Understanding the word ‘Chinese’

By Lee Hsiao-Feng 李筱峰  / 

Thu, Jun 12, 2008 - Page 8

Toward the end of the Qing Dynasty, Governor of Taiwan Liu Mingchuan (劉銘傳) issued stamps bearing the words “Great Qing Taiwan Post Office.”<>

The postal services were of course part of the Qing administration, but the stamps bore the characters for Taiwan on them alongside the word “Formosa.”

When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War, it implemented policies designed to undermine any Taiwanese identity. The post office was called Chunghwa Post and was no longer allowed to use the name “Taiwan.” Only toward the end of Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) presidency did the government change the name to Taiwan Post.

The administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) wants to change the name back to Chunghwa Post and again delete the word “Taiwan” from all stamps.

This “de-Taiwanization” is evident on the Presidential Office’s Web site as well. Under Chen, the Web site said “Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan),” but Ma’s government quickly removed the Chinese characters for Taiwan.

Ma spoke a lot of Taiwan and localization during his election campaign, but after taking office he tossed Taiwan out like a pair of old shoes and is working to put the word “China” back into contexts from which it was removed.

Some people are concerned that Ma’s administration is making a mistake, undoing the progress achieved under Chen to rid this country of the label “China.”

Rather than attacking Ma as imprudent, however, it is only necessary to remind the pan-blue camp of the criticism it aimed at Chen and his government. It should be evident that the government seeks to enforce its own ideology, which is exactly what it accused Chen of doing.

What should be clear now is that our government is incapable of not playing this game of ideology. As former presidential adviser Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) asked, how can politics exist without ideology?

Ideology should, however, have limits. The public should take a clear look at the identities — “Taiwanese” and “Chinese” — that our politicians constantly seek to feed us and decide what makes sense.

Ma used the term “Chinese people” in his inaugural speech and KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) did the same on his recent trip to China.

What does “Chinese people” mean? Is it a term that can stand up to academic analysis? Is it based on any logic or purely political and designed to promote a political agenda?

History might shed some light on this matter.

When Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), founder of the Ming Dynasty, sought to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty under the Mongols, he promoted the cause with the slogan “expel the barbarians, revive China.” When Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) and others sought to overthrow the Qing Dynasty under the Manchurians, they used the same slogan.

The word “barbarian” made it clear that the Mongols and Manchurians were not Chinese.

After the Qing Dynasty had been toppled and replaced with the Republic of China, this rhetoric changed dramatically. Suddenly the country’s leaders sought to build a republic of “the five peoples.” There was no more talk of barbarians, who were not to be expelled but rather included in a new, wider definition of “Chinese.”

That is the history of the term “Chinese” that politicians today use in their rhetoric and it is a term that has no basis in ethnological and anthropological studies, but rather in a political agenda. “Constructed” would be a nice description of this term, but “fabricated” is more accurate.

Genetic research by Marie Lin (林媽利), director of the Transfusion Medicine Laboratory at Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taiwan, has documented the differences between the Han Chinese of north and south China. In addition to the Han Chinese, Beijing recognizes more than 50 minority ethnicities within China’s borders.

Is it logical for the many peoples of China to be grouped into one term — the “Chinese”?

This fabricated term was designed to uphold a hegemony. In China, anyone who mentions the words “autonomy” or “independence” or questions the logic of the word “Chinese” as applied to, say, Tibetans, is labeled a splittist. The peoples of East Turkestan, which is called Xinjiang by the Chinese government, are largely Turkic. They have a distinct ancestry, language, writing system, religion and culture. Yet they are trapped by the meaningless phrase “Chinese.” Anyone who supports the distinct identities of Xinjiang or Tibet and who believes they deserve independence is considered a traitor in China.

About 80 percent of the people in Taiwan have a mixed ancestry. They are the descendents of people from Fujian or Guangdong in China and the Austronesian Aborigines of Taiwan. What does the term “Chinese” mean to the Taiwanese?

Taiwan is luckier than Tibet and Xinjiang in that it is not ruled by the People’s Republic of China. If we don’t do our best to defend Taiwan’s independence and sovereignty, however, and if we don’t protect our democracy and freedom but rather allow an imperialist Chinese ideology to guide our future, we will be making a horrible mistake.

Lee Hsiao-feng is a professor in the Graduate School of Taiwanese Culture at National Taipei University of Education.

Translated by Anna Stiggelbout