Taiwan's Hybrid Nature: its Strength and its Hope

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Friday July 23, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Most short and long term visitors to Taiwan will comment on its unique characteristics, culture and style. Taiwan has an identity that makes it clearly different from all its neighbors; further its people are hardy, resilient and adaptive. Why? This is no doubt more than just the result of historical experience and development; it may also be its nature. Theorists certainly wonder how and why after century upon century of diverse colonizers, with each striving to impose its brand of imagined community on it, Taiwan has still managed to develop its own characteristics and culture. I posit that Taiwan did this not so much by rejection, but by absorbing the colonizing cultures and cross breeding them into its own indigenous ways and stock. In other words, Taiwanese have forged what can be called their own unique hybrid culture and way, the Taiwanese way.

Scientifically, the hybrid is defined as something of mixed origin and composition. In genetics it is the offspring of genetically dissimilar parents or stock; a description applicable to plants, animals and/or humans. Taiwan has this but it has more; it also has hybrid vigor or heterosis. Hybrid vigor refers to superior qualities of survival that can be achieved as a result of crossbreeding.

From its indigenous period on, Taiwan's culture is a culture rich in its diversity of thought and religions; it tolerates all and never seeks to control or put them under its State. Taiwan's culture is a culture richly expressed in untold foods that few will reject with perhaps a questionable resistance by some to chou tofu. Taiwan's culture is a culture rich in pleasant, accepting people who by their warm nature are always unusually open to outsiders. This is the strength, beauty, and resiliency visitors have found in Taiwan. It is its hybrid nature; it is its hybrid culture and it is no doubt why Taiwan was able to pursue, fight for and achieve its vibrant democracy.

Historically, the Taiwanese can probably thank Japan for unifying their diverse elements, for making them begin to realize their Taiwanese-ness and for bringing them to understand their unique place and heritage. Japan was the first colonial power to master and control the whole island of Taiwan. Taiwans previous past colonizers, the Dutch, Spanish, fleeing Ming and the hesitant Manchu Qing all controlled parts of the island and had their input as well. But those powers usually played one group of Taiwanese against the other in efforts to keep them at bay. Japan controlled the whole island and sought to make all Taiwanese subjects of its Empire. In reaction, this forced the diverse groups within Taiwan to unify if not by desire, then by necessity.

The roots of this unification were there when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) came to Taiwan. Seeing the fifty years of Japanization, the KMT tried to Sinicize the island to its own image and likeness. Taiwan absorbed the KMT but did not wholly endorse its one party state, its forced language and its forced memorization of things Chinese. Many Taiwanese died in that process; others went to Green Island, and others still fled abroad and became blacklisted. Eventually Taiwan was able to achieve its democracy.

Taiwan's hybrid development and democracy has continued but it is not complete. Elements must still be weeded out. The KMT still silently controls and profits from the confiscated lion's share of the state assets; transitional justice has not yet been achieved, and certain elements within the KMT still want to deny Taiwanese their true identity. Across the strait, another nation greedily seeks to control Taiwan. Nonetheless, Taiwan's hybrid nature grows stronger and stronger. Taiwan has withstood numerous colonizers and powers; as long as Taiwanese realize this, the future will be theirs.