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‘Taiwan in 100 Books’ Is Not Really About Taiwan

Taiwan in 100 Books is not a book about Taiwan. It’s not, to be precise, even about books on Taiwan. In collecting anecdotes and musings on “the best, most important, most influential books” in English on Taiwan, the book represents how the country has been experienced and imagined by outsiders.

I don’t intend this as a dismissive remark. But we must clear the air to acknowledge the book’s very particular, refracted view of Taiwanese history.

Imagine, say, “France in 100 Books.” It wouldn’t spend much time on non-French language sources, and not a moment on mediocre travel writing. A book on how France was lived by travelers and foreigners would have a much different title and presentation.

Its framing aside, the book takes an eclectic view of Taiwan. On the same page the islands of Kinmen and Matsu are referred to as beachheads for mounting an invasion of China, and then as “the country’s best travel destinations, each a combination of beautiful scenery, traditional culture, and fascinating history.” The intrigue surrounding the abandoned nuclear program is followed by an account of Taiwan’s success at the Little League World Series.

Though a few classics are given their due, like Formosa Betrayed by George Kerr, John Grant Ross is limited by his source material. He has the candor to admit that even the supposed best, most important works on Taiwan in English are not always very good. For example, a part of the chapter on Qing Dynasty Taiwan is spent on “the petty jealousies and ambitions of treaty port expat life.” Ross warns us that he “can’t with a clear conscience recommend actually reading” these books, but also can’t contain the urge to divulge who was in and out of favor among foreign socialites in the 1890s. 

The book begins with hoax tales of “mysterious” Taiwan. The first is a fictional autobiography, passed off as real, about a martial-arts master who knows how to perform a “delayed death touch.” Another is the history of an 18th century European named George Psalmanazar, who claimed to be a native Formosan, and made a career off of his ruse.

Ross’s book is, of course, not the work of a fabulist. Neither are the other books reviewed. But opening with the stories of a fantastical, imagined Taiwan is one of the book’s unintentional virtues. If there is anything that unites most of the books Ross writes on, it is an attempt to conjure into existence the “true” Taiwan. 

Ross does not pretend to be an expert or speak with an all-knowing voice of authority. He’s open about his hobby horses and opinions, and is more a cheerful character with a good yarn than a professor expounding on a theory, which is an unalloyed good. Readers are bound to learn something they hadn’t known before, may be inspired, or perhaps angered into reading further. Ross should be praised for years of reading and thinking about Taiwan, recording stories that have been mostly forgotten, and giving a spotlight to books that deserve a wider reading. 

But the good that comes from a light, idiosyncratic touch is not without its pitfalls. A book dominated by an author’s personal interests succeeds or fails on whether they resonate with readers, or are sublime enough to transcend their time and place. Ross’s observations will amuse those of his background, which in some ways includes me. Everyone else can appreciate the book for what it is, drawing from it what they wish. 

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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