For Chinese translation, click here. Many thanks to Chen-Yu Chan for the translation.
I am an American. Just like my mother and father, I was born and raised in Northeast Ohio (and as a result have the curse of being a perpetually heart-broken Cleveland sports fan), grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons, and fighting with my brothers over who got the last of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. I raked leaves in the fall, and enjoyed snowball fights in the winter. I loved trading baseball cards, playing soccer and video games (I’m still convinced that blowing into the game cartridges made them work), and upon reaching adolescence I adhered to the usual teenager rebellion tactics of wanting to pick out my own school clothes and pleading with my parents for an extended curfew; consistently going to battle with them with the logical ammunition argument of proclaiming “but all my friends can stay out later!” I lived what one could call a typical middle-class American upbringing, and have never questioned my own nationality. Why would I? Nobody else ever has.
My ethnicity, like many Americans however, cannot be hammered down into a simple definition. Years ago, with the help of a grandmother from my father’s side, and a grandfather and great grandmother on my mother’s side, I attempted to retrace the development of my family lines back as far as I could. I was amazed that the further I was able to delve back into history, the more ethnically diverse my family became. I had family who owned small vineyards in Naples, Italy; others who had deep roots in Bavaria, Germany; and I also am a descendant of a long blood line which resided in a small village outside the city of Zagreb, Croatia for well over a century before some of them made the trek to the United States in the early 20th century.
If you are still reading, perhaps you are wondering a) Why this author compelled to spend two paragraphs sharing mundane details about his nationality and ethnicity and b) What does this have to do with Taiwan and China? In a word: everything.
China prefers to view Taiwan through a special prism which sees Taiwan an inherent part of China going back to “ancient times” (the same moniker used when describing Tibet, East Turkestan, the Senkaku Islands, the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and any other territory that it may find appealing), as well as a place where actual “Chinese” reside. It doesn’t take much digging to find speeches from Mao all the way down to Xi that seek to appeal to a “shared Chinese identity” or a “blood is thicker than water” approach, in which China equates ethnicity with political fate.
In other words, the Chinese conception of ethnicity and nationality is one and the same. To me, one’s nationality is the legal relationship between a person and a state, whereas a person’s ethnicity is an identity with or membership in a specific racial, national, or cultural group, and observance of said group’s customs, beliefs, and language.
Of course, neither nationality nor ethnicity is created in a vacuum—both are cultivated and defined by external factors that over the course of time help create them. And both hold levels of meaning and importance to people that, without exception, will change over time. In the case of China, the rulers have done much to cultivate and define nationality and ethnicity within their borders to their advantage. Any archaeologist or ethnographer could easily dispel the myth that China is “the world’s oldest continuous civilization.”
In its latest iteration, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has since 1949 sought to clobber together a single all-encompassing definition of being “Chinese,” confusing ethnic and national identities into something that could be liberally applied in order to fulfill its social and political objectives. Since its ascension to power, the CCP has recognized 55 ethnic minority groups within its borders in addition to the overwhelming Han ethnicity, whose numbers comprise about 90-92% of its total population. While the government acknowledges these groups as ethnic minorities, it places a far greater importance on the concept of a ‘harmonious society’ in which all citizens are expected to label themselves “Chinese” before any other identity.
While there is nothing unusual about expecting citizens to buy into a national identity, the government of the People’s Republic often takes liberties as to what it believes “Chinese” should be—it’s not just a national identity that centers around the people’s ownership of the state (the people don’t own the state), but an ethnic identity that centers around ethnic groups coming together under the assimilation by the Han majority.
Regardless of the fact that areas within China’s current borders have been conquered and ruled by Mongols, Manchu, Turks, Koreans, Russians, Kazaks, and the Naxi, among other ethnic groups, the CCP has often placed a premium on the here and now: If these ethnic groups reside within our borders now, then they are ‘Chinese’ in a national sense of the word.
Taking it a step further, the CCP often uses the historical borders of such groups when making territorial claims, often attempting to make what I consider outlandish links over the course of history. One example of this is with China’s current border dispute with the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan. Throughout the 1970s, China claimed that since the people of Bhutan were ethnically related to Tibetans (the Bhutanese are believed to have settled into what is now Bhutan in the 7th or 8th century) that
“Bhutanese, Sikkimese and Ladakhis form a united family in Tibet. They have always been subject to Tibet and to the great motherland of China. They must once again be united and taught the communist doctrine.”
For those keeping score:
Bhutanese, Sikkimese, and Ladakhis all are ethnically Tibetan +
Tibet is now a part of the People’s Republic of China =
All of these ethnicities are really “Chinese” and there their land is Chinese territory.
What’s more, being Chinese in reality means assimilation into the Han majority. Ethnic groups other than the Han are regarded as having lower social status. Otherwise, the Communist Party would not be incentivizing marriages that involve female brides of ethnic minority backgrounds to wed ethnic Han males by offering vacations, prizes, and monetary gifts, and yes, special reproductive rights to the new couples under the guise of ‘ethnic unity’—unions that have become increasingly common in the “Self-Autonomous Regions” of Tibet and Xinjiang (both with ethnic minority populations that outnumber the Han). There would also be far fewer cases of social unrest in Xinjiang, a province that has the highest rate of GDP growth outside the rich coastal Provinces of the Southeast—if the Uyghur majority were able to share in the economic spoils.
Which brings us to Taiwan—A place and a people that seldom fit neatly into any definition. It is not news that China claims sovereignty over Taiwan. It does so by claiming that the Republic of China government in Taiwan is a renegade holdover from the Chinese Civil War from 1945 to 1949, but it further claims that the people living in Taiwan are “Chinese”—and as we have seen earlier, that means the territory belongs to China too. But how do the Taiwanese people see their own national and ethnic identities?
When it comes to the issue of ethnic identity in Taiwan, it’s a challenging enough topic for those with at least some familiarity of Taiwan and its history, but for those who lack such acumen, it can be a never-ending source of confusion and frustration. This author can share two such experiences that highlight this point.
During my junior year of high school, our family hosted an exchange student over the summer from Taiwan. While I had an interest about China and Japan that went back as far as I could remember, Taiwan was never on my radar. Over the course of the summer, I would probe our guest with questions about nearly everything imaginable:
“What’s the red stamp on your I.D. mean?”
“It says if you have drug, the police can kill you.” (He always laughed when saying this but never did say if he was joking)”
“What does your father do in Taiwan?”
“He is a businessman.”
“Why do you say that you are Chinese?”
“I am Chinese.”
“But you live in Taiwan. So wouldn’t that make you Taiwanese?”
“No, we live in Taiwan, but we are Chinese.”
Needless to say this didn’t ease my lack of confusion about why he called himself Chinese. After all, my family lived in the United States, I knew where my grandparents came from in Europe, and I could say I was “Croatian, German, or Italian”, but of course it always came down to me saying I was an American. The idea that someone could be born in a country, yet identify their ethnicity and nationality something else was really head-scratching for me at the time.
The other example took place years later, a few days following my initial arrival in Taiwan in 2008. While feeling that I had at least a better than average grasp on “the basics” of Taiwan before leaving the United States, all it took was a random glance into a Lonely Planet guidebook that was published in the early 90s that made me feel like I was back into the same conversation with my family’s guest from Taiwan.
When speaking to people in Taiwan, do not call them “Taiwanese”. You will find that most people prefer to be identified as “Chinese”. The issue remains a sensitive topic among many people in Taiwan.
Over the course of the next three years, I sometimes posed the question, “Do you consider yourselves Chinese or Taiwanese?” And of course I received answers that in most cases did not fit neatly into a single category. “Taiwanese”, “Chinese”, “I speak Chinese but I consider myself Taiwanese”, “The only people who are really Taiwanese are the aborigines”, “My family is Chinese but I am Taiwanese”, “I’m Chinese and Taiwanese”.
It wasn’t until towards the end of my time living in Taiwan did it occur to me that there wasn’t going to be a simple answer. Taiwanese society was only twenty some years removed from a 46 year-long martial law period during which anything other than Chinese identity was oppressed. Prior to that there were 50 years of Japanese colonial rule. A Taiwanese identity, while young and fragile, was in the process of evolving and shaping itself into something tangible. While many people in Taiwan considered themselves ethnically Chinese, a half century of separation between China and Taiwan allowed for nearly every facet of both societies to become altered from each other due to the different experiences felt by both sides. Perhaps the most sagacious explanation of what ‘Taiwanese’ meant in their eyes came from Michael Fonte, the Democratic Progressive Party Liaison in Washington D.C. described it to me as: “Something that while having aspects and traits of Chinese culture within it, is also molded and shaped by Taiwan’s experiences with its own indigenous cultures, as well being influenced by Japanese, Western, South Asian, and Polynesian experiences as well—All rolled up into a new culture that is unique to Taiwan.”
It sure sounds like something that is more complex than what Lonely Planet and my exchange buddy described. Just don’t try explaining this to China.
And this is where the root of the Taiwan and China antagonism lies. While China and the CCP continues to march down the road of national unity, ethnic sameness, and ever-invasive claims to rule over their “historical territories,” there appears to be an inexorable shift within Taiwan’s society that continues to pull the population as a whole towards a lasting and permanent identity separate from one that is Chinese-centric, regardless of the pleas coming from the People’s Republic. For as America did in its infancy, Taiwan is becoming confident and finding its voice. Perhaps one day in the near future, there could even be a family in Ohio that hosts a student from Taiwan, and that student will say without reservation, “I am Taiwanese”. Period. And all the controversy and debate surrounding Taiwan’s ethnic and national make-up and identity can be passed somewhere else in the world where it is needed. China, maybe.
(Feature photo of China’s ethnolinguistic groups, by the US Central Intelligence Agency in 1967.)
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