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Asia-Pacific / China-Taiwan Relations

Taiwan’s Cultural Divergence From China

For those who don’t know, here is a quick background on Taiwan. Taiwan has been an independent country since 1950. China, on the other hand, regards Taiwan as a rebel region that has to be reunited with the mainland. China is willing to use force upon Taiwan in order to achieve reunification. The Nationalist government, commonly referred to as the KMT, fled to Taiwan after its defeat by the Communist Chinese in 1949.    

Growing up in Nanjing, I have always felt a close tie to Taiwan, for there are traces of Nationalist China in the Chinese city, which used to be the capital of Nationalist China. Regardless, my actual exposure to Taiwan has been solely based on the Chinese politics of my time. In middle school, I was taught that Taiwan had always been part of China. I remember a propaganda poster in my textbook from a history class about the Cultural Revolution. The political message it sent seems exaggerated when we look at it now, but its sentiment still lingers today. The poster illustrates Chinese children volunteering to go to Taiwan to save their Taiwanese friends, convinced they are suffering from hunger and political oppression. The message is that mainlanders have the responsibility to “liberate” Taiwan. My history teacher made a point to criticize the Cultural Revolution, and mainlanders’ views on Taiwan are certainly no longer the same as they were back in the 1960s. In fact, Taiwanese culture is mostly well-regarded in contemporary mainland China. Although the tension caused by history seems to fade as time progresses, the status of Taiwan remains one of the the hottest unresolved disputes in Asia.

The One-China agreement between China and Taiwan has made interactions between the two more vibrant since the 1990s. With the resumption of direct flights a decade ago, the opening of trade between China and Taiwan has improved their relationship exponentially. When people in China talk about traveling to Taiwan now, the conversation is usually focused on the amazing food and the friendly people. Taiwanese TV drama has also proven popular on the mainland. For younger generations, the cross-strait political tension seems to have dissipated.

Elsewhere, however, the tension still lingers. With the rise of the Chinese economy, people, investments, and businesses from the mainland have flooded overseas to countries like Australia and the United States. In Sydney, Australia Taiwanese workers have been fired by Chinese employers for identifying themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. The Chinese employers in Australia have brought this cross-strait political tension to a personalized level. In Australia, it is illegal to discriminate against workers based on their political stance; however, various incidents have shown that this is exactly what some Chinese employers are doing. Surprisingly, these incidents have been happening more frequently in recent years, while the cross-strait relationship seems to be improving culturally.

So why is this happening? As China’s economy has risen, Chinese nationalism has also quietly snuck up alongside it. Contemporary Chinese nationalism is certainly less overt than American nationalism. You rarely see a Chinese flag on a car or hanging outside houses or apartments, but it is evident in an implicit way. For example, the firing of Taiwanese employees.

Along with implementing many other forms of censorship, China once temporarily banned the Marriott hotel website because it had listed Taiwan along with some other controversial regions as separate “countries.” Though issues like these do not occur on a political level directly between the Chinese and Taiwanese governments, they are sending a strong political message—that the Chinese people have deeply internalized the claim that Taiwan is part of China.

So what causes this back-and-forth? What is improving and what is not? I decided to take advantage of the direct flight and went to Taiwan, and I pondered these questions while I was there.

One of the first places I went to was the Eslite Bookstore, famous for being the largest bookstore chain in Taiwan. In the bookstore, there was a book opening ceremony. But I was too excited to listen to the ceremony. I flipped through books, trying to literally learn about the Taiwanese culture directly from texts. Little did I know that I would be unable to read traditional Chinese; I found myself struggling to read the vertically written, right-to-left script of traditional Chinese. I had forgotten that the Nationalist Chinese never switched their language system to a simplified version like mainland China did.

As I was absorbed in astonishment of finding myself illiterate, a few sensitive remarks from the book ceremony caught my attention: “independence, democracy, inter-strait relations, and Kuomintang (KMT).” I subconsciously wandered to the ceremony, a small, quaint corner in the bookstore filled with people at least forty years older than me, fully concentrated on the speaker. I listened to the talk closely. One remark struck me and inspired me to write this article: Taiwan is made of three distinct cultural components; there is a Qing component, a Japanese component, and a Nationalist Chinese component. This refreshing idea made me wonder whether the personalized cross-strait political tensions, the one that motivated the Chinese manager in Australia to fire Taiwanese workers, had anything to do this tri-cultural characteristic.

For the past two hundred years, Taiwan has indeed experienced three different periods of rule. The Opium War in 1840 forced Qing China to “open its gate” to the world. Like many other annexations during the end of Qing China, in 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki by Qing China and was colonized by Japan for fifty years. During the Japanese rule in Taiwan, the island produced and exported rice and sugar to Japan and served as a military base for Japan due to its crucial location in Southeast Asia. Though no longer a colony of Japan, traces of Japan are evident in the city of Taipei today. In restaurants or convenience stores, you see products labeled in Traditional Chinese characters alongside some in English or Japanese. Even the Taiwanese Bopomofo, the equivalent of the Chinese Pinyin, looks more like Japanese characters than those from the mainland.  

The most evident Qing trace in Taiwan is the language. Chinese written with traditional characters is the main language in Taiwan, and it was a cultural shock for me when I found myself having difficulty reading street signs and menus—just like when I found myself practically illiterate at the Eslite Bookstore despite Chinese being my native language. The written Chinese in Taiwan is the same as how Chinese was written on the mainland before the New Culture Movement, when the whole Chinese language was revolutionized. The traditional Chinese characters with which I was not familiar, combined with the opposite directions of writing made the book I was holding completely foreign to me, just like the Taiwanese culture. Racially, I didn’t find myself out of place, but I was reminded once again, we are different in many other ways.

I was not alive during neither the Qing dynasty nor the Japanese rule. However, from what I learned about Qing China and the contemporary Japan, Taiwanese people embody both, especially the Japanese component. People’s mannerisms in restaurants, shopping malls, and vacation places constantly reminded me of scenes from a Japanese film or TV show. One of the most obvious manners was that people smile more. When you make eye contact with someone, the person usually kindly smiles or nods at you, to express a form of greeting. This calm and friendly manner took my imagination to a Japanese tea house, where people bow at each other to express a form of respect and connection.

Since Tawain’s annexation, Shimpei Goto, a Japanese politician who served as the head of civilian affairs at Taiwan, was and remains today a popular figure in Taiwan. He rapidly industrialized Taiwan during his time there, building infrastructure to schools and hospitals. Goto was said to have had a liberal mindset and a genuine interest in the people and culture of Taiwan. Taiwanese people liked him, and his personal influence in Taiwan still leaves a soft spot for Japan among Taiwanese people today.

Taiwan was taken over by the Chinese Nationalists quickly after Japanese colonization ended. After the KMT was defeated by the Chinese Communist party, marking the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT party fled to Taiwan. At this point, Taiwan has been through three distinct governments and finally remains as the Republic of China today. When Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, two million refugees followed him from the mainland. During his rule, Chiang was well liked by the Taiwanese people. After he died in April, 1975 the whole island of Taiwan was in a month-long mourning, and color televisions stations were switched to black and white to express national condolence for the loss of Chiang. Moreover, Chiang’s wife, Madame Chiang was also pivotal in garnering political support for Taiwan from the US.

Together with his wife, Chiang Kai-shek improved the Taiwanese economy and established a firm tie with the United States. In line with its political stance against the mainland Chinese Communist regime, the US supplied Taiwan with $3 billion in military aid and $1.5 billion in development funds between 1949 and 1976. By the year Chiang died, the US had forty-five hundred troops stationed on the island. Under the KMT rule, Taiwan became one of the “Four Asian Tigers,” along with Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea.  

My observations and encounters in Taiwan have been congruent with the tricultural theory that I first encountered at the Estile Bookstore. At first I couldn’t quite grasp how Taiwan differed from mainland China other than the delicious and exotic food that combines various cuisines, both Eastern and Western. However, adopting the tri-cultural perspective significantly altered my view on Taiwan after a short immersion. Although I still cannot thoroughly explain the root of cross-strait tension, I found it refreshing to recognize the Taiwanese culture as unique. In comparison to the homogenous Chinese culture, the Taiwanese culture is composed of at least three distinct yet connected cultures through history. One’s cultural recognition is not mutually exclusive with one’s national recognition. When incidents like an Australian Chinese employer firing Taiwanese loyalists happen today, we certainly see a cultural mismatch, a misalignment that leaves the two parties on different wavelengths. Ever since the two split from the shared Qing culture, things have never been quite the same.