Tue, Jul 03, 2018 - Page 13 News List

An identity in flux

For many, being Taiwanese is no longer an ethnic identity, but one rooted in values

By Philip Tsien  /  Contributing reporter

A man in April displays a slogan — ‘Taiwan is Taiwan’ in Chinese and ‘TAIWAN is not CHINESE-TAIPEI’ in English — at a rally in Kaohsiung. Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui attended the rally, which declared the establishment of the Formosa Alliance, a group pushing for a referendum on Taiwan’s independence on April 6, 2019.

Photo: EPA

The Hsu family is used to arguing at the dinner table, and nothing stokes controversy more than the issue at hand: Taiwanese identity.

“This again?” Charles Hsu (許彥博) asks, as his mother, Hsu Lee-chia (許麗佳), raises objections to his use of the term “Taiwanese.”

“We are not Taiwanese. We are from China,” Hsu Lee-chia says. Jennifer Hsu (許彥琳), her daughter, is quiet. The last time she fought with her mother, Jennifer nearly ended up in tears. She felt like her mother refused to acknowledge who she was, she says. Though her mother insisted they were all Chinese, Jennifer hoped she would see that “I felt differently about Taiwan, about being Taiwanese.”

Hsu Lee-chia says youth today feel like they are Taiwanese. “They feel disconnected from China, and see it as a threat to Taiwan’s democracy, to our society here,” she says. “Maybe they are right. But we are Chinese from blood. We celebrate Chinese culture.”

The Hsu family’s disagreement points toward the complexities of how people in Taiwan view themselves, and how they talk about their identity. These discussions cut across ethnic, cultural, social and political boundaries, demonstrating the manifold and evolving nature of Taiwanese identity.


The debate over Taiwanese identity traces back to Taiwan’s democratization in the late 1980s. As former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) instituted democratic reforms, people began to broach subjects once forbidden under the one-party state, foremost among them what it meant to be Taiwanese.

Lee Jung-ting (李嫆婷), who identifies as Taiwanese, recalls the era’s burgeoning sense of freedom.

“We were no longer afraid to talk about these things. We wanted to talk about everything,” she says. “We wanted to know who we were.”

The debate was initially framed in terms of ethnicity. People differentiated between benshengren (本省人), those whose ancestors had migrated to Taiwan before the Japanese colonial era, when immigration became highly restricted, and waishengren (外省人), those who followed the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to Taiwan between 1945 and 1949.

Hsu Lee-chia’s family fled to Taiwan in 1949 after the KMT lost the Chinese Civil War, making her a waishengren. She mentions this history in explaining why she identifies as Chinese. She says that unlike benshengren, who have a deeper connection to Taiwan, her “family’s roots lay in China.”

Yet Nicholas Chan (詹建勳), Lee Jung-ting’s son, and his peers place less importance on this divide. For a younger generation of Taiwanese, identity is centered not on ethnicity, but on values.

“Being Taiwanese means being a part of a free and open democracy,” Chan says. He says that he can post criticisms of the government on his Facebook page and follow international news media, all of which would be impossible in China. “Our way of life is completely different from those in China.”

Jeffrey Lai (賴柏宇), a student at National Taipei University of Technology, mentions similar features when describing Taiwanese identity. Though Jeffrey’s family considers themselves waishengren, he thinks the distinction is no longer relevant.

“I was born in Taiwan. I have lived here my whole life. We have free speech, a free press. I have no idea what it’s like to live in China,” Lai says.

The evolving nature of Taiwanese identity helps explain why the debate over whether people are “Chinese” or “Taiwanese” has become increasingly moot. Committed to democracy and civil society, youth see no conflict between their Han Chinese ethnicity and Taiwanese identity. They readily acknowledge their Chinese cultural heritage while maintaining a robust sense of “Taiwaneseness.”

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