Sat, Dec 11, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Sinicization is a straw man

By Douglas Gildow

C.V. Chen (陳長文) claims in his recent article ("Chinese cultural influence is not harmful," Dec. 2, page 8) that Taiwanese independence should not be linked to desinicization, and that desinicization might even destroy Taiwanese culture. He hints that the Taiwanese should feel proud of the Chinese culture they have inherited, and that identification with Chinese culture might be pragmatically advantageous, as it is associated with China's rising power.

But what exactly does Chen mean by "culture?" For much of the 19th century "culture" was generally understood as unconditionally positive and something one either had or didn't have; being "cultured" was associated with, for example, being well-mannered and mastering a corpus of classical literature.

But in 1871, British anthropologist Edward Tyler formulated a new definition for "culture," one that has been influential to this day: "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society."

So in Tyler's formulation, everyone has culture, but culture is not an absolute good. Using Tyler's definition, I would not advocate linking one's identity too rigidly with any culture, or one is liable to perceive cultural criticism as an attack on one's identity, which is likely to promote fear and irrationality.

While I agree with the general thrust of Chen's argument that culture and politics need not be linked, Chen seems to have adopted the inflexible position that Chinese culture should necessarily be a source of pride and should not be criticized or "removed." But if we understand culture as a set of socially and historically acquired symbols, beliefs and practices, we can see that some of these elements may be outdated and others even pernicious.

Speaking of concrete policies, relative to what they learn now, Taiwanese students are better off learning more Taiwanese history and less Chinese history, more composition in modern Mandarin and less memorization of literary Chinese. The traditional "Chinese" method of education by rote should be reduced in favor of methods that foster the qualities of creativity and rational reflection.

To return to Chen's article, I'd like to draw the reader's attention to several misleading statements. First, he writes that hopefully unification will "happen when the political and economic systems of the two sides are compatible" -- but the real question is if this will occur, not when. Second, he calls Hoklo a "dialect," but judged on non-political, linguistic terms, Hoklo is clearly a language, not a dialect. Chen writes that "some politicians have made meticulous calculations to claim that the Taiwanese have long since ceased to have very much Chinese blood in their veins." In doing so, he builds a straw man and ignores the recent research of professional scientists and scholars showing substantial biological and historical connections between Han and non-Han populations -- connections that were previously unknown or suppressed.

Perhaps it would be easier to think more clearly about these debates if we used the word "Chinese" more narrowly to refer to the culture or citizens of the PRC.

What people now call "Chinese culture" could more accurately be labeled "Sinitic culture" or "Han culture" ("Han" being primarily a historical/cultural rather than biological category).

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