Tuesday, October 6, 2009

228 Peace Park and the Taiwanese "Identity Crisis"

The first thing Nick and I did on our second day in Taipei was head to the 228 Peace Park and Museum.

For anyone interested in Taiwanese culture or history, the museum is an absolute must – visit.

For the last 8 months of living here in Taiwan, Nick and I have struggled to really get a handle on Taiwan’s culture and national identity, and this museum really helped us piece some of it together and understand the situation here on a deeper level.

At the museum we learned that our confusion about Taiwanese national and cultural identity wasn’t just because we’re foreigners and our knowledge of Asian history is very limited. It really stems from the fact that, as a nation and as a people, they haven't quite hashed it out themselves. Taiwan is still a very young democracy and is in a unique period of transition culturally, politically, and economically.

Looking around Taiwan, it appears that there isn't much racial diversity, but that does not mean the island's culture is homogenous.   

The majority of the population can be divided into three distinct groups: the Aborigines, the Taiwanese people, and the "Chinese" Taiwanese.  

About 2% of the population is made of up Taiwan's Aboriginal people. Within this segment exists many different groups, just like the United State's Native Americans can be divided into distinct tribes.  Taiwan's Aboriginal people have been in Taiwan for over 8,000 years and are ethnically Austronesian.

The majority of Taiwanese people, however, are of Han Chinese decent - a group who began migrating to Taiwan in the 16th century. Although Taiwanese culture is a complex and eclectic mix of local and foreign influences, much of it has roots in Chinese culture, and the Taiwanese language itself originates from China as well.

Now, this leads us to a very logical and confusing question: what exactly differentiates those who identify as Taiwanese from those who label themselves or are labeled as Chinese Taiwanese. Technically, aren't almost all Taiwanese people "Chinese Taiwanese"??

To understand this distinction, it is necessary to understand Taiwan's history and my visit to the 228 Peace Park really helped me hash this all out.  Here is what I've learned:

The historical claims by China and the KMT that Taiwan has always been the property of China are highly contentious. Throughout history, Taiwan has been occupied by the Dutch, and intermittently ignored and claimed as property by various Chinese governments. 

What is most pertinent to today's issues of Taiwanese identity is the period of colonization by Japan from 1895 until the end of WWII.

Although the Japanese had treated the Taiwanese people unequally during this time - indeed the Taiwanese had always hoped for independence from the Japanese - the Japanese did a lot for the modernization of Taiwan as well as the stability of the country and the education of a Taiwanese elite during their stay here.

At the end of WWII, Taiwan was taken from the Japanese and handed over to China. At the time, the Taiwanese people enthusiastically supported their return to the “Mother Land,” welcoming the first arrival of Chinese officials with open arms. They were looking forward to rid themselves of a colonial power and expected to become equal citizens in the eyes of the new Chinese government. However, this feeling didn’t last very long.

During the period of Japanese rule, Taiwan and its people had started to modernize. When the Chinese came in to take over control, it lead to a situation where a a less-advanced society was seizing control of a more-or-less modern territory. The mainland mainland Chinese came to be seen by the Taiwanese as backward, rude, dirty, and corrupt.

(here is a political cartoon from a Taiwanese newspaper of the day - depicting the Chinese people as worms who had devoured China and were about the destroy Taiwan as well)

Soon the Taiwanese citizens realized that the KMT government was treating Taiwan as a conquered area, and the Taiwanese people as second-class citizens. They began to resent the new Chinese government’s unfair treatment of the locals.

The 228 Peace Park memorializes an incident that rose out of the unrest in Taiwan after WWII and the subsequent violent government crackdown that ensued.

(some pictures of the memorial outside of the museum)

Following this incident (or massacre depending on who you talk to...approximately 20,000-30,000 people were killed), the constitutionally democratic leader Chiang Kai-shek, led the country under martial law and a White Terror that continued until 1987 - during which time any mention of the "228 incident" was taboo.

What was interesting to learn from the park was that this strong Taiwanese identity separate from China, didn’t arise until the Chinese took over control of Taiwan after WWII. 

When Chiang Kai-shek’s government came to Taiwan in 1949, the goal was never for Taiwan to be a nation independent of China. The goal had always been for Chiang’s government to overthrow the communist party and for China and Taiwan to once again be reunited as a democratic state. The Taiwanese people initially embraced this idea; hence, Taiwan's official name as the "Republic of China."

Obviously, Chiang Kai-Shek's democratic government never overthrew the Chinese Communist party. What you have now is a country that is still trying to figure out exactly what it means to be Taiwanese. The vast majority of Taiwanese people (~ 98%) can ancestrally be traced back to China, BUT depending on if you were in Taiwan before Japanese colonization or arrived with Chang Kai-Shek after WWII you will either be considered Taiwanese (the former) or Chinese (the latter).

The identity split between "true" Taiwanese and "Chinese" Taiwanese roughly divides the country into the two major political parties in Taiwan today: the Democratic Progressive Party

and Chiang Kai-Shek's party the Kuomintang (KMT)

Today, Taiwanese children learn Chinese history (and not Taiwan's history) in school and Taiwan’s museums almost exclusively showcase Chinese history and Chinese artifacts. There are actually very few places in the country, that I’ve found, where you can even learn about Taiwan’s history and many Taiwanese people themselves are a bit fuzzy on the country's own history.

Since the late 1990's Taiwan has had it's own President who is voted in democratically, issues it's own visas, passports, and currency and it has it's own police force and military. Practically, it exists as an autonomous nation - albeit one that is not recognized on an international stage.

The goals of overthrowing the Chinese Communist Party and uniting with the mainland are gone. As long as China's current government remains intact, the only true options remaining (aside from maintaining the precarious situation in which they now find themselves) are to be absorbed into the PRC or to proclaim unequivocal independence - and possibly inciting WWIII.

With the passing of time, it seems to me that the Taiwanese identity is growing stronger. As the descendants of KMT soldiers are distanced from China geographically, chronologically, and ideologically, it would seem logical that their identity will increasingly be rooted here on the island.

Keep in mind, though, that this is all coming from an outsider's prospective. Broaching politics, discussing Taiwan's national or cultural identity, or bringing up Taiwan's relationship with China are difficult things for me to do, as they all remain touchy subjects. 

The whole experience has certainly opened my eyes to how important it is to know about your own history, and how important history is to understanding culture.  Although it may be impossible for me to completely understand all of the intricacies of Taiwanese culture and identity, I feel much better now, to have cleared at least some of the confusion. 

 Lately I have talked with some of my Taiwanese friends and students about my visit to the 228 Peace Park, and several of them have said to me "... well now you know more about Taiwan's history than I do..." and indeed this is one of the problems with Taiwan's national identity. As long as Chinese history is presented in Taiwan's national history museums and taught in their schools, the Taiwanese "Identity Crisis" will continue to perpetuate. 


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  2. Hi, I'm trying to do a research project about Taiwanese identity this summer in Taiwan. Your post helped me a lot with organizing my thoughts. Thanks!

  3. May I have your permission to use two of your photos for my class project and web page?
    rckagan@gmail.com E.G. human rights and 228 memorial