Taiwan’s constructed past
Whilst I agree with Peter Williams’ hope that Taiwan will never be a part of the People’s Republic of China, I find his statement that “Taiwan was reclaimed by the Chinese Nationalist Party government” problematic (Letters, April 1, page 8).
Although this is something of a semantic disagreement, one cannot “reclaim” something that one never owned in the first place. A more factual reading of Taiwanese history should emphasize that for tens of thousands of years Taiwan was not a part of any other nation.
Only after 1683 were the western plains under the partial administration of the Qing authorities who, like the Dutch and Ming occupations before them, made colonial claims on the basis of strategic economic and security interests rather than any desire for cultural or political union.
The existence of Qing garrisons and maintenance of the “fire-line” are evidence that the Qing did not control eastern Taiwan, the largest part of the country. The 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki conceded only the western plains to Japan.
This is evidenced by the battles of the Japanese to bring the majority of the country’s mountainous land mass under control, which from the start of human habitation until the early 1900s had been occupied independently by Aboriginal groups.
Thus, whilst Williams is correct to assert that Taiwan was a prefecture of Fujian Province and a declared province in its own right for 10 years, it was nevertheless not a part of “China” nor the “Republic of China” (ROC) at any time before 1945. If anything, only a small section of the country was part of the Qing Dynasty for 212 years — a short period of time in Taiwan’s history.
Because the birth of the ROC in 1912 marked the first time that “China” became a modern, “unified” nation, at a time when Taiwan was a Japanese colony, it is again inaccurate to claim that Taiwan has ever been a part of “China.”
By downplaying or ignoring the “ownership” of Taiwan by Aborigines before 1624, scholars contrive a “Chinese” historical narrative that is both very recent in nature and a convenient fudge born of a political agenda. It is more accurate to state that only a part of Taiwan was briefly a prefecture and then a province of the Qing Dynasty.
The whole country was then a colony of Japan for 50 years and, since 1945, it has been a colony of the ROC in exile. The KMT’s strong push toward unification by 2011-2012 therefore represents another potentially tragic chapter in the fight by Taiwanese to reclaim their nation and its long history of autonomy and independence.
Peter Williams’ “correction” of Michael Wise’s claim that Taiwan has never been a province of China was itself highly problematic. It is true that from 1886 to 1895 Taiwan was a province, but it was a province of the Qing empire, run by non-Chinese Manchus, the owners of other territories in Asia that are now independent states.
Taiwan was a colonial holding of the Manchus, just as India was once a colonial holding of the UK, or Mexico a colonial possession of Spain.
The fact is that no ethnic Chinese emperor ever controlled Taiwan, and it was never a province of any Chinese empire. Not until the late 1930s and early 1940s did Nationalist China “discover” that Taiwan had been part of China for every minute of every second of the last 5,000 years, and finish redefining the Manchus and the Qing as “Chinese” in order to gain a claim on the former Manchu territories — much as if India, after gaining independence, decided it also owned Kenya and Jamaica, since they were once part of the British empire.
Recent comments by the influential Buddhist Master Hsing Yun (星雲), a longtime supporter of unification, that “we are all Chinese” — referring to such disparate peoples as Uighurs, Tibetans, ethnic Taiwanese and Taiwan’s Aborigines — is a good example of how this mentality works in practice.
With no disrespect to Williams, it is high time Westerners stopped repeating propagandistic constructions of history as if they were facts, and instead began viewing the reconstruction and redefinition of “being Chinese” for what it is: an outgrowth and facilitator of Chinese territorial expansionism and colonialism.
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