Sunday, March 22, 2009

Reconstructing post-1949 Nationalist History in Taiwan

Jeremy Taylor, the fine Australian scholar who has written insightfully on the KMT and its quasi-religious aspects, including an excellent piece on the personality cult constructed around Chiang Kai-shek, has a good piece in China Heritage Quarterly on the emerging reconstruction of post-1949 history in Taiwan by the KMT:
This may not sound surprising to anyone familiar with the KMT's much-documented attempts to impose a monolithic version of the Chinese past upon Taiwan following its retreat to the island in 1949.[2] Yet the context today is markedly different from that of earlier decades. The KMT is now trying to reclaim a (Republican Chinese) national (and Nationalist) history which was largely deconstructed and attacked for eight years, and is doing this following a period in which the party itself was forced to reflect on its very raison d'être. It is also rediscovering its own past just as Republican history has become decidedly fashionable on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, with a shared Republican heritage now even being used to lay the foundation of 'inter-party dialogue' between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party. Most importantly of all, however, is that the KMT—once so staunchly adamant that its place on Taiwan was temporary, and that the only real 'history' that mattered (or could be openly discussed) was that which occurred prior to 1949—is, in its current phase of national history writing, embracing and recognising (certain aspects of) the role that it has played on Taiwan over the last five decades. In other words, rather than simply commemorating the mainland and looking to some future return to Nanjing, the KMT is now excavating the Taiwanese landscape for sites and artifacts which can be used to help illustrate and rewrite a post-1949 Nationalist history of the island.
It's a long article, well-written and readable. Enjoy.
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Feiren said...

Other than a few obvious cases such as CKS Memorial Hall, I'm going to need a few more examples of Ma's KMT "excavating the Taiwanese landscape" for nationalist history in Taiwan. An interesting difference between the DPP and KMT to my mind has always been their different approaches to history and different historiographical styles. The DPP (and other nativists) take a very detailed, personalized view of history. Just take a look at the 228 Musuem in Taipei and then show me one example of KMT historiography that comes even close to the level of empirical attention to material culture etc.

Anonymous said...

Yes, very enjoyable. Too bad Wikipedia history (especially when it comes to Taiwan and China) doesn't have the neutrality, perspective, knowledgeability, and distance that this has.

Anonymous said...


During Ma's time as KMT chairman, he worked at trying to find and highlight and praise Taiwanese that fought against Japanese colonialism. You are right that it is a very one dimensional view of a person's life.

Anonymous said...

KMT historicization has always been characterized by strongly centralized themes of essentialist, primordialist national cohesion.

I think one of the best examples of Taiwan's bifurcated history is the continued references to "our fight against the Japanese". This is a case where the history of the government and the history of the governed stand in stark opposition.

The KMT under Ma has routinely dragged CCK out of his grave for public display when opposing Chen Shui bian's dismal economic record [cough!].

The movie 1895 can be viewed as an ode to the "loyal Chinese patriots who fought for their fatherland". I am not sure how much funding this movie received from the KMT or its subsidiaries.

I think the DPP has too often imitated the KMT's grand narratives with their own, equally exclusive narratives based on Su Beng's work. Unfortunately, they don't leave much room for Waishengren to feel welcome. Sadly, that battle may be long lost.

Anyone who is interested in"history", I would recommend the following books:

The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation by Professor Hayden White

History in Three Keys by Paul A. Cohen.

Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China by Prasenjit Duara

Anonymous said...

"I think the DPP has too often imitated the KMT's grand narratives with their own, equally exclusive narratives based on Su Beng's work. Unfortunately, they don't leave much room for Waishengren to feel welcome. Sadly, that battle may be long lost."

Personally, I think some of the Taiwanese pride (Minnan pride) has been way too exaggerated by waisheng. Whatever is claimed about those narratives, Chen Shuibian was in such a hurry to promote local cultures that the administration ended up doing a lot more to promote Aboriginal and Hakka history, culture, and language while doing very little for Taiwanese language education. Sure, there are those conservative radio show hosts that are prejudiced against waisheng, that's for sure. But the central DPP unaccepting of Hakka, Aborginal, or waisheng supporters of Taiwan? I don't know about that.

There are quite a few strong Minnan Taiwanese independence supporters that also work hard in the areas of taking care of family-less old waisheng soldiers and also in cultural preservation of the Jwuan Chun or military villages, also largely waisheng or pro-KMT strongholds.

Honestly, I think the taking offense has a lot more to do with the loss of privileged standing in society than anything else.

The many younger waisheng I've met, they all think of themselves as Taiwanese and don't take offense at others speaking Taiwanese or speak some themselves (I guess the younger generation, most people don't speak so fluently so it's the same for everyone).

So I guess I'm just curious what you mean by "the battle may be long lost". Even in the lopsided presidential election, Frank Hsieh won among the older generation and among those 20-30 years old. It would seem that Taiwan is trending towards ever stronger national identity (for better or worse).

Anonymous said...

(Other) Anon,

My meaning is that during the 80's and 90's the DPP engaged in the blatant use of ethno-nationalism to mobilize support for their fledgling party. The party leaders hoped to capitalize on short-run ethnic issues such as identity politics, which, as acknowledged by many of the early leaders, was a strategy that severely damaged the party's wider appeal beyond ethnic lines to those who are more ambivalent in regard to their ethnic identity. Many of the stunts deployed by the DPP over the past 20 years have been just as polarizing, without offering Waishengren much of a sense of security that they and their culture will be respected by a dominant Taiwanese governing majority and Taiwanese state culture.

Under the Chen administration there were many positive steps and many occasions where the government meant well, but actually made matters worse. Attitudes towards Aborigines under Chen were often just as exploitative, but in other ways than the KMT's brand of exploitation. Under the DPP, Aborigines were often dragged out in costume to demonstrate "local" and "authentic" without being "Chinese"... again being redefined for someone else's ethnonational project. I would recommend caution when citing "Hakka" and "Aboriginal" history and culture. These are very complicated issues that are often manipulated by others who are not from within the group. Aborigines and Hakkas have often been at odds with scholars and ethnic elites who wish to promote false traditionalism that denies these peoples their agency to define themselves and their own culture, seeking to deny their coevalness and place them is a selected, fetishized time. For the Aborigines this might be as they are thought to be at first contact. For Hakkas it is often during the Japanese colonization or on the Taiwanese frontier in the 18th or 19th centuries. Who are these images really for? These projects often fail to recognize the continuum of cultural and ethnic change.

In the late 90's the DPP attempted to ameliorate the turmoil caused by their own Pandora's box of ethnopolitics by inventing the Four Ethnic Groups, which has become the dominant frame of reference for dealing with ethnic issues since.

Although both the DPP and KMT have accepted this concept, it simply creates a stalemate between the KMT's greater national Chinese as envisioned by Sun Yat-sen, in which there are many ethnic groups, but Han are the representations of pure, superior and modern... and the DPP's own essentialized version, which denies the continued horizontal crossing of their own demarkation between ethnic groups.

The obvious resolution would be to replace the ROC Constitution with a Taiwan centered document that removes the state from matters of culture and ethnicity. This way all peoples on Taiwan and their various mixes could be within equal reach of the principles laid out in their governing document.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anon,

Really appreciate your comments and in large part agree with you. You're hard to quote because you say a lot of very good things.

That's certainly a very comical and informative picture you paint of Aboriginal and Hakka identity frozen in eras long gone. I would argue though, that Aboriginals and Hakkas themselves are voluntary participants in the essentializing of their identities.

I think there are quite a few reasons for this beyond a usefulness to an essentialist Taiwanese identity promoted by Taiwanese nationalists:

1) Some of it is competitive in nature and a reaction to the rebirth of the Taiwanese language in the past decade among mostly Minnan and southerners.
2) These days, a lot of this driven by money, specifically tourism money. People are pulling out these dances that were never performed except in certain festivals and dancing in front of Chinese tourists because it makes them money.
3) Some of this I think is an exploration by these groups of a history and cultural practice that was previously long suppressed and denied. A more charitable explanation of pulling out these old practices out from the past is that it is what they find unique about themselves and are consciously defining themselves to be.
4) Specifically as it relates to the Taiwanese language, Chinese nationalists in Taiwan have long celebrated Hakka and Aboriginal identities so that they can block any kind of attempt at formal education in Taiwanese and offer a Chinese identity has the more inclusive identity. So it's not really just a useful tool to Taiwanese nationalists.
5) And yeah, some of this is that people aren't realizing they are simply replacing one monolithic, frozen identity with several. Kind of reminds of how every city/county in Taiwan now has "特產" which is really just applying what many middle-aged Taiwanese learned as kids where they had to memorize the top three speciality products of every single province in China (that and all the railways even if they had already changed).

Last, I want to point out using an example that sometimes what I poorly term here "new essentialisms" are sometimes very effective at battling old ones:

Recent genetic studies in the past few years have shown that 80% of bensheng, both Minnan and Hakka, are of partial Aboriginal heritage.

So ideally, if we are free of all these essentialisms, it doesn't matter what are genetic inheritance is (if we even really can be certain what it is) and we can construct our own Taiwanese/Chinese/Modernese identity of our choosing. But I think it's still useful when you haven't broken free from all the essentialist shackles because it problemitizes the monolithic Han Chinese identity, and it also pokes a stick in the eye of "Han Chinese" in Taiwan that show discriminatory attitudes towards aboriginals when they very well may be distant relatives.

Anyways, very nice comment, a lot to think about there. I, for one, certainly hope that Taiwan could move towards a more sophisticated understanding of the "continuum of cultural and ethnic change" and agree the DPP framework of four ethnic groups and the ROC constitution can be big obstacles to that. Let us hope!

Anonymous said...

The other Anon,

You are right on. Very good points.

A couple points:

Acknowledging the austronesian contribution to the gene pool is important in putting Han/Chinese chauvinism in perspective. As ethonationalism is always flimsy, essentialist and contrived. The "Chinese" ethnic group is a product of this very process of political engineering. People should be aware of this.

The 88% of Austronesian genes really don't mean much until they enter a polemic. Really, it doesn't matter unless it means something to people or is used politically.

When the DPP attempted to deploy the "ping-pu" card in the 1990's as an ethnic alternative to the trope of 5000 years of "Chinese", many people accepted the idea, but few attempted to change their ethnic identity. It failed to resonate.

Studies of nationalism have repeatedly shown this to be a dead end anyway as national communities are formed in large part by a feeling of shared experience based on people's interaction with a state structure rather than a concept of genetic relatedness. (Gellner,Hobsbawm,Anderson, Brown).

The influence of structure on cultural/ethnic change in vital to understanding the validity of a separate Taiwanese ethnic and national identity. Even if the symbols may look the same, the meaning of those symbols may be radically different between peoples based on their experience and the valued imparted on the society by the overarching structure.

One important note on "Aboriginal History". It could logically be argued that there is only about 30 years of "Aboriginal History" ... since the formation of the ATA. Prior to that, there is little indication the groups now represented as Aborigines viewed themselves as a "single people".

Books: Nationalism by Ernest Gellner
The Invention of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawm
Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
Explaining Culture Scientifically by Melissa Brown (essay on Taiwan)

Anonymous said...

Oh heck...

one last comment...

Often, Taiwanese nationalists have followed a trope of outside colonization starting with indigenous peoples to the various successive regimes and concluding with the Chinese Nationalists as the latest colonial power. This is very much the Su Beng trope. I always find it interesting to see the slight of hand between the Taiwanese identification with the Aborigines as the oppressed, and the later oppression by the Qing and the Japanese. At no time are the performers of this trope ever the colonizer.

What these tropes fail to recognize is the phenomenon of self-colonization.

As new regimes embark on their new projects for their newly acquired territory, they both subvert prior programs of control (Hoko System) and power and construct their own. The governed must adapt and make sense of these new structures in ways that will benefit them. They make full use of the changes that can help them achieve their goals. This can be seen during every regime change in Taiwan.

Indigenous Siraya people did not resent and reject the Dutch wholesale. The Dutch system could be understood in ways that the 17th Century Siraya could understand and apply to their own system of meaning. In a society that respected military power, the Dutch military prowess could be understood and welcomed in an existing frame. Many Siraya were eager to align themselves with this power and ready to deploy it against their enemies. It also gave Siraya a means to make changes within their own society. Young Sirayans saw this as an opportunity to break the age-grade system and leapfrog their elders for power. Many of the other indigenous plains people eagerly adopted Dutch systems as a means of advancing their goals for greater power and influence in their societies. Iron and matchlock rifles were welcomed technologies. "If we'd thought of that earlier". Often this is denied to indigenous peoples; their agency to adopt new technologies like every other society.

Under the Japanese, the structural changes between the Qing and Japanese created opportunities for Taiwanese to advance their own goals as many of the barriers to their goals were eliminated. Melissa Brown uses foot binding as an example, but there are several other metaphors beyond indigenes that show Taiwanese taking advantage of systemic change to advance their goals.

Each new regime shifts the playing field to create and obstruct pathways to powerand introduce new symbols of meaning or change existing metaphors. Taiwanese found that the Japanese language and customs acquired under the kiminka period, that had allowed them greater access to state power and represented affluence and culture, had become a liability under the ROC structure. Many Taiwanese learned what the new regime required and acculturated themselves into the new structure. Following the end of martial law, a new structure came into play to access power and influence policy. Many Taiwanese were also quick to take advantage of the new schemas to advance their goals, especially in the areas of mass media and other newly opened public spaces. Many Taiwanese nationalists will use their narratives to mark "us,real,authentic,unpolluted,pure Taiwanese" against "them,collaborators,impure,tainted". This is the same phenomenon Taiwanese have been subjected to by the KMT. Self-colonization is expected and not entirely negative. It just happens as people try to make the most of their new realities and adapt whatever they can to achieve their best opportunities.

I'm rambling again...

Anonymous said...

I'm rambling again...

No, this was a very worthwhile conversation, and I agree with most if not all of what you've pointed out in your latest post.

There were the rich landlord families that were broken by the KMT when they came to Taiwan, but there were certainly those that found ways to work with the KMT and end up making out very nicely.

Regarding "self-colonization"--while I agree with the points you follow up with, I'm not that it's so useful a distinction to distinguish between colonization and self-colonization. After all, the colonizers are setting up these reward systems and putting things in the "language" (literally with the Dutch missionaries and the Siraya) of the natives. If they couldn't comprehend it, if it was so foreign that they could only fight against it, then they would do just that instead and fight to the last man; and I wouldn't call that colonization without a complementary process of self-colonization so much as I would just call it ineffective colonization...

Anyways, good insights, the struggle over identity certainly is very much connected to the struggle for power. I've heard there was a noticeable German accent among some American's English that was even preferred as a sign of learning until World War I. After that it disappeared in a hurry. Probably rise, fall, and rerise of languages in Taiwan are similarly correlated with power.