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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 34

How Taiwan is the Taiwanese?

by Gunjan Singh

Saturday 11 August 2007

The identities of people are shaped by the experiences they share as a common group over a period of time. Every nation has its own set of historical and political experiences that sets it apart from other nations. It is these experiences that make nations and its people feel unique and different as compared to others. The same logic holds true in the case of Taiwan and China as well. The Taiwanese have had a different set of experiences as compared to their Mainland counterparts and as a result have followed the formation of identity that is different when compared to the identity on the Mainland. Let’s look into the factors that play a very critical role in shaping of these differences.

The lifting of the martial law and the beginning of the democratic movement in Taiwan has brought the question of the new Taiwanese identity to the forefront. The people of Taiwan see themselves more as Taiwanese than as Chinese. And this is a fact that cannot be easily refuted. The primary change that highlights such a shift is that today in the past decade or so more people are speaking Taiwanese and focusing on the island’s own history and self-government. There has been a huge rise in the level of the use of the Taiwanese language as compared to Chinese.

We can say that with democratisation the Taiwanese identity has become the mainstream of the Taiwanese society. Democratisation has played a very crucial role in the development and also in nurturing the feeling of a separate identity from the Mainland.

Apart from politics the geography of the island has also a very important role to play in this development. Taiwan being an island was always separate from the Mainland and as a result shared different sets of historical events as compared to the Mainland. The whole period of the Japanese Rule is a very crucial and important catalyst for the way the Taiwanese think about themselves and how they perceive themselves to be different from their counterparts on the Mainland.

The Japanese ruled Taiwan for a long period and though they were repressive and exploitative the contrast they highlighted with the KMT rule set a feeling of let down among the Taiwanese people. When the KMT came to Taiwan the people were happy and celebrating hoping to be liberated from a foreign rule. But what they faced and saw of the KMT regime put them more away from the Mainland. They were highly disappointed to find the Mainland backward compared to them and the lack of any feelings of warmth in the KMT, the supposed liberators.

The KMT, on the other hand, was looking at Taiwan only as a stop-over initially before they were able to liberate the Mainland from the hands of the Communist Rule. This made them insensitive and uninterested in the affairs of the island, as it was to be only a stop-over for them. They thus forced their methods and tried to make their stay as easy and possible. The introduction of the martial law and the February 28 incident are the highlights of the KMT way of ruling the island.

These two specific incidents coupled with the Japanese Rule set the political history of Taiwan as separate from the Mainland. The same holds true for the rise of democracy as well. Thus, the current rise in the assertion of a separate cultural and social space is best understood as a way of rebelling against the political repression. Had the KMT been more responsive to the local needs, such differences and assertions would have been less fierce.

IN the current context the ever increasing economic interdependence with the Mainland coupled with the military threat in case of the independence by the island has also given impetus to the growing feeling of Taiwanese identity. The political elite in Taiwan is trying to build a cushion in the form of a separate identity movement in order to prevent the island from being gobbled up by the Mainland. This can be seen as a fear with several political theorists in the face of the ever increasing economic dependence of the island on the Mainland in the last decade or so.

Thus one can say that the new surge in the feelings of a separate and vibrant Taiwanese identity is more of a political phenomenon than a cultural or a social one. The common political history of repression of the island sets it separate from the history of the Mainland. The people of Taiwan look at the KMT as also being foreign rulers, who instead of adapting to the changed environment after their expulsion from the Mainland, tried to change and modify the environment according to their needs.

However, this feeling underwent major changes during the rule of Lee Tung-hui, the first native born Taiwanese to rule the island. The rise in the ‘Taiwanisation’ process from this time onwards has taken an upward thrust and day by day the people of Taiwan are looking for new ways and means to assert their differences as compared to the Mainland.

Having looked at all the above mentioned factors in the shaping of the debate over identity in Taiwan today, one needs to point out that the issue is not as simple as it appears. No doubt there has been an upsurge in the assertion of the Taiwanese part as most of the surveys being conducted today tell us. But one also needs to look into the unification debate. The victory of the DPP (Democratic Peoples Party) in the last presidential election with only a very small margin of votes clearly highlights that a large number of people in Taiwan still want to maintain the status quo with the Mainland. The independence card being played by the DPP has lost its attraction for the people.

The people of Taiwan want to be recognised as Taiwanese. But at the same time they also want to maintain peace and stability in the cross-strait relations. The Taiwanese people are asserting their difference vis-a-vis the Mainland but the increase in the level of economic integration has also brought both the sides closer economically as well as culturally. The notion of identity in Taiwan can thus be seen as a dual one. The Taiwanese want their space in the cultural and social sense but at the same time they also want to maintain the status quo with the Mainland and try and postpone the issue of re-unification as far into the future as possible.

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