From SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU Fri May 26 06:53:19 2000
Date: Thu, 25 May 2000 17:51:20 -1000
Sender: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU>
From: Vincent K Pollard <pollard@HAWAII.EDU>
Subject: Taiwan President CHEN stresses Austronesian heritage <FWD>


Vincent K Pollard

May 20: A Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

By Scott Simon, Formosa Diary, #22, 25 May 2000

Taiwan President CHEN stresses Austronesian heritage.

On May 20, 2000, Chen Shui-bian was inaugurated as the tenth president of the Republic of China. A public ceremony, attended by foreign dignitaries, invited guests, and thousands of ordinary citizens, was held on the steps of the Presidential Office in Taipak. The Meiji-era Presidential Office, once the palace of the Japanese governor-general and then symbol of KMT domination of the island, was an appropriate backdrop for an event saturated with cultural and historical meaning.

At 9:50am, the Master of Ceremony announced that the program was beginning. Just as one would have expected to hear the ROC national anthem, a group of Bunun tribe musicians stepped up to sing their traditional song Announcing the Good News. Their performance was followed by other indigenous groups, a Hakka mountain song, Holo folk music, and even symphonic music. Only when President Chen Shui-bian and Vice-president Annette Lu stepped out of the Presidential Office did they play the National Anthem. The choice of singer could not have been more appropriate: pop singer Chang Hui-mei, who herself is a member of the Puyuma tribe.

Chen Shui-bian’s inauguration speech was much more than a policy statement on cross-straits relations. Less than 700 characters of his 4300 character speech, in fact, were directly related to relations with China. The rest of it was about Taiwan’s political reform, domestic policies, history, and culture. Chen said Taiwan 40 times, Republic of China nine times, and China once, but Formosa twice; and—in wording that repeated Mao’s speech in 1949—even shouted Taiwan stands up! four times. Taiwan has indeed stood up, culturally as well as politically.

Chen brought up the colonial legacy of China and Taiwan, saying: Over the past one hundred plus years, China has suffered imperialist aggression, which left indelible wounds in her history. Taiwan’s destiny has been even more arduous, tormented by brute force and the rule of colonialist regimes. These similar historical experiences should bring mutual understanding between the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, setting a solid foundation for pursuing freedom, democracy and human rights together. However, due to long periods of separation, the two sides have developed vastly different political systems and lifestyles, obstructing empathy and friendship.

That speech was a strong historical statement; Chen drew a clear line between Chinese and Taiwanese history, and argued that Taiwan has suffered from imperialism even more than China. Attention to the Japanese period differs from the Chinese view of history, which focuses on the Chinese Civil War, and claims that Taiwanese history diverged from China only in 1949.

Chen even revived an older name for the island, saying Dear compatriots, 400 years ago, Taiwan was called Formosa, the beautiful island, for its lustrous landscape. Today, Taiwan is manifesting the elegance of a democratic island. He seeks historical continuity, not in the 5,000 year history of China, but in the 400 year history of his own small and beautiful island; which was in 1600 populated almost exclusively by Austronesian traders, hunters, and swidden-agriculturalists. Chen is the first Taiwanese president to so eagerly embrace his island’s history and its Austronesian heritage. He might even prefer to be called the first Formosan president.

Chen’s cultural politics is worth special notice. He said, Grassroots community organizations have now been developing around the country, working to explore and preserve the history, culture, geography and ecology of their localities. These are all part of Taiwan culture, whether they are local cultures, mass cultures, or high cultures. Due to special historical and geographical factors, Taiwan possesses a wealth of diversified cultural elements. But cultural development is not something that can bring immediate success. Rather, it has to be accumulated bit by bit. We must open our hearts with tolerance and respect, so that our diverse ethnic groups and different regional cultures communicate with each other, and so that Taiwan’s local cultures connect with the cultures of Chinese-speaking communities and other world cultures, and create a new milieu of a cultural Taiwan in a modern century.

It is significant that he casts culture in the plural, validating the colourful diversity of Taiwan’s nine indigenous tribes, as well as Holo, Hakka, and mainland Chinese cultures. His reference to huaren (Chinese-speaking) culture is important; it places the Chinese communities of Taiwan among the diaspora communities of places like San Francisco, Sydney, or Singapore, rather than among the population of a unified political China. He also expressed an openness to world culture, and promised to increase Taiwan’s cultural exchanges with other countries.

Chen’s appeal is strong in Taiwan, partly because he calls upon the lived, everyday little culture of ordinary people. In the conclusion to his speech, he drew attention to his humble background, saying, Today, as a son of a tenant farmer and with a poor family background, I have struggled and grown on this land, and, after experiencing defeat and tribulation, I have finally won the trust of the people to take up the great responsibility of leading the country. My individual achievements are minor, but the message is valuable because each citizen of Formosa is a child of Taiwan just like me....The spirit of the ’child of Taiwan’ reveals to us that even though Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu are tiny islands on the rim of the Pacific, the map of our dreams knows no limits. Chen Shui-bian is very much a folk hero, a proletarian boy who struggled to put himself through law school and then grew up to be president. Taiwan’s steel workers, rice farmers, and taxi drivers can all identify with a president like that.

President Chen is not going to declare the political independence of Taiwan. Under the current constitution, in fact, it would be illegal for him to do so. But he has declared the cultural independence of Formosa; and that message is likely to be well received by his constituents. In the latter years of their rule, Japan tried to assimilate the Taiwanese into Japanese culture. In the early decades of ROC rule, the KMT forcefully sinicized the population, even fining school children for speaking Holo, Rukai or other local languages in school. Many people still speak bitterly of those childhood experiences. Chen, however, promises to validate grassroots cultures, the diverse local cultures that make Taiwan such a lively, colourful place to live. That is democracy in a pluralistic country; and that is what a cultural revolution should be about. So...Let the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution begin!

Scott Simon, Ph.D.
Post-doctoral Fellow
Institute of Sociology
Academia Sinica
Taipak, Taiwan