Time for Taiwan to define history

By Jerome Keating  / 

Wed, Jun 06, 2012 - Page 8

“Until the lions have historians, the tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

This African proverb reflects Taiwan’s problem with its history and experience as it seeks to establish its own identity and sense of community.

More often than not, it has been the outside “hunters,” the colonials and economic exploiters and opportunists who have controlled the discourse on Taiwan, and portrayed it, in Edward Said’s terminology, as an “imagined geography” to suit their needs.

However, all that has changed. With the end of Martial Law in 1987 and the ability of Taiwanese to democratically elect their legislators from 1992 onwards and then their president from 1996, the Taiwanese lions are at last free to give their side of the story.

History cannot totally escape a subjective element. From the multiple facts and happenings that historians must sift through and prioritize, to the decisions on what to include and what to omit, historians have their challenges. Even after they have the facts and happenings they want at their disposal, they must still interpret them and assign selected values and meaning to them.

This is why one historian will praise a particular leader while another might condemn the same leader, why different historians can reach different conclusions and why histories often express conflicting perspectives. This is part and parcel of the discourse on any given topic.

However, now that Taiwanese have their democracy, freedom of the press, the right to assemble and the right to choose their leaders they can enter the discourse on their nation with uncensored and unrestricted vigor. This does not mean that they will be the only ones telling the story of their country, but certainly at least they will now be able to choose who and what they think should be glorified and what values and meaning should be attached to the past.

In the process of deciding what focus, values and interpretations Taiwanese, will include and attach to their past, the following are among those that should be considered.

These issues are ones that were often neglected or Sinicized when Taiwan suffered under martial law imposed by the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) one-party state. They should not be omitted from the future discourse of where Taiwan wants to go:

First, a variety of countries have occupied and colonized parts of Taiwan, but Japan was the first country to unite, control and rule the whole island.

Second, after World War II ended in 1945, the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty declared that Japan should surrender Taiwan, but it did not specify to whom. Two options were the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) that had fought a Civil War on the continent, which the PRC won in 1949. However, a third option was sought by various Taiwanese groups.

The third option, often ignored, was that Taiwan should be given to the Taiwanese under the UN principle of self-determination. The San Francisco treaty never did specify which of the three Taiwan belonged to.

Fourth, the US, while it subscribes to a “one China” principle, has maintained to this day (67 years later) that the status of Taiwan is still “undecided.” That is, any one of the three options above is possible and now that Taiwanese have self-determination, and elect their president, this should say that the choice is theirs.

Fifth, the acceptance of a “one China” principle has two aspects. First, it is an acceptance that you cannot have two countries with the same name. There cannot be two Chinas, thus one of the two countries would need a new name. And second, to accept or acknowledge that the PRC believes that the definition of “one China” includes Taiwan does not mean that one agrees with that definition and what it includes. It simply means that one acknowledges that this is what the PRC happens to believe, however misguided that might be.

Identity is something that both evolves and is discovered. One often discovers it by going where one has to go. So, as Taiwanese take the path of interpreting their past and their identity, there will for sure be many other items and perspectives that they, the Taiwanese lions, will want to include in this discourse.

One such might be that they will eventually need a new name, a name that no longer conflicts with the fact that there can only be one China. However, the important thing is that they now realize that they can set the tone and direction of this discourse, that they with their newly won democracy, must take responsibility for their future.

Others might be undecided, but the Taiwanese are the ones who can decide (even if it means maintaining an ambiguous “status quo”). They can no longer accept the histories or definitions of others, or of outsiders, however related they might be.

Until the lions have historians, the tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.