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.


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.


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 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.


A first look at “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook”

randomhouseThis post is a few months overdue – Chinese New Year was back in February! I received “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook” by participating in Diana’s virtual Chinese New Year potluck. This won’t be a full review because I haven’t cooked every recipe. I might make cooking dishes from the cookbook an ongoing series. I did get a chance to look through the book and decided to share my impressions.

To start off, imagine my surprise when I got the book and it was sent directly from Random House. I’ve never received anything directly from a publishing house. Pretty cool!

coverThe book has ten chapters, the first being an introduction to various ingredients and tools that are needed. The last chapter has recipes for various basics, like stocks and sauces. The main recipes are divided between the other eight chapters.

There are little historical tidbits among the recipes. I like the term “American-Chinese” for the food in the cookbook. These are not the original Chinese recipes, but rather recipes that have evolved in America.

The recipes look simple and not overly complicated. I think it is ideal for a busy cook or a person who is new to Chinese cuisine. I’m looking forward to trying out recipes from the book. In particular, I really want to learn all the different sauces.

Book Review: “Babel No More” by Michael Erard

“Babel No More” by Michael Erard focuses on a particular group of people who know and learn multiple languages, known as hyperpolyglots. Although I do not aspire to be a hyperpolyglot, I do like to read about languages and language learning.

I enjoyed the many stories about polyglots of past and present. Language is as much about the people who learn them as it is about the nuances of grammar and pronunciation. The book consists of multiple stories, some layered upon others. The overall story is that of Mezzofanti, a 19th century cardinal who was known to have spoke 72 languages. Erard takes on a journey to find out more about Mezzofanti and his secret to learning all those languages. I really don’t want to spoil it, you’ll have to read the book! Erard also introduces us to modern hyperpolyglots and their language habits. The personalities and characters of these hyperpolyglots are rather fun.

Some thoughts on native-like fluency, after the jump.

Book review: “Strait Talk” by Nancy Bernkopf Tucker

“Strait Talk” by Nancy Bernkopf Tucker is a book that I’ve wanted to read for a while. It was published in 2009 and is a look into U.S.-Taiwan relations. The book starts in the 1940s and continues to 2008. I think this is one of very few books that clearly focuses on the political relations between the United States and Taiwan. Many other books focus solely on Taiwan’s history or Taiwan’s relations with China.

Something I noticed quickly was that I was recognizing names of politicians early in their career. Oftentimes, we know politicians names based on their current work, but seldom do we know or remember their previous work. This was the case with U.S. politicians and Taiwanese politicians. People who later on became heads of state or key decision makers started out as assistants for the prior generation of decision makers. Many times, their prior attitudes and experience were reflected in future decisions, which was discussed thoroughly in the book.

The book is very thorough in describing circumstances and politicians. It reads very smoothly. I liked that it was very well organized. One thing I liked was the way the author lists out items to make a point, but goes beyond only using the word “first.” She then goes on with “second,” “third,” and beyond if necessary. I really appreciate that because many times I have lost track of a point or was not sure when a point had ended because one sentence would start with “first” and then the paragraph would trail off.

Another item I liked in the book was the inclusion of political cartoons from the time. The cartoons bring to life the attitude and feel of that political climate. The book also has an abbreviations list, which is very helpful since names of organizations and acronyms can get mixed up very easily.

I do wish that Chinese sayings and names were accompanied by the corresponding characters rather than only having the romanized form. However, this is mostly a reflection of the fact that I am more comfortable with Chinese characters than romanization.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in modern Taiwanese history, especially with respect to U.S.-Taiwan relations. This book does a phenomenal job of organizing and analyzing recent history.

Book review: “The Story of Sushi” by Trevor Corson

I really liked the book “The Story of Sushi” by Trevor Corson (Harper Perennial 2008). It was smooth read and filled with a lot of information. The book follows students attending a course at a sushi academy in California. The chapters are equivalent to specific weeks of their training. The sections within the chapters are nicely organized. We learn about the lesson and then dive into specific scientific details of the creatures or a cultural lessons of ancient Japan. It is really quite a fascinating book.

I think this book will appeal to anyone with a desire to learn more about Japanese cuisine or Japanese culture in general. I thought it provided excellent information about sushi. The book also educates the reader with background information regarding different parts of sushi making. There is so much to understand, from the tools of the trade to the ingredients for a delicious meal.

I especially like the glossary at the end of the book. English definitions to Japanese terms are given. There are names for different sushi rolls and the names of different seafood. The Japanese words are written in romanji, but I would have liked to see the Japanese characters as well. The glossary is a good guide for navigating sushi-related Japanese terms.

Book review: “Shadow of the Silk Road” by Colin Thubron

I picked up “Shadow of the Silk Road” by Colin Thubron (2007) because I was curious about the modern societies along the Silk Road. The author travels from China to Turkey. Along the way, he meets people grappling with their culture and the political climate in their country. I really like the maps that are included in the book. One map is an overview of the author’s journey. The book is divided into three sections. Each section has a map with the specific path the section describes. The author visits many historical sites in the countries along the Silk Road. He compares the current environment to past situations and historical leaders. It is quite a history lesson with tourism rather than lectures. There is also a historical timeline at the back of the book. It lists events in different regions in chronological order. The different regions are: China; Central Asia; Iran; and the West. The time covered is from 4000 BC to 2004. It’s only four pages long, but I found the timeline extremely helpful. It gives an overview of history so one can figure out what was happening in the rest of the world during a particular time. The book was a very good read and I recommend it to anyone interested in the Silk Road and the countries between China and Turkey.

Book review: “The Story of Dai Ailian” by Richard Glasstone

I was interested in reading “The Story of Dai Ailian” by Richard Glasstone (Dance Books, 2007) to learn more about Chinese dance. It was also a chance to learn about the origins of the Beijing Dance Academy. The complete title of the book is “The Story of Dai Ailian. Icon of Chinese folk dance. Pioneer of Chinese ballet.” What I also found was a story about a person of Chinese descent discovering her own culture and then contributing to it.

戴愛蓮 (Dai Ai Lian) was born in Trinidad to parents with Chinese descent. She was trained in ballet and went to Europe for further training. China was always calling to her for her to discover the dances. I also found it interesting that her Chinese language skills were not very good when she finally went to China. She established the structured dance curriculum that is currently in place in China. I think she combined the best of Eastern and Western dance to produce a great dance form. I am particularly inspired by Dai Ailian and her continued pursuit of discovering Chinese culture even though she began far away from it.

Much more, after the jump.