how many historical scholars spent more than half of their lifetime taking frequent trips around the world. They sought nothing but Taiwan’s past.

After returning home, I started going through the professor's compilation of selected historical data and had a completely different reading experience. I realized that I never fully understood the significance of Taiwan's history, which for those of us who live on this island feels as natural as breathing, But if you think about it, if we lose our history, where does our recognition of Taiwan come from? From where does our deep love for Taiwan arise?

The Taiwan e-Learning and Digital Archives Program now gives new hope to the project of collecting the scattered records and data from abroad. The program can hopefully generate more people’s interest in Taiwan's history. It is a dream that our international friends can join us in the search for precious Taiwan historical information around them.

In addition to looking for records and data scattered overseas, the Taiwan e-Learning and Digital Archives Program is also dedicated to compiling and preserving local collections related to Taiwan’s history, one category of which being large numbers of personal letters and documents. Through the following links, you can read such letters and get a glimpse of life in Taiwan from another time.
Du Xiang-guo Documents
Yang Yun-ping Documents
Ye Rongzhong Letters