Occupying the field: Ma Ying-jeou and the “national game”

On Saturday, August 21, 2004, a giant screen near Taipei city hall was showing a live baseball game broadcast from the Olympic Games in Athens. Many Taiwanese spectators had come to witness this confrontation between their national team and Japan, the country which, a century ago, had introduced what was now the “national game” (guoqiu, 國球) into the island.

Wearing the jersey of the national team, his face made up and holding two plastic cones (known as “sticks of encouragement,” jiayoubang 加油棒), Ma Ying-jeou, the mayor of the capital city, was sitting amidst the supporters. Four years later, a picture of this event was used in a blog for the 2008 presidential campaign. The candidate invited Taiwanese people to support the national team and to return to the bleachers for national professional league matches, which had suffered from low attendance since its creation in 1990, hit by corruption and match-fixing scandals connected to the illegal gambling underworld. Since being elected, Ma has opened the three seasons of the professional league. His wife, Chow Mei-ching, regularly attends games played by the Brother Elephants team, based in Taipei, often with disadvantaged and disabled children.

Ma, however, is unfamiliar with baseball. Unlike many Taiwanese, he never played this game at school. When he tries it publicly, his face is strained by the effort, and his technical deficiencies make his inexperience obvious. However, he cannot ignore the importance of the social representations and historical references of baseball to which the whole Taiwanese society can relate. In doing so, he is not remarkable amongst Taiwanese politicians from any political party.

He sometimes wears the jersey of the New York Yankees, including on election posters. This not insignificant choice refers to the Taiwanese player Wang Chien-ming (王建民), who played that year in the legendary American franchise, enjoying great popularity and media coverage. In this way, Ma appropriated a symbol of the pro-independence camp, for which Wang had declared his support, and took advantage of the success and moral values attached to him. In doing so, he is perpetuating the long tradition of relations between the KMT and baseball.

On October 15, 2007, as part of the “Long Stay”, Ma stopped in Hungyeh (紅葉), a Bunun village in Taitung County famous for its elementary school baseball team. Still wearing the jersey of the Yankees, he posed for a photograph with elected KMT officials and former players in front of the museum dedicated to the team, adjacent to the school. In 1968, it won several victories against a Japanese team on tour in Taiwan, who had been falsely considered as the world champions in the age 10-12 category. This event, largely organized by the KMT, became legendary, despite being marked by irregularities and was followed by the incredible domination of the Republic of China who won the World Junior Championships seventeen times between 1969 and 1996. These titles were the result of a broad national mobilisation behind the Party-State, including the overseas Chinese, and the promotion of “Confucian” values defended by the KMT through young players supposed to embody them.

In October 2007, once again in Taitung County, Ma stayed in Chengkung professional high school, whose baseball team is as much known for its performance as its lack of resources. As with Hungyeh, it represents the “aboriginal” and “poor” team, owes its success uniquely to the effort of its players, the ingenuity of its coach and the school’s support: another image promoted by the KMT. On June 21, 2008, a few days after his investiture, Ma returned to Chengkung and made a donation of NT$200,000 to the high school team which had achieved good results in the national championship. The same day, he went back to Hungyeh elementary school to attend the graduation ceremony. Baseballs signed by him, exhibited in the museum under the photograph mentioned above, attest to the dates of his visit.

In September 2011, King Pu-tsung, the director of Ma’s campaign visiting the United States to challenge Tsai Ing-wen’s visit, sent an unofficial video message of encouragement from the President to Wang Chien-ming. In 2007, the KMT had denounced a “politicization of sport” by Hsieh Chang-ting, the DPP candidate, who came to New York to attend a game played by Wang. On September 21, 2011, Chow Mei-ching was in Los Angeles to open a game featuring the Dodgers, the team of Kuo Hung-chih (郭泓志), another Taiwanese baseball star. On November 1st, Ma opened the tour of American Major League Baseball All-Stars in Taiwan. On the eve of the 2012 presidential election, Ma continues to occupy the field of baseball.

Jérôme Soldani is a Doctoral student in anthropology at the Université de Provence (Aix-en-Provence, France) and can be reached at jeromesoldani@hotmail.fr. He wishes to thank Catherine Librini and Martin Cruse for help with the translation from French.