May 4, 2012

Orphan of Asia - Taiwan and the Impossibility of the Taiwanese

Jacob Tischer, Student at Departments of Sinology and on Religious Studies,  Leipzig University, Visiting Research Associate at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan 

The debate on Taiwan's identity is especially within Taiwan extremely tense and conflictual. This is due to the problematic situation in the conflict with China, which precludes Taiwan as the largest country not represented in the UN from international participation. Such precarious existence has grave economic, political and psychological ramifications, impacting Taiwan and its people in sports, science, international treaties and health issues like SARS. Chinese propaganda suggests that Taiwan is culturally uniformly Chinese, but I maintain that the matter is certainly more complex than that. The issue of Taiwanese identity will be tracked here in its historical, ethnic, cultural, political, and legal dimensions. In the resulting existential tension of their everyday experience as citizens of an internationally marginalised, yet functioning independent political entity, and Western swing towards an economically opening, but still authoritarian China, Taiwanese elites are virtually forced to form a distinct identity in opposition to Chinese nationalism. This identity turns out to have emerged through shared historical experience and continues to evolve around the consensual identification of Taiwan’s residents with their democratic state - both key features to distinguish them from Chinese sovereignty claims.

Ethnic and cultural identity in historical perspective

The island in the South China Sea, which was known previously under the name Formosa, has been inhabited for about 8,000 years by Austronesian settlers. Because of its tremendous genealogical diversity, it is the probable starting point of the Austronesian colonization of the Pacific islands.  In Chinese and Western narratives, however, Taiwan's history does not begin until its consecutive occupation by the Dutch (1624-62) and Spanish (1626-42) regimes, the Zheng kingdom of the historically illustrious Ming loyalist Koxinga’s descendants (1662-83), the Manchu-Chinese Qing Dynasty (1683-1895) - each of which controlled only parts of the plains of the mostly mountainous island - and as the Japanese Empire’s first colony (1895-1945).
After Japan's surrender Taiwan was occupied by troops of the Republic of China (ROC) and since the retreat of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 forms the ROC’s remaining, albeit internally and externally contested, territory. Chiang's Chinese-nationalist party (KMT) ruled in dictatorial fashion through the coercion of martial law until 1987. Since the 1980s, however, lack of international legitimacy, a growing opposition movement, and external pressure on the part of journalists, NGOs, and the USA forced the regime to adopt democratising policies. In 1996, the first democratic presidential elections were held despite Chinese military threats; in 2000 a former dissident was elected president, and 2008 saw the KMT return to power.  The question of Taiwan's political and cultural affiliation could be suppressed no longer in a free political system and – in light of the sensitive political situation in East Asia today – firms more urgent than ever. In recent survey polls more than 50% of the population identify themselves as “Taiwanese” only and less than 4% as “Chinese”, revealing a rapid transformation of identity and a call for subjectivity of the formerly subaltern.  Although made possible by political liberalisation since 1987, this full-scale Taiwanisation has its socio-political forebears in the literary indigenisation (Xiangtu wenxue, literally “home-soil literature”) and democratic movements of the 1970s, its roots reaching as far back as the collective experience of Japanese colonisation.

However, even the concepts of an ethnically Chinese Taiwan are highly ambiguous and interpretative. Immigration from the southern Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong did not begin to an appreciable degree until the 17th century first through labour migration for the Dutch colony and small-time merchants. These pioneers’ descendants now form the population of the “Taiwanese” (Chin. Benshengren, “people of this province”, about 85% of the population of 23 million). The immigrants formed close-knit settlements and organisations by common language, provenance from the mainland, and patrilineal descent (Chen 1994). Sociolinguistically, Hakka (15%) and Hoklo (70%) can be distinguished among them,  but only the Hakka identity firms historically constant (Wang 2007). Hoklo spokesmen further divided into subethnical groups based on origin, kinship, or surname and did not conceive of themselves as part of a larger, “national” community until the beginning 20th century. With Hakka and Aborigines they engaged in numerous armed conflicts, but also within rivaling subethnic groups in feud strife (Lamley 1981). Taiwan in Qing-Chinese understanding was a frontier territory outside the confines of Chinese civilisation, hence government control was weak. A popular saying has it that every three years a major uprising was due, something that statistics can confirm. Local religious cults provided an important communal identity marker and organisational anchor in these conflicts. However, religion was also crucial in establishing supraethnic cooperation and in the construction of a common, Taiwan-based identity on the expense of impoverishing links to mainland origin (Shih 2006).

The Austronesians (today 2%) were subdued and until recently categorized by different civilising projects of Confucian, Christian, and Nationalist provenance according to their degree of Sinicisation as "cooked" (domesticated, shufan) or "raw savages” (shengfan), but never on their own terms (Harrell 1995).  Scientifically neglected until of late has been the degree of Plains Aborigines’ assimilation into the Benshengren group. Since in Qing times migration was restricted, it was almost exclusively male pioneers who went to Taiwan and because of denied access of females and families to a considerable part took Austronesian wives. Their offspring were recorded following paternal descent and so over the course of generations "han-ised". Due to growing Chinese “civilisational” pressure, up to the 20th century whole Aborigine settlements adopted Chinese surnames and constructed patrilineal descent lines from the Chinese mainland (Brown 2004). This fact has long been overlooked in the discourse on "Chinese" Taiwan but is becoming increasingly prominent in Taiwan's modern search for identity. Scientific evidence demonstrating genetic differences between Hoklo in Taiwan and South China is a powerful means to assert Taiwan’s uniqueness. However, the distinction of Hakka and Hoklo as well as Benshengren identities from Waishengren (literally "people from outside the province”, about 12% of today's population who came to Taiwan in 1949 with Chiang Kai-shek) reflects at least as much socio-cultural as ethnic or genetic factors. A new approach distinct from Taiwan as a geographically and economically peripheral “frontier zone” is the sea-centered interpretation of its’ “island history”, which aims to include the Aboriginals and their histories but also puts Taiwan in relation to the larger Pacific island region (Tsao 2000).
Religion has been an important factor in the establishment of identities. The Chinese immigrant communities organised locally around central temple cults.   With the adoption of Christianity, the Aborgine groups won a strong ally and identity marker. Without the support of internationally networked churches, even more tribes’ identities might have been merged into becoming Hoklo. In recent years, the languages and even long-lost identities of groups such as the Siraya in Tainan County are under reconstruction using early Dutch bibles.

Legal and political identity

Taiwan’s international position is ambivalent: De facto independent since 1949, it is not recognized by the UN de jure.  Taiwan meets all requirements for inclusion in the UN and would, unlike some newly recognized states, not have to be created through intervention. However, the ruling regime in Taiwan is the state "Republic of China", founded in 1911 on the Chinese Mainland. Until 1971, the ROC held China’s permanent seat in the UN Security Council before it was transferred to the People’s Republic of China as tribute to changing political realities.
After  Japanese surrender in 1945, Taiwan was taken over by the Allies under U.S. military government authority and subsequently occupied by troops of the Republican China, but was not formally ceded to the latter at any point which in recent years has led to lawsuits by Taiwanese nationals to be granted American citizenship.  A decision on Taiwan's political affiliation is strategically postponed by the United States continuously to this day, even though more and more Taiwanese raise claim to exert their legally guaranteed right to self-determination and decision on their own future (Chow 2008). The U.S. government keeps the island as part of its protective umbrella in the Pacific in deliberate legal ambivalence. All the more surprising in this context appears recent Taiwanese history, in which the island’s inhabitants grew their state into a democratization theory model case of economic and political development.

Political identity concerning the idea of a national community in Taiwan remains controversial. Communal awareness surpassing ethnic boundaries first became manifest during the Japanese occupation period as anti-Japanese resistance. After its retreat to the island, a KMT feudal caste attempted to maintain mainland Chinese reality, trying to establish a hegemonic ethnicised Chinese high culture, which endeavored to make Taiwan a model Chinese province and suppressed alternative readings.  Exclusive access to resources by ethnic standards promoted the confinement of social groups and brought forth the collective idea of bipolar Benshengren vs Waishengren identities. Tension between both groups clashed most infamously in the island-wide 28 February 1947 uprising which was stroke down brutally and followed by a 40-year period of near-fascist rule known as “White Terror”. The ethnic groups’ hostility is still perceivable today, since Taiwanese nationalism is routinely accused of Hoklo-ethnic exclusivism - just as the KMT Chinese nationalism equaled pure Waishengren exclusivism. The narrative of Taiwanese nationalism as a history of resistance against oppression by foreign colonial powers in the eyes of some researchers prevented the emergence of an inclusive nationalism (Wu 2004). On the other hand, ethnic mobilization which increased since the 1970s led to the creation of an opposition party (DPP) and the democratization of the political system. Mainlander sensibilities, however, remain salient in public discourse, as the recent success of Lung Ying-tai’s book on the Chinese civil war (1949: Da jiang, da hai) suggests. A missed opportunity of reconciliation among the different groups may be the price Taiwan has paid for its peaceful change, as the KMT’s position of power proved impossible to be challenged effectively, leaving a critical reappraisal of its inglorious history in Taiwan out of the necessary to survive as one political party among others.

Every scientific treatise will be confronted with the fact that the ethnic, cultural, and political dimensions of identity in Taiwan itself usually get mixed up indiscriminately. Many adversaries understand the establishment of "Taiwanese identity" as a mere political project by independence supporters. The quest to create a common ethnic and cultural basis for the new political system sometimes gets dismissed as "ethnic racism" and DPP extremism harmful to relations with China and therefore to the economy. In fact, however, the construction of Taiwanese identity was closely connected with the demand for democracy, which today is recognized by all social strata and apparently also by the formerly dictatorial KMT. For the stability of the democratic state in the medium term, however, an established conjoint Taiwanese identity is necessary. Only a second, broader and more inclusivist definition of Taiwanese identity tied to state membership will work toward that end. Lee Teng-hui’s (President 1988-2000) concept of the "new Taiwanese" (Xin Taiwanren) to symbolically include the Waishengren was a step in that direction.  With further cultural development apart from direct Chinese control traditional ethnic differences will diminish in favour of new forms of expression. Taiwan's young are in the fast-paced, deliberate process of creating a specific culture blending local, oriental, and western influences. Although definitions of Taiwan's social, ethnic, or cultural identity are fragmented and contested, its political identity firms as a popular consensus to identify with Taiwan's democracy. Whether this modern and multicultural country will have to eke out its existence as "orphan of Asia" crucially depends on Western support for its vibrant democracy.

(Hi)story’s morale

This article intended to show that PR Chinese claims of a monoculturally Chinese Taiwan suffering from chronic separatism are a highly selective reading of the situation at best. It is linked to assumptions of Han Chinese identification which do not take any notice of inner Taiwanese discourses on identity whatsoever, yet are internationally accepted as valid. The people of Taiwan have gone through many identity crises and changes, from being officially Japanese to Chinese and now creating their own identity in a mere hundred years time. More appropriate to Taiwanese intrasocietal discourse would be a perspective on Taiwanese identity which centers on the reality of people’s lives and their identification with the liberal democratic system instead of relying on literature review, textual analysis, and abstract scientific theorizing. Political science would benefit from integrating the more sympathetic sentiment of such an anthropological approach of letting people speak for themselves.
A formal, internationally valid declaration of independence as Republic of Taiwan would – contrary to mantra-like repeated and in Western media oft uncritically accepted PRC propaganda – not pose a change of the much-quoted status quo, but merely its formalization. Changing the status quo, i.e. abandoning U.S. support for Taiwan's sovereignty as a "pawn" in the conflict with China, would not defuse the highly conflictual situation between the two antipodes. For the rising power will continue to invest in a reversal of power relations, or, in the Chinese perception, of a return to the "proper" world order with China at its civilizational center. Because of its democratic achievements and over many decades different development from the PRC the conclusion can only read – even in the context of legal ambiguity and political instability – international support for the self-determination of Taiwan's residents, regardless of whether one views them as Chinese or not!


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This article was published in Powision, no. 9: Identitäten, in 2010.

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