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Agricultural Reform in Taiwan: From Here to Modernity?

Irene Bain, (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1993), xliv, 547 pp. Cloth $40.

Is there anything about contemporary Taiwan's agriculture worth studying as the island nation is marching full-speed towards industrialization? Isn't there already sufficient number of research on Taiwan's successful post-war Land Reform by scholars from various disciplines and from a multitude of nations that renders any additional research redundant? This reviewer was initially rather skeptical about Irene Bain's book, especially when I encountered such remarks in the Forward: "This exceptionally rich and pioneering -- study carefully identifies, then critically examines, a good range of key and recurring issues in the cultural and political economy of agricultural land planning in Taiwan" (by Raymond Apthorpe, p. xv). Can anything new be added to this over-researched subject?

My initial reservation was soon replaced by admiration as my reading progressed. Bain, a doctoral candidate in geography from Australia, was able to demonstrate, through careful compiling and analyses of government regulations, archival documents, personal memoirs, newspaper clips, and field interviews, that there is still a lot to be learned about Taiwan's Land Reform, and that such a study of a seemingly insignificant sector in this society may shed light on the nature of the society and its problems at a time of rapid change. Without a doubt, Bain's work is the most authoritative work on Taiwan's Land Reform and its contemporary rural development problems. It will be one of the most important source books for future researchers on this subject.

The structure of this book follows a logical sequence. Part One, Central Planning (including chapters 2-4) covers the changing bureaucratic structure of Taiwan's agriculture, and the policy-making processes that ultimately produced the much acclaimed post-war Land Reform. Bain was able to document the policy flip-flops and controversies at the top echelon of the Nationalist government, and the conflicting views present by various factions. The myth of a successful Land Reform, characterized by unanimously agreed upon policies that were smoothly executed by a willing officialdom, is perennially destroyed. In this section Bain further points out the problems in Taiwan's agricultural development caused by the lack of a cabinet-level administration to coordinate efforts and to mediate conflicts among various ministries.

In Part Two: Local Response (chapters 5 and 6), Bain focused on Mei-nung township in Kao-hsiung county in southern Taiwan. There she carried out longitudinal research on the implementation of the Second-stage Agricultural Land Reform (SALR) in 1980s. Despite careful planning and promotion by the central government, SALR produced negligible results and the farm crisis in Mei-nung persisted.

Some of Bain's findings will have both theoretical and practical implications, and can be summarized below. First, the government's policy formulation and implementation is always a top-down process, and never involves the affected peasants. This, obviously, is reflective of the Confucian view of governance and the practices of the benevolent "father-mother officials" who provided instructions and guidances to the docile peasants. Second, the SALR attempted to resolve current agricultural stagnations through the creation of full-time farmers. In fact, the most adaptable farming system in Taiwan is part-time farming. Third, the farmland consolidation programs, the central component of SALR, has no significant impact on farmland dispersals and hence can not improve efficiency. Lastly, while the government is interested in enhancing agricultural production efficiency, the farmers are more interested in diversification and risk-spreading. As long as the gaps remain between policy planners and the farmers, there will be little possibility to achieve a comprehensive solution to Taiwan's farm crisis.

While Bain's work provides important insights, it also has a few problems, albeit minor, that need to be clarified. First, the romantization system used in this book is the Wade-Giles system as most researchers in Taiwan do. Bain deviates from the conventional usage when she uses capitalization for regional units, such as Chen for urban township (instead of cheng), Hsiang for rural township (instead of hsiang), and Li for sub-township district (instead of ii). Second, on page 152, Bain indicated the formal separation between P'ing-tung and Kao-hsiung counties as occurred in 1980. Anyone familiar with Taiwan knows that these two counties have been separated before 1945. Third, Bain's research touched on several critical issues in our understanding of contemporary Taiwanese society, such as the importance of the extended family network, which she called "the welfare state," and ethnicity. However, she never clearly defined the term "welfare state," nor did she elaborate on the significance of Hakka ethnicity in Meinung's current development. Lastly, and perhaps the most perplexing problem to me, is while Bain quoted extensively publications in both English and Chinese in this book, she failed to mention Myron Cohen's book House United, House Divided: The Chinese Family in Taiwan (Columbia University Press, 1976) that focused on Mei-nung tobacco farmers and their diversification strategies -- the subject of Bain's central concern.

In spite of these minor problems, I strongly recommend this book for researchers who are interested in contemporary rural Taiwan, as well as theoreticians who are interested in issues related to small farmers in a rapidly industrializing society.
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Author:Shu-Min, Huang
Publication:Journal of Asian and African Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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