Taiwan’s Chineseness Dilemma

No. 19

Dear subscribers, 

This is William Yang, East Asia Correspondent for Deutsche Welle. 

This past weekend, my home country, Taiwan, held its 7th democratic presidential and legislative election. More than 100 international media outlets covered it, and the public engaged in heated discussions across social media. 

One of the most debated topics is “identity,” something that Taiwan itself has been struggling with for decades. The topic has loomed over every election since its first in 1996, and in a way, the “unification v.s. independence” argument reflects the underlying identity crisis all Taiwanese are facing: are we “Chinese” or are we “Taiwanese?” 

Historically, culturally, and linguistically speaking, Chinese values and culture have an outsize influence on Taiwan. But it is Taiwan’s path to democracy over the last few decades that has come to shape Taiwanese people’s political identity. 

While it is common for the Chinese diaspora to describe Taiwan’s democratic success as “the Chinese democracy,” to many young Taiwanese people, the word “Chinese” is part of what they are resisting against, especially at a time when China is showing few signs of tolerance for democratic values both at home and abroad. Defending Taiwan’s freedom and sovereignty becomes part of the younger generation’s life-long mission.

However, many from older generations share a profound sense of nostalgia and feel deeply attached to their Chinese identity. This is reflected through Taiwan’s official name: the Republic of China. Their Chineseness represents their heritage –– something heavily emphasized during their upbringing. 

The collision between the nostalgia and the hope for a more self-determined future creates a dilemma that dictates the course of national politics in Taiwan. 

In this issue’s Rock the Boat, my question for you is: what is the best way to talk about “identity” in the context of Taiwan and the Chinese-speaking world when so much history is involved? Is identity a fluid concept or is it fixed?

William Yang 

(Photo credit: William Yang)


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Thoughts from our members and beyond on topics about the media industry, diversity and more.

New York-based Taiwanese video producer Joy Chang thinks that a comprehensive historical context is essential to understand Taiwan’s identity:

As a Taiwanese journalist, I realize that news outlets often ignore Taiwan’s pre-1949 history, and thus fail to understand Taiwanese people’s identity struggle. By doing so, they tend to make every Taiwan story about China. As a young reporter, I am still learning how to tell the stories of my home. I hope to see more nuanced reporting on Taiwan –– not only about cross-strait relations but also about Taiwan itself –– and I hope I can be part of the effort. 

Historian James Lin explains how the topic is deeply entangled with decolonization and postcolonialism:

In the case of Taiwan, it was ruled for over 40 years by an authoritarian regime whose political legitimacy was in part defined by its Chinese "authenticity."  … Sun Yat-sen evoked the language of revolutionary nationalism against multiethnic Qing rule, and offered a Han-centric vision of a nation-state that would return power to the Chinese people … The fragility of KMT rule had to be held together by the idea that they would uphold the true values of China, and that they would one day return to the mainland and free their compatriots of communist rule.

… This vision began to fall apart by the 1970-80s, and the authoritarian KMT regime was challenged by native Taiwanese movements such as the Kaohsiung Incident that galvanized opposition to the KMT … This is a classic case of decolonization. 

The KMT imposed an education system, cultural norms, and military rule in order to sustain a nationalist vision that dated from the early 20th century … What is a problem, though, is to mistake Chinese fluency, or the remnants of Chinese nationalism through a state name, with the identity and desires of current-day Taiwan. 

Shanghai-based freelance writer and illustrator Frankie Huang relates the discussion to a broader semantic problem about the word “Chinese:”  

Leading up to, and in the wake of Taiwan’s historic presidential election, talk of the triumph of a “Chinese democracy” has been plenty on Twitter, typically rebuked with “Taiwan is not China.” 

Is it purely a matter of semantics? 

Political scientist Lev Nachman and historian James Lin gently schooled me on the historical context behind Taiwan’s Chineseness, which is strongly influenced by political motivations quite separate from the individual identities of the people of Taiwan (to speak nothing of indigenous people of Taiwan with no ties to China at all). 

But the semantic problem remains in that the word “China” (which the CCP aggressively lays claim to) wears too many hats; language, nationality, culture, and ethnicity are all referred to as “Chinese” in Western coverage, which keeps things simple for readers but also erases Taiwan’s contested identities.

I can’t even write about this topic in English properly because “Chinese” is the only common modifier I know of, while in Chinese (there it is again), there are at least some manners of circumventing the mention of 中国 (zhōngguó) by name to gain a degree of distance from the country in its current form. 华 (huá)  or even 唐 (táng) from 唐人街 (the Chinese name for Chinatown) exist as options in theory, though we're not even talking about the logistics of figuring out what people prefer or implementing a new vernacular. All I know is that we need more words at our disposal.

Jing Daily report Yaling Jiang 姜雅玲 thinks one’s identity comes through personal life experience: 

Identity means more than what one identifies as, it is also about what one identifies with. As a kid who was born in the mainland, I once thought China was my whole world. But as I grew up listening to Jay Chou 周杰伦, David Tao 陶喆 and other Taiwanese singers, I began to identify with Taiwan culturally because I could relate better to Taiwan’s contemporary art and music more than the Chinese folk songs performed at the Spring Gala. Politically speaking, I identify with the Liberal Democrats in the UK, where I attended college, because I agree with many of their left-leaning values. Identity is fluid and is composed of diverse perspectives. One’s origin or their ancestors’ origin doesn’t dictate it. Why should anyone be forced upon only one identity, and sometimes one they don’t even identify with?

New York-based Taiwanese scholar, educator and writer Wen Liu explores the relationship between identity-making and election:

Anxiety is everywhere during the election season. Elections are not only about convincing others, but also about convincing ourselves: what are my core values? What kind of country, politics and democratic representatives do I want? The election plays an instrumental role in the process of forming personal and national identity. Through time and experience, this anxiety may transform into more independent judgment, and help people who disagree with each other to communicate better. 

… It is hard to say with complete optimism that we will all fully accept the election result no matter who wins. But we can tell each other whether we’ve communicated our values clearly and clarified our vision for our shared homeland of Taiwan. Each time we do this, we are strengthening democracy, and that is the fundamental meaning of being Taiwanese. 

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The McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism [Global] supports high-impact, ambitious coverage of critical issues related to the global economy, finance and business. The upcoming deadline for Winter 2020 Fellowships is January 31, 2020. APPLY

ProPublica [NYC]
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Agence France Presse (AFP) [Shanghai]
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Museum of the Moving Image [NYC] invites proposals for a site-specific commission of a new media artwork to be completed during a three-week residency at the Museum. The deadline is February 15. APPLY

Asia Society [NYC]
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Writers: Mengwen Cao, William Yang; Editors: Muyi Xiao, Muge Niu; Copy Editor: Miles Goscha.

ContributorsJoy Chang, James Lin, Frankie Huang, Yaling Jiang, Wen Liu.

Chinese Storytellers is a community that empowers Chinese non-fiction content creators. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.