Correcting Past Memes on Taiwan

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Tuesday, January 31, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) constantly strives to rewrite the Taiwan Narrative, it is important to regularly update and correct the stereotypes that the PRC tries to foist on Taiwan and the world.

A primary stereotype is that Taiwan has always been a part of China and its corollary that Taiwan has been a part of China since time immemorial. Both are false.

What Taiwan has always been a part of is the vast Austronesian Empire, which stretched from Madagascar in the west to Easter Island in the east and from Taiwan in the north to New Zealand in the south. That part of Taiwan’s history constantly needs recognition and updating as many in the West remain ignorant of it.

Taiwan has never been a part of China. Parts of Taiwan have been colonized by other nations including the Dutch, Spanish, fleeing Ming loyalists, and pursuing Manchu rulers. Although each could stake a temporary claim to a part of Taiwan’s history, the only nation to totally control and rule Taiwan was Japan.

Japan received the Manchu section of Taiwan in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki; it did not get it from China. The Manchu Empire was not China, but rather China at that time was a part of the Manchu Empire. Japan then set out to conquer and control the whole of the island.

Taiwan has appeared on maps of many nations, as well as under many names but designation on a map cannot be used as a qualification for possession. It is simply recognition of location.

A second and related cliche that is often tossed around in Western history is the erroneous idea of what constitutes China.

After the Mongols conquered the lands from Europe in the west to Korea in the east, and from current Russia in the north to India in the south, they divided their empire into four khanates. China was part of the Khanate of the Great Khan, which included Korea and Tibet. While Chinese culture persevered in some areas, China itself had disappeared and was part of the Mongolian Empire.

During the Ming Dynasty, China would break free from Mongol rule and was separate for about 276 years before before it was again swallowed up, this time by the expanding Manchu Empire.

Under the Manchu’s Qing Dynasty, China was ruled by the Manchus for roughly 267 years. Hence, arose the constant cry in China, but not Tibet, Xinjiang, or Mongolia, “Overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming.”

However, when such advocates made that cry, they did not want to return to the Ming borders, but wanted also to acquire other Manchu territory in the bargain.

Although Chinese ethnicity and culture persisted in some areas under the Manchus, China was not a nation state; it had disappeared.

This created a dilemma for the Republic of China’s (ROC) founding father Sun Yat-sen in his many attempts to overthrow the Manchu rule. He and other advocates could not say that they wanted to restore China, because that would mean reverting to the borders of the Ming Dynasty. On the other hand, Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia etc. also wanted to be free of Manchu rule.

Sun attempted to do it in the name of democracy, since democracy could cast a wide veiled cloak over Chinese territorial ambitions. He would die before the issue of Taiwan ever came into any discussion of what constituted the “new China.”

While many peoples wanted to throw off the decaying Manchu rule, the question was how and in what way it would be replaced. Warlord general Yuan Shi-kai set about trying to establish his own empire but when he died the competing realm of warlords arose. In short, China as “new China” never saw the democratic light of day.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) entered the picture and wanted to spread its power across the splintering Manchu Empire. Japan also decided to stake a claim by establishing Manchu rule with the last Manchu “Chinese” emperor Puyi, in Manchuko.

Taiwan throughout this period remained part of colonial Japan. Taiwan was not part of China and it eventually sought its own independence.

The claim that Taiwan was stolen from China as alleged in the Cairo Declaration is also false. The part of Taiwan that the Manchus controlled, had been lost in war between the Manchus and Japan. It was no more stolen from them or China than the Manchus “stealing” China from the Ming, Tibet from the Tibetans, Mongolia from the Mongolians and Xinjiang from the Uighurs. Each has been the result of war.

This returns Taiwan’s narrative to the end of World War II, and the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco by which Japan, as the first nation to control the whole of Taiwan, did surrender sovereignty over the territory.

However Japan also never named a recipient. That narrative is another story to be told.

For now, it is important to counter the misconception that Taiwan has always been a part of China. Taiwan is Taiwan, and China is China.