Taiwan's Black Hole and the Cultural Imperialism of Zhonghua Minzu

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Sunday July 13, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwanese have always had a black hole in their psyche. It is a black hole caused by underreported or misrepresented history, a black hole partly caused by their own neglect, a black hole caused by 50 years of colonial rule by Japan and another 50 years of martial law, white terror and indoctrination by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). It is a black hole that looks at the years before 1895 as a vague blank. It shames Taiwanese of their present, and prevents them from discovering the fullness of their true identity, selves, and pride. It is a black hole that they must eradicate if they are ever truly going to know themselves, and their place in the world.

Over 85 per cent of Taiwanese have DNA that reveals a shared aboriginal ancestry, shared history and shared closeness to the land. But for the past 100 years the minds of Taiwanese have been held captive in their own land. They have lost contact with their multiple cultures and the heritage of the many flags that have flown over the island; they have ignored the fullness of their roots. The slights and insults began when the Qing court first called Taiwan a mud ball before they saw its worth. Then the Japanese told the Taiwanese that they were now colonial subjects and had to learn the Japanese language and customs. Next the transplanted Republic of China (ROC) told them they should forget the Japanese and their Taiwanese language as well and learn Mandarin and the customs of the ROC.

As a result, many Taiwanese do suffer from what may be called the Stockholm Syndrome; a syndrome where kidnapped subjects are deceived and made to believe that the people who hold them hostage should be seen as their saviors rather than their oppressors. When you put this together with the short memory of many Taiwanese, there is no wonder they struggle with their identity.

Ask any Taiwanese, how much of their ancestry and culture do they know before 1895, or how much Taiwan history they know before that year and the chances are you will get little response. Yet various cultures were here 6000 years ago; 5000 years ago jade was quarried on Taiwan; over 3000 years ago an active trade including that decorated jade was carried on between Taiwan and the Philippines and other islands in the South China Sea. But between 3000 BC and the 17th and 18th centuries there is a blank. Lost are the active cultures that were here with their own sets of values and vision. Since little was recorded, little is known but that does not mean that culture and values did not exist. Even in the 19th century, one should even remember that when the Manchu Qing court gave Taiwan to Japan in the treaty of Shimonoseki, only half of the island was theirs to give.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the majority of the Chinese coming from Fujian and Guandong were male and intermarried with the indigenous people but though the genes were mixed and local customs developed, the families only reflected the Chinese names. The Pingpu tribes of the plains were completely absorbed at this time. The Spanish and the Dutch have limited recordings of their interactions with the aborigines but it would be the Japanese that would begin to classify them and their languages. Aborigines intermarried with Dutch, Spanish, Japanese as well as the Chinese and all this contributed to the multi-cultural Taiwanese identity; but that too is part of the black hole.

Now, Taiwan's current president, Ma Ying-jeou surreptitiously promotes a new disorientation in Taiwan and discourages a sense of an encompassing Taiwanese pride. Concerned on pleasing China in his inaugural address he only emphasized one part of Taiwan's identity and repeatedly used the phrase "Zhonghua minzu" to try to tell the Taiwanese that that was all they should care about. In seeking short-term economic gain, Ma offended Japan, ironically the first nation that really controlled the whole island of Taiwan and shaped its direction. In tourism Ma bit the Japanese hand that has fed Taiwan for over a century. Japanese tourists have been a main staple of Taiwan's tourist industry; Japan in reciprocity with no strings attached does not require visas of Taiwanese and recognizes Taiwan driving licenses. China requires a visa with each visit, yet Mr. Ma as he prefers to be called in front of the Chinese seeks an illusory gold across the Strait whose vision is already fading.

Ma promotes a cultural imperialism opposed to Taiwan's interests. His sole focus on Zhonghua minzu brings up an apt metaphor from the well known Star Trek series. There the enemy of free people is the Borg; Zhonghua minzu is that, it reflects the Borg-like quality of China as it seeks to dispossess those within its borders. In the use of this term, allegedly all cultural groups in China are equals and part of the same nation but in reality they belong to a hierarchy where only one, the Han is more equal and superior to the others. Witness the way the Tibetans have been made second class citizens in their own country. Witness as well how Inner Mongolia is no longer Mongolian but a part of the Han infiltration. In Borg-like fashion all cultures are made to be subordinate to the central culture. It is a forced assimilation where all are to be drones of the collective mind of a miniscule central power.

In Taiwan, across the Strait, Ma states that Taiwanese should be proud of their Chinese ancestry as if it is their only past. He implies that Taiwanese should not be proud of their aboriginal and other ancestries. Ma tries to shame Taiwanese from acknowledging their island heritage. His words could almost be taken from Lien Chan's grandfather's history of Taiwan where Taiwan is likened to a land without a history. Aborigines and Hoklo and Hakka Taiwanese are made to feel aliens in this their own land; they are all taught to neglect the totality of their DNA.

Perhaps Taiwan should look to Ireland. The island nation of Ireland has also seen wave after wave of immigration and invasion. While the Celtic people formed the early nation, the red-haired Irish are part of the Viking invasions; certain distinct Irish names are part of the subsequent Norman invasion; other black-haired Irish are often linked to descendants of Spanish sailors who washed ashore when the Spanish Armada was decimated on its way to England. Numerous races came to the island. The most dominant would be the English who came and ruled for over 400 years making Ireland for some time part of the British Empire. Yes, many peoples have contributed to Ireland's heritage and ancestry, just as many have contributed to Taiwan's, but one difference remains. Throughout it all, the Irish always knew their identity; Taiwanese did not.

The Irish did not experience a Stockholm syndrome. You would never have an Irish president stating that the Irish should be proud of their English rule even though English is a far more common language than Gaelic in Ireland. You would never find an Irish president suggesting an appreciation of the elements of English heritage and culture present from over 400 years of English rule, while in that same time hundreds of thousands of Irish went to England for better jobs. The distance across the Irish Sea between Ireland and the heart of the British Empire is much shorter than the distance from Taiwan to the Borg-like Chinese Empire across the Strait. Yet the Irish with the exception of the transplanted element in Northern Ireland never acknowledged that they belonged to England. Despite England's influence, they never wanted to be part of it

Nevertheless in Taiwan, we find a president who so desperately needs China in order to fulfill at least one of his campaign promises that he ignores telling the Taiwanese to be proud of their Taiwanese culture. Ma fails to promote Taiwanese pride; he does not even know what Taiwanese pride is. Instead, he singles out the one part of Taiwan's heritage that he shares and tells the people that they are Zhonghua minzu. Ma is not a true Taiwanese and despite his claims and protestations, he probably never will be. Behind his platitudes and smiles are the veiled condescending efforts to erase Taiwan's identity and continue the dispossession of the Taiwanese.

Taiwanese pride suffers from the cultural chauvinism of those who see only China. This does not mean that Taiwanese should not be proud of the Chinese element in their history and identity. Even Chen Shui-bian stressed that Taiwanese should be proud of that Chinese element of their ancestry, but Chen never lost sight of the totality of Taiwan. What Taiwanese must guard against is letting that one element swallow their identity, uniqueness, and heritage.

Taiwanese who grew up during the White Terror period know how they had to memorize the rivers and mountains of China while they learned nothing of their own land. They memorized the names of the dynasties and unwittingly contributed to the black hole in their own history. In cultural imperialism there is a false sense of importance that makes the claim that only empires are worthy of stating that they have a culture. Allegedly a culture does not exist if it does not build itself on the backs of slaves and peasants. For Taiwanese it is time to look into themselves. It is time for them to find the other values and reality in the dark hole of their past and fill it in.