Deconstructing Taiwan's Past in Search of Its Identity Part I

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Thursday June 24, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

A pressing problem for Taiwan in today's world remains finding an answer to the question, "What does it mean to be Taiwanese?" Put in a different way, "What is Taiwan's national identity?" To be sure there are other pressing or immediate problems, such as the economy, the threat of attack by the People's Republic of China, and the preservation and strengthening of Taiwan's democracy. But the answers to each of those problems still hinge upon establishing what is Taiwan's national identity, and where the Taiwanese want their nation to go. The identity issue is not new, recent examples are Melissa Brown's "Is Taiwan Chinese?," the book, "Memories of the Future, National Identity Issues and the Search for a New Taiwan" (ed. Stephane Corcuff) and my own, "Taiwan the Search for Identity."

Some may feel that in a global community, the boundaries of nationalism are shrinking, and that may be so. However, in his work, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson speaks to this issue of contemporary national identities and challenges such wishful dreams with these words, "the end of the era of nationalism so long prophesied is not remotely in sight." (Anderson, p.3). For Taiwan the case for its identity and nationalism remains critical but is further complicated by the fact that Taiwan is currently only recognized by some 23 countries and at least one other country, the People's Republic of China (PRC) says it will forcibly deny Taiwan's national identity as could be interpreted in Taiwan's going beyond its "de facto" independence and stating "de jure" independence.

As Taiwanese look at their country, they can say that Taiwan has a Constitution (outmoded as it is), that Taiwan has a Constitutional name, the Republic of China (inappropriate as it is) and that Taiwan has a historical legacy (motley as it is). In that history, Taiwan has been mis-represented by the government in exile of the Republic of China (ROC) which had been a co-founding member of the United Nations and on its Security Council. While it was tied to this ROC representation, Taiwan technically "left" the UN before being unceremoniously kicked out of that body. This legacy of its past hinders Taiwan from firmly establishing the identity of its imagined community. It is in fact because of the complexities of its historical legacy that Taiwan has trouble in developing the "deep, horizontal comradeship" that Anderson speaks of in establishing an imagined community amidst its citizens. Why?

Let us first look more closely at Anderson's sense of imagined communities and identity. Anderson subscribes to the belief that today's concept of nationhood and the nation state is a recent historical development and a product of the interaction of social constructivism. That is, the nationalism of modern nation states differs from the past sense of nationalism in that it is the result of several developments in freedom. People have realized that they are free from having only one language (Church Latin for example) that gives them access to divine or other truths. Societies are free from the idea that they must be organized around monarchs or rulers who claim to have a divine and/or inherent right to be king. The printing press and of course today's internet allow a greater freedom of information. Further, today's sense of national identity has also come about through capitalist endeavors where people can more meaningfully seek to freely put together the personal sense of "fraternity, power and time" that makes an imagined community. It is in this social milieu that various peoples have begun to develop the sense of their own perceived reality and proceeding from that to form their own imagined communities.

In Taiwan's case, given its past history, the construction of a perceived reality and its imagined community is not that easy. Taiwanese have strongly been influenced by and must take into account that their island has been repeatedly an "imagined geography," a phrase so coined by Edward Said in his work "Orientalism." Numerous other nations have perceived Taiwan as an "imagined geography" and this has led them to try to impose their version of an imagined community on Taiwan. This complicates Taiwan's identity problem but it can be our starting point. What is the relationship between Taiwan's numerous past imagined geographies and imagined communities? What was Taiwan's internal imagined identity, if any, before it became an imagined geography to outsiders?

Said, like Anderson, subscribes to social constructivism. He sees the term, imagined geography, as something that is socially constructed, but the construction does not come from the people within the country, rather it comes from without, from the colonizers from other countries. In the construction of an imagined geography, Said posits that the outsiders, (for him the western cultures) perceived the non-western lands and in particular the Orient as open and often virgin territory; it was there for the taking and subjugation. Whether this was always the predominant view or not, it does point to how such imagining became a means of legitimizing actions. The imagining becomes a device and expression of power. This power is the ability of colonizers to construct and objectify what they are seeking; they use it to construct their perceived reality.

Emma Teng, in her work "Taiwan's Imagined Geography," follows this line with a reverse twist as she analyzes the Qing Empire. She states, "Borrowing from Anderson, I suggest the Qing Empire not as a community but as an imagined geography, a defined and limited spatial image that existed in the minds of the Qing elites." (Teng, p.16) Teng qualifies her view point. "In my formulation, imagined geography is concerned with primarily with defining our land and thus focuses on the other side of the equation." (Ibid. p.17). For her, the imagined geography at once exoticizes the other, and attempts to convert otherness into "familiarity and we-ness." If "European culture, as Said argued, derived its sense of identity and strength by setting itself off against the Orient, Chinese civilization gained its sense of identity as the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo) in opposition to the barbarians of the four directions (siyi). Both traditions attempted to establish their own civilization as the normative ideal and to project over there qualities and traits (lasciviousness and indolence, for example) that they sought to repress in their own societies." (Ibid. pp.12-13).

Taiwanese can thus begin to seek their identity in deconstructing and understanding the various imagined geographies that others perceived in approaching Taiwan. Whether other nations were moved by the Adam Smith's sense of an "invisible hand" (The Wealth of Nations), I posit that two distinctions, that are expressed in the terms "desired geographies" and "desired economies" need to be added. From the standpoint of the colonizer, the one who takes over, geographies only become imagined geographies after they are desired. Deciphering the reasons why the colonizer desires this geography puts us further on the track. Thus, from the standpoint of the western nations that approached the island, Taiwan became a desired geography only after they saw that it could be a valuable and contributing part of their desired economies. I grant that economy need not be the only reason why a given geography becomes desired; this distinction will be treated later.

Where was Taiwan at this juncture when western nations began to enter Asian waters to improve their economies? If we look at pre-sixteenth century Taiwan, it was of course not virgin territory. Instead, it was a land that was populated by numerous indigenous tribes each with their own language and customs. Several of them by most recent theories are linguistically and perhaps culturally the ancestors of the great Austronesian Empire that spread across the oceans and populated numerous other islands from Madagascar in the West to Easter Island in the East. Linguistically, the website demonstrates the links between the people of these islands through its Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database. The November, 2007 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides one of many arguments on the vast trade network that existed between the islands dating back some 4000 years.

On Taiwan, there was however no sense of an island wide Taiwanese-ness or Taiwanese identity; in contrast these tribes were usually very territorial, each with its own sense of tribal identity. When the Japanese ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent his ambassador Harada Magoshitiro to Taiwan in 1593 to negotiate the use of Taiwan as a launching place for his quest to conquer China, he found no unity there. There was no one tribe among this "High Mountain Nation" with whom he could negotiate. In addition, there were others there as well, these included traders from China and Japan, fishermen and pirates. The merchants traded with the aborigines on behalf of themselves and not representing any nation. Taiwan might be said to have had numerous diverse and competing imagined communities present on it, but yet no one "Taiwanese imagined community."

Western nations entered Asian waters because of their desired economies. They first had no intention of coming to Taiwan and did not know of it; their original intent was to reach the elusive Spice Islands. Spices were in high demand in Europe and had been for centuries. It was when the source of spices was cut off and controlled by the expanding Ottoman Empire in the mid-fifteenth century that Europeans were forced to seek other ways to break this Ottoman monopoly. Taiwan would only later become a desired geography for western nations when it began to fit into their economic picture.

Spanish and Portuguese ships had led the way to the desired Spice Islands. Once the Spice Islands were reached, a follow up trade with China and Japan would be desired as well. The Portuguese established a base in Goa in 1510, and by 1512 were in the Spice Islands. By 1557 they also had officially established themselves in Macau. The Portuguese had such a lead that their language became the required norm in Asian trade. H. B. Morse writes, "The first requirement for a supercargo on English ships trading to China was a knowledge of Portuguese. For over a century from 1517, the only European ships to visit China were Portuguese, and their language became, to some extent, the lingua franca of the coast." (Morse, p.66)

The first Spanish ship reached the Philippines in 1521 when Magellan led three of his original five ships there. Only one of those five ships would make it back to Spain. In 1529, the Spanish and Portuguese divided their areas of interest in Asian waters with the Treaty of Saragossa. In circumventing the Ottoman trade monopoly on spices and silk, they now built their own monopoly. Taiwan was still not on the radar except that a Portuguese ship traveling to Nagasaki, Japan for trade purposes in the 1540s, would pass it and name it, Ilha Formosa--beautiful island, the name that would last for over four centuries,

The Spanish would attempt several colonies in the Philippines from the 1520s on, but because of the Treaty of Saragossa, they had to find a way back across the Pacific to present day Mexico to avoid crossing into Portuguese waters. They did this in 1565. In 1571, they took over Manila and had established the Manila-Acapulco trade route. From Manila, they would consider a colony on Taiwan in 1597 to counter the Japanese expansionist ambitions of the previously mentioned Hideyoshi but would drop it once he died. In the meantime, the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade route prospered, bringing silver from Mexico and the Americas to Manila. In return the Spanish sent spices and Chinese silks to Mexico and from there across the Atlantic to Spain. This route lasted from the 1560s to the early 1800s when Spain began to lose its colonies in the Americas. Taiwan was still not an element of any desired economy.

The English and the Dutch trade investment in Asia came in the late 16th century. English merchants banded together under the East India Company (1600) and the Dutch formed the Dutch East India Company (1602). Again the initial interest was the trade from the Spice Islands, but it quickly expanded. Both immediately saw the advantage of establishing trade with China and India; it would be this desired economy that would make them eventually perceive Taiwan as a desired geography. Thus at the turn of the century, the Portuguese were well established in Goa and in Macau with trade carried on between those ports and Nagasaki. The Spanish had Chinese junks regularly coming to Manila for trade. The British had begun bases in India and the Dutch were getting well established in the Spice Islands and Batavia (Indonesia). If any of the latter wanted direct trade with China they had to go through Macau controlled by Portugal. Taiwan remained outside these economies.

The Dutch would make an attempt to take Macau in 1603; they would be repulsed and would retreat to the Pescadores. From there they attempted to establish trade relations with Ming China but that failed. A second attempt to take Macau in 1622 would be defeated and as a back up plan, they again went to the Pescadores where they set up a fort and a base from which they again hoped to develop trade with China. The Ming government did not want them that close; conflict loomed but it was resolved. China did not mind if they occupied distant Taiwan; the Dutch accepted. Thus the Dutch were the first to come to Taiwan as part of their desired economy.

When the Dutch landed at AnPing, Taiwan, they found traders from China and Japan well established in trade with the local aborigines. The Dutch first claimed they were simply desirous of setting up their own entrepot but they soon had other ambitions. They not only built Fort Zeelandia but they began to tax the trade of the others. They started colonizing Taiwan and they began to tax the Chinese and Japanese traders present there. This was the first realization of Taiwan as a desired and consequently an imagined geography by an outside nation. Problems with Japan arose from the Dutch taxation but they were eventually resolved when the Tokugawa shogun began a policy of isolationism (sakoku) in 1635.

The Spanish seeing the Dutch success as well as its threat to their own trade routes, felt obligated to counter them. They followed and colonized Taiwan in the Keelung and Tamsui areas. The Spanish saw many benefits from Taiwan; they could warn and protect Chinese traders going to Manila from the Dutch; Keelung could be a potential port in a storm for the Manila-Acapulco galleons and they could use Taiwan as a base to both establish trade with and send missionaries to Japan.

While Taiwan had neither been a desired economy nor a desired geography for Ming China, Taiwan became such for both Spain and the Netherlands. They began to treat it as an imagined geography and colonize it. Two complimentary works that discuss the colonizing efforts of the Dutch and the Spanish are John Robert Shepherd's "Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier 1600 - 1800," and Jose Borao's "The Spanish Experience in Taiwan 1626 - 1642, The Baroque Ending of a Renaissance Endeavor." In each of these we see the balancing act of trade and religion as these two countries colonized Taiwan and began to develop their imagined communities. Shepherd also treats the subsequent developments of Zheng Cheng-gong's (Koxinga) forces and the Manchu Qing.

Religious proselitizing among the aborigines would play a strong part in both the Spanish and the Dutch efforts at imposing an imagined community. The Dutch however would go further; they would import the more agricultural minded Chinese in order to cultivate the land and enhance their economy, reference Shepherd's "Statecraft" and Wm. Campbell's "Formosa Under the Dutch" for ample chapters on this. The Spanish proselytized but did not correspondingly import Chinese for land development and thus did not have as strong and/or enduring influence. They were not as adept at enlisting the support of aboriginal allies as the Dutch; thus as their own troop level dropped, they would be expelled by the Dutch in 1642.