Book review: “Why Taiwan Matters” by Shelley Rigger

I started writing this post a year (or two?) ago, and have picked it up time and time again, trying to add to it. I want to preserve these different starts. The book was originally published in 2011 and Taiwan has gone through significant societal events since 2012. Even though the book it did not cover up to current events, I still believe it is a significant book for anyone who needs an introduction to Taiwan. An updated version of the book was published in 2013.

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I’ve had this post sitting as a draft for at least a year now. At some point I completely forgot about it, until recently while I was helping some friends plan their first trip to Taiwan. Between conversations about food and landmarks, I kept feeling that something was missing. Taiwan is not just about what is there now. To understand Taiwan and to truly appreciate Taiwan is to know its history and know how it became the Taiwan of now. Then, I remembered my copy of “Why Taiwan Matters” and immediately lent it to my friends.

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After reading the original version of “Why Taiwan Matters” by Shelley Rigger in English, I browsed through the Chinese translation. For those interested, the title is 《台灣為什麼重要?美國兩岸研究權威寫給全美國人的台灣觀察報告》. The translated version has a separate Chinese preface (which can be previewed at the books.com.tw site). Rigger explains that for the book to be translated into Chinese and sold in Taiwan seems a bit awkward, but her friends reassured her that Taiwanese would not read the the book to learn more about Taiwan, but to understand how other people see Taiwan. I wholeheartedly agree. She also mentions that it is possible for people to disagree with parts of the book and some people may not recognize the Taiwan she describes in the book, but she has written what she knows about Taiwan, what she experienced and saw. Taiwan flows with different ideas and opinions, and it is great for Rigger to recognize that.

“Why Taiwan Matters” by Shelley Rigger is an extraordinary book about Taiwan. Rigger has done an incredible job organizing the facts about Taiwanese history. But I think more important than that is Rigger’s ability to understand really describe the feelings of the Taiwanese. Rigger clearly states the identity issues surrounding Taiwanese. Especially at points in the book where attitudes and emotions of Taiwanese people are described, it was very clear that Rigger understands the Taiwanese people.

From the very beginning of the book, from reading the preface, I knew this book was different. Unless a person had lived through the martial law era or experienced the educational system mandated by the KMT, a person may not be able to understand the conflict within Taiwan. Spending time in Taiwan or living for a time in Taiwan does not mean a person can understand the deeply felt issues with being Taiwanese. Unless a person experienced the unfair situation that the World Health Organization placed upon Taiwan, one would not understand the Taiwanese people’s constant fight for international recognition. But Rigger has done that. She has chosen quotes and interview excerpts that reflect these aspects of Taiwanese life.

In slightly over 200 pages, Rigger really does cover it all. The book explores Taiwan’s history, industry, politics, culture. Three chapters are devoted to exploring cross-strait issues: economics, identity, and interference to international recognition. The examples in each section really do serve the purpose of showing the reader how Taiwanese live with these concerns and what some people are doing about it.

I think what separates this book from other (English) books I have read about Taiwan is that it is not meant to be an academic book. The facts and analysis are based on academic works, but there are not pages and pages of footnotes to sift through. Even the sources section at the end of each chapter is written in a narrative form. The sources do point the reader to more academic works for further reading.

This book is a must-read for anyone who will be going to Taiwan to visit, to study, or to work. Anyone who will spend any time in Taiwan needs to be handed this book. Hopefully the book will be a starting point to understanding Taiwan’s past, present, and future.

It’s best to rely on news sources from Taiwan for information about Taiwan. Unfortunately most are not in English. Two sources in English are Taipei Times and Thinking Taiwan. Austin Ramzy has been reporting for the New York Times from Taipei, so the NY Times Sinosphere blog has seen an increase in reports about Taiwan. Social media sources include Taiwan Voice on Facebook (in English) and Sunflower Movement 太陽花學運 on Facebook (not always in English); both update on social-political issues.

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