Sat, Jul 25, 2015 - Page 8 News List

Twilight of China-centric primacy

By Noah Buchan


Liu’s article cites extensively the writings of E.R. Hirsch, whose 1987 Cultural Literacy examined why nations need a common cultural vocabulary — names, phrases, dates and concepts — that all culturally literate people should know. Liu, updating Hirsch so as to be more representative of the US’ changing demographics, suggests a list, a narrative of shared cultural symbols. Such a list or narrative of cultural literacy could exist in Taiwan, but does not because part of the school curriculum is detached from reality, which in turn calls the entire curriculum into question.

Cultural literacy, of course, is not simply about understanding a string of words in a text.

“It is a matter of decoding context,” Liu writes. “The surrounding matrix of things referred to in the text and things implied by it.”

In other words, what a word, phrase or date symbolizes. To become literate in the Taiwan context, it is therefore more important to be taught the significance of Taiwan’s Jhuoshuei River (濁水溪) than China’s Yellow River.

Take, for example, the 228 Incident. It assumes knowledge that 228 is both a date and an event; that the event signals the beginning of the torture and execution of possibly tens of thousands of those who had lived in Taiwan for at least a generation by a military that had just arrived from China; that Taiwan had been ruled for 50 years as a Japanese colony before that arrival; that the event precipitated martial law; that martial law lasted 38 years; that martial law was overseen by a general who had fled China after losing a civil war; that many of the divisions in Taiwan today are over the political, social and economic legacies of 228.

Or take the utterance: “I am Taiwanese.” It is perhaps the most loaded statement one could utter in this country. It assumes that the listener knows of a place called Taiwan; that it has been in history books for 400 years; that this place that today is called Taiwan has been ruled at various points and at various places by Aborigines, Spanish and Dutch explorers, Chinese settlers, Japanese imperialists and a Chinese military; that the language used to discuss Taiwan and its history is largely top-down, by those who rule, rather than bottom-up, by those who are ruled; that it has its own government, military, passport, currency and clearly defined borders that are accepted by the majority of the countries throughout the globe; and that one portion of the population sees Taiwan as a country and one portion, a decreasing but vocal minority, sees it as the province of another country.

There seems to be little disagreement here. Where there is disagreement, indeed outright hostility, is when questions about the specifics arise. For an increasing majority, Taiwan is a country. When this majority says they are Taiwanese, they are saying so as members of a nation that does not include China, Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, Japan, the US or any other place. There is no need to argue about independence or the “status quo” or other euphemisms and Latin phrases. Another smaller — though politically powerful, wealthy and still largely in control of the global narrative — group views Taiwan as alien soil that they have been forced to live on until they can return to what they clearly perceive as their legitimate homeland.

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