Date: Wed, 28 Jul 1999 14:48:14 -0400
Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <H-ASIA@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
From: Leibo, Steven A. <>
Subject: Taiwan Diary # 5

From: Scott Simon <>
Subject: Re: Taiwan Diary

Taiwan Diary #5: Imagining Taiwan

By Scott Simon, 28 July 1999

When I studied Chinese history as an undergraduate, my professors treated Taiwan as little more than an appendix to the real events that happened on the Mainland. We learned that Taiwan had been ceded to Japan at the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War and returned to the ROC at the conclusion of World War II. Nothing, however, was said about what happened to Taiwanese people during the intervening fifty years. We studied the civil war between the CCP and the KMT, and how a defeated KMT retreated to Taiwan under Chiang Kaishek in 1949. Nothing was said about the people living in Taiwan at the time or how those historical events impacted upon their lives. In short, we imagined Taiwan as merely a part of China.

In the course of doing Ph.D. field work in Taiwan, however, I soon discovered that many Taiwanese people do not perceive themselves as Chinese.

On visits to over 70 leather tanneries in southern Taiwan, I told prospective informants I was interested in the influence of Chinese culture on industrial organization. Some informants immediately took offense. Then go to China, said one. This is Taiwan. There are no Chinese here.

Some older men, in fact, refused to speak to me in Mandarin, arguing that it is the language of the colonial oppressor. They encouraged me to learn Taiwanese, but spoke to me in Japanese or English to expound on their political ideas. One elderly gentleman spoke to me in Japanese, and said that his service in the Japanese military was the proudest moment of his life. These people live in an imagined Taiwan very different from what I had studied in school in Canada and the United States.

Since these native Taiwanese (early settlers who arrived long before the KMT took over) represent over 80% of Taiwan's population, their perspectives need to be understood. As colonized subjects, however, their voices have often been muted. In the latter years of Japanese rule, they were forced to speak Japanese, worship in Shinto shrines, and even serve in the Japanese army. After the ROC takeover, the same people were forced by a new government to speak Mandarin and adopt a Chinese identity. Many found KMT rule even more onerous than Japanese rule, especially those who had lost relatives in the massacres that followed the February 28 (1947) conflict between newly arrived KMT military forces and Taiwanese civilians.

I quote one informant here because her views are representative of native Taiwanese old enough to remember the KMT takeover of Taiwan. She said, Taiwan should just do away with the Republic of China and call themselves Taiwan. After the Japanese left, we tried to declare the Republic of Taiwan, but then the ROC took over. There were violent conflicts between the Taiwanese and the Mainlanders at that time. The KMT killed a lot of Taiwanese in the February 28 incident. After that, Mainlanders were afraid to leave their homes because they were afraid of being beaten by native Taiwanese. But the government repressed the native Taiwanese movement and oppressed us for many years. If people said the wrong things, they would arrest them and take them away for brainwashing. In school, we were fined one Taiwanese dollar for every sentence of Taiwanese we spoke, since we were expected to learn Mandarin.

Many native Taiwanese view Taiwan in much the same way that Palestinians view Israel. The KMT came to Taiwan as the resolution of a civil war in a foreign land, just as European Jews came to Israel with legitimate desires to resolve problems that happened elsewhere. In both cases, it is a normal development that the earlier inhabitants demand political power. Native Taiwanese yearnings for a their own nationality should not be overlooked.

Since the lifting of martial law in 1987 and gradual implementation of democratic rule, the Taiwanese have taken control of their own government. Lee Tenghui, himself a native Taiwanese educated in Japan, was Taiwan's first democratically elected president. His views on Taiwan, that PRC-ROC relations are special state to state relations, represent the views of most Taiwanese. Those who oppose his view complain about the falling stock market or fear Chinese invasion more than they disagree with his perception of their country.

Taiwanese nationalism is hotly contested. Some Taiwanese people wish to establish an independent Republic of Taiwan. Some want to re-create the Republic of China as a free, prosperous country. Most seem content with the status quo of the Republic of China on Taiwan. But nobody believes Taiwan is just a renegade province of the People's Republic of China. In his controversial interview, President Lee has merely stated the obvious fact that the ROC on Taiwan has become a sovereign state and should be dealt with accordingly. Whether Taiwan unites with China or not is a question to be dealt with in the future.

Some common people, free from the delicate word games of diplomacy, take much stronger views than President Lee. Just two weeks ago, I was speaking to a young aboriginal man in Taitung. He asked me how I enjoy living here. I have learned to love Taiwan, I said.

You should not say Taiwan, he replied. That word is Chinese. You should say this beautiful island of Formosa.

Scott Simon, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow
Institute of Sociology
Academia Sinica
Taipak, Taiwan