National Chengchi University
The United Kingdom
Professor Niki Alsford wants to re-centre the way that we look at Taiwan and its history.
With a background in Anthropology, in 2011 Professor Alsford graduated from National Chengchi University’s International Master’s Program in Asia Pacific Studies (NCCU IMAS), going on to complete his PhD in Modern East Asian History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Among the many other positions he currently holds, Mr. Alsford is now a Professor in Asia Pacific Studies and Director of the Institute for the Study of the Asia Pacific at the University of Central Lancashire.
Professor Alsford’s academic interest in Taiwan came about during his undergraduate studies. During his undergraduate life at NCCU, he found that there was a historical gap in the period between the displacement of the Japanese in 1945, and the arrival of the Chinese Nationalists in 1947. “I found that Taiwan was being referenced a fair bit only in footnotes, but at that time there was not anything really concrete or exact as historical documents” said Professor Alsford. “You had this mass exodus of two significant groups of people, but nothing was really being written about [this period] collectively. So, I made the decision that I wanted to explore a bit further.”
Using this as motivation, Professor Alsford spent two years studying Chinese language in Taichung before relocating to Taipei to undertake his MA at NCCU with the newly established IMAS program. His research thesis with IMAS focused on the presence of the English people in Taiwanese Treaty ports in the late 19th Century. He continued to follow this research interest with a PhD dissertation related to the cession of Formosa to Japan in 1895.
Since then, Professor Alsford has researched all manner of Topics related to Taiwan: colonial history, aboriginal culture, languages, contemporary issues such as democratisation, and religion. While this may seem rather broad, Professor Alsford credits this approach with helping him to bring together many different perspectives and develop a new way of considering Taiwan and its history—through an Austronesian perspective.
Rather than looking at Taiwan as part of the East Asian Narrative, he encourages researchers and social scientists to look at Taiwan differently. “For me, looking at Taiwan as a Pacific Island helps us to re-centre the way in which we look at the island and its history. Rather than looking at it as being part of an East Asian narrative, somehow attached to the Asian continent through a Chinese lens, I’ve looked at it by seeing Taiwan as the only Chinese speaking Pacific Island.”
Professor Alsford encourages MA and PhD students to adopt this perspective. The Austronesian story has only recently begun to receive attention from scholars and researchers, and there are many topics that need further exploration according to Professor Alsford. “The Austronesian story is only really starting to come out. I think there is wide acceptance that Taiwan is the cradle for the Austronesian language family, and to explore that further would be my recommendation.” He also encourages students with an interest in identity politics and the rise of populism in Taiwan to pursue research in this area. “I think there is this assumption that this is a generation thing…, that it’s the elderly or older people that are the conservatives, and the young people are progressive and left-leaning, but there are young conservatives in Taiwan as well. [Therefore] I would strongly encourage research in these areas.”
When asked about where he would recommend students to engage themselves in Asia Pacific Studies, Professor Alsford offered a diplomatic response. As a Professor of the University of Central Lancashire, he emphasizes the strength of his faculty and the expertise within the institution. He did note, however, that out of the five Taiwan experts on staff, three of them received their master’s degrees from NCCU. “The three of us are all products of National Chengchi University, and I benefited greatly from my time in Taiwan. If I have to recommend a higher education institution for students to study in Taiwan, of course it will be NCCU”.
Professor Alsford has fond memories of living in and around the NCCU campus. He noted the access to the Maokong tea plantations that were involved in his research and are within minutes of the campus. Since 2018, Professor Alsford has been working on a project with the National Museum of Taiwan History and is also conducting research in Dulan (on Taiwan’s east coast) with the indigenous Amis people. In the past, Professor Alsford visited Taiwan regularly and was normally in Taiwan multiple times a year to conduct various research projects and lead his students on field trips.
Professor Alsford still maintains active links with NCCU and will be teaching the module “The Anthropology of the Asia Pacific” for the newly established International Program of Austronesian Studies, starting this new semester (the first semester of the 2021-22 academic year). The module will have students from NCCU and the University of Central Lancashire learning with one another and will accompany a range of other modules on Austronesian Studies that NCCU will be providing in the near future.