Twilight of China-centric primacy

By Noah Buchan  / 

Sat, Jul 25, 2015 - Page 8

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.


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.

However, the narrative has shifted to reflect a reality that has been ignored for far too long. The high-school students protesting the MOE reflect this. The university students protesting a trade pact reflect this. And crucially, both these groups have co-opted traditional forms of propaganda — the assumption of reasonableness — used by the China-centric group to get their point across, though cloaked in a progressive narrative that today appeals to the majority of Taiwanese. It is similar to the “status quo” argot of international diplomacy adopted by Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) — one Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), in her platform of not admitting to the existence of a country she hopes to lead, has failed to understand.

There are, after all, political fictions that people can live with. The so-called “1992 consensus” is arguably one of them; stating that you want to rule over a country that you do not think exists, is not.

The MOE and its political masters have lost the perception game. Any association with China is perceived as being coercive and political — not geographical, economic or historical. And those under 40 might soon start to question why they are paying the pensions of retired military personnel and politicians who do not view Taiwan as their homeland. Stating that it is about the Constitution, as though the Constitution is an antiquarian’s specimen that cannot be changed, is simply code for “we don’t have any legitimate arguments to make based on reality.”

Sure, there was once a shared cultural vocabulary in Taiwan, but it was uttered facing the barrel of a gun. Today it is different. Though coercion remains, as the curriculum changes demonstrate, times have changed and people are expecting their political leaders to act as though Taiwan is their country. It has to start at home before it, Taiwan, the country, can earn any legitimacy on the international stage.


This is not a zero-sum game. This is not about identity or ethnicity, as much of the politics and media coverage of Taiwan’s culture war has previously played out: waishengren (外省人), or those who fled China with the KMT in 1949 due to the civil war, versus bendiren (本地人), everyone else — a ridiculously shallow dichotomy seen through the violent lens of ethnicity, and, let us admit it, race. Consider the legal system (Germany via Japan), industry and technology (US), popular religion (China), Taiwan’s first settlers (Austronesians), to see that the nation is an agglomeration of many different entities that go beyond one particular group.

Following the tradition of Liu and Hirsch, I propose the creation of a list, a narrative of ideas and values, people groups, places and dates, that are based on the reality of Taiwan as it is today, and has been for the past few decades, while taking into consideration the nation’s history. It should not be related to or sentimentalize any one group, but reflect this place, this land, this nation called Taiwan. What would be on your list?

Here are my 10 entries: Jhuoshuei River, veterans’ villages (眷村), Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水), taike (台客), Tan Ting-pho (陳澄波), Chineseness (華人性), the Wushe Incident (霧社事件), the light of Taiwan (台灣之光), a Republic of Taiwan constitution and Beautiful Island (美麗島).

As Liu did with his list, I chose some lesser-known items because knowledge of them necessitates knowledge of better-known items. So instead of choosing the freedom of speech and pro-democracy journalist Deng Nan-jung’s (鄭南榕), who self-immolated when police tried to arrest him for sedition, I chose the Republic of Taiwan constitution, which he wrote. Rather than choose the Japanese colonial era or the 228 Incident, I chose Tan Ting-pho, the Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) name for the first painter to be accepted into a prestigious art fair in Japan during the Japanese colonial era, and who was shot and killed by Chinese soldiers on March 25, 1947, while trying to broker peace with them following the 228 Incident.

Go ahead, make your own list and disseminate it among your friends, family, schoolmates and colleagues. After all, Taiwan’s democracy and freedom of speech allow this to happen.

Noah Buchan is section chief of the Taipei Times Features section.