Being Taiwanese, Being Chinese

Taiwanese Identity is Not Zero-Sum

Michael Turton
Jun 9, 2018 · 5 min read
Taiwan Black Bear

The evolving Taiwanese identity is the subject of much research and writing. This body of literature often takes the view that as people in Taiwan become more Taiwanese, they become less Chinese, and less willing to annex themselves to China. Thus, in a recent survey of Taiwanese on their identity, the two scholars running the project note:

One motive may be Beijing’s concern that it is losing the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Taiwanese people: If more and more people in Taiwan self-identify as Taiwanese instead of Chinese, this could lead to greater support in Taiwan for a declaration of formal independence. This is an outcome the PRC is determined to prevent.

Washington Post January 2018 survey

This analytical stance looks useful only because so many accept it, but it is an ideological construct. Its implicit and highly ideological assumption is that being Chinese means you are more sympathetic to political links to China, and further, that the two identities are zero-sum: to have more of one means to have less of the other. The authors of the piece, and many readers trained to think in this way, follow this chain of logic very well: those Taiwanese who have some Chineseness will have greater support for political links to China.

Image Credit: REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

This understanding of Chinese identity is buried deep in many commentaries on Taiwan, its evolving identities, and China. By reproducing that belief, these commentaries serve Beijing by reflecting Beijing’s own beliefs that all who are “Chinese” in some way are politically linked to a Greater Chinese superstate, and should serve China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), much as the 19th century Russian Tsars, and many Russian thinkers, saw Russia as the head of all Slavs and Moscow as the Third Rome, the leader of all Orthodox Christians. Many Russian leaders, over the advice of more objective observers in their own society, argued that Russia need merely invade neighboring Slavic societies and the people would rise and support the Tsar, just as Beijing eagerly attempts to use ethnic Chinese communities abroad to forward its own political interests.

One problem Taiwanese have in discussing their plight is that Taiwan is little understood in the outside world, and it is usually understood in a way that links it to China historically, culturally, and socially. Because the Chinese government insists that “Chinesesness” means political links to Beijing, Chinese government threats to Taiwan actually make it difficult to develop a complex and diverse discourse about Taiwan’s Chineseness since it is governed by the assumption that “being Chinese” is a political identity and that the relationship between the two identities entails the victory of one and the defeat of the other.

Miss Taiwanese American

When Americans imposed zero-sum assumptions on the identities of its residents, tens of thousands of Japanese residents and citizens wound up in camps. We have learned a little, since then. We now understand our own identities using the hyphenated approach: Italian-Americans, Jamaican-Americans, and Japanese-Americans all co-exist in the melange of American identity.

Fortunately Taiwan is moving in this direction. Most studies show that the vast majority of people call themselves Taiwanese, including the one referenced above, and that “Taiwanese” is becoming an umbrella identity like “American” that shelters numerous sub-identities. In Taiwan, while many people think of themselves as having Chinese background or ethnicity, this is purely a cultural identity, just as for Polish-Americans eating pierogies is a cultural indulgence, not a nationalist ritual.

The bad news is that ignorance of Taiwan is vast and is not going away any time soon. The good news is that Taiwanese-Americans, at least, possess a ready-made experience metaphor for Taiwan’s current evolution: the historical experience of immigration and assimilation in the United States. Taiwan’s “Chineseness” can easily be explained in a way that Americans can understand: as the cultural legacy of an immigrant group. Taiwanese are “Chinese” to the extent that Japanese-Americans are “Japanese”.

Taiwan News ended its piece on the survey linked to above by observing:

Questions of cultural identity aside, a recent survey conducted on behalf of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy by the Election Studies Center at NCCU, asked respondents in very clear terms whether or not they would be willing to fight to defend their democratic way of life in the event of a Chinese assault on Taiwan.

Almost seventy percent of respondents in that survey, regardless of how they may “self-identify,” answered they would be “willing to fight if China uses force to coerce unification.”

Taiwanese Seaman Su Chi-lin after earning a special award in the solo exhibition event at the 2018 World Drill Championships (WDC) in Florida

Just as my grandfather, an immigrant from Italy in 1933 escaping Mussolini, ended up serving in the US Army in Italy during World War II and saw no conflict between his cultural background and his new citizenship, so many Taiwanese see no conflict handing out red envelopes at new year, eating with chopsticks, writing with traditional characters, and fighting Chinese soldiers as they wade ashore to snuff out Taiwan’s independence and democracy.

Because they are Taiwanese.

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Thanks to Brock Freeman.

Michael Turton

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Michael Turton is a longtime expat in Taiwan, who operates the well known blog The View from Taiwan on Taiwan politics, history, and culture.

American Citizens for Taiwan | 美臺會

Helping Americans understand the importance of Taiwan to the United States