Crafting the Taiwanese: The Ambivalence of Taiwan's National Identity

By Ho, Norman | Harvard International Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Crafting the Taiwanese: The Ambivalence of Taiwan's National Identity


Ho, Norman, Harvard International Review


Taiwan is a land of diversity. Travelers on Taipei's Rapid Transit Metro hear announcements in four different languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Hakka, and Holo. For metro travelers and statesmen alike, this diversity is both a blessing and a burden. With its many ethnic groups and languages, and without a long history as an independent country, Taiwan is finding it difficult to create a tangible national identity that encompasses all of its 23 million residents. For Taiwan's current leaders, there has never been a more important time to construct a distinctly "Taiwanese" national identity.

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Many members of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) see the establishment of national identity as a vital element to Taiwan's quest for eventual independence. The DPP administration of Chen Shui-bian, taking the lead from former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, has undertaken a revolutionary program of desinification, defining a national Taiwanese identity solely in opposition to that of China. Chen is using the power of the government to impose this supposedly genuine "Taiwanese" identity. The problem is that Chen himself does not seem to know what being "Taiwanese" really means; he can define national identity only in a negative, oppositional way.

Chen's efforts to construct national identity are not motivated by genuine concern for the Taiwanese peoples' ambivalence, frustration, or confusion regarding who they really are. Chen, for partisan purposes, is instead politicizing the process of creating national identity in order to pursue Taiwanese independence and, more importantly, to draw a greater separation between what he claims as the "foreign," almost traitorous Kuomintang (KMT) party and his own Democratic Progressive Party. Two types of politicization are at work: first, Chen's partisan motives and their effects, and second, his treatment of national identity as if it were in the realm of politics, when in fact national identity should emerge from the experiences and truths of a nation's history and culture. National identity, in other words, is something with an authenticity of its own, something inherently apolitical.

Perhaps the worst result of such politicization is that Taiwanese do not see national identity as a separate and sacred concept on its own; because of Chen's heightened politicization of national identity, many Taiwanese simply relate national identity with a political party, KMT or DPP. This will ultimately fracture Taiwanese society as well as jeopardize the future of Taiwan's international status. If Taiwan desires to make progress on its road to independence or increase its global status, it must work on the formation of a national identity that is free from the chains of political battles and is instead rooted in Taiwan's history, culture, and interactions with other countries in the region. Chen's policies are, ironically, contributing to a further division--even racist polarization--of Taiwanese society. How can Taiwan ever expect to be a nation if it does not bring its own people together first?

Taiwanese Politics and National Identity

Taiwan's history is largely based on outside influence, particularly China's. Taiwanese aborigines, related to Malay or Polynesians, first settled more than 4,000 years ago. Currently known as "indigenous peoples," they comprise two percent of the Taiwanese population. Historical records indicate that the Chinese first settled in islands off the west coast of Taiwan in the 1100s; and the island was mostly under Chinese authority, with a Dutch interlude, until 1895. From 1895 to 1945, Japan brutally colonized and ruled Taiwan, its first formal colony. The Japanese devastated Taiwanese society with an oppressive rule aimed at turning Taiwanese into obedient and loyal worshippers of the Emperor. When Japan invaded China in 1937, Taiwan was transformed into a factory to produce war materials for Japan. …

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