EDDI XXVI - Academic Digest IV

Negotiating imagined community in national curriculum: The Taiwanese case Yu-Chih Li (University of Queensland)

Negotiating imagined community in national curriculum: The Taiwanese case

Author: Yu-Chih Li (University of Queensland)


  • If you want to examine the condition of democracy in any country, consider its national curricula .

  • This paper examines Taiwan’s national curriculum, and resistance to its revisions

  • To the high school students doing the resisting, the imagined community represented in the curriculum should be a democratic and multicultural one, empowering them to against the dominance of official knowledge.

Which is the most culturally inclusive nation in Asia? Which Asian country is the most democratic? Which Asian people and their culture are the least homophobic and racist? Which Asian people are among the best educated in the world? And, finally, if you are a Westerner, deciding an Asian country to live and work in, which one would very likely not even make your Top 5 list (but most definitely should)?

The answer in every case is Taiwan (at least based on my experience).

Despite recently being in the headlines as a pawn in the growing China v USA battle for global hegemony, Taiwan remains a welcoming, sophisticated haven of tranquillity and freedom for both its citizens and any foreigners fortunate enough to find themselves living there.

But that is our view as Western expats. Scratch below the surface of Taiwan life, or indeed go to China and ask about the ‘state’ of Taiwan, and you’ll quickly realise that this little island’s “sophisticated tranquillity and freedom” is today under intense pressure and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Not that Taiwan is any stranger to political pressure from bigger and more powerful nations. As this article notes, throughout its history, Taiwan has been subjected to the machinations of bigger powers, e.g. the Dutch, the Spanish, the Japanese, and various mainland China Empires. Though since the 1980s, a notable peace and prosperity has settled across the country, shaken only by the incessant earthquakes and seasonal tropical storms.

But despite Taiwan’s prosperity and technological entrepreneurialism, is not difficult to spot the conundrum which exists at its core – look at a Taiwan passport: Taiwan isn’t mentioned. A Taiwanese citizen belongs to the Republic of China. Yet ask most any Taiwanese if they are ‘Chinese’ and you are likely to get a resounding “No!”.

Travel the 180 kilometres across the Taiwan Strait, from Taiwan to the mainland (People’s Republic of China), and you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone who believes that Taiwan is not Chinese.

But stepping aside briefly from the historical and geopolitical contestations that envelop Taiwan, what is revealed here is the reality which exists behind all communities, especially nation states. Which is that to be experienced as real they first need to be imagined as real.

And if you wish to reify national identity in a population then the first place you start is the state education curriculum. Which opens up many opportunities for academics interested in researching this complex relationship between (national) identity and the individual, using education as the context.

The specific focus of this paper is on the discourse surrounding revisions of the Taiwan national curriculum, and the resistance some of these revisions engendered in the community, notably secondary and higher education students.

“Through utilizing the concept of imagination, especially Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities” and Harvey’s interpretation of “geographical imagination”, this paper investigates the representation of imagined communities embedded in various revisions and making of the national curriculum in Taiwan.” (p. 80)

“This Taiwanese case is analysed in light of considering education from the perspective of democracy: whose imaginations of national community are legimitized or marginalized in the construction of official knowledge, the (non)functioning of democratic mechanism in education, and students’ role in constructing the national curriculum.” (p. 81)

In other words, this study is concerned to highlight the battle for which imagined community (which discourse of identity) would be represented in the curriculum, recognising that in Taiwan (as elsewhere), national curricula are invariably used to normalise and justify state control. It is in the national curriculum that ‘official knowledge’ of a nation is imprinted, both literally in the form of text, and metaphorically in the form of discursive truth and reality. As the author notes, national curricula can be ‘coercive mechanisms’ for solidifying and ‘shaping of the communal imagination of a nation’.

Following which, if you intend to examine the condition of democracy in any country, it is worthwhile examining national curricula. For this will reveal the primary symbols, languages, representations and ‘truths’ deployed to reinforce national association and belonging in the minds of an increasingly global social-media obsessed youth.

For a good many reasons, Taiwan is a perfect place to undertake such an examination, not least because it ‘has been continuously undergoing a process of decolonization and citizenship reconstruction’ over centuries. Moreover, as the articles notes, Taiwan remains in a ‘complicated’ relationship with China.

“Doong (2008) identified four different accounts of national identity tracking through the citizenship education content of Taiwan: pan-China identity, cultural China identity, Taiwan identity, and contradictory/vague identity” (p. 84)

The Representation of Official Knowledge

The national curriculum has served the function of social integration and the formation of community in Taiwan throughout the country’s history, though as the article states, many other countries do exactly the same: deploying the state education system as a primary actor in creating nationalistic feelings, social cohesion, embedding belonging and association to the state, and cultivating loyalty to ‘the flag’ and the country’s rulers.

“the development of school systems and compilation of curricular content becomes the means that ruling classes or dominant groups use for shaping a certain ‘imagination’ of the national community.” (p. 83)

The article goes on to examine how this ideological mechanism has been deployed in other Asian countries, notably China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and South Korea

At the same time, education also contributes to divisions within the imagined community of a country and this can be observed in the case of Taiwan with regards to the activities of student groups, determined to ensure the democratic process is more than a façade.

“Apart from the traditions of individual schools, there is also a tradition of student movements and activisms in reacting to critical social issues along with the development of democracy in Taiwan…What binds them together is a strong agreement and respect for the fact that Taiwan is a multicultural society and everyone’s identity should be respected….To these young people, the imagined communal community is more inclusive than being exclusively Chinese or exclusively Taiwanese.” (p. 89)

What is revealed in the article’s deep analysis of student responses to curriculum changes and various Ministry of Education initiatives and policy dictates over the recent decades, is a dynamic situation whereby the Taiwanese authorities’ attempts at utilising the national curriculum to create a particular political discourse aligned with a singular national identity, are not accepted without question by students and educationalists.

Legitimacy and official knowledge are not necessarily the same thing and while the latter can be identified in curricula, this does not always render the knowledge legitimate in the eyes of the critical thinking student, educationalist, citizen.

This timely article concludes with an important observation, one which students and educationalist everywhere can learn from:

“In the context of Taiwan’s complicated geopolitics with China, the nation sits in an ambiguous status of liminality, an unstable and disintegrated relationship between society and the nation state. In confronting China’s attempt at eliminating Taiwan’s independence, Taiwan’s niche is its pursuit of being ‘as a state that avoids identification with a nation, but emphasizes, instead, its political ‘virtue’…To the high school students who fought for better participation and representation in making the national curriculum, the imagined community represented in the curriculum should be a democratic and multicultural one, which empowers the youth to act against the dominance of official knowledge.” (p. 90)


Yu-Chih Li (2019) ‘Negotiating imagined community in national curriculum: The Taiwanese case’,

The International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives Vol. 18, No 1, 2019, pp. 80-92