Dissertation Abstracts

Colors of Empire: Visualizing Race in Taiwan under Japanese Colonial Rule

Author: Yen-Yu Lin, yy.lim.tw@gmail.com
Department: Sociology
University: University of Virginia, United States
Supervisor: Fiona Greenland
Year of completion: 2023
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: race , empires , material culture , colonialism
Areas of Research: Historical and Comparative Sociology , Visual Sociology , Theory


Race is a social and global construct, for which Du Bois’s pioneering global color line theory has deepened our understanding on how the modern world operates under global systems of racialization. However, global color line theory does not explain why and how racializing systems could operate in colonial empires where the colonizers and colonized were considered the “same-race.” Puzzled by how the global color line works differently in perceived “same-race” colonial societies, this dissertation studies the racializing systems in Taiwan under Japanese imperial rule (1895-1945). Why and how did racializing systems change over time, causing the colony to turn from being inferior to the metropole at first and then becoming the “same race” with the colonizers at the end? To explain this puzzle, I propose two sets of research questions: Empirically, what did Japan do in Taiwan to establish and sustain a new racial order, and what is visible and invisible about this new racial order? Theoretically, why is the (in)visibility of the new racial order important for a perceived “same-race” colonial empire, Japan? These research questions on visibility of racial order necessitates my research method: I collected and analyzed the visual archives produced in Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule, including drawings, portraits, artwork, postcards, and mass media images. Speaking to existing theories in sociology of race, empires, and materiality, this dissertation argues that the Japanese Empire imported, utilized, and customized the racializing systems for maintaining colonial power by obscuring and redefining “race.” This main argument is broken down into three supporting points, discussed by the order of chapters of this dissertation. First, in Chapter Two, I show how “contouring systems,” meaning “the visual systems that binds and gives form to racialized same-ness and differences,” operated in replacement of white-versus-non-white “color line” in Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule. Contouring systems distributed in different times, domains of expertise, and historical contexts show how Japan customized its racializing systems in response to the Empire’s needs. Second, in Chapter Three, I argue that the Japanese Empire promoted a beauty-whiteness regime that paired together older colorism within pre-modern East Asian societies with modern ideas about “white is beautiful.” The Empire was able to promote this connection through female-bodied imagery that did not make the link between these aesthetic shifts and Japanese colonialism explicit. This new beauty-whiteness regime effectively pushed Taiwanese people, especially Han Taiwanese women, to strive for a sense of beauty and cultural supremacy aligned with the imperial project. Finally, in Chapter Four, I contend that the essence of Japanese imperial project changed from “rule of difference” to “rule of same-ness” after the outbreak of World War II. This wartime racializing project operated through inconsistent languages in the texts and images—which I call “intertextual inconsistency,” a mechanism which helped the ultimate integration of contouring systems for the purpose of war mobilization. This dissertation has three broader implications for sociological theories of race and empires, intersectionality, and methodology. First, this dissertation shifts the analytical focus from color lines to racialized contours and opens up a new sociological vantage point on race and empire. Second, this dissertation shows modernity is in and of itself intersectional, as evident in the visual representations of Han Taiwanese women, who were located at the intersections of multiple “lower-ranked” social positions—race and gender. Third, this research contributes to sociological methodology by reading data as intertextual—a combination of textual and visual languages. Showing that images are as powerful as texts in meaning-making, this dissertation forges ahead with an important future research agenda that reexamines existing text-heavy archival method. Contributing to studies of race, empires, intersectionality, and methodology, this dissertation shows why and how multiple global systems of racialization emerged, developed, and changed under the overlapping shadows of the Japanese empire, the birth of modern China, and the US empire in the late 19th to early 20th century, which is theoretically suggestive for future creative approaches to understanding global inequalities and differences.