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no. 10: chinesische gegenwarten -> taiwan

Whose Island?

by Kristin Fitzpatrick

Taiwan is a place that provokes confusion. "Where are you working?" acquaintances in the States would ask when they met me home on vacation from Taiwan, where I was teaching. "Thailand?" Or they would puzzle, "Taiwan ... isn't that China?" Their questions could be seen as highlighting Americans' almost legendary ignorance of geography, but they also point to the ambiguity of Taiwan's identity. My students told me that when they were asked abroad about their nationality, they usually declared themselves 'Chinese.' "It's easier," they said. "If we say we're Taiwanese, most people don't know what that means."

Depending on whom you ask, Taiwan is either an independent country (say the Taiwanese) or a rebellious province of China (say the Chinese). The Taiwanese will tell you that their country was founded by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen in 1911, the same year the Ching Dynasty fell. On the mainland, the communists continued to fight with the Kuomintang (KMT), the nationalist party, until 1949, when the communists took control of the mainland and sent Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek's nationalist forces across the strait to Taiwan. The mainland became the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan became the Republic of China (ROC), and each side claimed the other as a renegade province that would eventually be reclaimed. Taiwan's KMT party (deposed as the ruling party in the 2000 presidential election that brought DPP member Chen Shui Bien into office) has never officially abandoned their goal of reunifying all of China under the ROC banner. While that goal may seem wildly delusional given the sheer mass of China and puniness of Taiwan, mainland armies have yet to validate China's claims on the island.

The US was one of the few countries to recognize Taiwan as a country up until 1978, when it terminated those relations to please China. Since that time, Taiwan has officially been viewed as a province of China. There are few American travel guides for Taiwan, which is usually relegated to a slim chapter next to Hong Kong and Macao. Even in academic communities, Sinology implies the study of Chinese culture in China, not Taiwan. When I heard Sinologist friends, people who did consider Taiwan an independent country, loosely refer to Taiwan as 'China,' I found myself vigorously objecting. They laughed and shook their heads, saying good-naturedly, "You've really gotten into this independence thing."

I had no strong or well-developed views on the matter when I came to Taiwan in 1998 to teach at Tunghai University in Taichung. I spoke no Mandarin or Taiwanese and knew little about the tangle of history between China and Taiwan. However, after living there for a couple of years and hearing people explain the historical and cultural basis for Taiwan's status as a separate nation, I rapidly became convinced. This put me in the rather horrific position (for someone of liberal bent) of agreeing with extremely conservative American Congress members like Jesse Helms and Trent Lott, two good ole boys from the South who vociferously argue that Taiwan is a country and a fledgling democracy that the US is bound to protect against the red menace across the strait.

Taiwan certainly sees itself as an independent nation today. Time in Taiwan is measured from Dr. Sun Yat-Sen's founding of the ROC, as I discovered upon arrival. I was baffled when I saw officials patiently changing the '1998' on my forms to '1987,' but I decided that jet lag and the crushing summer heat had severely dislocated my sense of time. Of course, this dating system ignores the complex history and waves of settlement preceding the KMT's arrival. Aboriginal people settled the island in prehistoric times, with ethnic Chinese emigration (mainly from Fujien province) beginning around 600AD. Taiwan was a protectorate of China's empire under the Yuan Dynasty when Genghis Khan founded it in 1206. Portuguese sailors frequenting the island in the 1500s named it 'Ilha Formosa' (Beautiful Island). The island's beauty, natural resources and strategic position attracted other nations and put it at the center of power struggles in the area for the next four hundred years. The Dutch and Spanish wrangled over the island in the 1620s, the Dutch ultimately prevailed, and Prince Kuo Xing Yeh (Koxinga) threw them out in 1661. Taiwan became a province of China for the next two centuries until China ceded Taiwan to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. Japan colonized Taiwan until the end of WWII forced their retreat, a retreat that left Taiwan as its own country, according to the Taiwanese -- or returned it to China, according to the Chinese. The arrival of the KMT in 1949 did not bring a homogeneous Chinese culture to the island, either. The nationalist forces were made up of soldiers speaking various dialects (or languages) and hailing from parts of China as far-flung as northwestern Xinjiang province, which borders Russia and is peopled by the Muslim Uighurs, and Fujien province, just across the strait from Taiwan. Fujien was the greatest source of immigration to the island and is culturally and linguistically much closer to Taiwan than Beijing.

As a result, Taiwan's 'Chinese' culture is incredibly diverse. If you step out for a bite to eat while there, on almost any given street you can find Hunan, Hakka, Szechuan, Guangdong (Cantonese), Beijing, Mongolian, and Taiwanese cooking, along with Japanese, American and European contributions. The island's religions and languages reflect these various influences as well. Taoism, Buddhism, and distinctly Taiwanese beliefs overlap and coexist as the main religions, while Islam (brought by KMT soldiers from Xinjiang) and Christianity (brought by European and American missionaries) have pockets of adherents as well. Languages are as varied as the restaurants and include Japanese (a remnant from colonial days), Taiwanese, Mandarin, dialects from other Chinese provinces and aboriginal languages not to mention smatterings of English.

However, these differences tend to blur in the face of Taiwan and China's oppositional relationship. Most Taiwanese hail from families identified as either mainlander (if they arrived with the nationalists) or Taiwanese (if their family emigrated earlier). True, there are still regional differences. Like any people, Taiwanese often identify themselves as hailing from a locale or city, and mainlander families trace their roots to a particular province or city rather than 'China.' But the main trope of Chinese versus Taiwanese is still highly charged and culturally pervasive in ways I could not have imagined before going there. One year I traveled to Beijing with university colleagues. Some people still had family in China, and at the end of the trip I asked one man if he would go back again sometime to visit his relatives. He bristled: "I do not 'go back' to China. Even though my family is from the mainland, and people sometimes think of me as a mainlander, I am from Taiwan: I live here." I had meant 'go back' as a relative term, but the wary regard between Taiwanese and 'mainlander' families in Taiwan made his response entirely understandable. The KMT, the most visible representative of mainland culture on the island, ruled with an iron fist when it arrived on Taiwan; the KMT-controlled government strongly (and sometimes brutally) discouraged opposition, banned the Taiwanese language from schools and official settings, and tightly censored the media up until very recently. Consequently, there was little love lost between self-identified Taiwanese families and so-called mainlanders. Ironically, the KMT was not only concerned about local Taiwanese resistance but about influence from the mainland. Information about and from China was strictly limited. For example, Karl Marx, whose work has been so influential in the humanities in the West, was guilty by association with communism and is only beginning to be openly studied in Taiwan. My students guiltily admitted to knowing little about twentieth-century Chinese history, and the views of China I occasionally heard from some people were decades behind reality (a favor no doubt returned on the other side of the Strait).

Consequently, marriages between mainlanders and Taiwanese sometimes got caught up in these differences, though the tensions are fading. A close friend, whose family two generations back came from Hunan province, married a man whose family was long-standing Taiwanese. She'd been fascinated by his family's observance of traditions and holidays, their passion for seafood (not exactly a Hunanese specialty), and the mixture of Taiwanese and Japanese they spoke at home. Her husband was equally surprised at her family's relative indifference to tradition and holidays (partially lost through the Cultural Revolution), their love of heavily smoked and spicy food, and their Mandarin accents. At times, these differences make the Taiwanese and Chinese almost view each other as separate ethnic groups. On the trip to Beijing, my friend delighted in her ability to 'pass' for Chinese due to her accent, features, and dress -- an ability that saved us all a good deal in cab fares.

However, a third element complicates the oppositional relationship between Taiwan and China: Japan. Japan colonized Taiwan for 50 years, making it the most recent cultural influence on the island, and it left behind a great imprint on Taiwan's infrastructure, natural environment, education, customs, and language. The Japanese were active builders during their rule, and many of the roads, buildings, and utilities from that time still form a good part of Taiwan's infrastructure. Hearsay has it that they also made a great contribution to Taiwan's venomous snake population at the end of WWII, when a Japanese lab at the south end of the island released its collection into the jungle. The Taiwanese educational system with its emphasis on testing, cram schools, and horrific college entrance exams, is modeled on the Japanese system, though Taiwan's system is gradually being reformed in favor of greater flexibility. Japanese worked its way into the Chinese spoken in Taiwan; some words like bento (lunchbox) were changed into more Chinese forms, like biendang (used in Taiwan but not in China), while other Japanese words were adopted directly. The Taiwanese picked up Japanese customs like sleeping on tatamis, removing shoes before walking into the house, and, for men, the unfortunate habit of binge drinking.

The older generations of Taiwanese who lived through part of colonization regard the Japanese with mixed admiration and dislike. Young generations, however, display an unbridled admiration of Japanese culture that borders on worship. 'Ha-re-tzu' it's called: people hotly crazy about Japanese culture. Think 'cute.' Think Hello Kitty (everything from toys to cars), sickly sweet pop music, bubblegum-colored cell phones, young women with high-pitched voices and Lolita looks, and young men with large, moody eyes. (Given how rapidly Japanese pop culture changes, however, these fashions from 2000 may already be passé.) Japanese films, game shows, soap operas, and cartoons jockey with the American media for dominance. Many students learn Japanese in addition to or in place of English. Japanese clothing styles predominate: American clothing staples such as the Gap look plodding if not downright frumpy in comparison with their sleek, bright, space-age counterparts from Japan. After several attempts to squeeze my strapping Caucasian self, all 60 kilos of me, into Japanese/Taiwanese clothes, I gave up and started to view myself with pride as a potential body-builder. (I was quickly disillusioned upon my return to the US.)

Most importantly, however, Japan provides the crux of Taiwanese justification for independence. While Taiwan was a Japanese colony, the reasoning goes, it was not Chinese, and when Japan withdrew at end of WWII, it left Taiwan an independent state. China takes a different view of Japan's withdrawal: Japan was required to return to China all lands it had conquered, and Taiwan was part of those lands. Taiwan's previous president, Lee Deng Hui, had closer ties to Japan than China; this unnerved China, because those ties harkened back to colonial times, when Taiwan was indeed separate. Lee grew up speaking Japanese and Taiwanese; he only started to learn Mandarin when the KMT arrived and required all government employees to conduct their business in Han Chinese. Lee learned, but his Japanese is still superior to his Mandarin, which he speaks with a strong Taiwanese accent. However, while Lee's personal affiliation with Japanese culture made China uneasy, his membership in the KMT, the party that still considered itself in a state of war with the mainland, ironically reassured China. As long as the KMT was in power and insistent upon its project of eventually reunifying China, the mainland could be sure that Taiwan still defined itself as fundamentally Chinese. Both China and Taiwan could at least agree on the goal of eventual reunification, albeit on very different terms.

Chen Shui Bien's election in 1999 broke this long-standing stalemate that had been quietly accepted as the status quo. Chen came from the DPP (Democratic People's Party), which had as its main goal Taiwan's independence. During his presidential campaign, Chen publicly backed off from this stance so as not to scare off potential voters with the scenario of him pushing Taiwan-China relations over the brink. For China, Chen was a nightmare. While Lee was most comfortable with Japanese, Chen unapologetically spoke Taiwanese as his mother tongue, considered himself Taiwanese rather than Chinese, and represented newer generations that no longer defined themselves in relation to Mainland China, either politically or culturally. Ironically, the KMT may have helped further this disconnection: their strict control of the educational system and media made communist China an anathema to the young. That feeling is now moderating into a less fervent detachment: young people say they feel no connection with a country they have never known and never considered their own. Along with this indifference towards the China that Taiwan is not, people across the island are developing a stronger sense of what Taiwan is. The Taiwanese language, once banned and viewed with disdain as the language of the uneducated and rural, is now hip. Public speakers may still pride themselves on their Mandarin, but they also try to learn Taiwanese -- at least a few words and phrases -- if they don't already speak it. There is a growing interest in Taiwan's history, food, and culture: 'Taiwanese' is no longer provincial but exotic, and the more authentic, the better. A cosmopolitan friend's daughter, who had lived in Britain and England with her parents, fell for a young man whose family was thoroughly Taiwanese, partly because their local culture fascinated her more than that of Europeans and Americans she had met before. In class, my students all proclaimed their support for Taiwan's independence and loudly declared themselves to be Taiwanese. Those who thought otherwise kept their reservations to themselves, an ironic reversal of earlier times when the Taiwanese students would have been snubbed and silenced.

This increasing interest in the island's identity has also turned people's attention to the different ethnic groups that make up the island's population, especially the aboriginals. Designers plunder aboriginal clothing for fashion statements, some schools in the mountains now include aboriginal languages, and a number of aboriginal singers have become stars. However, make no mistake: in comparison with aboriginal people and all other southeast Asians, the residents of Taiwan still consider themselves to be absolutely Chinese. I first ran into this in a class, when students began discussing 'equatorial' people. After I got over being impressed at their choice of vocabulary, I realized with increasing shock and bemusement that they were separating themselves from 'equatorial' people through unapologetically racist assumptions. Equatorial people were ugly, because they were darker skinned. They were more passionate and less disciplined. They were lazy and less intelligent, because they lived in the tropics and never had to work. I listened to these statements with sweat trickling down my back and the tropical sun glaring off the pavement outside. Finally, I said, "You live in southeast Asia, quite close to the equator, on a tropic island. Why aren't you stupid or lazy?" The class drew itself up collectively and exclaimed in one breath, "But we're Chinese!" That was the only situation in which I ever heard a group of Taiwanese passionately declare themselves Chinese.

As a white woman living on the rural fringes of a city, I attracted more than my share of attention, and I envied Chinese Americans (or 'ABCs,' American-born Chinese) who could sometimes pass as natives. Often, however, their clothes, height, or general 'look' gave them away as Americans. American Chinese, who have to deal with questions like "Where are you from?" in the States, are seen as clearly American in Taiwan. Identity becomes a matter of geography, thanks in part to immigration and globalisation. The previously one-sided exchange of popular culture between Asia and the US is becoming more equal: witness the popularity of filmmakers like Ang Lee, the influence of Hong Kong on movies like Matrix, the appeal of Chinese characters as tattoos and T-shirts, and the widening availability of sushi and glass noodles in supermarkets. Perhaps these things, trivial as they are, signal a shift in orientation from the 'West' back to the 'East,' consistent with some experts' predictions that Asia will be the next locus of world power. How will globalisation or Asia's growth as an economic powerhouse affect Taiwan and China's determination of the island's identity? This question will become more insistent the longer the island remains separate from the mainland, something of which China's government is all too aware. One can only hope that this question will be resolved peaceably.

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