About teaching in Taiwan

There have been a few interesting blog entries and news articles about teaching in Taiwan recently.

Michael Turton presents a very interesting analysis of why pay rates for foreign teachers have stagnated. Some people suggest the reason for low rates of pay or the lack of pay rises is the presence of many South Africans willing to accept low wages. Michael’s analysis suggests that there are actually larger market forces at work. Hence South Africans accepting low rates of pay is merely a symptom, rather than a cause of the problem.

Another Taiwan teacher laments the poor working conditions in Taiwan. Many schools unreasonably expect teachers to attend various school events without being paid. Unfortunately too many teachers are happy to do this (or at least unwilling to complain).

Meanwhile the Taipei Times reports that the Ministry of Education has failed to recruit enough applicants to teach English in Taiwanese schools. The Ministry wants to have a foreign English teacher in all 3,300 of its schools. So far it has managed to recruit just 22!

A useful source of commentary and information on English education in Taiwan is Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Weblog. Scott also comments on the issue of teacher’s salaries.

If you want to know more about teaching in Taiwan, my own webpage Teaching English in Taiwan is a good starting point. Michael Turton’s site is more comprehensive and definitely worth reading if you plan to head to Taiwan and teach.

Taiwan bikes for the elite

Although very few people in Taiwan actually ride a bike, Taiwan is the world’s largest exporter of bicycles. If you buy a bike anywhere in the world that cost more than a few hundred dollars it was probably made in Taiwan.

When it comes to making the finest bikes though Chang Sheng-kai is a step ahead of the rest. His bikes are ridden by the national teams of Australia, Japan, most of Asia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and South Africa.

This recent article from the Taipei Times about Chang gives a lot of insights into the Taiwanese bicycle industry.

While there has been an increase in the popularity of mountain bike riding for sport and recreation in recent years in Taiwan, bicycles are still an underutilised form of transport. It is a shame that the country that is so busy manufacturing bikes for the rest of the world can’t find the time to ride them.

Taiwanese literature

cover of A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers Walk into almost any bookstore and you can be sure to find a plethora of books, both fiction and non-fiction, about China. Yet there seems to be very few titles about Taiwan published in English. Does this mean there is no great Taiwanese literature or has it simply slipped through the cracks of the fickle world of publishing?

I suspect the answer is the latter. I recently stumbled across a very interesting book from Taiwan by chance in a second hand bookshop. On reading the synopsis on the back cover I didn't hesitate to buy it. The book, A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers (千江有水有千江月) by Hsiao Li-hung (蕭麗紅), is beautifully written and works on many levels. It is a love story, a snapshot of life in a traditional Taiwanese family in the 1970s and finally it is about the spirit of Zen.

This book is worth reading both as a great piece of literature and for its insights into Taiwanese culture. It provides a snapshot of life in rural Taiwan at a time when traditions had not yet been swept away by the tides of urbanisation, industrialisation and increasing affluence. It is an intimate portrait of a world now largely lost. The quality of the translation is very good. Many of the idioms and folk tales that form part of the story would not translate directly into English. However, the translator has managed to render them into a form that is easily readable and that maintains what I imagine to be something of the style of the work in its original language.

I am not sure if the English translation is readily available in Taiwan. If you can read Chinese you should have no difficulty finding the original Chinese edition of the book. The book is part of a series of translations of Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan published by Columbia University Press. Full bibliographic details and the publisher's synopsis are reproduced below.

A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers
by Hsiao Li-hung (translated by Michelle Wu)
Columbia University Press, New York, 2000
ISBN: 0231117930

Synopsis Winner of the 1980 United Daily Literature Competition, this novel about love, betrayal, family life, and the power of tradition in small-town Taiwan was an instant bestseller when first published in Taiwan and went through 60 printings in its Chinese language edition. At once a bittersweet romance and a vividly detailed portrait of life in a southern Taiwanese coastal town in the 1970s, this lyrical work affirms the values and traditions that have nurtured Taiwan through the centuries and will continue to in an increasingly industrialized society.

The power of the nut

If an anthropologist were to study Taiwan they might well find betel nut to be one of the unique and defining characteristics of Taiwanese culture. For many Taiwanese men chewing betel nut is not just a habit, but something that defines their identity. Taiwanese women’s bodies are used as a powerful marketing tool for the nut. The phenomena of the betel nut beauty is unique to Taiwan.

I remember seeing scantily clad women sitting in neon-lit glass booths along the side of the road when I first arrived in Taiwan. I initially presumed they were soliciting for sex. It wasn’t until several months later that I learned they were just selling betel nut.

I recently updated the page on my Taiwan website about betel nut. This page gets more hits than any other page on the website. Obviously there is intense interest in betel nut and betel nut beauties in Taiwan.

Taiwan's legal status

China’s claims over Taiwan are about as valid as the UK trying to reclaim Australia. However, the question that must be asked is what exactly is Taiwan’s legal status?

An interesting letter was recently published in the Taipei Times. Richard Hartzell, a foreign long-term resident of Taiwan argues that Taiwan is actually a protectorate of the United States. The legal basis for this is the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Effectively it means Taiwan’s status has remained unresolved since World War II.

I find the analysis interesting although there are contrary points of view. I would argue that the sovereignty of Taiwan rests with the Taiwanese people. The problem is that international politics prevent them from freely exercising their democratic choice on this issue. Obviously there is the belligerence of China, but also problematic is the US’s ambiguous policies and the ineffectiveness of the UN. There is no hope for Taiwan in the UN because (a) it is not a member and (b) China holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council giving it an effective veto over any efforts to recognise Taiwan’s independence.

The whole issue exposes the hypocrisy of governments around the world at many levels and also the failure of institutions, particularly the UN, to provide for international justice.

A million march for Taiwan

Saturday 26 March 2005 marked yet another important day in Taiwan’s history. One million people took to the streets of Taipei in a peaceful protest against China’s anti-secession law.

It was significant in that it united people from across the political spectrum. The people of Taiwan obviously wanted to send a clear message to Beijing and the world that they are united in opposition to China’s aggression and committed to peace and democracy.

Below are some links to media reports about the event.

A-bian on the ABC

Last night’s edition of Foreign Correspondent on ABC TV featured a program about Taiwan. It included an interview with President Chen, an interview with KMT legislator Su Qi and coverage of President Chen’s recent visit to the Solomon Islands and Palau.

The report was probably a useful primer for the average Australian with little knowledge of Taiwan, but it lacked depth and promoted various misunderstandings about Taiwan politics. It seemed to paint a picture of Taiwan where the politics was very black and white. According to the report Taiwan was a nation divided where 50% of people supported independence and the other 50% wanted to reunify with China. The reality is far from that simple and the only thing you could safely say about Taiwan is that there is a diversity of opinion and a majority of Taiwanese support the status quo, even if it is only to avoid any possible confrontation with China. It also failed to explain how the entire political landscape has been restructured since President Chen’s election in 2000 and that within the various political parties there are major differences of opinion on Taiwan’s status and relationship with China.

I suppose you can’t expect too much of a 20 minute TV program produced for an Australian audience, but to me it highlights the way Taiwan is misrepresented in the world’s media. Firstly, there is the oversimplification of Taiwan’s politics to a simple pro-independence versus pro-reunification divide. Secondly, China’s claims over Taiwan are subjected to virtually no scrutiny. Indeed if they were subjected to just a little scrutiny it would soon be obvious that China’s claims over Taiwan have little basis in either history or law.

Of course this probably reflects the way that most of the world kowtows to China in order to gain access to its markets. The media tends to reflect corporate and government interests. It seems that Taiwan is losing the PR war. Chen’s visit to Taiwan’s Pacific island allies was portrayed as something of a circus that did little to help Taiwan on the international stage. Surely there are creative ways that Taiwan could sell itself to the world and hence guarantee its security.

Details of the program including a transcript are available at ABC Online: Taiwan – Dire Strait.

The Ugly Isle

When the Portuguese discovered Taiwan they called it Formosa – the beautiful isle. While vestiges of that beauty remain if Taiwan were discovered today it might well be called “The Ugly Isle”. Taiwan’s economic miracle has come at a huge ecological cost.

The recently released Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) ranked Taiwan 145th out of 146 countries. Only North Korea was ranked lower than Taiwan[1,2].

It is hardly surprising and any visitor to Taiwan could see why. More seriously it raises serious questions about Taiwan’s future. Is Taiwan caught in a downward spiral that it can’t get out of? Taiwan’s government policy is so focused on economic (read industrial) development that environmental issues are simply not a priority or at least don’t get the attention they deserve.

The construction of the fourth nuclear power plant is a case in point. Chen Shuibian was elected president in 2000 with a promise to halt construction of the fourth nuclear power plant. However, in the face of major political problems he reneged on the promise. What was most disturbing was that the government failed to make any significant efforts to develop alternative energy policies or to educate the people about the dangers of nuclear power.

During the 1980s when Taiwan’s era of martial law came to an end environmental concerns were at the top of the agenda in public protests[3]. However, now it seems there is little public protest about environmental issues despite the fact that things haven’t got any better.

While the people of Taiwan enjoy a high standard of living in most respects there must be serious questions about how long this can continue. Taiwan is heavily dependent on the importation of resources for energy and raw materials to sustain its economy. Despite this there has been negligible investment in either energy conservation or renewable energy generating capacity[4].

Climate change is an issue that has barely registered on Taiwan’s radar. The fact that Taiwan is excluded from participating in many international organisations might count for something. However, even if Taiwan had had the chance to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol one wonders if there would have been any significant efforts by the government to meet the emissions reduction targets. There seems to be a lack of basic public awareness about climate change.

There are few bright lights on the horizon for Taiwan. Perhaps Taiwan will serve as a canary in the coal mine and act as a wake up call showing the rest of the world the failures of industrial development. It would be much better if Taiwan could seriously embrace the need for ecologically sustainable development and lead the world forward to a cleaner, greener future.


  1. Taiwan’s environmental sustainability seen low (Taiwan News 27 Jan. 2005)
  2. Environmental index puts Taiwan at bottom of the heap (Taipei Times 20 Feb. 2005)
  3. “The Environmental Nightmare of the Economic Miracle: Land Abuse and Land Struggles in Taiwan”
    Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 1994, Vol. 26, No. 1-2, pp. 21-44.
    by Linda Gail Arrigo

  4. Energy and Sustainable Development in Taiwan
    Sustainable Energy Watch 2002 Report
    by Gloria Kuang-Jung Hsu