Sat, Jan 25, 2014 - Page 8 News List


Heritage and identity

There needs to be some clarification on the apparent confusion in the recent letters by Alex Sanders (Letter, Jan. 17, page 8) and Charles Hong (Letter, Jan. 21, page 8).

The letters implicitly subscribe to common, exclusive views of identity — one is either Chinese or Taiwanese. The reality is that most people will have different levels of identity. Non-aboriginal Taiwanese are a Chinese people, but they are very clearly Taiwanese as well. Hong is certainly correct to point to the Japanese experience as being crucial to the development of a distinctive Taiwanese identity, but this is in addition to a very obvious Chinese heritage on which Sanders rightly remarks.

All too often, the identity debate in Taiwan falls into this trap, with some denying Taiwanese “Chinese-ness,” while for others an independent Taiwanese state is seen as a threat in some way to their Chinese heritage.

The term Sanders points to — zhonghua minzu (中華民族) — reflects this confusion, some of it deliberate: It can refer to the Chinese nation-state, the People’s Republic of China, which does not include Taiwan, but can also in English refer to the (Han) Chinese “nation,” meaning the ethnic group, which does include (non-aboriginal) Taiwanese.

On this latter reading, one can understand President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) nationalist rhetoric and how it differs from official usage in China.

The question of multiple of levels of identity is thus which identity does one emphasize and in what sphere of life (political, cultural, social, etc). To gain legitimacy, a state will try to create a sense of nationhood — this will to a certain extent be artificial, but it will also be a product of shared cultures and histories at some level, to maintain a sense of belonging.

These fail when they cease to have this meaning. In September, the Scottish — who are also undoubtedly British by any reasonable definition — will decide by referendum whether or not to form their own national government, which essentially will best express “Scottishness” over and above the British identity embodied by the current UK state, one with which Scottish [sic] have often felt at odds.

The argument over the validity of such a move to independence has not seriously been questioned because the basis of democracy to which the UK state is committed involves precisely the self-determination of a people.

For Taiwan to become fully democratic, its people need to be able to determine its future in a similar way. All that is required in terms of identity is a collective sense of difference, of shared experience — and Sanders will not have to spend too long here to realize that most people feel there to be differences between themselves and the people who live across the Taiwan Strait.

Alternatively, Taiwanese may feel on balance that their Chinese identity is more important and that Beijing should have formal sovereignty over Taiwan, which will also effectively end the full expression of democracy.

At least, unlike in Tibet and Hong Kong, Taiwan can in theory have the debate and a referendum. Whether Taiwanese will ever choose to do so before it is too late (and about two-thirds are committed to the so-called “status quo”) is a separate question.

Name withheld


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