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The Evolution of Taiwanese Identity

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China Power

The Evolution of Taiwanese Identity

As Taiwanese identity becomes more prominent, people seek out their connections to indigenous tribes.

The Evolution of Taiwanese Identity

A performer at Tsai Ing-wen’s presidential inauguration.

Credit: The Diplomat

Vacationing back home in Taiwan, 42-year old Rosey Peng wandered into an exhibition at the National Palace Museum. There, as if by fate, her eye fell on a small chop used to seal official documents. It bore the name of her great-great-grandmother’s father.

“We always heard rumors from elders that we might have indigenous blood, even though our identity is Hokkien Chinese,” said Rosey. So she decided to investigate, and in the archives of the Household Registration Office she found her maternal grandmother classified as a ‘cooked’ barbarian – a term used for indigenous tribes living on the plains.

But it was not until she saw the chop in the museum that she realized how important her ancestor was to Taiwan’s indigenous history. It belonged to Penap, chief of the Ketagalan tribe, one of Taiwan’s many tribes who inhabited the island long before Han Chinese migration began in the 17th century. He was an influential northern chief who negotiated with Dutch colonizers looking for gold.

It has become a trend in the past decade to search for indigenous heritage, says Rosey, especially if your family did not migrate from China after the civil war in 1949. “Although we have Chinese ancestors, nationally we prefer to identify as Taiwanese, so people want to find their roots and real link to Taiwan,” she says.

It is a trend sweeping the island as Taiwan evolves an identity separate from the mainland after decades in which the political leadership has clung to the dream of a return to China. No longer, it appears.

The percentage of people identifying as Taiwanese has hit another record high, according to a poll released in late May by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation – 80 percent of respondents said they identified as Taiwanese, whereas only 8.1 percent identified as Chinese, and 7.6 percent as both. This has been gradually on the rise since the 1990s, when a majority of people identified as Chinese or both Chinese and Taiwanese.

This rise in Taiwanese identity has gone hand in hand with the democratization of Taiwan after martial law was lifted in the late 1980s, because “people were able to openly express themselves and discover their identity under the new democratic period,” says Gerrit van der Wees, a former Dutch diplomat and lecturer in the history of Taiwan at George Mason University in Virginia .

The process of democratization and, as van der Wees says, ‘Taiwanization’, culminated in the electoral victory of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in January, when the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) was ousted both in the presidency and the legislature for the first time since the KMT fled to Taiwan from China in 1949.

The DPP’s landslide victory was in part based on dissatisfaction with former president Ma Ying-jeou’s cozy relationship with the government of the People’s Republic of China. The rapprochement between Beijing and the KMT under Ma was based on the “1992 Consensus”: an acceptance that there is only “one China” that includes Taiwan (but with differing interpretations as to its rightful government).

The KMT was established on the mainland in 1912 and retreated to Taiwan after its defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communists. It always ruled the island on the premise that it would eventually regain control over China. That ship has sailed but it has never abandoned its “one China” vision. By contrast, the DPP, a home-grown party traditionally pro-independence, never accepted a unity of Taiwan with the mainland.

All eyes were therefore on President Tsai Ing-wen during her inauguration speech last week. While she acknowledged the existence of the 1992 negotiations, she omitted any reference to the “one China” principle, in spite of months-long  pressure from Beijing. The Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing was quick to criticize Tsai’s omission, calling it an “incomplete test answer,” warning that Tsai would jeopardize peace across the strait if she were to pursue separatist propositions.

For Beijing, the DPP landslide and the rise of Taiwanization are an inconvenient truth. China has always maintained that Taiwan is an “inalienable part of China” since ancient times, and that (re-)unification is inevitable. The Taiwan Affairs Office, in its response to Tsai’s speech, kept reiterating their shared ancestry: “The Taiwan compatriots share blood ties with us and there is no force that can separate us.”

An overwhelming majority of Taiwanese do indeed share blood with the Chinese across the strait. Chinese migration to the island started in the 17th century, when the Dutch arrived on “Formosa” (Portuguese for beautiful) and needed farmers to cultivate the land. The indigenous tribes that they found were hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers, so the Dutch sailed across the strait and in some cases literally captured Chinese farmers that they brought back to farm the island.

The Dutch colonial period was short-lived – from 1624 to 1662 – and was followed by almost 200 years of Chinese rule. The Dutch were driven out by the son of a Chinese pirate, Koxinga, who is still portrayed in Chinese history classes as a national hero. After a period of weak governance by the Qing dynasty over Taiwan, the island was ceded to the Japanese in 1895 following the first Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese remained on the island until the end of World War II, when Chiang Kai-shek, leader of both China and the KMT at the time, was escorted to the island by the U.S. navy.

After centuries of Han Chinese migration and on-and-off governance by various rulers from the mainland, the ethnic majority in Taiwan (about 70 percent) is Hokkien Chinese who migrated before Japanese rule. In contrast, Taiwan’s indigenous groups currently only account for less than three percent of the population.

While many Taiwanese, like Rosey, have embraced their Chinese cultural heritage, they have also started looking at Taiwan’s history and their own family background to construct a more comprehensive narrative.

“If your ancestors have been in Taiwan long enough [pre-1949], then there is a big chance you will have indigenous blood,” said Chun-chieh Chi, professor in ethnic relations at the National Dong-Hwa University in Taiwan. Every era – indigenous, Dutch, Spanish, Hokkien Chinese, Japanese, Nationalists – left its own imprint on Taiwan’s inter-marrying population.

But under KMT rule, reinforcing the Chinese identity was of existential importance to support the “one China” vision. Until the late 1980s, high school students only learned about the history and geography of China, which included Taiwan as a province. This has changed, especially under the pro-Taiwan KMT leader Lee Teng-hui (president from 1988-2000) and DPP president Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008), when students started to learn more about Taiwan’s history. But the past eight years under Ma Ying-jeou saw a gradual move in the opposite direction.

It was only last year that high school students campaigned, and briefly occupied the Ministry of Education, against the “fine-tuning” of the high school history curriculum, which they argued favored Beijing’s view of Taiwan’s history as being part of China under the “one China” policy.

Tsai Ing-wen did not explicitly reject the “one China” policy in her speech. But it was clear she is adopting a more holistic narrative in relation to Taiwan’s history. She focused on the rights of Taiwan’s indigenous people, and the parade preceding her inauguration was filled with historical references to all eras of Taiwan’s history, even dating back to the arrival of Europeans (the opening scene featured a red-haired person calling out “ah Formosa!”).

Beijing had hoped that Taiwan was on the path toward unification under Ma’s policy to strengthen cross-strait ties. But this seems to have backfired – ethnicity and national identity are subjective and politically contentious concepts, and not a scientific ‘truth’ based on “shared blood.”

As The Economist wrote: “It would be heartening to think that China’s leaders realize that the best way to win hearts and minds in […] Taiwan is not to bribe, browbeat and bully, but to make China itself look a more attractive sovereign power.”

Chinese and Taiwanese national identity can co-exist, argues Dr. Shiao-chi Shen in his doctorate at Columbia University. “The decline of Chinese national identity is hence not the result of the rise of Taiwanese identity, but of the rise of China,” Shen argues. Its dominance and the “one China” principle “removed the important component of the Republic of China (ROC) from the Chinese national identity in Taiwan.”

Rosey hopes that Tsai Ing-wen will take a leaf from her ancestor’s book, when Ketagalan chief Penap had to balance Dutch and Spanish colonizers who asked him for land.

“That unique chief […] stopped the outside invasion in Taipei,” says Rosey. Just like Tsai, Penap “had to try and balance between all the different superpowers. That was in 1642, but history repeats itself.”

Rosey Peng has been writing an account of her research into her family background, and the importance of the tribe that disappeared from the Taipei basin, for the new Taiwanese outlet, Ketagalan Media – an outlet named after the Ketagalan tribes that ruled the Taipei basin area.  

Linda van der Horst holds a Master’s degree in Modern Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford. The views expressed here are her own.