Taiwan has been my home for the past eleven years, and I have come to love this country deeply. It would affect my life profoundly to live anywhere but here. One aspect of this is practical: I am a resident, employee and taxpayer, with friends, a home, a job, and a life here. However, there is also an aspirational question: what it means to call Taiwan home.
First and foremost, to me, Taiwan embodies certain shared civic values: freedom and democracy as a basic way of life, dignity and recognition of Taiwan from the rest of the world, as well as the right to self-determination and to not live under threat from China.
For someone with such a deep attachment to Taiwan, one might think I would find October 10th or “Double Ten” – the National Day of the Republic of China – especially meaningful. However, this year as in previous years I paid scant attention to the celebratory aspect of the holiday, and in fact chose to work.
This may seem incongruous, and yet it felt completely natural. To me, calling Taiwan home, despite being a foreign resident, involves identifying on some level with symbols and imagery associated with Taiwan. When I see the flags lining the streets at this time of year, each burning with its own sun from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) emblem, they simply do not carry this association. I love Taiwan, but I have mixed feelings at best about the Republic of China.
Michael Cole at Taiwan Sentinel touched on the topic recently in the piece “Double Ten and the Narcissism of Small Differences in Taiwan.” In it, he stresses the importance of “fundamental values and shared interests of the Taiwanese on both sides of the aisle,” which I, of course, support. However, I take exception to the notion that the differences over beliefs about the imagery of the Republic of China (ROC), a regime that has been imposed on the people of Taiwan from the outside through unfortunate confluences of historical events, are no more than artificial and are easily transcended.
The symbols of the ROC are more than empty words and images. The ROC’s national day, “Double Ten,” is more than just imagery. It may be true that in the great swaths of the non-political, centrist population that we are more alike than we are different, but the differences we have run far deeper than a flag, an anthem and a name. These and symbols represent fundamental markers of identity, and remind us of a history that should not be set aside.
The Republic of China refers to the state founded in 1912 in Nanjing that succeeded the Qing Empire; since then it has gone through a series of transformations, including as an authoritarian one-party state in Taiwan, controlled by the KMT.
Since then, Michael argues in his piece, the ROC has been reduced to nothing more than a “byword” by the process of democratization under the ROC:
The fact of the matter is, and notwithstanding the nomenclatural issues that arise for many within the green camp, today’s ROC — how it is lived and experienced on a daily basis — is a transitory, albeit official, byword for what everybody knows is Taiwan.
Yes, the ROC is used as a byword for Taiwan, but it is a byword for many other things as well. For the people who experienced the suppression of speech and other basic rights under the KMT, it is a byword for repainting the KMT’s rule as benign: The 228 Incident was a necessary step to ‘stabilize’ the situation in Taiwan (at the cost of tens of thousands of human lives); those who fought for Taiwanese democracy are “troublemakers” (who were court martialed for sedition); that the KMT brought Taiwan out of extreme poverty (a fabrication – Taiwan was one of the most prosperous territories in Asia under Japanese colonial rule); that democracy was a kindly deathbed wish by an enlightened Chiang Ching-kuo (who was still a dictator and pursued reforms only insofar as he felt they were necessary to save the KMT). Moreover, the ROC is also a byword for forcing Mandarin to be used as the primary language of Taiwan, and Chinese history and culture as the primary focus in schools while suppressing existing languages and culture, treating them as uncouth and undesirable.
The ROC flag enshrines the KMTs emblem, and the ROC anthem was simply the KMT’s party anthem dropped into place, with the opening lines declaring loyalty to “our party.” The issue is the KMT’s centrality and privilege within the ROC’s symbolism, the result of the one-party rule of the past. Many see that flag or hear that anthem and think of the loved ones whom that party murdered, imprisoned, tortured or “disappeared.” And yet there they are, still on the flag, still in the anthem. How is it not obvious why this bothers those who advocate for more appropriate symbols? Why should they be the ones to bridge this gap and accept symbols that are directly linked to the pain of their history?
More generally speaking, the Republic of China’s symbols represent the inherent Chinese identity of its roots. They are at best comically irrelevant to contemporary Taiwan, and at worst lend credence to the People’s Republic of China’s claim on Taiwan’s sovereignty. Here, the ROC is a byword for the vision of a China that includes Taiwan. The ROC Constitution is still legally interpreted to include the territories of the People’s Republic of China as its own, and provides for Taiwan as merely a “province.” The ROC’s symbols enshrines Dr. Sun Yat-sen, someone who had almost no ties to Taiwan, as the “nation’s father” whose larger-than-life portrait adorns the front wall of the parliament floor.
Keeping the ROC symbols is to give in to a cultural and ethnic notion of China that includes Taiwan, because in essence it tells the word “we are fine with using the word ‘China’ in the official name of our country.” It legitimizes the idea that to be Taiwanese, one must be ethnically Chinese, when modern Taiwan is moving towards greater recognition of indigenous people as well as internationalization. It says to the world that Taiwan is ultimately Chinese, which plays perfectly to how Beijing substantiates its claims on Taiwan.
In Taiwan today, it is perfectly legal as a matter of free speech to refuse to bow to a picture of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, or to refuse to sing the first two lines of the national anthem. It is laudable that Taiwan has developed such a free and mature political system, but it should not be forgotten that the force behind that development from repressive one-party rule was not a series of reforms from within the former dictatorship, but from the will of the Taiwanese people, and was far from a “bloodless” transformation. However, we must remember who caused that blood to be spilled, and under what symbols and beliefs they justified doing so.
It is true that those who prefer ROC symbolism and nomenclature may not support outright annexation by Beijing, a viewpoint now reserved for gangster-politicians and the far right. However, their vision of Taiwan is still one that is ultimately Chinese, and for many, being “against unification” only means being opposed to rule by the People’s Republic of China as it exists today. They may not accept PRC ideology, but they also may not accept Taiwanese statehood either. This differing vision is more problematic than a mere name or flag design. Far from being simply narcissist or a small difference, it is a disagreement over the very question of the future of Taiwan.
ROC Is “Transitory”
As a journalist covering Taiwan for over a decade, certainly Michael appreciates and understands all the points above. I doubt he is calling for the Taiwanese society to simply roll over and acquiesce to being ruled by the Republic of China, accept its symbols and imageriess and holidays and all the meaning behind them as our own, and call it day.
In fact, Michael mentions that the ROC is “transitory,” which I take to mean “temporary.” In other words, we should agree that the ROC is not wholly ideal, that there is something more appropriate that should replace the ROC as a normative matter.
More importantly, at the heart of the matter is the fact that we shouldn’t have to be so awkward about our national symbols. Taiwan deserves a national anthem that can be heard and sung with pride, not one that causes mixed feelings or outright refusal to acknowledge its inextricable ties not to the state but to one party. Taiwan deserves a flag that does not pay homage to a single party in what is no longer a one-party state, and those who suffered under that party deserve to look at a Taiwanese flag that does not enshrine those who persecuted them.
As discussed, the ROC symbolizes a vision of a state that is not congruent with contemporary Taiwanese society. Yes, at the moment, for the time being, temporarily, transitorily, the ROC has been wrangled into a shape that is bearable for the Taiwanese people, primarily as a means to manage public affairs. But a state to which we pledge allegiance should aspire to something better than that. Resolving conflicting visions of the state requires time and patience, but they do need to be resolved for the nation to move forward together. How else to accomplish this collectively but to openly talk about them?
Therefore when I hear people say “the ROC is just a name,” or “let’s not fight over nomenclature and symbols,” I say the opposite. Let’s really talk about them. Let’s talk about how they do, or don’t, represent the shared fundamental values and interests of Taiwan today. Let’s talk about our constitution and political institutions. Let’s talk about how to teach culture and languages to our children. Let’s talk about to whom our armed forces pledges loyalty. Let’s talk about what the ultimate identity of Taiwan should look like and how it should be reflected in the nomenclature and symbols of our state. We can do this civilly; if we managed to overthrow a dictatorship without destroying the fabric of society, we can certainly do something about this.
I agree with Michael that Taiwan cannot afford to create divisions, but I believe a healthy discourse is the only way to truly bridge those divisions. It is not just nomenclature, and it is not just an anthem. It is more than imagery. It directly impacts the lives, education, beliefs and future of the Taiwanese. For Taiwan, confronting these discussions is very well a matter of survival.
Chieh-Ting Yeh contributed to this piece, which uses material from the author’s blog here. An earlier version stated the founding of the ROC in 1912 happened in Beijing; the proclamation on January 1, 1912 occurred in Nanjing.
(Feature photo by Calin Brown)
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