Asia-Pacific | April 19, 2016 at 9:00 am

Beyond National Humiliation: Taiwanese Identity Transformed

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Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen waves to a crowd in 2008.

For young people in Taiwan, understanding themselves as being Taiwanese—rather than Chinese—is becoming a fact of cultural identity more than a charged political statement. Identity in Taiwan, one of the many forces that influenced the historical January elections, is shifting. In the words of a senior at Harvard College who grew up in Taipei, this shift means that there is an increased perception amongst the younger generation that there are “differences between the [Taiwanese and Chinese] cultures … Most young people in Taiwan would say definitely that they are Taiwanese. They don’t see themselves as Chinese.”

One of the many consequences of a shifting Taiwanese identity is a newfound historical understanding that has developed differently from that of the People’s Republic of China. How the PRC understands history—and why Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, defines it differently—is integral to explaining their diverging identities. Michael Szonyi, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard and the director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, stressed in an interview with the HPR that “even if you don’t personally think history can illuminate current events, you should still care about Chinese history—because the Chinese people do.”

A particularly ubiquitous historical narrative in China is the idea of a century of national shame following the 1839 Opium War. Since its victory over the nationalists in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has called this period “The Era of National Humiliation.” During the century long span, China experienced foreign invasion, unequal trade provisions, and economic downturn, among other challenges. Following this era, the CCP specifically threaded this so-called “humiliation” into its narrative of national identity.

Just last year, Xi Jinping gave a speech commemorating World War II in which he interpreted the war’s place within this storyline. “The victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression … put an end to China’s national humiliation,” he said. The threat of shame is still present, however, according to the president: “Going forward, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, we … should take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory … as our guide to action.” The phrase “national humiliation” spans hundreds of official government documents from 1949 until today, and it has led to the creation of several national holidays.

If the historical narrative of “national humiliation” is fundamental to Chinese identity, it is the grounds for a significant divergence between Chinese and Taiwanese identities. In contrast to China, Taiwan doesn’t hold onto the memory of that period as a time of shame—or at least, not anymore. Taiwan has moved from “national humiliation” to a new framework that emphasizes multiculturalism and its own unique, Taiwanese history.

Taiwan and National Humiliation

When the Republic of China was founded on mainland China in 1912 by the Guomindang, its leader, Sun Yat-sen, understood how “national humiliation” played into Chinese identity—and he defined history accordingly. Sun used the narrative to interpret his party’s struggles not as the fault of its leadership but rather as the fault of “humiliation” by the Communists by foreigners who had inflicted unequal treaties and violent imperialism upon China.

In 1949, at the conclusion of China’s bloody civil war, the Communists expelled the Guomindang from the mainland to the island of Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek, who followed Sun as head of the party, reinterpreted the narrative to fit the ROC’s new position. Specifically, in his book, Xuechi, he alluded to the need for strong leaders to help “overcome” humiliation—a plea eerily similar to that of Xi Jinping. “The Chinese people,” Chiang wrote, “cannot hope to make their country strong and wipe out their national humiliation unless they struggle to the utmost for the attainment of their goal.” For Chiang, “the Three Principles of the People sponsored by Dr. Sun Yat-sen constituted the only right path along which the Chinese people [could] march.” As a consequence, in mid-20th century Taiwan, “Wuwang guochi”—Never Forget National Humiliation—became a rallying cry that filled a vacuum for those who felt they had lost “Chinese-ness” in fleeing to Taiwan.

But now, in 2016, the phrase “national humiliation” has all but dropped out of Taiwanese official documents, school textbooks, speeches, and slogans. There are no longer any holidays commemorating national humiliation. Democratic Progressive Party member Tsai Ing-wen, who was recently elected president, did not mention “national humiliation” once during her campaign. In her acceptance speech, she used triumphant rhetoric to describe the ROC—phrases like “the pride of being a democratic country” and the “arrival of an era of ‘New Politics’ in Taiwan.” If Taiwan had experienced a humiliating past, Tsai, at least, was not concerned with it.

Has Taiwan overcome “national humiliation?”

Given the changes in Taiwanese rhetoric, it would seem that Taiwan has managed to overcome the modern Chinese narrative of humiliation. Szonyi shared his perspective: “The question is: how does it serve the interests of the people who are crafting the narrative? In that sense … [national humiliation] doesn’t serve the interests of any political power in Taiwan.”

A large part of Taiwan’s move away from this narrative has to do with its current place in the international order, especially compared to that of China. In the words of Szonyi, “there is nothing more important to Taiwan than having international friends.” Only 22 states in the world even recognize Taiwan as the Republic of China, and those states do not wield tremendous political or economic power—the Marshall Islands, St. Lucia, Swaziland, and Tuvalu are some on the list. The United States, Taiwan’s most powerful ally, just sold $1.83 billion in weapons to the Taiwanese military as part of a series of diplomatic and military treaties it has with the island, and yet the United States has not recognized it as an independent state for decades.

Framing the United States, or Western countries in general, as responsible for an era of “national humiliation” would only serve to further isolate Taiwan from the international order. Euhwa Tran, a program associate for the Strategic Trust-Building Initiative at the EastWest Institute, concurred in an interview with the HPR. “For Taiwan,” she said, “there is no option of them going against the international order. It’s almost a necessity for them to stay within it.”

It is not, however, just a necessity for Taiwan to be “friendly” with liberal democracies—it is natural for the country. Taiwan has been a thriving democratic and capitalist state since the 1990s, and according to Tran, “Taiwan is the product, in a way, of Western liberalism.” Taiwan sees the liberal international order not only as critical to its survival but as representative of its shared values—respect for open elections, human rights, and economic openness.

More than Just Politics

Taiwan’s move away from a narrative of national humiliation, however, has been about more than the recognition that such a narrative no longer serves any political purpose. The narrative is also fundamentally incongruous with aspects of Taiwanese identity, an identity that the ROC’s government, and particularly the Pan Green or “pro-independence” side, is attempting to redefine.

Szonyi explained that “on the Pan Green side, in part, [their message is] about optimism, hopefulness, looking forward to the future. It’s also about articulating a distinctive Taiwanese identity. They’d say… ‘we don’t deny that we’re ethnically Chinese, we come from China, but we’re different.’ And part of that difference is indigenous Taiwanese culture and this Japanese element.” Taiwan, after all, was a Japanese colony for 50 years, and various aspects of Japanese culture remain in Taiwan. Additionally, there are widespread indigenous communities that predate the Japanese and the fleeing mainlanders. Tsai Ing-wen has sought to incorporate these identities into her support network as part of an effort by the Pan Greens, according to Szonyi, to conceive “a Taiwanese identity that is separate and distinctive from Chinese identity.”

An identity that is different from mainland China’s, that is more multiethnic, democratic, and international in nature, means, in the end, that there is no room for national humiliation. “To talk in terms of national humiliation would undermine that claim [of being multicultural],” Szonyi articulated. “You can’t be multicultural if you say that one culture humiliated you.”

Tran also believes that a distinct Taiwanese identity has been born in the past few decades from the country’s unique history. This creation of a distinct identity, she argued, is probably “not reversible, because even if the PRC was a democracy, even if it was politically similar to Taiwan, the two sides are [already] extremely different [historically].” Tran explained that the events that happened after the split between the island and the mainland have been foundational to a new identity. “The experiences [the Taiwanese] underwent afterwards … colonization, The White Terror, martial law … There were lots of events that have defined the way they are today.”

The Taiwanese Harvard student introduced earlier echoed these academic observations. He explained that for Taiwan, defining its own history meant, among other things, the understanding that the PRC’s history was separate. “In elementary school,” he said, “they don’t do much study of Chinese history anymore. It is mostly about Taiwan.”

The Taiwanese who have embraced the plurality of identities within their own country and the ROC’s unique history have not overcome the idea of national humiliation in their past. Instead they have outgrown it. “Wuwang guochi,” the phrase that comforted fleeing nationalists who thought they were giving up their Chinese identity in moving to Taiwan, has lost its ring—now, it is more important to be Taiwanese.

Image Source: Flickr/MiNe (sfmine79)

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