Cultural, Ethnic, and Political Nationalism in Contemporary Taiwan: Bentuhua

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Cultural, Ethnic, and Political Nationalism in Contemporary Taiwan: Bentuhua, edited by John Makeham and A-Chin Hsiau. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. vi + 287 pp. £35.00 (hardcover).

This is a very informative, well-written book which analyzes the bentuhua phenomenon in Taiwan, translated variously as nativization, indigenization, localization or, as Bruce Jacobs prefers for this particular volume, Taiwanization. From the late 1940s to the late 1980s, the authoritarian KMT government denied Han Taiwanese, who had migrated during or prior to the Japanese colonial period, their local cultural identity. While Bentuhua can refer to attempts to resist threats to Chinese identity coming from overseas influences, in Taiwan it often refers to a process of de-Sinification, "an attempt to remove the yoke of 'Chinese' colonial hegemony so that Taiwan's putative native (bentu) identity can be recognized and further nurtured" (Makeham, p. 188), or "a generalized notion that the uniqueness of Taiwanese society/culture/history must be appreciated and interpreted from the viewpoint of the Taiwanese people per se ... " (Hsiau, p. 125). Literature scholars see this as beginning with the rise in Taiwan's rural social realist literature (xiangtu wenxue) movement in the 1970s, but it has been much stronger since democratization.

The first two chapters deal with politics. J. Bruce Jacobs traces political changes associated with the rise of the non-Party (dangwai) group to the 2004 elections. Although it was often couched in terms of Taiwanese vs. Mainlanders, he argues that the thrust of non-Party politics has been much more about democratization than ethnic issues. Indeed, the major Mainlander parties of the 1990s, the KMT and the New Party, both had considerable support from Taiwanese. That said, the political changes of the 1980s and 1990s greatly increased Taiwan consciousness.

Fu-chang Wang looks at the Education Minister's 1989 decision to revise school textbooks, reversing the neglect of Taiwan content. Initially the change was "accepted without controversy" (p. 56), but the imminent release of the texts in 1997 met with two months of serious protests. Wang explains that the democratization politics process that occurred during the interim reversed the Mainlander-Taiwanese dominance in government and produced a lot of bad blood between the two groups in the process. Moreover, what Wang refers to as the Taiwan perspective of Taiwan history differed significantly from the China perspective familiar to most Mainlanders and shattered some of their deep beliefs. The crisis was resolved by a few revisions to the texts.

Rosemary Haddon examines the writings of Zhu Tianxin, a female Mainlander writer, and her feelings of homelessness in democratizing, "Taiwanizing", Taiwan. Her works display a shift from believing in to rejecting the China-centered perspective and Mainlander superiority over the Taiwanese, partly because of declines in Taiwan's fortunes in the foreign arena during the 1970s and 1980s, and partly because she came to reject the sort of Mainlanders she grew up with in a village of Mainlander soldiers and their dependents. Zhu's novella, Gudu (Ancient Capital), the focus of Haddon's piece, takes another turn, assailing what she regards as the politically correct memory of Taiwan's past because her own memories lie outside it and, she claims, are rejected by it.

A-Chin Hsiau's chapter explains why debates in xiangtu literature have been so fierce. One reason is that xiangtu has become embroiled in the debate over literary history, especially whether it is part of the Chinese literary tradition or whether it is "de-Sinified" and represents a new, non-Chinese form. Is it a local part of the struggle by Chinese to decolonize and de-imperialize China, or is it part of the struggle by Taiwanese to re-decolonize Taiwan, and rediscover their Taiwanese roots after a generation of re-Sinification by the émigré KMT regime? …