National identity: an ongoing process that could at times be ambivalent but intriguing. It is fueled by fragmented stories from historical memories, intertwined with crumbs of knowledge and cultural traditions.

Specially, for those living on the islands of this earth, their homes have always existed between total isolation from the great powers of history, and serving as crossroads for traders and adventurers. Island-dwellers’ paths to seeking self-determination and also self-identification remain fraught and winding roads.

In between this past winter and spring sprout the two proceedings from Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s state academic research center — Existential Engagement: Philosophy in Taiwan, the Japanese Era, and Ethnicity, Nation, and the Modern State: Rethinking Theory and Experience in Taiwan and China — which construe the intellectual and social movements in pre- and post-war Taiwan.

The first book, Existential Engagement, sketches the Taiwanese Sturm und Drang, in which each chapter unveils the life histories of Taiwanese philosophers from dust to ashes.

Some of the earliest modern philosophers came from bourgeois families at Dadaocheng: Li Chhun-seng (李春生), a tea merchant and faithful Presbyterian, embarked his philosophical vocation at his middle age, exclusively invoked his protestant faith with Confucius thoughts while paraphrasing theologists Karl Rahner to redeem Confucius as an anonymous Christian.

Lin Mosei (林茂生) was the first Taiwanese Magister Philosophiae from Tokyo Imperial University in 1916, and later in 1929 he received a Ph.D. in Education from Columbia University, under the supervision of Dr. John Dewey. Earlier in 1917, Hu Shih (胡適), a distinguished Chinese scholar of liberalism, finished his dissertation on “the Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China,” also under the supervision of Dewey. Following Dewey’s thoughts on pragmatism and education, Lin Mosei devoted himself in Taiwanese academic and intellectual movements. Sadly, Lin was murdered in the 228 Massacre as a victim of atrocious bloodshed.

After the horrifying events of the 228 Massacre, Taiwanese intellectuals froze into widespread silence. Liao Wen Kwei (廖文奎) was another intellectual under state oppression, and fled Taiwan after the 228 Massacre. Until now, his early work The Individual and the Community: A Historical Analysis of the Motivating Factors of Social Conduct is still published in the International Library of Psychology, Philosophic and Scientific Method, sitting along the masterworks from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Jung, Alfred Adler, Jean Piaget, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Bertrand Russell. Liao’s ideal patriotism to China and Sun Yat-sen had perished with post-war atrocious state exploitation, and he became one of the first theorists of nation-building and national identity for Taiwan. His exile in Hong Kong was another sanguine footnote for white terror on the isles.

In the 1920s, the intellectual and social movements in Taiwan were tantamount with the Golden Age in the West. Hundreds of students cultivated and nourished themselves in the academic circles of Japan, Europe and the United States, and new waves of thoughts about their homeland Taiwan blossomed. Unfortunately, going into the 30s and 40s, these intellectuals vanished under the long shadow of devastating militarism and imperialism, being silenced either by fear or by death, curbing Taiwan’s intellectual growth for generations to come.

Ethnicity, Nation, and the Modern State speaks to the fact that Taiwanese national identities are entangled with multiple modernities and broader narratives. It begins on V-J-Day (day of victory against the Japanese and the end of WWII), which former president Lee Teng-hui illustrated in his personal experience as a volunteer soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army. At the other end, former KMT Chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and some former cadres of the Chinese Nationalist regime were invited to celebrate with People’s Liberation Army military parade at Tiananmen Square.

For those living in Taiwan, nostalgia to different people means embracing different fatherlands, which adds to the divergence, and even conflicts, of national identities on the island. The recent news that an elderly veteran who came to Taiwan with the Nationalist regime was under verbal attack from a radical cynic is but one example.

The Chinese Nationalist regime in the 1950s and 60s was trying to sustain its shattering legitimacy. To that end, the regime instituted policies that propped up the illusion it represented all of China, which limited the local Taiwanese’s rights. For example, quotas for public servant positions were allocated by province, with Taiwan being but one of 30-plus provinces—even though “Taiwan” constitute about 85% of the population. The regime also actively recruited overseas Chinese students (僑生) into higher education system, in competition with the Communist regime to earn economic aid and support from abroad, especially the US. These types of policies exacerbated the identity conflicts within Taiwan.

Nevertheless, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國)’s Taiwanization reform in the 70s expanded the numbers of Taiwanese local officials, which began a process that made the waishengren (postwar immigrants from China) become thought of as an ethnic minority, which complicated tensions between local and diaspora elites.

In this delicate equilibrium of tensions, intellectuals are merely the mediators in society, or at best, indirect advocates for the subaltern, the “outsiders.” This kind of work involves taking diaries, interviews and other personal records, and assembling them into historic documents to make sense of a kind of collective memory.

For example, the work of Chinese scholar and sociologist Long Guanhai (龍冠海) is representative of such a collective memory for the Chinese diaspora. From his own life, he was able to tell a story of the modernization of epistemology and politics of  early 20th Century China. His work later affected the development of sociological studies in Taiwan.

Philosophy is the fruit of one’s own language and culture, and only under an open sky and soil rich with diversity can it blossom and grow. The Taiwanese intellectual and social movements in the 1920s, which absorbed both internal conflicts and global influences, unfolded as one of the most splendid and marvelous in Taiwan’s history. Although Taiwan’s nation-building projects were entangled with resentment towards waves of hegemonic oppression, Taiwan’s national identity is more inclusive than ever, based on a multilayered and multinational point of view.

To make a nation great again, this author believes, is to boldly open the borders and never look back. For those of us who have been living on these Western Pacific islands, we should learn from our own history of national identities through the multitude of divergent cultures, and aspire to greater tides of intellectual and social movements.

Existential Engagement: Philosophy in Taiwan, the Japanese Era. (Tzu-wei Hung, Ed.)  Taipei: Academia Sinica & Linking Publishing, 2016.

Ethnicity, Nation, and the Modern State: Rethinking Theory and Experience in Taiwan and China.  (A-chin Hsiau & Horng-luen Wang, Eds.)  Taipei: Academia Sinica, 2016.

(Feature photo of ocean sunset from Pixabay)



Kuan-Wei Wu

Kuan-Wei is a freelance writer and wandering spirit in Taiwan and abroad. He consumes all types of knowledge, from sociology and political science to anthropology and philosophy, in none of which is he an expert. Now, being a good storyteller for the unspoken is one of his ideals.