Taiwan Identity, Shifting Cultural Continuities and Historical Discourse

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Aug 23 17:28:26 UTC 2007

Taiwan Identity, Shifting Cultural Continuities and Historical Discourse August
22nd, 2007 ·

John Kehoe London University School of Oriental and
African Studies

The "complex cultural configurations" found in Taiwan today, can easily be
seen as "Chinese culture with Taiwanese characteristics". The majority of
people inhabiting present day Taiwan are descendants of Han Chinese who,
beginning in the early 1600s, migrated to Taiwan from southern China.
Another significant group, also deriving from China, are the Republican
loyalists, and their descendants, who fled to Taiwan with Chang Kai shek in
the aftermath of the civil war. Today, in Taiwan, one can find cultural
attributes that attest to the influence of the various groups of Han
Chinese, who have come to populate the island.

These cultural attributes, which includes folk religion, the observances of
holidays that center
around community and family (Chinese New Years), as well as ritual
practices, are defining elements in what anthropologists have come to agree
as being the cultural basics of Chinese society. The early studies of James
Waston were significant in establishing what is to be considered culturally
Chinese. "'To be Chinese is to understand, and accept the view, that
there is a correct way to perform rites associated with the life cycle"
(Watson and Rawski, 3). Rituals of marriage and death, as well as religious
practices have been studied as representations of Chinese culture on Taiwan
(Sangren, Ahern, Feuchtwang, Diamond among others). These cultural
attributes may be seen as being fundamental to the cultural make-up and
identity of Taiwan, existing within the universal of Chinese culture. The
particular developments, which are found throughout Taiwan's history, such
as its frontier origins, and the Japanese colonial period, may be but a few
broad strokes on a large Chinese tapestry.

However, there are some who see the distinct developments in Taiwan's
history as causing major
fissures in the cultural continuity between Taiwan and China, thus fostering
an individual cultural identity of Taiwanese. Beginning with the arrival of
the Dutch, and the early economic development of Taiwan through to the end
colonization by the Japanese, we see alterations to much of Taiwan's
landscape independent of China. These alterations are detectable physically,
economically, as well as socially. Tu We Ming states that "…the recognition
that there have been distinct Dutch, Japanese and American strata
superimposed upon the Chinese substrata since the eighteenth… makes the
claim of Taiwan's Chineseness problematic."(Tu, 10) The KMT's subsequent
arrival to Taiwan, after the Second World War, juxtaposed the former
colonial subjects to Chinese from the Mainland, where political strife and
lingering elements of feudalism were manifest. Such a juxtaposition revealed
vast differences between the two, which the KMTs cultural policy sought to
remedy. These differences exemplify a cultural divide that came to exist
between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits. By looking at the cultural
formations that grew out of the pre-colonial and colonial periods, we will
be able to better understand the cultural issues, which have plague
Taiwan throughout the second half of the 20th century.

The idea of a Taiwan culture, whether it is seen as a particularity of a
greater Chinese culture, or an actual individual formation, is inextricably
tied to the arena of identity formation in regards to the concept of
cultural and national consciousness. By consciousness we mean an
understanding of a distinct shared culture among the people of Taiwan that
can be seen in opposition to Japanese or Chinese, and which derive from
identifiably distinct practices, beliefs or behaviors. It is believed that
the appearance of a Taiwanese identity, or consciousness, first occurred
during the colonial period, but its roots predate colonial Taiwan. Sung
Tse-lai, writing in 1988, sees
that a Taiwan ethnic identity developed out of "objective economic
conditions" that gave rise to an
"indigenous capitalist" character, which historically "can be traced back to
the Dutch rule" (Ching, 68). As Sung argues that the maturity of Taiwan's
independent identity manifested itself during Japanese colonial rule, he
states that such an identity is well rooted in the frontier era, going as
far back as the Dutch presence in the late 1600s. In the Dutch period
Chinese from coastal Fujian and Kuangdong were recruited for settlement to
farm the fertile soils of Taiwan's western plains. Water conservancy was
developed by the Dutch to assist in the cultivation of sugar, rice, tea,
wheat, and hemp. The Dutch helped the Han in the farming and settlement of
the land through the provisions of seeds, tools and currency. (Knapp, 99)
These foreign influences, imparted to the early Han inhabitants of Taiwan,
certainly had a cultural element, for culture has much to do with how a
people interact with and shape their environment. Such an early exposure to
foreign influences in a non-confrontational way, lead to the eventual
formation of what Sung refers to as an 'indigenous capitalist character' and
a 'social community' founded on 'objective economic conditions'.

In this regard Hill Gates points out that there was an
economic prowess in the pre-colonial Taiwanese, which
allowed for them to master the new economic
opportunities at the time. Though Taiwan's early
formation was made up of communities based on place of
origin and kinship, as well as sub-ethnic division
between Hakka, Hokklo, and aborigine, economic
patterns would eventually serve to bring these
varying, and often conflicting communities together.

In the decades just prior to colonization, Taiwan
became integrated into the 'world system' as camphor
and tea production excited the interest of foreign
traders (Sangren, 87). The pressure from foreign
interests resulted in the Treaty of Tientsin, which
was to greatly hamper the Ch'ing government's attempt
at monopolizing trade between Taiwan and the outside
world, and thus further detaching Taiwan from the
cultural center of China by allowing foreigners to
trade directly with Taiwan. American and European
traders looked to Taiwan, where, according to Hill
Gates, the Chinese of the island where able to
"organize rapidly to meet the new demands…. to
maintain control over. …profitable new export trade"
(Gates, 36). The growth of commodity exchange
benefited Taiwan's Han Chinese population, which had
grown significantly through the 1700s and early 1800s,
outnumbering the aborigine population. In regards to
the ethnic division between Hakka and Hokklo,
"expanded economic opportunities and the increased
need for cooperation among Taiwan's Chinese
inhabitants reduced the incidence of Han subethnic
strife." (Gardella, 178). The Han sub-ethnic
boundaries were lessened, as class appeared as a newly
emergent defining feature of the social landscape, and
an 'indigenous capitalist character' appeared. The
integration of Taiwan into the global market exposed
the Taiwanese to international capitalism and nurtured
industrious habits.
Although the softening of ethnic boundaries between
sub-ethnic groups happened as a result of the economic
changes in the 1800s, it was not until colonization by
Japan that the formation of a political composite as
'Taiwanese' unfolded. (Winkler, 1988). This follows
the logic of Sung's idea that Taiwan consciousness is
rooted in earlier formations, but came to maturity
during the colonial period. During colonial rule the
ethnic differences receded further, allowing for the
divergent groups of Han Chinese to fall under a
definition as Taiwanese "…local boundaries and
loyalties of local communities were somewhat weakened
and the cultural differences that expressed and
reinforced those differences were correspondingly
blurred at the edges." (Harrell and Huang, 3). Once
under colonial rule the Han Chinese on Taiwan, whether
Hakka or Hokkien became united as the subjects of
Japanese. It is during the Japanese colonial rule that
the Han Chinese came to form a singular social
configuration as Taiwanese, which unfolded in a matrix
of industrialization, urbanization, and social
Japanese colonial rule brought dramatic changes to
Taiwan, which represented, according to Shih Ming,
author of 'The Four- Hundred Year History of the
Taiwanese', a fundamental factor alienating or
separating Taiwan from the mainland. (Ching, 2001)
For, while the mainland struggled politically, and
much of its rural landscape remained tied to agrarian
ways, Taiwan was being modernized through its
incorporation into the Japan empire. With economic
industrialization and Japanese capitalism, the
population saw the transformation of their built
environment with roads and transportation
infrastructure. The Japanese developed the productive
forces agriculture, focusing on rice and sugar, which
were exported to Japan. Taiwan, becoming financially
independent from Japan by 1905, was able to support a
market for the industrial goods produced in Japan.
Industrial manufacturing was also developed, and by
the 1930s nearly 20 percent of the income at the
national level was due to the industry sector
(Galenson, 1979). Nonagricultural infrastructure,
such as power and transport was also developed. With
industrial growth urbanization began to take root.
The urban environment was scene to accommodation by
the Taiwanese, who mingled between elements of
Japanese culture and modernity. Bicycles were fixtures
on the streets as were telephones in the home.
Taiwanese speech was peppered with elements from
Japanese, as well as other foreign languages. (Lamley,
99) Urbanization of the population was significant. In
1895 the urban population on Taiwan was just 5 percent
of total population, by 1943 the urban population grew
to represent 15 percent of the total population.
(Knapp, 1999)
The social development of Taiwan during the colonial
period was significant as well. Modern health care in
Taiwan became second only to that of Japan's in all of
Asia. Since education was necessary to support the
modern economy, schooling at the primary and secondary
levels was implemented. The use of Japanese was part
of colonial education. Although there was no uniform
language policy implemented, a significant portion of
the Han population could speak Japanese to one extent
or another. The Japanese brought law and order to
Taiwan, as well. The justice system was efficient and
fair. The Japanese did not greatly disrupt the
cultural structure of Taiwan. Although temples were
burned, due to their conduciveness to opposition
formation, the Japanese left alone marriage and
religious customs, as well as inheritance patterns
(Gates, 1987) While retaining an underlay of heritage
representing south China Hakka and Hokklo culture, the
Taiwanese absorbed the cultural elements of a modern
and civil nature, and industrial production. The
indigenous capitalist character was not lost, but
strengthened. Hill Gates states that life for the
Taiwanese under Japanese rule was "much safer,
healthier, a bit more comfortable"(Gates, 41).
Did the experiences of colonial rule, and changes
brought to Taiwan in the colonial era transform the
cultural lanscape translating into the notion of a
Taiwanese cultural identity? We can see a negotiation
portrayed in the Angelina C. Yee's reading of Wang
Changxiong's 'Benlui', a story written in Japanese in
1942, by The story, displaying the struggle with 'self
and national identity', charts a negotiation of
identity with competing identity constructs. In the
beginning a boy, named Benlui, a Taiwanese, is
captivated by a Taiwanese teacher, who exhibits a
pride in qualities of his own to Japanese. Such pride
is in harsh contrast to the antithesis found in the
local Taiwanese, who harbor an apprehensiveness
concerning colonial rule. This, Yee states "points
ironically at the author's own shameful use of the
Japanese in writing the text"(Yee, 88). The Taiwanese
teacher named Ito and a Japanese woman, whom he is in
love with, presents the complimentary perfections of
feminine and masculine, yet through this association
Ito feels unworthy in the women's eyes, hence
exemplifying the colonizer and the colonized.
Eventually, Ito becomes torn between Japan and Taiwan,
but resolution is offered when he takes up samurai
sword fighting, with the intention of using the skill
in "serving his native place". In the last scene of
the story the narrator is overtaken by the beauty of
Taiwan, and looks to the opposite side of the Taiwan
Straits, which is "asleep". Yee states that this "is
an oblique reference to the dormant mainland relegated
to the past, whereas the palpable life is here and now
in Taiwan" (Yee, 91). Through Yee's reading of Wang
Changxiong's story near the end of colonization, it is
quite clear that for the individual Taiwanese were
experiencing interceding realms of differing
constructs representing the native, the colonial, as
well as the historical.

At the close of the Second World War Taiwan was
reverted to its status as a territory of China. The
difference being that China was now a Republic. The
people of Taiwan had been exempt from the struggle and
the political turmoil that enveloped China in the
first half of the twentieth century. The modern
development that the Taiwanese had been engaged in
contributed much to the way their world was
constructed, and had little to do with the formation
of a Chinese national identity. During the time it was
a minority of elite who had contact with China.
Concerning the Chinese cultural underlay, the Japanese
did not subject the Taiwanese culture to a significant
repression. Temples were destroyed in some cases due
to their potential use for organizing opposition.
Also foot binding and minor marriages were discouraged
as the Japanese saw them as feudal remnant. Overall
the Japanese colonial authority "did not attempt to
alter radically Taiwanese culture and social
structure"(Gates, 41). This being the case cultural
elements and practices remained as a reminder off the
shared heritage with China, but can one say that this
heritage signifies a cultural identity? Thomas Gold
refers to a Taiwanese culture during this time that is
a "hybrid of the Chinese outback and the Japanese
imperialism…"(Gold, 60). This definition resemble our
ideas above, which sees a pre-colonial and colonial
coalescence in regards to culture, while of course
retaining the heritage of southern China. How strong
was the affinity of this heritage, which originated
across the Straits?
The jubilant hope of union with the arrival of the
Chinese 'brothers' faded quickly as differences
between the two sides of the straits became apparent.
And were not these differences cultural? Shih Ming
sees that the "latent identification with the Chinese
was fragile and short-lived" (Ching, 72). The identity
based on a mythic singular race united by blood
lineage was supplanted by "an identity produced from a
common fate and common psychology"(Ching, 72)
Accordingly, Shih posits that the affinity between
Taiwanese and Chinese by the closing of the Second
World War in regards to culture was only pertinent to
studies in anthropology (Ching, 72). Allen Chun
reminds us that the Taiwanese "had been left out of
the Nationalist experience that gripped China in the
early 20th century…" (Chun, 56). Changes on both
sides of the straits contributed to the cultural and
social divide.
The 228 incident, and the subsequent repression and
sinification by the KMT regime certainly attests to
Shih Ming's reasoning. The "fossilized" Chinese
heritage, which the Taiwanese shared with the arriving
Chinese forces, meant little compared to the more
immediate customs that were formulated and imparted to
them during the colonial period. Clearly this points
to a major fissure between the cultural continuity of
Taiwan and China, and it was a fissure which the
Nationalists exerted much effort in mending during the
second half of the twentieth century.
Nationalist rule on Taiwan saw the implementation of
a cultural policy, which was consciously engineered to
unite an otherwise incongruent majority population of
Taiwanese with a Chinese national cultural narrative
that, according to Alan Wackmann, was that of the
gentry and elite nature. This was not necessarily in
accord with the lingering elements of peasant Hakka
and Hokklo culture. The KMT had self-designated itself
as the guardians of cultural China. The 'cultural
reunification' was aimed at ridding Taiwan of the
"vestiges of Japanese influence from fifty years of
colonial rule and …suppressing any movement toward
local Taiwanese expression" (Chun, 56). Through
martial law the KMT regime kept a tight grip on all
sectors of society. Allen Chun refers to KMT policy
as "…a kind of colonialism which was no less 'foreign'
than the Japanese interregnum that preceded it."(Chun,
 In order to mend the fissures in the continuity
between Taiwan and China, the KMT presented the myth
of a 'continuous history' of Chineseness. What this
meant for the Taiwanese was the imposition of a
reconstructed culture, and repressive measures towards
elements of localism, or what we may call Taiwan
culture. The policy of strict standardized Mandarin,
which disallowed the use of Japanese, as well as
Taiwanese, was just one element in a grand cultural
engineering policy that ran through the institutions
of education, news media, entertainment, and
communications. The supposed 'reconstruction' or
mending was based on fabrication, as the majority of
Taiwanese and their ancestors spoke Minnan hua, or
what is now known as Taiwanese. As Chun states, "The
dictatorship of a unified language became in turn the
precondition for the widespread inculcation of Chinese
traditional history, thought and values, or culture in
the broad sense."( Chun,12) Taiwanese folk religion, a
remnant of the south Chinese Minnan tradition, were
also discouraged by the KMT, as they saw it these as
representing loaclaism, and viewed it as being
subversive to the greater nationalist project. The
KMT's policy towards folk religion can be traced back
to the May 4th Movement, and the years of Republican
formation, when local cults were viewed as being
superstitious, archaic, and feudal. The repression of
Taiwan's local cultural expression was part of a
cultural policy that was closely tied to the Republic
of China's efforts to survive. The erection of the
National Palace Museum represents a most tangible
example of this imposition of the mythic continuous
historical Chineseness, since much of the museums
collection was the 'national treasure', which the
Nationalists horded from China. Is such an act a
metonym of the grand hording of a cultural narrative
founded on classical gentry culture? Overall, we see
an attempt at national survival in a geographical
location with a people who were entirely divorced from
national formation.
The political developments of the past few decades
have been quite contentious in regards to the cultural
issue on Taiwan. Joseph Bosco sees the "sense of
Taiwanese identity" coming from two junctures in the
past century. The first that he states is very near to
what has been stated above, which is the juxtaposition
of the Taiwanese and the Mainlanders during
retrocession. The second "growth" which he describes
occurred when martial law was dismantled, and travel
to the Mainland by Taiwanese allowed. During this time
again the Taiwanese were juxtaposed to the Mainland
Chinese, and again, what could be call cultural
differences, became salient. Visiting Taiwanese to the
Mainland found that PRC was "…sufficiently different
from their society…"(Bosco, 393). Thomas Gold sees the
emergence of a "unique Taiwan identity" during the
1970's when the tangwai emerged as a political force,
and modern cultural forms were created in the area of
the arts, film and theatre. Regarding this late
blooming of Taiwanese cultural and identity Alan
Wackmann uses the word "invented", and sees it as a
response to the harsh repression, which
"inadvertently" fueled a perceived distinct identity.
Alan Wackman States, "we cannot deny that Taiwanese
culture is an extension of Chinese culture…"(Wakeman,
49). This seems all to simplistic, and in disregard to
historical reality. But it does add a new dimension to
our discussion, namely that of invented culture.

The Dutch, the foreign markets of the 1800s, and the
Japanese colonilers all interceded with the continuity
between China and Taiwan, but since this was a
continuity stemming from the local cultures of the
Fujian Hokklo and the Kuangdong Hakka, it was a
limited one. The cultural influences imparted to the
people of Taiwan through these historical events are
were not invented, but have been used as well as
forgotten in order to invent notions of shared
identity. The KMT invented the myth of Chineseness, in
its efforts in maintaining the national narrative on
Taiwan. Furthermore "The universal assertion of a
'Chinese consciousness' is a response to the real
danger posed by the equally universalizing tendency of
Western imperialism" ( Ching, 66). National
Chineseness grew from China's painful encounter with
the west at the turn of the century. Is this not
The ideation of Taiwanese cultural identity, or
consciousness, was invented in response to the
ever-present universalized ideation of Chinese. Leo
T.S. Ching sees that Taiwanese cannot be negated or
"sublated by a universal Chinese consciousness nor
reduced to a particularistic Taiwanese consciousness."
( Ching, 79 ). Taiwan identity must exist in both
regions simultaneously, but outside of conflicting
polarity, and embracing the historical and cultural
reality of "nationalist China, colonial Taiwan, and
imperial Japan." ( Ching, 80). Adding to this matrix
Bosco states that the battle "between orthodoxy of the
center and heterodoxy of the periphery has given way
to the unorthodox cosmopolitanism of Taiwan popular
culture." ( Bosco, 394 ).
The discourse concerning Taiwan's cultural identity
has predominately come to exists as a dichotomy
between Taiwan identity as a distinct expression,
indicative of Taiwan's unique development, and Taiwan
identity as being derived from, or a particular
expression of, a greater universal Chinese culture.
Here, it would be a good to recall the words of
Talcott Parsons concerning culture. He stated that
"culture is transmitted…. it is not a manifestation,
in particular content, of man's genetic
constitution…"(Parsons, 15). Culture is not static and
stationary, but is constantly evolving and


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