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An Interview with Prof. Pei-Chia Lan (Director of Global Asia Research Center, National Taiwan University)

“To increase the visibility of Taiwan studies by emphasizing inter-Asia connections”

—— We know that your research center was established in 2017 when Professor Su Kuo-hsien was a dean. How did you initiate Global Asia Research Center?

“The trigger point was donation from Kim Koo Foundation, but they did not designate how to use the fund. The main purpose was to facilitate interaction and mutual understanding between Taiwan and South Korea. Su Kuo-hsien and I had a discussion, especially considering the possibility of establishing a new research center, and we thought that global Asia was a good idea. It’s broader than just a connection between Taiwan and South Korea, and it can situate Taiwan’s study in a broader Asian context. We also liked the idea of global Asia, to bring a more modern look to the Asian Studies. Actually, in NTU, there has never been Asian studies center, so many of us have felt that there is a need for something like that. Compared to the traditional idea of Asian studies which has more the connotation of area study, I think Global Asia captured more of what we would like to do.”

—— Thank you. You are touching very interesting point. So you are saying, previously Taiwan did not have Asian research center. According to our interpretation after watching what you have done, Taiwan is definitely in part of Global Asian research, a target.

“Yes, definitely. I think historically, for example, compared to Taiwan, Japan was an empire and was a colonizer. We all know that the discipline of area study and its development was really embedded in a history of colonization. Taiwan was never in that position. That partly explains why we do not really have an established center of Asian Studies. The recent development of both Global Asian studies and Southeast Asian studies demonstrates that Taiwan is getting to a stage that, on the one hand, we need to improve the visibility of Taiwan studies. And I think that is especially challenging because Taiwan is a small country and it is much harder to gain interest from international scholars, especially if not categorizing Taiwan as being under the umbrella of China studies. On the other hand, scholars in Taiwan have also recognized the need and importance of connecting Taiwan Studies with other parts of Asia. Taiwan can be categorized as a part of East Asia and also a part of Southeast Asia. We are really in a strategic position to connect with different parts of Asia. I think there are double purposes: to increase the visibility of Taiwan studies by emphasizing inter-Asia connections.”

—— We strongly agree with your idea that most of the concept comes from local needs and histories. As you know our institute was established in 1941, just at the time of the outbreak of WWII. So of course, we have such negative heritage and have to fight against what sort of a heritage we have to inherit and what sort of heritage we should discard. After reading the statement of your research center, one of the uniqueness and the attractive keyword you use, consciously or unconsciously, is “modernities”, you use Asian modernities in plural senses to explain why you focus on Asia. If you look at the history of Asian studies, especially in Europe, most of scholars are coming from humanities, they are more interested in linguistics, history, archaeology, and something like this, which are not necessarily interested in modernizing Asia or Asian modernities. But you are somehow putting a modern side or modernizing side of Asia rather than traditional, conventional, historical Asia, is it something to do with the nature of your center located in the college of social sciences?

“Yes, definitely. You definitely captured the essence. Because it is situated in the college of social science, so most members affiliated with the center are sociologists, political scientists, geographers, and some economists. So, we do not really involve faculty members from humanities. Certainly there are a lot of people from history and literature, who are doing Asian studies for a much longer time periods. Our focus is more contemporary, modern, and I think “modernity” is a nice keyword to capture the focus of the center.”

—— We think it is a really good idea considering that most of core research members come from social science, which are more interested in transformation or changes rather than stagnant unchanging nature of Asia. But at the same time, as you might know, if you attend a lot of international conferences on area studies or some particular country-based study, more and more researches come to realizing, and we are coming to realizing a problem of 跨学科(kuàxuékē), i.e. interdisciplinary approach, and combination of humanities and social sciences are more and more important. We wonder if your center has any intention to collaborate with, let’s say, historians who are more interested in a longer period of time and they are more focused on the uniqueness of each country rather than connectivity and comparisons.

“We do and did have speakers from all different kinds of disciplines. Sometimes we have speakers from history especially like doing global history. So, we certainly welcome such perspectives, and we certainly are interested in interacting with scholars in humanities as well. But in terms of the major components of the research center, it is still located in the college of social science, so we need to have some focus.”

—— Very roughly speaking, there are two kinds of activities of researchers who are affiliated to global Asia studies program; ones that are more interested in events such as lectures and workshops, do a lot of collaborations, but seemingly are more emphasized on just collaborating rather than publishing books of articles. But other types of global Asian center are more thematically focused. They do not cover a lot of areas and events but are more interested in producing something. We wonder whether your research center is closer to either of these types.

“Well, we are probably somewhat in-between. On the one hand the center really operates more like a platform. For example, we have right now fifty affiliated fellows from different departments at NTU, and they are doing different kinds of things. If you look at our website, you will find six research clusters, and these are like different projects. As a platform, we try to be as inclusive as possible, so we can involve more people, and we can also have a diversity of research topics and interests. So, in terms of holding events, such as academic talks and workshops, we are really open to different kinds of research topics. But on the other hand, in terms of the actual practice of a center, we do have more focus on migration and transnationalism. This is partly because that I am the director, and partly because that we have some additional funding from the university to organize research teams and we also have gathered a sufficient number of migration scholars who study a broader sense of transnationalism. For that we also work with Seoul National University, they also share similar phenomenon of labor and marriage migration. So, in the past few years, migration and transnationalism have been the central focus of the center, and we have also produced conference panels and hope for special issues and books for the future.”

—— Next question has to do with again the concept of “global Asia”. “Asia” is a very wide concept. Do you still think the use of “Asia” is broadening your target? Because it seems to us you are more interested in South Korea as a sending country of migrants rather than looking Asia as a whole.

“Well, I think “Asia” is really more of an umbrella term, like you mentioned. It is actually a heterogenous whole that involves different components. In our center, I think it is really a Taiwan-centered Asian studies, so we have to understand Asia from Taiwan. And naturally those societies that have stronger connections with Taiwan or share parallel situations with Taiwan would be the topic or coverage of our research. It is true that East Asia and Southeast Asia would be two major areas we cover. West Asia has certainly important aspects, but Taiwan really has very limited connection with it, and also we hardly have any faculty members who have specialty on that.”

—— We fully understand that. We think it is quite nice for you to mention Taiwan-centered Asian studies, so putting Taiwan as a main observer what is happening about global Asia. But we think it really is a new idea, because you are in the college of social sciences which put more emphasis on “universal” aspects of social phenomenon regardless of area. This is a very conventional way of localization of concept from the west but more interested in the society they are situated in. But your claim seems to be a little bit detached from such conventional unconscious digestion and production of knowledge.

“What you just said actually touched upon another important mission for the global Asian studies center. I think you were right to say that a lot of Western trained scholars in Asia have a stronger connection to global north compared to other parts in Asia or global south in general. That’s something that we try to correct or challenge at least. And I think that when we want to provincialize western scholarship, it is relatively easier if the single case of Taiwan is related or compared with other cases in global South. For example, many fellows in our center are doing comparative studies, and two most common research designs is to compare east Asian countries, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, and the other one is to compare “Greater China cases”, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the PRC. These attempts are trying to situate Taiwan’s case in a broader context. It is not just trying to make the empirical case of Taiwan more visible in the international community, but also comparing helps us to generalize better and theorize better. I think these attempts are a great departure for us to challenge and provincialize western scholarship. This approach is very important for global Asian research centers, which also separate, distinguish from the traditional model of Asian Study as area study. In that traditional model, Asia is really just the Other for the global north scholarship to look at, as something totally different, but right now we are using a very different framework or epistemology to look at Asian Studies.”

—— To say comparison is important and necessary is easy but very difficult to carry out comparisons. In order to compare several parts of Asia, we have to do more things than we simply imagine. How would you encourage your staffs to promote comparison?

“To start with, I do agree that comparison is really challenging either for individual researchers or also for organizing international research team like you mentioned. I am talking about comparative research in a much broader sense. I do not think people need to have a strict comparative design in their own works. They can just collaborate with different scholars, for example, by combining different case studies in the same special issue, and we can discuss similar topics and compare with each other’s findings. This is not a comparative study in a strict sense, but we can get insights from using this comparative framework or platform. So, I think it is more pragmatic or feasible, but even to do that, we need institutional platforms to make that happen. That is also why research center is important, because it provides resource and, institutional connections to make international comparison happen. So, holding regular workshops and conferences makes it easier for individual scholars compared to doing that by themselves.”

—— We wonder how you look at the future of the concept of global Asia. You mentioned an umbrella concept, do you think the concept of global Asia will maintain its charm so that you can successfully recruit especially young faculty members to join your research?

“I guess it really says a lot about location. We are within Asia, and we are actually “Others” in the eyes of global north. So, for us, “global Asia” really carries more positive image to broaden implication of Asia than inward looking such as Asian migrants in global north, to bring Asia out of Asia, you may even say. Asia is not just about Asia, and Asia is not just “in Asia”. Asia is moving globally to different parts of the world, right? For us, global Asia, the umbrella term, actually has much broader implication. We can study not just Asians in Asia but also Asians outside of Asia. We do have people including myself also study Asian diaspora in global North, and I think it actually is important dimension as well. My latest book compares Taiwanese parents and Taiwanese immigrants in the U.S., and I do find that the research design was fruitful for us to better understand the movement and also the transformation of Taiwanese culture and practices.”

—— So basically you are positive about the future of the connotation of global Asia.

“Yes, I am. Certainly.”

—— We want to refer back to the three goals in the brochure: comparative Asia, transnational Asia, and global Asia. You just mentioned that your center tends to look connection with Asia from Taiwan perspective and Asian comparison. Then what should be the central part that makes us able to call it global Asia, what is the difference of global Asia compared to comparative Asia and transnational Asia?

“Like I mentioned, I think “global Asia” is more an umbrella term. “Global Asia” could have a more limited meaning, if you refer to Asian diaspora globally, for example studying immigrants in other parts of Asia, and also Asian capital investment in other parts other than Asia. But I think as the name of the center, it is really an umbrella term that covers three things I just mentioned: comparative Asia, transnational Asia, and global Asia. For now, the first two are more the focus of the center, and these two, to think of the larger implication, it is actually quite different. In terms of comparative Asia, the unit of analysis is nation-state or society, comparing South Korea, Japan, Taiwan in terms of their labor migration policy, for example. But transnational Asia in nature is really challenging the unit of analysis that simply focuses on the nation-state. Migration scholars talk about methodological nationalism, referring to the situation that most scholars simply assume ‘we should focus on nation-state as a unit of analysis’; but instead arguing that ‘we should look at intercultural and intersocietal connection, interaction, the flows of capital, people, culture, knowledge, and all different kinds of things. These are the focus of transnational Asia. I do not think these two directions are contradictory, but they are different. In our center, we try to encourage both lines of research.”

—— In relation to the audience side when organizing events, who do you assume as a major audience of your activities?

“The students are a major part of the audiences and the faculty members, of course. I think it is very important to target students and graduate students as the audience, especially to bring in speakers and research projects with comparative and transnational designs to show them different frameworks, different ways to look at the research. From next year we will start to offer scholarships, and research grants for graduate students to do transnational and overseas fieldwork.”

—— What is your idea if you want to move forward, for example utilizing those lectures to deepen the understanding of the concept of global Asia or to develop to publications?

“Well, I think even simply holding events is important and productive in itself. But I also agree with you that it will be nice to have outcomes. For example, before the COVID we hold annual workshops on some topics, as usually our fellows propose and initiate ideas and we support resources for them, and ideally that should turn into special issue or edited volume as some sorts of publications. So far, we have one success, which is, our member Chang-Ling Huang organized a forum about #MeToo in East Asia that ended up with publication in the Journal of Gender and Politics that includes different case studies across East Asia. We also have other workshops and expect them to try a special issue or edited volume. That is a goal we all wish to achieve, but what we can do is simply providing more support, like a writing grant we also have at the center. If they are writing a book or editing a special issue or book, our faculty members can apply for a grant to subsidize copy-editing and other expenses. What we can do is providing institutional supports, but whether they can carry on and produce the outcome is really up to them.”

—— Thank you so much. We want to add one information to you regarding the nature of our global Asia program. As you mentioned, our institute was more interested in conventional Area studies, and that is why we have so many humanities scholars as well as partially social scientists. We put global Japan studies as a facilitator to enrich the concept of global Asia, by promoting the fruitful dialogue between Asian scholars in Japan and Japanese scholars in Asia. But we guess from your eye it is quite natural for you to put Taiwan in the center of Asian Studies.

“I think we already talked about this earlier. Taiwan and Japan are situated very differently, historically and also geographically. Japan was an empire and studies have explained why Japan has very strong tendencies of Southeast Asian Studies, for the purpose of colonial rule, and of course Japan is a much bigger country compared to Taiwan. Especially in terms of the formation of academy, Japan is very much a system in which most scholars are locally trained. You have a big community base to develop Japan Studies and do not have to worry about the visibility of Japan studies. But Taiwan is very different. Taiwan is also an island country, which has always been historically subjected to different kinds of political, economic, and cultural forces. So, I would say the borders are much more porous for all different kinds of reasons. Most people are trained overseas, and that is another thing that makes Taiwan’s academic system rather different from Japan’s. I think that all explains why it is much more natural for us to call global Asia without seeing it as limitation or alienation, but Japan is a totally different story.”

—— Thank you, and we greatly appreciate you for this insightful conversation.