Taiwan culture effects/reflects Taiwan politics; suggestions

Over the weekend I was invited by the American Journal of Chinese Studies (put out by the American Association for Chinese Studies) to do an article for them. What they and I had in mind was a piece on how Taiwanese culture reflects and effects Taiwanese politics. The piece will be “big picture orientated”; i.e. not talking about some specific micro-issue. How the editor and I got started on this was I was telling him about how superstitious a lot of Taiwanese were and that it was not just the country hick Daoists either and that it would not surprise me that many “political decisions” were made by fortune tellers telling local politicos what “public policy” Matsu favored. But the article needs to go beyond that and deeper than that.

So—what should I write about? Any suggestions would be welcomed. The piece will run 15-18 pages.

Take care,

What kind of Chinese fortune telling are you referring to? I-ching, feng shui, ba-gua, etc…

Brian –

let me toss out some ideas for discussion

  1. temples as nexus of local political life, the way local politicians rise to prominence by using the temple as a way to forge links to local business and local organized crime. Yen Ching-piao is a good example of this kind of political career. Several current local mayors were the head of their local temple association.

  2. THe use of shaming as a political ploy to attack opponents; shame, not guilt, is local culture motivator.

  3. the heavy factionalization centered around persons rather than policies; Soong’s PFP is ultimate example of that.

  4. the prominence of local political families and clans in local politics; some come from families prominent even in the 19th century.

  5. a friend of mine, a local foreign academic, argues that Taiwanese regard politics the way they regard fate, as fixed if not dealt with, but essentially malleable, the way people pull on their ears to make them bigger so they can change their fate and become rich instead of poor as they were originally fated to be.

  6. The leader is responsible for either failure or success. institutions are run to-down, the bottom does not feed up. When the leader notices the bottom, it is an act of benevolence, not the result of democratic accountability.

  7. the boss must be an example of virtue, not merely an able administrator – he must be morally superior to his employees – the emperor is the source and maintainer of virture. Hence the anger at Chen Shui-bian.

  8. the prominence of women in local politics – if you check Hofstede, Taiwan has a surpsingly relatively low masculinity score, by comparison with other asian locales, and comparable to the US. Chinese culture has a long tradition of strong women.

  9. the importance of marriage – married women standing in office for husbands jailed, as happened in the martial law era for political dissidents, and in the modern era for indicted politicians/gangsters. EX: recent taitung county chief election. it happens, but it is less common in the west.

  10. prominence of han politicians, not aborigines? Any info on connection between skin tone and political prominence in Taiwan??

Just a few ideas…more later.


Good points by Micheal. Three random ones of my own to toss in your direction Brian:

(1) Keep the piece comparative. An insight about some particular cultural/political feature carries a lot more weight when it can be shown to differ from/have similarities to other cultural/political features. Saying, for example, “All Chinese officials are corrupt” doesn’t actually tell us very much. Saying “Chinese officials demand 10X the payoff that those in Taiwan require” gives us some perspective and may create a rationale to conduct research.

(2) Be sure about your lines of causation. As an institutionalist, I’m a lot less inclined to give kulcha much credence as an independent variable, but I don’t discount the prospect that it might be. My favorite piece of cultural analysis is Max Weber’s <>. It’s wrong, but at least his line of causation is clear and can be tested (the Protestant penchant for self-denial created only one thing to do with your wealth - reinvest it in new productive capacity. Bingo, you get capitalism).

(3) To start off your hunt for topics, look for cultural/political features that don’t quite square with standard expectations - i.e. puzzles. This will lead you to issues that are intrinsically interesting and demand research. I’m always on the lookout for a dierdai waishengren who is pro-independence or a bentu type that votes for the PFP - these people are interesting by definition as they cut across what we typically expect from each ethic group. The answers may be boring - e.g. their SO is pro-independence/unification - but at least it gets you started.



Michael, Craig,
Gentlemen, outstanding ideas, please keep them coming. I printed them out and will ponder them over the next few days. I need to get one other piece done first, then I will turn my attention 100% to this project. I hope to talk with you two more about it over the next week or so.

Thanks much,


I got my other project out of the way so I am turning my attention back to this. Let me do some follow up, kind of in the order the suggestions were made. Turning first to the fact of temples being used as both a starting and ongoing base of contacts. Yen Ching piao was mentioned and then several local mayors—
Anyone got any other specific names off the top of your heads?
This is an interesting area both for this article and a series I am doing for a Daoist magazine back in the states.

And I will take these two at a time, so next is shaming versus guilt. I kind of sense what the distinction is vis a vis Taiwan politics but—can someone explain it. I sense the distinction is along the lines of:
shame=external loss of face, being seen by the public and your family as having done a bad thing,
guilt=some kind of inner existential failing that will effect your soul. Or are you guys referring to the language used? I do not own a t.v. nor do I read the Chinese language newspapers so I do not know if local politicos use a special jargon and cant when mud slinging at each other Do they?

Thanks for the help on this.
Happy Holidays,

Here’s some things that have always seemed odd to me. I’m not sure how much of this is due to culture, and how much to sheer historical accident.

  1. In the U.S., Democrats and Republicans routinely cooperate with one another. (This goes double for politicians representing the same region.) When they don’t, they at least try to pretend to be “bipartisan.” Losers congratulate winners (unless contesting the vote count), and even attend their inauguration. And it would be unthinkable to refuse to meet with the president, out of respect for his office if nothing else.

In Japan, the politicians there all seem pretty cozy too, n’est pas?

In Taiwan, there’s none of this. Inter-party cooperation and politeness is considered exceptional rather than routine.

  1. U.S. political parties allow virtually anyone to join the party and run for office. Want to be the Democratic or Republican candidate for whatever? It’s just a matter of winning public support in a reasonably open political process.

If Taiwan had been the U.S., Ma Ying-jieou would have run for president years ago, and nominated a native Taiwanese of his own choosing as VP. Here, he only gets the nod after (finally) finagling a quasi-primary out of the KMT (but party stalwarts only, it seems) and watching Lien / Soong squander the pan-blue’s chances several times in a row. Meanwhile, the DPP seems to consist of several discrete political factions with very murky membership criteria (I guess you have to know people), sort of like Communism (or the old KMT).

(On the other hand, the U.S. has Hillary Clinton…)

  1. If Taiwan were inhabited by 20 million Texans instead of Taiwanese, China wouldn’t even think of invading it. Taiwan faces a number of huge problems (also economic, demographic), that its politicians don’t even pretend to effectively address.

(On the other hand, the U.S. can be accused of this too…)

  1. Taiwan’s news media sucks out the ass, pardon my French. It’s either politicized to the point of slanted coverage, or consists primarily of “fluff / mayhem” (naked women, cute animals, fires, people getting arrested).

(On the other hand, we do have USA Today and FOX news…)

  1. In Taiwan, “the law” seems to be a very murky concept. It’s often hard to know what is or is not legal, or who would have the power to decide such things.

(On the other hand, we have our tax code.)

I suppose most of these happen because “the people” don’t insist on anything else. Most Taiwan people are apathetic / passive / pessimistic about politics, and the active ones are so strongly affiliated with one party that it isn’t worthwhile to reach out to them from the other camp. Is there something in the Chinese / Taiwanese cultural water that encourages this, or is it all just a reflection of recent history?

I think Confucian values are essentially anti-democratic. How then has Taiwan managed to develop as a democracy despite this? I think the tension that exists between democracy and authoritarianism is a good perspective. Jerome Keating’s recent book Taiwan: The Struggles of a Democracy was written from this angle.

And another thing. If Chen Shui-bian had been a U.S. politician, there WOULD be a trial / impeachment, and probably a reasonably fair one. His own party members would see the advantages of removing him, and make sure that he saw them as well.

[quote=“Screaming Jesus”]And another thing. If Chen Shui-bian had been a U.S. politician, there WOULD be a trial / impeachment, and probably a reasonably fair one. His own party members would see the advantages of removing him, and make sure that he saw them as well.[/quote] Yeah, but in reality, would there every really be such a trial in the US? To say A-Bian would be impeached in the US is to say the presidential accounting system could be so lax in the first place. Not likely I would say… but who knows…

I dunno, it seems to me that the US is the outlier here. Most countries with parliamentary systems have much more centralised political parties than America; you have all the factions gathered behind party bigwigs and you generally have to work your way up through the system.

[quote=“brianlkennedy”]Anyone got any other specific names off the top of your heads?
[/quote]Frankie Boy Hsieh? He’s partial to a bit of mumbo-jumbo.

[quote]Sung Chi-li, a cult leader who claims to have supernatural powers, alleged not long ago he took his follower Premier Frank Hsieh on a tour of Paris without both of them leaving Taiwan.[/quote]Days are numbered for EZtravel then.


The Constitution says “natural-born” U.S. citizens. I believe that controversy exists as to whether this might include a citizen born on foreign soil. We have had a president born on “American soil” overseas, though.