My interest in Ryukyu/Okinawa has begun to pull me towards a stronger interest in Korea and Taiwan… or, perhaps it is an interest in the less-central, less-discussed, which brings me to all three.
A couple weeks ago I got to sit in on a class in Taiwanese “humanities”, as a guest speaker, T.Y. Wang from Illinois State University, gave an interesting talk on Taiwanese identity. It comes as no surprise to me to learn that over the last decade or two, the percentage of people who identify as “Taiwanese” has grown dramatically, while the proportion of people in Taiwan who identify as “Chinese” has shrunk to single digit percentage points. The vast majority (around 80% according to Wang’s numbers) support independence if it can be obtained without war, and similar numbers (70-75%) support what is called “Double Renunciation,” having Taiwan renounce any intentions to push for official de jure independence, in exchange for the PRC renouncing the use of military force against Taiwan – in other words, more solidly & officially reinforcing the status quo. (My sincere apologies, by the way, if I mistake or misrepresent any of this – I know this is a sensitive issue, and I am only just beginning to learn about it; so please do correct me.)
From the 1940s-80s, Taiwan was under the martial law of the KMT, a Mainland Chinese political party which in the 228 Incident of 1947, and the forty-year White Terror period which followed, imprisoned, “disappeared,” and on occasions even massacred Taiwanese elites who opposed their rule, or who were suspected of Communist leanings. Though Mainlanders (Han Chinese) make up only about 12% of the Taiwanese population today (I suspect numbers were similar in the past), with 10% Hakka and 77% Minnan, throughout this period they were the dominant group, inspiring much ethnic political tensions.
Authoritarian rule came to an end in the 1990s and was replaced by truer, freer democracy, resentment by Minnan and Hakka people about being ruled by Mainlanders (those who came with the KMT in 1949 or before or afterwards, and were closely associated with the party) was replaced by a stronger feeling of equality, and according to Prof. Wang, ethnic divisions are not nearly as much a source of tension as they once were. Furthermore, with the de-Sinicization policies of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2000-2008 came an even stronger collective notion of “Taiwanese” identity, regardless of Han, Minnan, or Hakka background. This Taiwanese identity, support for independence, and a distancing from, or drop-off of, Chinese identity, is buoyed all the more by bullying from Beijing; while Beijing may think it is punishing a rebel province, or using isolation and sanctions to drive Taiwan to have no choice but to return to Chinese control, such bullying has only hardened the resistance. One student in the class even spoke passionately about fears, especially among the younger Taiwanese generation such as himself, that China’s policy of economic integration with Taiwan is in fact a Trojan Horse – as it leads to Taiwanese businessmen who enjoy good business interactions with China, and indeed whose business success and personal livelihoods rely on good relations with China, gaining in economic and then political influence in Taiwan, a very valid concern, I think, given the excessive political influence of wealthy individuals, and of corporate special interests, in our own country.
The streets of Jiufen, Taiwan. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
These are pretty much the highlights of the talk. And there’s a lot in there; a lot that gets me thinking about Okinawa, and about other places around the world. The comparisons are quite intriguing, though in most cases it’s more of a contrast, coming at similar issues from opposite directions. Taiwan is, of course, in a particularly special position in the world, being de facto independent, perhaps one of the most strongly and long-lastingly de facto independent states in the world without having much official recognition. By contrast, Okinawa used to be properly independent, and is no longer, having been annexed, colonized, assimilated by Japan. Okinawans are historically, traditionally, a separate people from the Japanese, in terms of language, culture, historical political association & structure, even genetically. But, the idea of people throughout the island chain, from Yonaguni up through Okinawa Island, considering themselves “Ryukyuan” or “Okinawan” is a relatively new concept, as under the Kingdom, people of each island would have associated far more strongly with their island, and many may have even seen the Okinawans as conquerors, foreign interlopers, occupiers; the languages are certainly different enough. It is only in the modern era (since the late 19th century), as a result of the formation of Okinawa Prefecture, and the administrative, economic, and political constructions of that, along with assimilationist public education curricula, I would wager, that people in Miyako and Yaeyama began to consider themselves “Okinawan,” and all the more so as an identity in solidarity with the people of Okinawa Island, against the Japanese colonial overlords. Here too, in Okinawa as in Taiwan, identity is contingent upon how people perceive themselves to be treated by the metropole (Tokyo), and here, too, particularly explicitly in recent weeks and months, there is a case of the metropole government bullying, or punishing, a distant province (prefecture) for acting up, or acting out, against national interests. (See Shingetsu News’ tweet from Jan 10 2015: “Abe govt official tells Jiji that Okinawa budget cuts are because “it is necessary to reward good conduct and punish bad.””)1
The Ryukyus, as seen on a Pacific map at Pearl Harbor. Photo my own.
But, bringing it back to Taiwan, one of the things I find so fascinating about Taiwanese identity is that we can practically see a new ethnic identity forming before our eyes – and thus serving as a stark example of how ethnicity isn’t necessarily really tied to genetic/racial origins, but is more complicated than that. For many people, “Taiwanese” may be purely a nationalistic, political identity, but I have no doubt (though I also have no surveys or studies immediately at hand) that for many others, they see their cultural identity as different enough from “Chinese” that they really consider themselves members of a different people entirely.
Prof. Wang is a political scientist, and so it comes as no surprise that his survey data about “Chinese” identity pertains to asking people whether they consider themselves 「中国人」 (Zhongguoren), “people of China.” It is certainly interesting to see the shrinking proportion of people who still think of Taiwan as the “Republic of China,” and/or as the legitimate government of all of China, and to consider how this plays out conceptually – if one thinks of Taiwan not as the “Republic of China,” not as “China” at all, then, yeah, your conception of being (politically) Chinese is going to diminish, and a sense of being “Taiwanese” is going to emerge. But, I was sad to see that he did not in today’s talk delve much at all into the nuances and meanings of the ways in which people do or do not still consider themselves culturally or ethnically Chinese. The question about being 「中国人」 is an interesting one, but I would have liked to also see the data for “do you consider yourself 「中華人」, and what does that mean to you?” I’m sure there’s all kinds of nuance I’m failing to grasp, or even if I am grasping it, I may be failing to express it properly, so forgive me, but as I understand it, 「中華」 (Zhonghua) means, roughly, “Chinese culture” or “Chinese civilization,” in a sort of trans-historical or solely tied-to-tradition sort of way, divorced from the connotations of today’s post-1911 or post-1949 political context. Essentially, it’s a word closely related to the concept of the Chinese diaspora – a diaspora which has existed in Singapore, Malaysia, and much of the rest of Southeast Asia since the Ming Dynasty, if not earlier; we’re not talking only about late 19th-21st century immigration to Hawaii, North America, Europe, and so forth. Anyway, my question is, for a Taiwanese who identifies as Zhonghuaren (or whatever the appropriate term may be), or for a Taiwanese who rejects such associations, what does Zhonghua mean to them? And for the Taiwanese who rejects such associations, what does being “Taiwanese” mean to them? The idea of being “culturally Chinese” or associating oneself with “Chinese culture” may seem simple on the surface, but drawing upon my knowledge of East Asian history & culture, and my own personal thoughts on my identity as a Jew, I would hazard that there are several different parts, or different categories to this. First, there is the folk culture, folk practice, everyday lifestyle culture aspect of a cultural identity. There are presumably many Taiwanese who, by virtue of the fact that they speak Chinese, read/write Chinese, use chopsticks, eat Chinese food, follow (at least some version of) Confucian ethics, and so forth, consider themselves to have some connection to Chinese culture, or Chinese identity. And there are likely those who consider their Taiwanese dialect/language, Taiwanese food, and so forth to be different enough from Standard Mandarin and from either Shanghai or Beijing food and culture that they see Taiwanese culture as a distinctive thing. And, to be sure, for those who might point to fashion, cafés & teahouses, 7-11, boba tea, honey toast, and Taiwanese shaved ice, and other aspects of postmodern contemporary streetlife culture, not to mention various aspects of Japanese influence, etc., I wouldn’t blame them for seeing something distinctive about Taiwanese culture.
Trailer for “Cape No. 7,” the second highest-grossing film in Taiwanese history; it brings together Chinese, Japanese, traditional, modern, histories and culture and shows Taiwan’s unique (different from mainland China) history and culture.
I wonder to what extent people think about, or identify by virtue of, being Minnan or Hakka rather than Han (or, conversely, to what extent they consider themselves Han even if of Minnan or Hakka background), or how strongly the idea of their family, their lineage being in Taiwan since the Qing, or since the Ming, figures into all of this. … Coming back around, I said First is folk culture.
But, then there is high culture. I wonder, to what extent, even for those who do see their folk culture and their pop culture as being distinctive enough, separate enough, to consider it Taiwanese, and combining this with a strong political association with being Taiwanese, and not Chinese, to what extent do these people also see themselves as claiming no relation or connection to the greatness of Chinese civilization? This is something Prof. Wang began to hint at. Zhongguo (中国, “China”) does not only mean the People’s Republic of China, or the Republic of China. It also means a historical China. He didn’t get into it at all, to my disappointment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some people who, even while completely rejecting any association with the PRC, might still see themselves as descended from, or having some association with, the culture of the Han, Tang, Song, Ming, Qing; the culture which claims a history stretching back over 4,000 years; a culture which produced such great poetry, painting, calligraphy, music, architecture, drama; a culture which invented paper, the compass, and so much else besides; a country which, historically, was the greatest, wealthiest, most powerful country in the world for centuries and centuries. I know it sounds like I’m building up to something, but I promise I do not mean to. I am neither critical nor disbelieving of those who might articulate their Taiwanese/Chinese identity differently – I just find it a very interesting question. To truly sever oneself from those things, to truly identify oneself with Taiwan and only with Taiwan, is to take up an identity that is at its most fundamental core something very different. Not bad, not inferior – just different. And, then, what is that Taiwanese identity that one takes up? Is it an “island country” (島国) identity akin to that of the Okinawans and the Japanese? Is it one that has some particular relationship to the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, who today represent less than 2% of the population of the island? Indigenous peoples aside, Taiwan has only about 400, not 4000, years of history. It’s an interesting history, with Dutch and Portuguese trading bases, which were driven out by Ming loyalists who were also active pirates and who were the dominant power on the island for quite a few decades until the Qing drove them out, after which the island was controlled by the Qing for over 200 years and inhabited by a mix of Chinese peoples who settled there at various times across the generations, and then by the Japanese for about 50, before becoming the home of the KMT government in exile in 1949. It’s an interesting history, but it’s also a short one. Films by Wei Te-Sheng, such as Cape No. 7 (trailer above), Seediq Bale, and the 2014 film KANO (dir. by Umin Boya, a member of the Seediq tribe), show that very vibrant, multi-cultural, complex history, or rather, one view of it, one perspective on it. It’s a complex topic, to be sure… I look forward eagerly to visiting Taiwan some day, and to learning more about their history otherwise.
1) At the risk of incurring trolling or flamewar by bringing up Israel, here too, with some parallels to Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing, we have a case of a democratic country where a great many of the citizens have been put on the defensive, their resolve hardened, and their inclination to vote more conservative/right-wing, both by pressure from international diplomatic action (e.g. UN resolutions, EU resolutions) and by independent movements and protests such as the despicable Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and by terrorist attacks. I very much appreciate what supporters of BDS, Hamas, and these UN & EU resolutions think they are doing, “punishing bad [conduct],” to paraphrase Shinzô Abe; showing their disapproval and putting pressure on an oppressive regime. But, counter to their desires, and truly to no one’s benefit at all, such pressure has only hardened the resolve of Israel’s right-wingers. This is not the way to bring peace to the Middle East, my friends. The only way to do that is elimination of the terrorists.
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