Bruce Jacobs, Emeritus Professor of Chinese Studies at Monash University, was the leading figure in Taiwan Studies in Australia. He authored three books, and numerous articles and commentaries about Taiwanese politics and history over his long career.
Bruce first lived in Taiwan from the 1960s, during the authoritarian period, as a Columbia University graduate student researching local politics. He moved to Australia in 1976 and worked at La Trobe University in Melbourne before joining Monash University in 1991 where he would stay until his retirement.
When a field of scholarly inquiry is a place, the life of that place and that of the scholar who studies it are inevitably intertwined. Knowledge of a place, its politics, cultural life and its everyday, can be expressed in academic outputs framed by method and objectivity. But it is also something intangible, a familiarity and fluency of action through communities, families, and an urban landscape that extends over a lifetime.
Bruce was fluent in Taiwan and its political life. He knew its political personalities and their commitments and idiosyncrasies because he and they all lived through Taiwan’s unique historical experience together. Upon Bruce’s death, President Tsai Ing-wen said that he was part of Taiwan’s history. Equally, Taiwan’s history was part of Bruce.
In the 1970s, he was drawn into the dangwai movement of democracy activists fighting against the authoritarian rule of the KMT under Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo. He was in Taiwan on February 28 1980 in the aftermath of the anti-government protest known as the Kaohsiung Incident, when the daughters and mother of the leading dangwai activist Lin Yi-hsiung were murdered. Bruce was named as a suspect by the regime, arrested and spent two months under house arrest, before being deported back to Australia and blacklisted from Taiwan for 12 years.
Taiwan had changed when he returned in 1992. The dangwai movement was now the Democratic Progressive Party and constitutional reform was laying the ground for democratic elections. The party politicians, activists and, he would say, careerists, he knew in the 60s and 70s were building the new democratic Taiwan, and carrying with them the friendships, enmities and successes and disappointments of lived democratic politics.
To be as fluent as Bruce in a place like Taiwan was not easy. He pioneered Taiwan as an area of study in the 1990s and 2000s against the academic and commercial promise of a rising China that has come to wholly dominate Australian universities. Bruce’s academic persona was famously combative and sharp but he faced down public institutions in Australia that were, and are, mostly indifferent, uninformed, and occasionally even hostile, to Taiwan.
But Australian universities will not see academics like Bruce Jacobs again. Knowing a place in the 2000s is so different from the 60s and 70s. Geography itself has changed, as the politics and everyday life of a country play out as much on social media as on the streets, requiring different forms of academic labour to understand and interpret. Australian universities have changed, too, with an institutional language of outputs and impact metrics that has no way of capturing the intangibility of a lifetime of knowledge of a place.
It is no small irony then that Bruce’s impact is very great. He leaves a legacy of his own Taiwan scholarship and that of his students who continue to study a changing Taiwan in new ways. He leaves, too, a legacy of connections between Taiwan and Australia, through the politicians, academics and public officials in both places who he sought to bring together and educate.
Most powerfully, in a life of knowing Taiwan’s distinctive island history, just like Taiwanese people themselves, Bruce challenged politics of erasure, both during its authoritarian period and since. For all of us, Bruce’s life and work stands as an enduring reminder of the importance of that task.
Image credit: CNA