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, now Jakarta.

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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