Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Questions of Identity

Lots of fun with "What is Taiwan?" this week...

The UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen described Taiwan as "Taiwan, Province of China" reported the China Times (via Taiwan Today). Taiwanese officials complained that the mistake happens every year, and then promptly go on to say that they will use the odious "Chinese Taipei" to describe Taiwan -- surely the exact same wine, in a different bottle.

BBC blew another headline and subsumed us into China, though you probably missed it. In this article on the Golden Horse Awards, the BBC originally said that the Taiwanese film won an Oscar "in China". Quick action from a number of different government and private vectors soon righted that error, and the headline now reads: Taiwanese tear-jerker wins Golden Horse award which is exactly the same as the Reuters article on the topic. Great minds, etc.

Cultural appeals are an important component of China's assault on Taiwan's independent existence, as the Reuters piece out today on art treasures on display in Taipei observes:
"The two sides come from the same roots," said Tian Qing, an academy professor managing the exhibit, suggesting that Taiwan's youth should study the treasures, then act to save them.

"One aspect is to tell people we have this beauty from the past and another is to let them know it needs protection," Tian said. "On the path to modernization, don't let it get lost."

China lost some of its best pieces in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when signs of wealth and status were wiped out, he said. Taiwan, for its part, should be mindful of the cultural influences from outside the region, such as that from the United States, Tian said.
The thinking offered here is classic right-wing purity politics: outside influences are "contaminating" Taiwan, which would otherwise have the "pure" Chinese culture (that too being a total political construction). This is reminiscent of the way the KMT arrived in 1945 to tell the locals that they had been tainted by Japanese colonialism, only in this case the villain is the Americans, who contaminated the island with the dread virus of democracy. The academic quoted here offers the art treasures as a proxy for Chinese culture: "On the path to modernization, don't let it get lost!" Alas, Chinese colonialism is the same no matter which Leninist political party is carrying it out.

Among the (many) things which vanish in this ethnocentric discourse are the local aborigines, who quietly make up a larger portion of the local population than everyone imagines -- the reason there are so few now is that so many have assimilated to the local Han mores, adopting Han names and fake Han origins for their families -- they have Sinified. The result is the most interesting of today's explorations of identity....

My friend Feiren pointed me to this article in the China Times today replete with the same telling misconstruals of history and identity. It tells the story of a group of clans in Henan Province in China who allegedly have Taiwan Tsou ancestry and settled there 300 years ago. 100 of them returned to Taiwan to seek their roots. One group surnamed Chen there in China has even applied to have their ethnicity changed from Han to "mountain people."

How do we know they are aborigines? Well, there's texts and oral traditions and some remains, but my favorite passage has to be this classic colonialist representation of minorities as children who love singing and dancing:
 一直以來,村裡居民有與漢人不同的深遂輪廓與膚色,也保有非常不同的生活習俗,除熱愛歌舞外,有一首守喪時吟唱的輓歌,歌詞內容竟然是「回去吧,回到大洋彼岸!那裡有阿里山,那裡有日月潭…。」

All along, the village residents with Chinese Shensui different contours and skin color, but also maintain a very different lifestyle, in addition to love of singing and dancing, there are a mourning when the singing of the dirge, lyrics turned out to be, "go back and return to the ocean on the other side ! where Alishan, Sun Moon Lake, where there is....[Google translation]
The mention of "Sun Moon Lake" is quite curious and hints at a modern origin for the tale of the Tsou in China. The people around Sun Moon Lake were all Thao, not Tsou. During the 18th and 19th century the Thao were basically wiped out, knocked down to only a few hundred survivors, after once controlling all the area around the lake. During the early part of the KMT period they were classified into the plains (Pingpu) aborigines, and thus disappeared as a separate classification, and nearly as a people. Later, since the Thao claim to have come from Alishan in some way, they were reclassified as the tribe around Alishan, the Tsou (see SM Lake website). The Thao people were later formally recognized as the tenth tribe in 2001 (Wiki). The connection between Alishan and Sun Moon Lake in the alleged funeral dirge appears to be the direct descendent of this modern administrative confusion of Thao and Tsou, pointing to a modern origin for this story.

Heh.

And lo, it couldn't possibly have anything to do with the fact that the song happens to mention two of the most popular tourist destinations for Chinese tourists in Taiwan. Or that it emphasizes that who you are = where you come from -- identity, like so many other ideas in Chinese culture, is inherited patrilineally, since where you come from is determined by g-g-g-g-grandad, not grandmum. Take that, you Taiwanese independence mongers!

The last paragraph adds bogus history to the dubious ethnography, saying that Koxinga "recovered" Taiwan, although the Cheng regime itself did not see it that way, nor did the Qing Court. That is strictly the usual Chinese tactic of backreading current political ideology into Taiwan history in order to legitimate it.
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13 comments:

Anonymous said...

But if we let Taiwanese talk about their heterogeneous history and Aboriginal blood and allow them to define themselves and their culture on their own terms, what will all the conservative anti-China foreigners seeking exoticism and the one true pristine stuck-in-a-piece-of-amber CHINESE CULTURE do?

Kaminoge said...

Re the "mountain people" in Henan pining for Alishan and Sun Moon Lake, didn't these places only come to prominence during the Japanese colonial era? It is my understanding that Alishan was relatively unknown until the Japanese discovered all the hinoki trees growing there, while the present-day Sun Moon Lake is the result of several hydroelectric projects started by Japanese engineers. Is there some unintended irony going on here?

Tim Maddog said...

About those Reuters bastards, this is what the version I saw said [bold emphasis mine]:
- - -
Taiwanese tear-jerker wins 'Chinese Oscar'
- - -

BTW, I took before and after screenshots of the BBC article.

Tim Maddog

Anonymous said...

Maybe you could comment on the Golden Horse winner in the future. My wife watched it online this morning (on a China-based website of all places) and was indeed in tears by the end.

Islander said...

Anonymous.. what the hell did you say in your comment? You don't make any sense!

Michael- good article. I'm always curious about Taiwan's aboriginal heritage but there's so little history available in English.

Anonymous said...

"Among the (many) things which vanish in this ethnocentric discourse are the local aborigines, who quietly make up a larger portion of the local population than everyone imagines -- the reason there are so few now is that so many have assimilated to the local Han mores, adopting Han names and fake Han origins for their families -- they have Sinified. The result is the most interesting of today's explorations of identity...."

This line of thinking needs to stop. First, it only echoes the point you are arguing against; that ethnic/cultural identity is rooted in primordial origins. This is simply replacing tit for tat.

Fact: The majority of people in Taiwan share common ancestors with Austronesian speakers.

Fact: Historically, the majority of indigenous peoples were not pushed into the mountains by Han colonization, but rather acculturated and assimilated into contemporary Taiwanese society.

Does this make the majority of Taiwanese Aborigines?

NO!

This is simply part of being Taiwanese.

Indigenality and the Aboriginal identity is rooted in a socio-cultural experience of identifying as part of an indigenous community. The experience of being regarded as indigenous or as an Aborigine by a succession of regimes in combination with their reaction to the policies of those regimes creates the experience of being an indigenous person in Taiwan. It takes contact with the "other" to form this identity. Once the roots were forgotten or hidden and the identities replaced by new identities many Taiwanese became "ex-Aborigines". They removed themselves or were removed by changes in government policy form being indigenous and simply became normalized as mainstream.

As Homi Bhabha points out in The Location of Culture, “ …the fullness of the stereotype –its image as identity-is always threatened by lack.” (Bhabha 1994: 77). Therefore the exotic is only salient if desired.

The discourse to turn the indigenous experience into the mainstream experience neglects the importance and effect of legislated difference that has defined ethnicity and culture in Taiwan and actually mutes the indigenes voice when dealing with discrimination, self-determination and cultural agency. Furthermore, it attempts to mask the phenomenon of cultural change and identity change.

By understanding that cultural and ethnic change is a constant process it makes it possible to develop non-primordialist identities where Taiwanese do not have to be Chinese as they have undergone a different experience, the state has defined and rewarded different values and meanings to different symbols and Taiwanese have incorporated different memes into their cultural life. This is where group identities are formed and boundaries crossed and re-crossed.

I can not implore you more to get off the Aboriginal blood discourse.

The only thing it really demonstrates is the dynamism of human populations in Taiwan, beginning in the 17th century, to create new relationships and identities that are not based on ancestry or culture or blood.

Anonymous said...

Michale: Great article; I had a little trouble understanding what you mean by modern origin of the story until I checked the websites.

On the museum piece: Even though I suspect that the reporter has omitted a large quantity of context, I am tempted to ask, what outside influence caused Cultural Revolution? Lenin and Mao didn't seem to be talking about the same thing with the term "Cultural Revolution."
People shouldn't worry that capitalist influence will let their cultural artifacts get lost. Americanization will privatize it. MacDonaldization will mass produce it. Capitalism will only make your cultural artifacts more valuable. They won't smash them, burn them, and then look at those of their contemporary neighbor and then say, "you know what? We had those long ago. We must be your ancestor!"

-Anon Randomtroll

BIT said...

I'm Taiwanese, period. I know my ancester came from China and I don't need anybody to tell me that. China and Taiwan may have the same root but that does not undo another fact that Taiwan and China are two different countries. Most anthropologists probably agree that a country can be formed and developed through integration and assimilation which defines it's culture. There isn't such a thing as pure culture. Taiwan over the last 3 centuries has developed its own culture through colonialisms. Every Taiwanese can tell that their culture has Chinese heritage but that does not exclude the fact that it also has much Japanese influence. I'm sure it also has some portugese ingredient in it as a friend of mine who recently visited Portugal told me that how she was surprised to see the similarity in many ways between Portugal and Taiwan. I'm sure every Taiwanese agrees that our culture is not quite the same as Chinese. I would think as a cultural rich country, China should be proud that Chinese culture has been exported to Taiwan just as Japan of theirs. It puzzles me that while Chinese always claim that how 博大精深 their culture is and proud to be accepted by another country and in the mean time cannot accept the fact that their culture is also taking roots in a peace loving country Taiwan.

Anonymous said...

"This line of thinking needs to stop. First, it only echoes the point you are arguing against; that ethnic/cultural identity is rooted in primordial origins. This is simply replacing tit for tat."

Hey Anon, we think a lot along the same lines, and I agree almost completely with your comment.

But the mixed blood heritage of many Taiwanese is so convenient a thing to point out because how it just utterly complexifies the CHINESE BLOOD NATION religion to the point that it collapses under its own weight. It is exactly because in their schema, there is only CHINESE, ABORIGINAL, JAPANESE, etc.

The whole scam that all the CHINESE PEOPLE need to be part of the same NATION requires purity of blood, and it is easy to prove heterogeneity of blood. Actually that many Taiwanese have Aboriginal ancestry doesn't lead to the conclusion that they are aboriginal. The mythical CHINA BLOOD NATION doesn't know how to compute CHINESE + ABORIGINAL! And it doesn't know what to do with a heterogeneity in the heterogeneity either (a population of CHINESE, CHINESE+ABORIGINAL, ABORGINAL, etc.)

Of course, you are right, and even if Taiwanese were relatively homogeneous today and in the past, then true, we still want to avoid the danger of some kind of ethno-racial nationalistic identity.

It's just blowing up someone's retarded argument on their own terms. Practical even if not ideal.

Stefan from Frankfurt said...

@Bit said
You are approaching the point, why China is so afraid of Taiwan: if you know, that you are ethnic chinese (or from chinese heritage), but to you this does not translate to be a citizen of the great chinese empire (PRC), then... Oh my god!
Maybe all of the other chinese people start to think about the same thing: choice! it would be the end of the PRC as we know it.
This is why the PRC is so afraid of the issue of Taiwan. Maybe they are of chinese origin, but what the heck? they do not want to be part of the chinese empire anymore.

Arty said...

I'm Taiwanese, period. I know my ancester came from China and I don't need anybody to tell me that. China and Taiwan may have the same root but that does not undo another fact that Taiwan and China are two different countries.

Then why not Taiwan just declare independence straight-out. Come on let's see it. The reason Taiwan and China are still one country or "status of Taiwan" undefined is because no one in Taiwan has guts to declare independence. Also, how's Chinese ever a ethnic term? Han is an ethnic term, but not Chinese. China simply claims the land and its population is simply secondary to its claim. Yet, there will probably be a War of China Aggression, just like the War of Northern Aggression (most Americans called it Civil war) I keep hearing in the South. Yes, a lot Southerner still won't let go even though they are Americans, and it is simply points of view that matters.

Feiren said...

The China Times had two follow-up stories today about the reception of lost Zou from Taiwan Village by Dabang villagers in Alishan.

A Zou shaman confirmed the relationship, a gift of NT$100,000 was made by the Deputy Party Secretary of Nanyang City, and the Dabang Zou were told that vast markets for their high-mountain ag products await them in Henan.

A 2nd generation mainlander businesswoman is the organizer of these efforts.

Anonymous said...

Taiwan belongs to the genuine 'Native Taiwanese Naruwans'
who are non-Han .

They speak a different language, have a different culture, unique non-Han looks and don't need chopsticks to survive.

Alas they are racially discriminated in their own land thus they are called the 'Palestinians of Taiwan'.

The UN should grant them their wish to have their own "Naruwan Republic' which will be free of the Chinese KMT, DPP and CCP eternal wars!

Masalu