Prime Collection: A New Perspective on Taiwan

 Author: Editor of TELDAP DVD Huang Yaqin

“In Taiwan, when studying the history of past dynasties, one has access to a group of highly concentrated historical material. However, if you are studying the history of Taiwan, there is no similar body of resources, as the information available is more 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 from seeing the expression of one in deep confusion on my face, Professor Hsu hastened to add, “Though Taiwan's geographical location allows frequent contact with foreign countries, related information is taken away as soon as the foreigners leave Taiwan and return 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 their 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, while some has been piling up on the side due to insufficient manpower and has grown mottled and fragile over the years.
At the start of the project, professor Hsu's team consisted of 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 seeing 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 in the future with more people to carry out the project. The professor speaks about this library of historical information as if talking about her own children, every word revealing deep concern. It is that mother-like warmth which inspires others to care for the precious books and records with her. 
According to Professor Hsu, we gain a deep understanding of Taiwan's history not only from official data, but also from letters, pictures and works inherited from our predecessors which are all very much a part of history. This puzzle-like collection of information is the effort of many Taiwanese historical scholars who have invested more than half of their lifetime in its creation, frequently traveling around the world to acquire the relevant data.  
After returning home, I started going through the professor's compilation of selected historical data and had a completely different reading experience. On encountering the complexity of Taiwan's history, which for those of us who live on this island feels as natural as breathing, I realized that I never fully understood its significance. But if you think about it, if we lose 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 help more people generate interest in Taiwan's history, providing a base for social contact and branching these connections out across the globe. The dream is 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, such as large numbers of personal letters and documents. Through the following links, you can read the exchange of such letters and get a glimpse of life in Taiwan from another time.
Du Xiang-guo Documents
Yang Yun-ping Documents
Ye Rongzhong Letter