Sun, Jul 18, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Tackling Taiwan's perennial question

Melissa Brown uses race and ethnicity to prove that Taiwan is distinct from its big neighbor

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Is Taiwan Chinese?
By Melissa J. Brown
333 pages
University of California Press

I was once privileged to teach in the UK alongside an astute, laconic and rather eminent historian. He was in the habit of taking his most promising students for walks round the college grounds when he would test their minds by asking them seemingly simple, but in reality subtle, questions. One of his favorites was "Is it wrong to be rich?"

"Is Taiwan Chinese?" is a similar question. My colleague's question was complex because it quietly challenged the Marxist assumption that the rich were the villains of every story. The strategy he used to urge on students was to question the question. Who would ask something like this? The wrong approach was to reply with an outright "Yes!" or "Of course not!"

"Is Taiwan Chinese?" is similarly a deceptively simple query. What does it mean? Does it refer to racial composition, territorial allegiance or political history? Or does it mean what some innocents may at first sight think it obviously means, should Taiwan become a part of China?

These options are narrowed down when you read the book itself. The title probably does refer to the claims Beijing repeatedly makes about the island, and to the way many people have unthinkingly accepted China's designation of Taiwan as a "breakaway province." But it seeks to answer the question by looking at the racial composition of the island, and comes to its political conclusions, such as they are, at least partly as a result of that investigation.

Readers of a pro-DPP disposition can rest assured -- this book essentially supports their position. The author, an anthropologist at Stanford University, spends most of her energy investigating the ethnographic profile of Taiwan's population, looking at the history of intermarriage and cultural exchange among Han Chinese, Hakka, Hoklo, Aborigines and so on in a handful of selected locations. Her special interest is in the "plains Aborigines" in Tainan County.

To simplify a complex picture, she concludes that the Taiwanese are of extraordinarily mixed ethnicity, and that their social habits are equally eclectic. Any view that they are for the most part Chinese who happen to live on an off-shore island is consequently dismissed as, at best, a gross over-simplification.

Much of the author's work is very detailed, but some general points emerge. One, for example, is that historical records suggest that in the 17th century most of the immigrants to Taiwan from China were unaccompanied men, and that subsequent intermarriage with Aborigine girls resulted in perhaps half the population being "mixed" by the end of the Dutch occupation in 1650.

For the ordinary reader this book will be hard-going. Phrases such as "identity formation," "demographic conditions" and "uxorically local minor marriage" abound, and indeed lie close to the heart of the author's area of concern. The author does explain such phrases when they first occur, but even so this book is not for the feint-hearted.

The author points out that differences over perceptions of ethnic identity erupted into violence elsewhere in the late 20th century -- in the Balkans, Rwanda and Kashmir, for instance. Moreover, it's in the power of politicians to manipulate such perceptions. Whatever we may like to be the case, ethnography can't be wholly isolated from politics.

Time is also an important issue in this book's analysis. How long is long? If a family that originated in China has been in Taiwan for 300 years, does that make it Taiwanese? Or does China's 3,000-plus-year history have precedence? Again, the PRC has existed for only some 50 years, yet uses imperial boundaries to legitimize its inclusion of Tibet and Mongolia in the modern state. When Melissa Brown says that such arguments are essentially political, or rather can be and are used by politicians, you can understand what she means.

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