Much has been made in recent years of an apparent campaign by elements on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to convince Taiwanese that they share a common culture, ethnicity and history with Chinese. This emphasis is without doubt part of the multifaceted effort by Beijing — an effort that also has political, military and economic angles — to unify Taiwan with China. However, culture is the weapon in Beijing’s arsenal that is the least likely to succeed.
A good number of Taiwanese and their supporters recoiled when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), once he was safely ensconced in office, began waxing lyrical about the “shared ancestry” of Taiwanese and Chinese, or hurt sensitivities when he harped on about a so-called “Chinese culture with Taiwanese characteristics.” Similar apprehensions arose when his administration, and its counterparts in China, began encouraging cooperation in all matters cultural, from the movie industry to linguistics.
Suddenly, Taiwanese culture and identity seemed to be under assault, dwarfed by the weight of 1.3 billion Chinese who, we can only deduce from Beijing’s propagandistic line on such matters, all share a homogenous “Han” culture. Some of the deformities that have arisen from such a stubborn adherence to a cultural “one China” include “Chinese Taipei” and, as one often encounters in the opening paragraph of reporting by (state-controlled) Chinese media, “China’s Taiwan,” as if repeating a lie often enough would somehow transmute that into truth.
There is no doubt that China has far greater resources to support its cultural industry and that Taiwan’s proximity, added to shared linguistic attributes, makes it especially vulnerable to a “cultural invasion.” That being said, greater cultural contact need not necessarily translate, and oftentimes will not, into the uncritical and total assimilation of foreign ideas — let alone serve as an instrument by which to change a people’s identity.
Those who argue that Chinese culture — movies, dance troupes, literature, music and so on — poses a fundamental threat to Taiwan’s sense of self fail to fully appreciate the resilience and adaptivity of Taiwanese identity. Taiwan’s long history is a unique laboratory of a people picking up foreign influences (including Dutch, French, Japanese, American and, yes, Chinese) and indigenizing them, while rejecting an array of others. Why things would be different when that outside influence is Chinese cannot but stem from a failure to appreciate the continuity that has characterized the development of Taiwan’s distinct consciousness. Not only that, but it treats Taiwanese as half-wits or empty vessels incapable of making their own choices about who they are. This is condescending and will not stand.
Unsatisfied with seeing Chinese culture as a dangerous external object — some kind of Trojan horse, with Chinese characteristics — some pundits are now seeing danger in the discourse of some Taiwanese who, after decades of isolation, have come into increasing contact with Chinese. The danger, someone told me recently, is that Taiwanese are starting to say: “I like the Chinese, they are a lot like us.” Of course they are, but note the they and us.
This situation is rather analogous to, say, the experiences of this author growing up in Quebec, under the shadow of an Anglophone Canada and, to the south, the mother of all cultural giants, the US. Try as it might to limit North American cultural influences in the French-speaking enclave, government officials in Quebec City could not, unless they had resorted to force, have prevented me and other youths from watching US TV, reading English books and listening to US music. And where did we go when the long Canadian winters became unbearable? Down south, to bask in the sun and US culture. Which country did I look to when, for a brief while before I destroyed my right arm with tendonitis, I entertained dreams of a career in professional baseball? Again, the US.