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The Evolution of a Taiwanese National Identity

June Teufel Dreyer, professor of political science, University of Miami;Thomas B. Gold, associate professor of sociology, University of California, Berkeley; Shelley Rigger, associate professor of East Asian politics, Davidson College; John J. Tkacik, research fellow, the Heritage FoundationDownload Special Report #114

Date & Time

Jul. 17, 2003
3:30pm – 5:30pm ET


Download Special Report #114

Taiwan’s political democratization has released a growing consciousness of national identity on the island over the last decade. Culturally, there has been an ethnic division between native Taiwanese and those who came from the mainland during the 1940s, reflected in their different historical experiences and preferences for spoken languages (Mandarin vs. Taiwanese). Politically, the two ethnic groups tend to have different ideas about the future relationship (unification vs. independence) between Taiwan and mainland China. In recent years, the growth of a new and inclusive Taiwanese identity, as well as education and intermarriages, has helped reduce cultural cleavage between ethnic groups, and a majority of the Taiwanese people now define themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese. However, a growing number of people on the island call themselves simply Taiwanese but not Chinese.

What are the main reasons for the growth of a Taiwanese identity? What has been the impact of the “February 28 incident” on ethnic cleavage in Taiwan? Is the growth of Taiwan’s national identity inevitable in the years to come? What about ten years from now when Taiwan’s population is completely dominated by native Taiwanese? Four speakers examined these and related issues at a July 17 seminar hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Asia Program.

June Teufel Dreyer, professor of political science at the University of Miami, started the discussion by arguing that a sense of identity apart from that of mainland China has existed in Taiwan for more than a century. While fifty years of Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945) contributed to the development of distinct habits and attitudes of the Taiwanese people, the arrival of the Nationalist (KMT) government and its ill-disciplined soldiers from the mainland quickly disillusioned native Taiwanese. The traumatic February 28 incident (1947) when thousands of Taiwanese were slaughtered by the KMT military left searing memories in the consciousness of native residents, and became the first marker in the development of a Taiwanese identity, Dreyer maintained. Despite KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek’s efforts at culturally redefining Taiwan’s inhabitants as Chinese, a spontaneous movement of literary nativization by a group of indigenous writers emerged in the 1960s. According to Dreyer, the 1979 Kaohsiung incident, resulting from a mass demonstration and KMT’s crackdown, was another marker in the evolution of Taiwan’s identity.

Taiwan’s democratization in 1986 has accelerated the development of a new and more inclusive national identity on the island, Dreyer continued. Under the leadership of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, a memorial to the victims of the February 28 incident was built in Taipei, and a “new Taiwanese” identity began to incorporate those residents coming from the mainland in the late 1940s as well as their children. While a separate Taiwanese identity has continued to develop under the Chen Shui-bian administration, Dreyer argued that its specific definition might be changed in the future. More than half a million Taiwan citizens now work and live in the mainland. What effect this will have on their self-identification remains to be seen, Dreyer concluded.

Thomas B. Gold, associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, explored Taiwan’s national identity from the perspective of state-society relations. According to Gold, the Taiwanese quest for identity was generated from below, reflecting the weakened capacity of the KMT state to impose its official identity over society. In the early days, the KMT state arrogated substantial amounts of all forms of power to itself, rendering society disorganized and powerless. It implemented martial law, maintained power to distribute scarce capital and resources, denied autonomy to social organizations, defined Taiwan as a province of the Republic of China (ROC), and made Mandarin Chinese the national language in schools, governmental offices, and the media. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, the initiative in Taiwanese life shifted away from the authoritarian party-state to society in the form of social movements. As Gold observed, non-KMT politicians began to call for self-determination and push for the termination of martial law, together with a veritable explosion of social activism addressing nearly every realm of life. Within the KMT, President Lee Teng-hui turned out to be the most unexpected political entrepreneur in pursuing a Taiwan-first line.

Over this period, structural shifts have opened up spaces for action by dissenters apart from the previously official definition of Taiwan’s identity, Gold continued. The expansion of the private sector transferred substantial resources and social prestige to entrepreneurs, most of whom were Taiwanese. As a result of Taiwan’s democratization, formerly forbidden topics became debatable. Eventually, the proponents of Taiwan as a province of China became increasingly isolated. Gold concluded that a separate identity is very real to many people in Taiwan, and that Beijing must find ways to understand its origins and implications in the island’s cultural and political life.

Shelley Rigger, associate professor of East Asian politics at Davidson College, argued that the discussion of Taiwan’s national identity often suffers from a lack of clarity about concepts and definitions. Disaggregating the concept of national identity, Rigger raised four distinct issues that are related to the discussion, including 1) provincial origin, 2) nationality, 3) citizenship and 4) policy preference.

As Rigger elaborated, provincial origin (ethnic identity) is the most politically significant demographic division in Taiwan’s society. The island’s residents were divided, legally and socially, between native Taiwanese whose families came to the island before 1895 and “mainlanders” whose families arrived between 1945 and 1950. While ethnicity was an ever-present component of political discourse in the early and mid-1990s, the intensity and frequency of ethnic politicking have diminished over the past several years, Rigger noted. Nationality (cultural identity) is the subject of heated debate, because “Chinese” and “Taiwanese” are not mutually exclusive identities. By contrast, citizenship (political identity) is already a settled issue, as residents of Taiwan believe that they are citizens of a unique state different from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Rigger argued that policy preference for Taiwan independence or Chinese unification is the most complicated issue related to Taiwan’s identity.

According to Rigger, most research on the independence-unification debate rests on flawed assumptions that the two positions are mutually exclusive and that they represent the only meaningful options for the Taiwanese people. Rigger contended that a plurality of Taiwanese is willing to accept either independence or unification under the right conditions, and that the percentage of Taiwanese who can accept either option has increased over the 1990s. The complexity of the identity issue resists easy analysis, Rigger emphasized.

John J. Tkacik Jr., research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, offered his commentary at the end of the seminar. Tkacik argued that Taiwanese preference for independence or unification is inextricably intertwined with their various ethnic identities. For example, when asked who had the right to determine the future of Taiwan, only 11 percent of respondents said that residents of mainland China should also be included. According to Tkacik, this figure perfectly reflects the percentage of “mainlanders” in Taiwan, suggesting a close relationship between the ethnic and national identities. Tkacik concluded that how Taiwan resolves its identity issue will decide the island’s future in the years ahead.

In brief, this seminar explored the growth of Taiwan’s national identity from historical, cultural, demographic, economic and political perspectives, factoring in Taiwan’s unique history, ethnic divide, domestic politics, and cross-Strait relations. While the four speakers agreed on the origin of Taiwan’s national identity, they differed on the direction of its evolution, as well as its implications for cross-Taiwan Strait relations.

Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
Ph: (202) 691-4020


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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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