Reconstructing Ethnicity: Recorded and Remembered Identity in Taiwan(1)

By Brown, Melissa J. | Ethnology, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing Ethnicity: Recorded and Remembered Identity in Taiwan(1)


Brown, Melissa J., Ethnology


Ethnic identity can have a different basis locally than it does at the level of the larger society or ethnic group. This point is illustrated with a reconstruction of the early twentieth-century ethnic classification used in three villages in southwestern Taiwan. Discrepancies between estimates of ethnic intermarriage based on government records and on interview reports result from cross-ethnic adoptions. Interview reports more accurately portray the social experience of ethnic identity for adopted daughters and thus yield better estimates of intermarriage. Analysis of the discrepancy shows the local basis of Han identity to be culture, not, as for most Han, ancestry. (Ethnic identity, historical records, memory, intermarriage, adoption, Taiwan)

Ethnic identities are changeable in their content and membership (e.g., Harrell 1996), yet they are commonly portrayed as fixed, with clear-cut borders, the product of a person's culture and/or ancestry, in which there is no choice about belonging or departing. In order to "mobilize people behind their political agendas ... [governments and ethnic leaders] actively hide the fluidity and changeability of identity and group membership" (Harrell 1996:5); they discuss identity in terms of purported common descent and/or purported common culture (including language), even though ultimately it is common sociopolitical experience that binds group identity (Brown n.d.). The concealment of fluidity is accomplished by constructing "narratives of unfolding" (Bhabha 1990:1; Harrell 1996:4), origin myths (Keyes 1981:8; Williams 1989:429), or a reified "History" (Duara 1995:4) that portrays the group as having a long and unified history distinguished from other groups.(2) These narratives draw heavily on selected historic sociopolitical events to galvanize support for the claim that the group constitutes a socially and/or culturally distinct people. Although these narratives attempt to mask them, relatively recent changes in ethnic identity can nevertheless be deciphered and the basis for such changes can be reconstructed.

At the end of the twentieth century, political leaders frequently used ethnic identity as constructed by narratives of unfolding to motivate and justify warfare. Indeed, ethnic identity in relation to national identity fuels tensions between Taiwan and China that could potentially lead to warfare. Why have these ideologies succeeded in their hegemonic goal of naturalizing ethnic relations and tensions? To answer this question requires analysis of the experience of ethnic identity for ordinary people in addition to other analyses of social power hierarchies (e.g., Gates 1996). Reconstructing ethnic identity and its changes is no less an interpretation of the past than are narratives of unfolding, but it offers a different vantage point: ordinary people's experience rather than the ideology of the elite.

This article contributes to our understanding of ordinary people's experience of ethnic identity in two ways. First, by analyzing ethnic identities in terms of the social experience of individuals, it shows that local ethnic identity can have a different basis than that underlying identity claims in the larger ethnic group or society.(3) With contemporaneous variation, there is the potential for future change. Second, it offers a methodology for reconstructing past ethnic identity by comparing documentary and oral history reports. Analyzing the early twentieth-century ethnic classification used in the southwestern Taiwan villages of Jiashe, Yishe, and Bingshe brings out discrepancies between information drawn from the Japanese-period government household registers and information drawn from interview reports.

Jiashe, Yishe, and Bingshe were considered plains Aborigine villages in the early twentieth century, in spite of their cultural similarity to neighboring Han villages and in spite of some patrilineal Han ancestry.(4) About 1930, however, Jiashe, Yishe, and Bingshe changed their ethnic identity from plains Aborigine to Han (Brown 1996, n. …

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