Chen, Taiwan and its History
With the inauguration tomorrow (May 20) of President Chen Shui-bian,
the question of Taiwanese identity has been brought to centre stage
of cross straits relations. Clearly there is no agreement inside or
outside Taiwan as to the extent to which Taiwan identity differs, if
at all, from Chinese identity either in a political or cultural sense.
As a result, a degree of flexibility in interpretation of identity is
going to be needed if there is ever to be a mutually agreed settlement
of the political question.
It would clearly help if there was a better understanding, especially
in Beijing, of the facts of history. Chanting mantras to the effect
that Taiwan is and always has been an indivisible part of China may
sound patriotic truism to mainlanders. But it bears as much relationship
to history as Stalin's Soviet Encyclopedia did to the history of Russia.
It is dangerous, politically inspired myth. Taiwan's actual history
does not in itself support claims to independence of a state now inhabited
primarily by Han Chinese people. But Taiwan's history is singular and
to a large extent detached from that of the mainland. Its experience
over the past 1,000 years has been different in so many ways that history
must be a starting point for considering how to arrange the future.
For most of those 1,000 years, there were few Han Chinese to be found
on the island, which was a collection of tribal entities with no meaningful
political links to the mainland. The tribespeople spoke - as their remnants
still do today - Austronesian languages similar not only to those in
nearby Luzon - which is closer to Taiwan than Taiwan is to the mainland.
Austronesian is the main language group found throughout the Malay archipelago
and from Madagascar in the west to Tahiti in the east to New Zealand
in the south. It has not been found in mainland Asia north of central
Vietnam. Most non-Chinese scholars seem to think that the aboriginal
people arrived in Taiwan from the south by the same sort of outrigger
boats by which their cousins colonised southeast Asia and the pacific
islands. Recent research has revealed that the Maoris who colonised
New Zealand are genetically very closely related to Taiwanese aboriginals.
However the theory favoured for obvious political reasons by mainland
authorities and some scholars is that the pre-Han inhabitants of Taiwan
came from the Asian mainland - ie what is now China. It is mainly backed
by reference to artefact design, not language. Even if this claim of
mainland origin is correct it hardly amounts to establishing that the
original Taiwanese were ever Chinese, as now understood, either in a
cultural, linguistic or political sense.
Realistically, the claim that Taiwan is part of China begins with the
large scale settlement of Han Chinese, mainly from coastal Fujian. Sporadic
settlement by land hungry mainlanders began in the late Ming period
despite official disapproval. It is one of the ironies of history that
its was the Dutch who ruled Taiwan for a few decades in the sixteeenth
century who were the first actively to encourage it. They considered
the Chinese better equipped than the aboriginals to develop its agricultural
- especially sugar -- potential. The Dutch also recognised the strategic
importance of Taiwan. They made it their base for lucrative trade between
China and Japan, and also with their possessions in the south - Batavia,
By another irony of history it was China's defeat by the Manchus which
led to its acquisition of Taiwan. Ming loyalist military leader Cheng
Cheng-kung retreated there and threw out the Dutch. The Ming defeat
also spurred further migration from the mainland into Taiwan but it
was probably not till the late 18th century that the Han population
surpassed that of the aboriginals. Meanwhile aboriginal resistance to
Han land seizures led to frequent rebellions reminiscent of the Indian
wars in 19th century America. The colonisers won.
Though incorporated into Ching dynasty China, Taiwan continued to have
a somewhat different history. Trade - sugar, rice, tea and camphor -
played a much larger role than on the mainland, and this grew dramatically
during the era of treaty ports in the last century. Ports near Taipei
and Kaohsiung and Taichung were opened and foreigners settled in other
towns too. Because of its small size, other western influences such
as Christianity made more impact in Taiwan than on the mainland.
Taiwan's experience with Japan was also very different from that of
the mainland. There was plenty of early resistance to Japanese rule
after Taiwan was ceded in 1895. But the Japanese brought infrastructure
and schools and latterly industries. Policy vacillated between treating
Taiwan as a colony and incorporating it into Japan..Either way the Japanese
experience was not wholly negative. Local educational and economic elites
were fostered and by 1945 it was already far ahead of the mainland by
almost every criterion of development.
The Taiwan/Japan relationship was in some ways akin to that between
India and the British. - or indeed Hongkong and the British. Just as
Indians fought for (as well as against) Britain, many Taiwanese loyally
served the Japanese emperor overseas. The Japanese were fairer rulers
than their successors, the arrogant and corrupt mainlanders who arrived
in 1945 and whose misrule led to the February 28 1947 uprising and massacre
of several thousand Taiwanese.
Today, Beijing never seems to understand why its demonisation of Japan
does nothing to make Taiwanese feel more Chinese. It was to be foreigners
again who helped Taiwan move forward. It was America which, post 1949,
forced reform on a reluctant Chiang Kai-shek who had taken refuge in
Taiwan. It was America which gave aid to sustain the economy, America
which provided the markets for Taiwan's garment and toy exports, America
which was the source of the electronics technology which Taiwan has
mastered so well. It was also America which inspired the astonishing
transformation of Taiwan from KMT authoritarianism to today's slightly
disorderly but lively liberal democracy.
This history does not diminish the Han Chinese identity of Taiwan.
Taiwan today is as essentially Chinese as New Zealand is essentially
- in language, culture and political system - predominantly British.
But geography and history as well as race and language determine political
structures. Various constitutional formulae are possible for bridging
the Taiwan straits. But they must take account of actual history - not
the political propagandist's mythology of race and nation. ends
SCMP May 19
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