In Search of Taiwan Minzu: the First Step, Seeing What it is Not

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Saturday April 24, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Nothing exemplifies Ma Ying-jeou's lack of identity with and/or grasp of what it is to be Taiwanese than his constant attempts to push Zhonghua minzu on the Taiwanese. Ma mentioned the words repeatedly in his 2008 inaugural address, and now as he constantly pursues his pro-China agenda; it is part and parcel of his agenda. The truth of the matter is that historically Zhonghua minzu has little to do with Taiwan. And as for the future, to put it bluntly, Taiwan needs Zhonghua minzu like it needs a hole in the head. What Taiwan really needs to foster as it develops its democracy is the fullness of its historic Taiwan minzu. This is exactly what Ma is trying to suppress.

The original idea of a multi-ethnic empire (a la Zhonghua minzu) was a Manchu fabrication and not Chinese dating back to early years of the Qing Dynasty (1645--1911) when the Manchus had conquered not only Ming China but also Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang. They had become rulers over a wide range of kingdoms and cultures, and peoples and were faced with the immediate problem of the shortage of Manchu administrative manpower. How could so few control and govern so much land and so many people? The Mongols had faced this same challenge when they established a kingdom that stretched from Korea to Hungary. Their Yuan Dynasty, at least as far as controlling China was concerned lasted from 1279 until 1368, less than a century. If the Manchu Qing wanted a longer rule, they needed to come up with an ideology and explanation that could justify and legitimize their rule as well as get the others to buy in.

The Qing Emperor fabricated the idea of a multi-ethnic empire to defend Manchurian rule over Tibetans, Mongolians, Han Chinese and the Hui or present day Uyghurs. All groups were to share a common empire with of course the Manchus being the top dog. Did they pull it off? Yes. The multiple lower echelon positions had little trouble converting; it might be compared to a corporate takeover of several companies. The top management may have changed, but little else did. All the remaining bureaucrats, intellectuals, and government officials kept their jobs; their status, their roles and their pay. Some might be re-located, but few sought to challenge such a set-up. As for the vast peasants, they paid taxes no matter who was in power.

Among the Chinese of course, Han chauvinism remained and there were periodic cries of overthrow the Qing, and restore the Ming. Such cries, it must be noted, were not heard in Mongolia, Tibet, or Xinjiang. Those people had had nothing to do with and cared little for Ming China. Where was Taiwan in all of this?

At first, when the Qing overcame Koxinga's Ming loyalists who had fled to western Taiwan, they repatriated them and set up outposts to keep other Ming from returning. While the Qing occupied only the western half of Taiwan, Taiwan's aborigines (whose blood 85 per cent of Taiwanese share) were considered "outside the pale" and not part of the multi-ethnic empire. It was only after Japan and other nations considered occupying Taiwan in the late 19th century that the Qing sought to possess the whole island. But 1895 came and Taiwan following its own historical path became a Japanese colony.

In all of Sun Yat-sen's revolutions in China leading up to the fall of the Qing in 1911 the prevailing sentiment remained expel the Manchus, but there was a change. The cry remained "over throw the Qing and restore the Ming," however silently added was the new idea "keep the other Qing conquered territories." The fabrication of Zhonghua minzu resulted to justify this. Ironically it would be the megalomaniac wannabe emperor, Yuan Shi-kai who would invoke it to try to keep Mongolia and Tibet under his rule. Mongolia can thank Russia for helping it shake off the fabrication of Zhonghua minzu; Tibet was not as lucky; no outside country stood by its side. On Taiwan, where Japan ruled Zhonghua minzu meant nothing. Sun Yat-sen had even at one point solicited the help of the Japanese governor of Taiwan to support one of his uprisings against the Manchu Qing in Guanzhou.

The fabrication of Zhonghua minzu quickly took on new elements and like a chameleon changed to fit new situations. Sometimes it meant culture, sometimes it meant rule, sometimes it meant historical relationships; it changed as its fabrication was manipulated both by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to meet their needs to justify territorial ambitions. Vietnam and Korea despite their past ties with China and its culture were also able to escape as did Mongolia.

Taiwan's historical minzu is different. It begins with the vast Austronesian Empire created by its indigenous people. It includes the input of the Dutch, Spanish and Ming loyalists under Koxinga as well as Manchu presence on its western half. Japan had its contributing role and then the outsider KMT who fled there after losing the Civil War in China. The culminating glory of the Taiwan minzu is its overcoming all past colonial attempts including the KMT one-party state imposition. From continued Taiwanese resistance came the establishment of Taiwan's democracy. That democracy should also be called the "1996 consensus" to distinguish it from another fabrication that Ma Ying-jeou likes to tout, Su Chi's make believe "1992 consensus." This is the Taiwanese minzu and what the Taiwanese should really be proud of.