A culture war is raging in Taiwan, and it has been going on for decades. It is a time when Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) statues still cast shadows in public parks; when denials of Han privilege course through the media; when the Ministry of Education (MOE) snubs its nose at the courts and pushes through China-centric adjustments to curriculum guidelines — ones that euphemize the Japanese colonial period; and when the nation’s largest political party believes that it still controls, or should control, land it has not controlled for close to 70 years, at the expense of land it has controlled for most of that time. From this perspective, it is hard not to imagine that a culture war is precisely what is being witnessed, even if it has not been framed as such.
That there is no peace or armistice in sight has led to considerable anxiety about Taiwan’s present and future. And that there is no agreement on what constitutes this place called Taiwan, that there is no agreed-upon collection of basics that people can point to and say: “Yes, that is what makes this country, this culture.” People can only muddle through on other issues of national and global importance.
Much of this angst can be perceived as a raucous endgame: The end of a China-centric supremacy. Seen in this light, Taiwan’s culture ceases to be about race (Han), descent (Yellow Emperor) and recovery (The Mainland! The Mainland!). What has been witnessed over the past three decades is a gradual delinking of these three entities, and what they symbolize, from what it means to be Taiwanese. The proposed changes to school textbooks are a last-ditch attempt to perpetuate a fiction created in the minds of dangerously conservative people who refuse to accept the current dispensation.
Borrowing the culture war trope of the US scene and informed by an article by Eric Liu (劉柏川) for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, it seems reasonable to wonder that as this China-centric narrative rages into that good night, a Taiwan-centric vocabulary is needed to replace it — one that is inclusive, progressive, diverse and based on this place as it is in reality.
Liu asks, in the wake of the killings in South Carolina and US Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comments about Mexicans: What happens when the population of one group of citizens who have ruled since a nation’s inception declines or is gradually replaced by something else?
Asking people to imagine that this is true in the US context, Liu writes: “The question then arises, what is the story of ‘us’ when ‘us’ is no longer by default ‘white.’”
In a similar vein, people can ask: What is the story of “Taiwan” when “Taiwan” is no longer by default “Chinese,” when the default narrative ceases to be about China and becomes specifically about this place called Taiwan?
Of course, Taiwan’s culture war is not as broad — gender, guns, gays and God, in Liu’s alliterative formulation — as the one that disrupts the US scene. It is however, equally, if not more so, divisive. Nevertheless, like it or not, the demonstrations over the past few years have shown that the under-40 generation views itself as Taiwanese. And, like it or not, there is no going back to a China-centric narrative unless force is involved.
This is no accident. What is being seen today, and has been witnessed over the past few years, is the culmination of a process that began in the late 1970s with the Kaohsiung Incident and became entrenched with Taiwan’s first presidential election. The Sunflower movement protesters are simply the heirs of that generation, the high-school students protesting the Sino-centric curriculum descendants of the Wild Lily movement.