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The Evolution of Taiwanese Identity


Submitted By minnimordh
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Jonathan Mordh
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The Evolution of Taiwanese Identity

It may seem that, just as individual provinces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have their own unique differences; Taiwan could also fit under the “One China” world-view envisioned by the PRC. Indeed, the acceptance and recognition of same historical and cultural connections have kept the present PRC’s provinces bound together over such large distances to the north, south, and west. With Taiwan located off the coast of Fujian province, relatively close to the heart of the PRC’s economic boom, it may not be entirely obvious how the idea of two “Chinas” became plausible in recent time. Modern representations of Taiwan in cinema and literary fiction, however, shed light on the issues of Taiwanese identity and its evolution throughout its recent political and social history.
These questions of identity can be examined in Huang Chun-ming’s 1960s era short story “The Taste of Apples”, where a Taiwanese family is exposed to influences of internationalism through both the Mandarin-speaking police officer and the American diplomat. When at the American hospital, the foreign nun speaking the local Taiwanese dialect indicated to the family “that their world had grown larger” (149). Here one can see the family as a representation of the isolated Taiwan of the past, and their interaction with the American and Taiwan government official as the effects of globalization. For the family, the introduction to Western influence is the tragedy of an automobile accident, which can be seen as a metaphor of modernization and is thus somewhat ironic. The Taiwanese police officer sums up the experience as follows: “This has been a stroke of good luck for you, being run down by an American’s car” (154). The issue of “luck”, something outside of one’s control, as a long-term prospect instead of immediate gain or loss associated with risk is a voice to the process of globalization in Taiwan. Here one sees the Taiwanese being forced into a modernized global community, with significant elements of the unknown, as ultimately progressive and beneficial.
The rapid change in the Taiwanese outlook is well represented in the scene where the family eats the apples given to them by the police officer. The apples are placed on a pedestal in the minds of the family members. They are a symbol of that which they desire. Even though the father initially did not want to eat one because he was not hungry, he apparently feels poorly about being left out of the apple-eating event. If the apples are symbolic of American values to be ingested or emulated as a model of modernization and progress, one sees here the family knowing that they want the apples although not exactly understanding why. This then correlates to the Taiwanese desire to define themselves with the West and success.
The influence of international relationships within the Taiwanese community is represented in another way by the residual Japanese elements that are apparent in Wei Te-sheng’s 2008 film Cape No. 7. In the scene where Old Mao uses fluent Japanese to talk to Tomoko, one witnesses the more global world-view that has become natural within Taiwanese life. The fact that it is a very old individual is not insignificant. This fact speaks directly to his own experiential knowledge of colonialism as the force that dragged both him and others of his generation into a much broader conception of the world. It identifies his generation as the groundwork for the present international community that defines Taiwan today. Although the younger generation may not know Japanese, they witness first-hand the consequences, both good and bad, of their identity being tied up in multiple cultures and histories. Here one can see the Taiwanese thinking has fundamentally moved leaps away from that of the isolationism of mainland China.
In addition to Cape No. 7, Ang Lee’s 1994 film titled Eat Drink Man Woman exposes the transition of social hierarchy from Japan’s dominance to the Republic of China’s (ROC). The new mainlander government filled the shoes of the Japanese by occupying the same space, physically and socially, of the previous foreign government. Thus the Japanese buildings left over from the colonization period continued to represent the dominant social class. As one observes throughout the film, the mainlander father, Chef Chu, and his four daughters live in a Japanese style house. The location of the house is even implied by a daughter’s boyfriend as belonging to a neighborhood of the upper social class. This architecture and zone generalizations act as a basis for division within the general Taiwanese community. The way in which these are discussed by the daughter as not being an accurate representation of her family’s position is a clear marker for the change that had gradually allowed the Taiwanese a wider perspective than the Chinese under the PRC or the Taiwanese under the Japanese.
Contrasted with the PRC’s strong centralized influence over its citizens’ world-view, Taiwan’s developing sense of identity and recent political move towards an increasingly democratic state are the most obvious reason for the various ways in which Taiwan and the mainland have grown apart, especially in regards to the independence-unification issue currently at hand. The current ideological separation of China is addressed by Rigger in the following manner: “The China inside – encompassing both Taiwan’s ancestral heritage and its recent history – and the China outside – the China that exists on the other side of the Taiwan Strait and is recognized today as the People’s Republic” (133). This division of “China” was initially born politically with the ROC’s retreat to Taiwan, but it has developed in recent times as a direct result of the emerging world-views of the people. Whereas before the non-mainlander Taiwanese population had no voice in the matter, they are now a voice that can no longer be ignored. How the majority of Taiwan’s population have experienced recent history has put them into an inherently different position than the rest of the Chinese, PRC or ROC.
Taiwanese international relationships and experiences differentiated them from the mainland’s policy of isolation. Firstly, Taiwan was politically separated from the mainland and given as a colony to Japan. The island and its inhabitants experienced considerable changes in its social structure as a result. Previously, the Taiwanese with Chinese heritage were a social class above the aboriginals, but, with the introduction of Japanese colonialism, all Taiwanese were exploited, although aboriginals remained in a lower class. With this introduction of a common Other, the Taiwanese began to build a common ground between them. The Japanese unification of the island under one rule accelerated this process, whereas before the wild aboriginals in the more western regions were not previously interacting with the Chinese Taiwanese. The extreme effort of the Japanese to colonize the island by constructing buildings in Japanese style and mandating the learning and usage of the Japanese language reinforced the hierarchy of the new social structure as tangible expressions of Japanese dominance over the whole population regardless of their different backgrounds. Of course the persistence of understanding the aboriginals as savages worked against the convergence of sentiment among the people, but the foundation had, nevertheless, been laid.
In some ways, Taiwan was being, and still is to a less extent, controlled by a somewhat foreign power, but one without control over its own acclaimed home country. At first, the ROC continued its system of government as if it was still on the mainland, attempting to breed in its populous the same strong notions of Chinese unity as was so well internalized by those from the China across the strait. For many of the inhabitants of Taiwan, the ROC’s ideology was another extreme that placed them distinctively in their own world of subjugation. Whereas before the Taiwanese with Chinese heritage considered themselves part of the “one China”, they began to realize how their unique experience has transformed the identify the mainlanders as yet another form of the Other. Now the inhabitants have developed more of a shared consciousness through their experiences with Japan, the mainland and the West, specifically the United States.
In light of the development of Taiwanese identity, the current issue of re-unification with the mainland has changed radically on the island. What defines “China” and how does Taiwan fit into its definition? Taiwan’s shared heritage with mainland China has been and continues to be of great significance when discussing Taiwanese identity. The shared cultural aspects of the two places have long been considered grounds for political unification by the PRC. Shelley Rigger, in her book titled Why Taiwan Matters states “[PRC citizens] believe Taiwan is, always has been, and forever shall be, part of China. For them, that means it is part of the PRC” (133). This is based out of the idea that China must be one entity. This then necessitates political unity as well. This Chinese desire is founded on a long history dating back to the first emperor, named Qin Shi Huang, who united all of China by force. Indeed, when the Nationalist fled the mainland and therein politically separated Taiwan as the base of the ROC, they shared the same feelings as the PRC; that is the “aspiration has always been to merge Taiwan and the Chinese mainland” (59). This initially mutual goal speaks to the extent to which the Chinese were united in thought.
Since the gradual transformation from a nationalistic government to a more democratic one, Taiwan’s official views on the matter of unification have become mixed and complicated. The need to balance the rhetoric about independence and unification became necessary to appease both sides into a status-quo. This status-quo consists of simultaneously maintaining the potential to become completely independent from the PRC and the potential to merge completely, albeit without a strict timeline. Two mayors of large Taiwanese cities, Chen and Hu, were on the opposite ends of the status-quo. They, however, are in a Taiwan with a large and diversified population which has only recently been allowed to voice their opinions. Shelly Rigger explains officials’ positions within the political sphere of Taiwan as “adjusting to the changing environment [that] has required tremendous flexibility” (59). This phenomenon clearly displays Taiwan as in search of internal unity among a population increasingly influenced by international thoughts and influences.
On the other hand, the PRC has changed its official demeanor over time, although it has made known to the world that, to accomplish the necessity of re-claiming Taiwan, it still is willing to resort to violence if it deems it necessary. As a major election approached in Taiwan, the PRC began and then continued to increase military training operations and live missile tests in the waters nearby Taiwan (Lecture, December 14). The mainland government has been and will undoubtedly continue to use any means it can to attempt to gain more and more influence over Taiwan politically, economically, and otherwise. Although this military activity did not achieve its intended purpose, the point has been made, and it certainly added to many reasons that prevent any extreme separatist action. The mainland and Taiwan itself have both effectively locked themselves into the status-quo of non-action for the foreseeable future.
In another one of Huang Chun-ming’s short-stories titled “Ringworms”, these issues of outside influence affecting the lower social class of Taiwanese are seen within seemingly too simple of an example. A Taiwanese wife, Ah-gui, is exposed to new knowledge and “now possessed a greater understanding and a new outlook regarding sex […] and she didn’t know whether she should be grateful to Miss Li [from the Happy Family Planning Association] or bear a grudge against her” (128). This resistance to perceive her new knowledge as a blessing is a true testament to the saying “Ignorance is bliss”. Ah-gui, as a representation of Taiwan, and Miss Li, as a representation of modern (and foreign) understanding, are acting out the scene that has been transpiring over the course of the Taiwan’s recent history. The general Taiwanese population is hesitant to whole-heartedly embrace internationally brought knowledge, which can be expanded to include their world-views.
In conclusion, it is because of this melding of populations and their historical experiences that the Taiwanese have developed a unique identity. The isolation of the majority population followed by relatively quick transformations of social and political identity has broken open the collective consciousness of Taiwan. Taiwanese identity cannot resort back to the “one China” vision in its entirety. Rather, a modern Taiwanese identity rests in the present collection of the varied domestic and international issues that are fueled by this newly developed awareness. On the front burner is how the future relationship of Taiwanese and mainland Chinese will continue to evolve.
Word count: 2,100

Works Cited
Cape No. 7. Dir. Wei Te-sheng. Perf. Van Fan, Chie Tanaka, 2008. Film.
Eat Drink Man Woman. Dir. Ang Lee. Perf. Sihung Lung, Yu-wen Wang, Chien-lien Wu, Kuei- mei Yang, 1994. Film.
Huang, Chun-ming. “The Taste of Apples.” Trans. Howard Goldbatt. Columbia University Press, New York.
Rigger, Shelley. “Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse.” Plymouth: Rowman and Little Field, Inc.

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