In 1973, I was awarded a Ph.D. in anthropology for a dissertation titled “The Symbolism of Popular Taoist Magic,” based on fieldwork in Taiwan 1969-1971. Here I want to reflect on what I learned in the field that was not included in my dissertation and how those exclusions were typical of anthropological research in Taiwan during the period in which my research was conducted. I begin with a random assortment of memories that illustrate my theme: My research was conducted in wartime, in a place whose history was shaped by wars—wars ignored by anthropologists.
First, a personal note: We, my wife Ruth and I, were approaching the halfway point in two years of research funded by the National Science Foundation and Cornell China Program, itself funded by the Ford Foundation. A letter from my draft board arrived, informing me that my status had been changed from 2S, student deferment, to 1A, eligible for the draft and advising that I get a medical examination to determine my fitness for service. I was upset. As a former member of Students for a Democratic Society, who had carried medical supplies for North Vietnam across the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, NY with the Berrigan brothers to express my opposition to the Vietnam War, and someone who, like former US Vice-President Dick Cheney “had other priorities,” I did not want to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. I very much wanted to retain the privileged status that had so far prevented that fate.
I quickly wrote a reply to the draft board, noting that I was married and doing research funded by the National Science Foundation but also asking if I could get the necessary medical exam at the US Air Force base in Taichung, the closest to Puli, the market town in the center of Taiwan in which I conducted my research. The secretary of the draft board replied — at least this is how I remember the words — “Son, I note that you are 27 years old and married, and we haven’t drafted anybody like you since 1865. I’d relax.” I did, and I wasn’t drafted. But I’d had a sharp reminder of the context in which my research was conducted and why it was being funded.
The Vietnam War had revealed a severe shortage in the USA of individuals with expertise in Asian languages and cultures. I recalled a seminar on the ethnography of mainland Southeast Asia in which Lauriston Sharp remarked that when the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred in 1964, there were only three academics in the USA who spoke and read Vietnamese — and two were archeologists. China was both ally, the Republic of China on Taiwan, and enemy, the communist People’s Republic of China on the mainland. The “fall of the mainland” to the communists in 1949, the People’s Republic’s intervention during the Korean War, and the possibility that it might intervene again in Vietnam had made China a top priority for US national security planners and unleashed a flood of money, some of which was paying for my research.
If any one had asked what research on Daoist (Taoist in the old Wade-Giles romanization) magic had to do with national security, I would have replied that Daoism had been part of Chinese history and culture for thousands of years and that understanding Daoism was vital to understanding how Chinese think. But, as I recall, no one asked. The money was there, I took it and went off to do my research. Before Ruth and I set off for Japan, we were, however, advised to avoid politically sensitive topics.
Criticism of the Kuomintang (KMT) or its leader, the Republic of China’s president Chiang Kai-Shek, was clearly out of bounds. As US citizens, we would likely only be deported. If identified, however, those from whom we heard such criticism might disappear, in what was still an authoritarian police state. We would, moreover, inflict serious damage on the the relationships that made possible the research of anthropologists from Cornell and other institutions working in Taiwan. It was better to stick to such topics as village community structure, the spatial geography of market towns, kinship and marriage, ancestor worship, or popular religion and magic —all safely in the realm of “Chinese tradition” and easy to treat separately as customs and habits divorced from current politics.
It was that same focus on Chinese tradition that diverted attention from another important topic — the fifty years (1895-1945) in which Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire. Taiwan had been ceded to Japan following the first Sino–Japanese War (1 August 1894 – 17 April 1895) and, then, as a Japanese colony, developed economically. In contrast to the China mainland, devastated by civil wars, Japanese invasion, and then renewed civil war between the KMT and the communist People’s Liberation Army — Taiwan enjoyed a half-century of development, during which the island acquired railroads, an electrical power grid, modern irrigation and public health systems, light industry and universal elementary education. An Imperial University (now National Taiwan University) was established in Taipei, and members of the Taiwanese elite enjoyed other opportunities for higher education in Japan itself. Then, during World War II, Douglas MacArthur’s decision to leapfrog Taiwan and go straight to Okinawa had spared the island from the severe damage inflicted by war on other parts of Asia.
When Japan handed back Taiwan to China at the end of World War II, most Taiwanese were happy to be freed from Japanese colonial rule. But the Republic of China, to which Taiwan was handed over, was on its last legs. The only troops that could be spared from the battle against the communists on the mainland were two of the KMT’s worst divisions, the dregs of its army, commanded by corrupt generals. They regarded the Taiwanese as collaborators with the Japanese instead of loyal Chinese and saw nothing wrong with stealing everything in sight. The KMT soldiers were, I was told, so ignorant that they tore down telephone and electrical power lines for the copper in them, and those who stole bicycles carried them away, not knowing how to ride them. The Taiwanese rebelled. The rebellion was savagely put down. Distrust between Taiwanese and “Mainlanders,” those from the mainland who retreated to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT, persisted for decades.
On the positive side, the combination of KMT rule and expropriated Japanese capital made possible one of only two successful, non-violent land reforms in Asia. The other was in Japan, and both were conducted under the auspices of US allies/occupiers.
In the case of Taiwan, instead of expropriating land from the landlords and handing it over to their former tenants, the KMT government was able to buy out the landlords with bonds representing shares of expropriated Japanese capital. Thus, it was, for example, that the Lim family, the largest landlords in northern Taiwan became the owners of the Taiwan Cement Corporation and made a very large fortune supplying the concrete used in Da Nang and other US military bases in Vietnam. Meanwhile their former tenants provided most of the vegetables consumed by US troops fighting in Vietnam, and, in some cases their daughters found employment as prostitutes servicing those troops during R&R in Taiwan. Several new houses on the bluff above where we lived were paid for by the daughters in question. Overall, the result was a massive influx of capital, analogous to that provided by the special procurements in Japan during the Korean War, that kick-started the island’s economy.
Thus it was that when Ruth and I arrived in Taiwan in 1969, economic growth and social change were well underway . Soon after we found an apartment in Puli, we visited the Foreign Affairs Policeman, whose job was to keep an eye on the foreigners in Town. His first question was whether or not we knew Susan. Susan was a 16-year old redhead from Illinois, spending a year living with the family of a local doctor as part of a Rotary Club exchange program. On our first night in our new field site, we saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the local movie theater. But these observations, too, had no place in my dissertation.
Also excluded were other events: evidence that we were, indeed, living in an authoritarian police state. One night, shortly after we moved in to our apartment, we returned home to find that the screens on the ground floor windows had been removed and the windows left open. The neighbors told us that someone had come to investigate us, suspicious that we were CIA agents. The day before February 28, the anniversary of the Taiwanese rebellion against the mainlanders, the Foreign Affairs Policeman came to visit us. Puli had been where the rebels made their last stand, and on that day the valley was sealed off by heavily armed soldiers. The Foreign Affairs Policeman advised us to stay home that day in case something bad might happen.
Some future historian of anthropology may find these anecdotes useful. Here, in conclusion, I would like to offer a few thoughts about their relation to anthropological theory and practice.
The focus on Chinese tradition that excluded the various wars and events mentioned above from the anthropologist’s dissertation can be defended on many grounds. Ethically speaking, it kept those whose lives I was privileged to briefly share out of harm’s way. Scientifically speaking, it made sense to focus on problems of interest to other anthropologists, which during the sixties and seventies included such topics as kinship and marriage, religion and ritual. It made particular sense in the case of those of us who studied Chinese society and culture. China is a very large country. Including Chinese who live outside of mainland China, Chinese account for roughly one-quarter of humanity. To pretend that careful study of any one community or practice could be definitive was laughable. To develop accounts of traditional customs and institutions, we had to put aside other topics. The best we could do was add our own contributions to a growing understanding that included work by historians, art historians, literary scholars, economists, sociologists, and political scientists as well as anthropologists.
Still, in retrospect, I and my contemporaries do seem guilty of willful blind spots, averting our eyes from the wars that shaped the places and historical moments in which we worked. Like Evans-Pritchard working among the Nuer, we, too, ignored the bloodshed — unless, of course, it had some ritual significance.