Changing Identity in Taiwan

David Schak

Changing Taiwanese Identities is a volume consisting of seven papers plus a useful introduction by one of the editors, J. Bruce Jacobs. Although most focus on the majority of Hoklo people, there is a contribution from Jolan Hsieh on the quest by the Plains indigenous peoples for recognition as one of Taiwan’s first peoples. At present there are 16 recognized ‘mountain indigenous peoples’, but the level of assimilation of the Plains peoples has caused them to be regarded as having become ‘civilized’, so they have been denied that status. Hsieh also discusses the change in how Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are seen by examining the various terms used to refer to them. Initially seen as ‘savages’ (hoan-a) of various varieties, including ‘raw’ and ‘cooked’ depending on their level of assimilation, they were first called  ‘mountain compatriots’ (shanbao) under the Kuomintang, but are now known under the more respectful term ‘indigenous peoples’ (yuanzhumin).

Wi-Vun Tiaffalo Chiung looks at the efforts to create a Taiwanese (Hoklo) literature, which could be an important pillar of identity. Writers have strived to create an orthography for Hoklo since the 1920s but have been stymied by the fact that there are words in Hoklo for which there are no standard Chinese characters. 19th-century missionaries overcame this problem as well as the low literacy rate at the time by disregarding characters and using Romanization. At present there are three proposed systems; using the Roman alphabet, using Chinese characters, or using both in combination, but there is no generally accepted standard, something reminiscent of the various systems for romanizing Mandarin before Pinyin became the accepted standard for most students of Chinese. Scholars interested in orthography might want to look at what is done in Hong Kong to render colloquial Cantonese into a written language or to the innovative adoption of characters by those writing subtitled lyrics for karaoke videos.

Two papers examine how identity can shift with the political winds. Peter Kang looks at a temple in Kending in Taiwan's south. In the 1930s it was dedicated to the Red-Haired Princess, also referred to as the Dutch Princess. However, in the early 1960s, at the height of Kuomintang’s power and its emphasis on Chineseness, the deity's identity was changed to the Princess of Eight Treasures, alluding to a fictitious Sinic persona from a Song Dynasty play. In 1987 Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law, which marked the beginning of Taiwan's democratization and of Taiwanese becoming able to express their Taiwaneseness. Soon afterward the temple managers switched the deity’s identity back to the Dutch Princess (Dutchness expressed Taiwaneseness because of the 17th century Dutch presence in Taiwan).

Shiho Maehara analyzes Lee Teng-hui's speeches and writings during his presidency (1988–2000), concentrating on the referents for ‘we’ and ‘they’, his stated position on unification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and how he refers to Taiwan. Her examination makes clear his initial willingness to follow the Kuomintang’s line on the relationship between Taiwan and the PRC and amalgamation vs independence. When he first used the term ‘the Taiwan experience’ in 1988, it referred to the economic and political transformation of Taiwan. After 1996, when he had well and truly broken from the Kuomintang’s Old Guard, it referred to Taiwan's bringing together both a moral culture and a material civilization. Lee's stance on Taiwan independence evolved from stating his opposition to it in 1989 to seeing Taiwan as an entity unto itself by 1998. In 1988, his ‘we/us’ referred to the people in Taiwan and the PRC. He addresses both early in his presidency, but by 1993 he differentiates them – Chinese in China vs Chinese in Taiwan – and he increasingly addresses himself only to the latter except to say in 1997 that ‘the mainland authority and the compatriots should respect the history and reality of the Republic of China on Taiwan’. The author is silent on whether these changes in what Lee said reflect a transformation in his own thinking or whether he supported unification from the beginning of his tenure as president but was taking a careful approach by not expressing such sentiments in order not to raise the suspicions of the Kuomintang establishment on the mainland while he gradually consolidated his power.

Tanguy Lepesant employs survey data to measure identity in Taiwan, concentrating on those under 40, and using his own surveys to clarify two issues found in other surveys: whether the respondent identifies as a Chinese, a Taiwanese or both, and whether Taiwan should remain independent or unite with the PRC and if the latter, when. Surveys on the first question have shown a steady decrease in those identifying as Chinese and more recently in those identifying as both. However, during the Ma Ying-jeou presidency (2008–2016), there were some who claimed that the significant number who identified as both were suffering from a ‘confused identity’. Lepesant resolved this in his own surveys by dividing the ‘Chinese’ identity into Zhongguoren, i.e. affiliated with the PRC, or huaren, an ethnic Chinese. In his surveys, respondents overwhelmingly regarded themselves as ethnically or culturally Chinese, meaning that there was no confusion at all in their political identity.

Not long after Taiwan began to democratize the Internet was born, and Taiwanese, as Chien-jung Hsu’s paper shows, quickly took to the Web as a tool to advance the cause of Taiwanese identity. The Taiwan Culture BBS (bulletin board system) was formed in the mid-1990s to promote and shape Taiwanese identity and consciousness. Its self-declared mission was to construct a platform where information on and discussion of Taiwan-related topics that were previously proscribed by the Kuomintang government: Taiwan independence, 228, White Terror, Taiwanese language, and local arts – drama, music, opera, and puppet shows. Other online Taiwan identity forums and blogs appeared in the 2000s, some of which encouraged open debate between Taiwan and China identity advocates or were counter forces to the largely pro-Kuomintang pro-unification main media in Taiwan. Bloggers also refuted pro-unification news.

As cyberspace evolved, so, too, did the activities of Taiwan consciousness promoters. From 2010, online content changed from BBS and blogs to social media and computers to mobile broadband, which provided a much more immediate message impact. Moreover, in addition to the discussion of political issues, the Web and text messaging services have facilitated recruitment of netizens to participate in social movements such as the Wild Strawberry, anti-media monopoly, Citizen 1985, and Sunflower movements. These have had a strong impact on Taiwan society and identity. Furthermore, as mainstream media often censors or distorts news that is unfavorable to the Kuomintang or the PRC, Facebook has become a very significant corrective voice.

An important issue in the change to a Taiwan- as opposed to a Chinese identity is the extent to which the descendants of mainlanders are adopting it. Voting patterns, for example, show that the great majority of mainlanders have continued to support the Kuomintang, which favors at least eventual unification of Taiwan and the PRC. Stéphane Corcuff's paper, while not resolving this question, provides an interesting case study of the transformation of Wang Shi, a mainlander born in 1978 in a rock-solid Kuomintang-supporting family. Like many other middle-income and above mainlanders Wang grew up cocooned in a mainlander world, the strongly mainlander Da-an District of Taipei, where people were generally unaware of how the majority of the Taiwanese population lived. Moreover, they often disparaged their culture and regarded them as traitors because they wanted to replace the Kuomintang government and become independent from China. Wang’s first switch in party support was to the even more strongly pro-unification New Party, but a film he saw made him realize that supporters of an independent Taiwan were not evil or traitors and he came to understand and accept their position. This brought him to a second switch, to vote for independent candidate Ko Wen-je in the 2014 Taipei mayoral election, a vote he described a equivalent to voting for the pro-Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party.

Throughout the period rule by Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, the government's major plank of legitimacy was its ‘sacred mission’ to recover mainland China from the Communists, and to this end, it suppressed Taiwanese identity and fostered Chinese identity. Thus, it is not surprising that in the beginning when identity surveys were conducted, identification with the PRC was relatively strong. This short volume is very useful in understanding the rise in identity politics and the transformation of individual’s identities from Chinese to Taiwanese after Taiwan began to democratize.