Nineteenth-Century American journalist Ambrose Bierce was a prolific writer, but he is best known for The Devil’s Dictionary, where with wit and sardonic satire he regularly panned the idiosyncrasies and foibles of the human condition and perspective.
Bierce’s humorous work includes such entries at the individual level as: “Imposter” — “a rival aspirant for public honors” and “egotist” — “a person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.”
It also has gems at a wider national scale, such as: “Harbor” — “a place where ships taking shelter from storms are exposed to the fury of customs,” and “peace” — “a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.”
In the spirit of this work, Taiwan needs to create its own dictionary, a dictionary that explains Taiwan’s reality, and challenges the rhetorical memes and sayings that China pours out against it.
Here are some samples, beginning in 1895:
“The Treaty of Shimonoseki”: A treaty by which the Manchu Qing Empire gave to Japan “in perpetuity” something which it never entirely controlled and therefore was not its to give, namely the island of Taiwan.
“The Century of Humiliation”: A puzzling phrase, as Han Chinese still feel more embarrassed at the treatment of the Manchu Empire by outside powers as they forced “China” to trade with them than their having to wear the Manchu queue.
“Vassal and tributary states”: The euphemistic Chinese flipside of the “century of humiliation.” These are “honorary titles,” allegedly meant to hide the centuries of humiliations imposed by China on neighboring states when it “allowed” them to trade and pay tribute at the same time.
“Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)”: A party founded in 1912 and dedicated to democracy, as long as democracy meant that it would win. Otherwise the party follows money, power and the highest bidder.
“Republic of China (ROC)”: A still-born nationalist, democratic ideal, established in 1912 when the Manchu Empire splintered and subsequently descended into its War Lord Period and Chinese Civil War. The KMT finally forged an ROC Constitution in 1947 just before it lost the civil war. All this happened while Taiwan was a colony of Japan.
“Chinese Civil War”: A war begun in the 1920s and interrupted by World War II. In it, two Leninist parties, the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), fought to control the splintered Manchu Empire. The CCP won in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Driven into exile on Taiwan, the KMT has never admitted defeat. By a convoluted logic it still claims that the ROC represents China with it as the deserving ruling party.
“San Francisco Peace Treaty”: A 1952 treaty signed by 48 nations ending World War II. By it, Japan surrendered its colony of Taiwan without specifying a recipient. Two main non-signatories, the ROC and the PRC, therefore claimed that their absence entitled them to possess Taiwan. Taiwanese preferred the UN’s right to self-determination.
“One China”: A problematic meme not because of China having only one government, but because of the problem of who determines what is or is not included within the boundaries of that “one China.” The “one China” policy / “one China” principle dichotomy follows from it.
“One China” policy versus “one China” principle: A “one China” policy means that China has only one government, the PRC. The “one China” principle means that Taiwan belongs under that PRC government. By constantly repeating “one China” in varying forms and guises, the CCP attempts to create a shell game whereby mystified listeners will assume that “policy” and “principle” mean the same thing and Taiwan belongs to the PRC.
“An inalienable part of China”: A phrase used to create the illusion of possessing something from eternity or without question. In short it means: “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” as regards Taiwan. A “one China” diatribe often follows it.
“An inseparable part of China”: A phrase similar to “inalienable” and “from time immemorial.” Such phrases are designed to allow the PRC to make up history to suit its present needs or desires.
“Undetermined”: A hedge word used by the US, which follows a “one China” policy, but not a “one China” principle. It is more than 70 years since the end of World War II; the US sells arms to Taiwan under its “six assurances” and it has added the Taiwan Travel Act to its Taiwan Relations Act. It has also recently built a new multimillion-dollar American Institute (read de facto embassy) in Taiwan, but the US official position regarding Taiwan remains “undetermined.”
“1992 consensus”: A fabrication by former ROC Mainland Affairs Council minister Su Chi in 2000, when the KMT started to lose elections. Its aim has been to preserve the belief that the KMT never really lost the Chinese Civil War.
“Free Taiwan”: An ironic title applied to Taiwan from 1947 to 1987 when it was free of communism, but suffered under martial law and the White Terror of a one-party state run by the KMT. Taiwan became a full democracy in 1996 and is now officially free.
“Confucius”: An ancient, venerable Chinese scholar whose teachings are periodically manipulated to justify the needs of those in power. Under Mao Zedong (毛澤東) he was used to eliminate enemies of the CCP, whereas under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) he is used to promote party loyalty. However, avoid speaking of him as being Chinese if talking to Koreans.
“…with Chinese Characteristics”: A phrase that allows the CCP to redefine anything to suit its needs.
“Gentlemen don’t sit down with thieves”: An ironic phrase made famous by past one-party state KMT dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). However, as many KMT members now sit down with their former CCP enemies and plot to steal Taiwan’s democracy, people question who are the gentlemen and who are the thieves.
The “800 Heroes”: A rebranding name chosen by KMT military officers who lost the Chinese Civil War and found that the name “800 Losers” did not have good cachet. Ironically these losers are willing to fight to the death for their large pensions, which they expect the citizens of Taiwan to support while they seek unification with anti-democracy forces in China. Some consider them the “800 Traitors.”
“Democracy”: Something allegedly sought by the ROC in 1912, but never achieved. Taiwanese finally achieved it in 1996, when they freely elected both their president and the now-defunct National Assembly.
“Taiwanese independence”: A de facto reality that many pretend does not exist to trade with China. It remains a bete noire to the CCP and many KMT members who would sacrifice Taiwan’s democracy to make Taiwan part of “one China.”
“Status quo”: An unchanging present situation, which all other nations ignore while expecting Taiwan to maintain it.
These are just a few of the memes and phrases that Taiwanese must deal with on a daily basis. A more detailed study of them should help readers to gain a better understanding of the complexity of Taiwan’s relations with China.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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