Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What's Chinese?

An excellent post by Andrew Leonard over at Salon.com in his column How the World Works points to two very intertwined phenomena -- what is globalization, and what is Chinese culture? Leonard, who posts from time to time on Taiwan in its global context, writes:

One of the oddities of history is that although Taiwan is separated from mainland China by only about 100 miles, the first outside power to exert political control over the island was the Netherlands. Even more peculiar, and delightful, is the thesis articulated in Tonio Andrade's "How Taiwan Became Chinese": The Dutch are ultimately responsible for the Sinification of Taiwan; the transformation of an island populated predominantly by Austronesian aborigines into a culturally Chinese domain.

Andrade's book looks fascinating; he views the early colonial period, with trade networks extending around the globe, as the first real era of globalization. Leonard went on to excerpt a portion of his book:

... I worried that my title might help hawks in mainland China argue that Taiwan belongs to the People's Republic of China, and I strongly believe that Taiwan belongs to its people and should be whatever they decide. They're doing a great job ruling themselves.

Yet there is no doubt that Taiwan today is culturally Chinese... Indeed, in many ways Taiwan is more Chinese than its assertive neighbor. Three decades of Maoism stripped away parts of mainland China's traditional culture, but Taiwan preserves customs, festivals, and schools of thought that were extinguished across the strait....

Anyone who has been around Taiwan for any length of time knows that the claim that "Taiwan preserves Chinese culture better than the mainland" is an old KMT propaganda chestnut. Such claims of "preserved" cultures that view traditional culture as both identifiable and unchanging are romantic fantasies of the western colonial era, but more fundamentally, they beg the question of what is meant by "Chinese culture."

Looking at Taiwan, what does one see? Taiwan has a democratic government -- there is nothing else like it in Chinese history, and a growing awareness and appreciation for democracy -- also a rarity in Chinese history. The educational system and police structure are European filtered through Japanese colonialism and postwar authoritarianism. Japanese influence is enormous, from food and fashion to technology. The business culture is an ecletic blend of imported ideas like double entry bookkeeping and local ideas like guanxi networks. For breakfast I can get a "western" breakfast of a layer sandwich that is entirely a local cuisine, or I can eat a Chinese breakfast consisted of foods updated by modern technology and altered thereby, whose ancestral dishes stem from the continent next door. I drive on western-style roads, in western-style cars....well, I could go on forever. Just what's "Chinese" about Taiwan? (Purely as an aside -- why does technology always disappear when we talk about culture? None of the tech now used on Taiwan is of recent Chinese vintage. The major shaping influences are all western).

Well, on the other hand, just about everything, one could answer. The local languages are all Chinese languages, except for the aboriginal tongues. Cultural ideals about women, the family, child-raising, male and female relations, politics, sex, religion, power -- many deriving from "Chinese culture," (again, except for aborigines) but as for actual culture practices? Your mileage may vary. What people say about themselves, and how they actually behave, are very different things.

The only reason anyone even raises the "Is Taiwan Chinese" issue is because Taiwan's alleged "Chineseness" is a claim that is part of the package of assertions that Beijing makes about Taiwan to support its drive to annex the island. Definitions like "Is Taiwan Chinese?" are a matter of values, not facts, only worth arguing about over beer -- unless some predatory power decides to base a foreign policy on them. It's a shame that an academic who says he knows better has nevertheless chosen to use a highly debateable title that is so useful to Beijing.


Gridman said...

Your post reflects on something that has troubled me for a long time: What defines the boundries of a culture?

Is it even really possible to fully define the word "culture"? Sure, there's a dictionary definition of the word, but I don't think it's as neat and tidy as all that.

How much of a difference, in what type of area is needed before one culture is considered two?

How long does it take? Does everyone have to agree?

And more importantly... why do people put so much importance on it? Who cares? Cultures have been coming and going for all time.

I feel a blog post coming on... :-)

channing said...

Gridman, this is something the Western world has a helluva time trying to comprehend.

I'm not too good at coming up with a complete way of describing Chinese culture, but picture this. For five thousand years, one of the world's oldest documented civilizations has retained:

-Filial piety and closeness by blood
-Moderation in public
-An enduring standard written language

These are but three of the various unique aspects of Chinese culture that have survived the millennia. There is hardly a way to concretely define "culture," and that is what culture means. It's not something meant to be fully grasped by logical thought; it's intertwined with emotion. That's why the Chinese care even though you may not.


Great entry, Michael. Actually, I felt that you'd already begun to answer Gridman's questions before he even asked. Taiwan hardly "preserves Chinese culture," partly because of its history and partly because it simply is a separate jursidiction by all practical measures. The people on Taiwan (or at least 98% of them) are ethnically and linguistically Chinese, with much cultural influence from China as well as variations unique to Taiwan.

Tim Maddog said...

Michael, readers of this post might also be interested in this related item [2.2 MB PDF file] for its treatment of "What's Chinese?" as related specifically to linguistics. It's a 1991 paper called "What Is a Chinese 'Dialect/Topolect'? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms" which I found yesterday via Pinyin News. The paper is by Professor Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Pinyin News has the abstract if anybody wants to check it out before downloading.

Another informative piece by Mair called "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language" can also be read on Pinyin News. Part 4 of that piece quotes an "inflammatory" article with this title:
- - -
"Cultural Taiwan Independence" Is More Terrifying Than "Political Taiwan Independence"
- - -

... and with that, Mair completes the circle.

Tim Maddog

Anonymous said...

You suffer from the same problems as what you criticize.

Aboriginals are an essentialized construction that ignores that a large percentage (majority?) of Taiwanese have aboriginal blood in their veins. Also Taiwanese the language has accepted a lot of influence from aboriginal languages. A lot of the customs concerning marriage in Tainan are actually aboriginal in origin.

The focus on questions regarding Taiwan's Chinese identity only helps to reinforce this wrong-headed thinking. It was a merger of several cultures, two of the biggest influences being Ming Dynasty Fujian Min-nan culture and plains aboriginal culture in Taiwan. Why isn't this a question of Taiwan's aboriginal identity then?

Michael Turton said...

Aboriginals are an essentialized construction that ignores that a large percentage (majority?) of Taiwanese have aboriginal blood in their veins. Also Taiwanese the language has accepted a lot of influence from aboriginal languages. A lot of the customs concerning marriage in Tainan are actually aboriginal in origin.

Blood is irrelevant, and the issue of marriage customs is probably true, though I'd like some examples. The real issue is that definitions of culture and identity are never very clear, and hard to pin down. How much aboriginal culture makes Taiwan "not Chinese."