Tuesday, April 25, 2017

MEDIAFAIL: Taiwanese are not "ethnic Chinese"

Namaxia_63
Housing for aboriginal people.

One of the ways the foreign media serves Beijing is by recapitulating its propaganda frameworks -- in this case, that the Taiwanese are "Chinese" and there is no such thing as "Taiwanese". This claim is a standard claim of those who would annex Taiwan to China. Indeed, China's claim on Arunachal Pradesh in India is supported by official claims that the area's Tibetan people are "Chinese" and thus the region is "China".

Local media worker Ralph Jennings is one of the chief purveyors of this nonsense. See for example, this transcendentally stupid article on Chinese tourists,
Tourists from China eagerly report that strangers politely stop to give directions and shopkeepers respond professionally to inquiries. This treatment compares to China where an annoying number of strangers are surly or vague when interrupted by a question. The level of courtesy found in Taiwan fosters an appreciation of the location itself as well as a reminder that ethnic Chinese on either side easily have it in them to be polite.
.... "ethnic Chinese on either side" is a pro-China frame, reductive and wrong. There are many other examples: here, here, here, and here.

Reuters seems to have picked this up as well. In an article on how Taiwan's economic policies are its own worst enemy, it claims....
The capital of Taipei shows what an advanced ethnically Chinese economy can achieve under a democracy: a comfortable, low-key lifestyle.
This may come as a shock to the media, but Taiwan does not exist so the media can make smug contrasts between democracy in "ethnic Chinese" cultures. We have democracy here in Taiwan precisely because locals resisted the Chinese culture brought over by the KMT, with its authoritarianism and authority-based values, fake family values, empty democratic values, Confucianism bereft of humanity, and violent suppression of dissent.

The basis of their resistance was, of course, Taiwaneseness.

This "culture iceberg" is a common image, with many variations. But note that when people talk about "culture" they are usually referring to the parts that are easy to see: language, food, holidays, dress (though even in Taiwan they are different). The parts that are below are difficult for the untrained to see or think about and so are never referenced in discussions like those in the media. Wouldn't it be awesome if the media consulted anthropologists the way they consult financiers?

For Taiwan, for example, one might add...
  • the experience of Dutch, Qing, Japanese, and KMT colonization, the experience of being settlers, being a settler region, and interactions with and resistance to the distant, different state
  • the existence of the frontier and the Other in the interactions between aboriginal peoples and the incoming Hoklo and Hakka settlers, and its shaping of culture, building forms, and landscapes in Taiwan, and the continued existence of aborigines as distinct Other in the present day
  • the ideal of democracy and its application in resistance to Japan and the KMT. Remember the first elections were held under the Japanese.
  • democratization and the lived experience of democracy
  • steady and rapid long-term capitalist economic growth and relative affluence
  • Pervasive Japanese influences in food, hygiene, expectations of social progress and order, and so forth
  • Pervasive US influence via increasing globalization and close economic, social, political, and military ties.
  • the experience of China's desire to annex Taiwan and suppress local identity via both KMT colonization and PRC aggression
...that is only a small sample of the vastness of the differences in Taiwan experience. I haven't even addressed defining "ethnic Chinese" since the constructs we generally use to discuss "Chineseness" are themselves the result of Beijing's propaganda as the Imperial Capital struggles to suppress local cultures and languages across its vast empire via the creation of a common "culture".

Hence, the categories ordinary people use to think about and define "what's Chinese?" are usually categories constructed by expansionist politicians in Beijing. While it might be entertaining to imagine international media workers struggling to define "ethnic Chinese", it would not be very enlightening (it is never defined in the text, of course).

The short form of this is: Taiwanese are "ethnic Chinese" to the extent that Americans are "ethnic United Kingdomers".


But another way to think about it is provided by Geert Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions, widely used in business and other research as a shorthand for describing cultural patterns. Hofstede has surveyed the world's nations to develop a crude way to compare them on several dimensions of deeper behavioral attitudes. Anthropologists laugh, but it is a useful shorthand for twenty years of fieldwork and does enable comparisons, since the surveys are the same for all people surveyed.

I compared China and Taiwan using his tool. Note the blindingly obvious differences in everything except "long term orientation" (definitions are onsite).

You want to claim Taiwanese are "ethnic Chinese?" Evidence please. Otherwise, stop saying what isn't true.

UPDATE: An anthropologist observed to me:
The idea that "Taiwan proves Chinese people can be X" (polite/democratic/etc.) is just racist. The use of the term "ethnic" in there just serves to hide the implicit racism.
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17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear what you have to say about my views, personally I find it ok to say Taiwanese are 'ethnic Chinese'. Not all Taiwanese are ethnically Chinese obviously, aborigines for example. We always find people say most Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, a large number of Malaysians are ethnic Chinese, ethnic Chinese in San Francisco... That doesn't mean these peoples are Chinese citizens or that they associate themselves to PRC. There are of course some (slight?) differences between these three and PRC but they can be indistinguishable. Except by the eagle eyed. Some of the differences may be caused by 'local interference' such as a local culture, politics etc.

According to dictionary.com, ethnic means: pertaining to or characteristic of a people, especially a group (ethnic group) sharing a common and distinctive culture, religion, language or the like. Most Taiwanese indeed share a common and distinct culture, religion, language to PRC. So do Chinese Singaporeans, Chinese Malaysians, Chinese Americans etc. But these Chinese Singaporeans, Malaysians and Americans do not associate themselves with PRC and do not want to be associated with PRC at all. They consider themselves Chinese by race, not Chinese by nationality. Same way, perhaps, that the Taiwanese consider themselves Chinese by race, not Chinese by nationality. I think it all boils down to the fact that in the English language there is no strong distinction between Chinese by race and Chinese by nationality. Whereas in Chinese language you have the distinction between '華人' and '中國人', the former implying Chinese descent/ethnicity, the latter implying someone who holds a PRC passport, which makes him a Chinese citizen. Dare I say most Taiwanese (a Taiwanese means someone who is a citizen of Taiwan, holds a Taiwanese passport) are 華人! Those Taiwanese who are not 華人 or ethically Chinese are the aborigines, naturalized foreigners for example.

The gist of all this is that there is an important distinction between 'race' and 'nationality'. The PRC and KMT like to sprout the 'Chinese race=Chinese nationality' nonsense. And helping their cause is the English language, which doesn't have strong vocabulary to differentiate Chinese race and Chinese nationality.

Your argument of Americans being ethnic UKiams is not a good example. An American and UKiam (aka British) is a nationality, citizen, not a race or ethnicity. Obviously Americans are not British because American citizenship is not British citizenship. Americans have many different ethnicity, Caucasians (white), African (black), Hispanic, Chinese, japanese etc. Ditto for the Uk. So some Americans and Brits are ethnically Caucasians, now this is a fact.

Btw, off topic, I've been lurking quietly around this awesome blog of yours for a long time and this is my first comment. This is perhaps your first post that I don't agree with, unfortunately.... Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

That's funny, it reminds me of a story early on when I arrived in Taiwan. I was out to dinner with my wife and a few very vocal deep green members of the Taiwan expat community. When my wife said her ancestors were from China, the two of them launched into a completely self assured lecture to her that her beliefs about her background were mistaken.

She told them, no, her family was from China. But the clearly non-ideologically driven crusaders of critical thinking continued to rattle off anthropological data to her, and continued to insist she was in no uncertain terms brainwashed by the vile KMT and their sinicization propaganda campaign.

My wife is soft spoken, and so under her breath I could hear her say "why do you think you can tell me about my own background"?

We went to her family house that night, she showed me her family registry. They were from Fujian.

I don't know why I told that story, but surely readers can find a connection somewhere.



Anonymous said...

Did you know the founding father of Taiwan Independence Koo Hsien-jung had his children learn the Chinese classics because, as Koo Kwang-ming stated, his father wanted he and his brothers to not forget their Chinese heritage despite the family's relationship with the Japanese? I know its sexy for expats to try to out green each other but keep in mind that not all Taiwanese greens reject Chinese heritage.

k said...

"ethnic Chinese on either side"<-- it is time for taiwan to stop looking to china and start looking at the world, which go rounds and round and there is not a single "the other side".

jack said...


Are the people of Formosa the overseas Chinese?
福爾摩沙人是漢人(華僑)的後代嗎?
http://ekey-esir.blogspot.sg/2010/06/blog-post_30.html

Anonymous said...

Ethnicity Test:

Take a symbol and analyze the reaction various groups of people regarded as "ethnic Chinese" have to that symbol.

American flag.

Imagine how different groups of respondents will react to and decode the meaning of that symbol. My guess is that you will find vastly different views heavily influenced by experience.

That is an extreme example of ethnicity at work. The symbol of the American flag could be substituted with all kinds of imagery from daily life:

Police officer
Industry
Nature
Civil Disobedience
Temple/Church
Elderly
Africa

These are examples of where ethnicity resides. They are symbols that are given meanings and this meanings are decoded more or less accurately between people. The contrasts become exasperated when there is a disparity of power.

HK is a great example. Under British colonial rule, they were Chinese by contrast. Now under PRC rule the differences in how the other is perceived and how the other thinks have become apparent. People are now considering that they may not be Chinese after all.

Anonymous said...

You are ethnic United Kingdomers.

: )

Anonymous said...

Your anthropologist friend seems to have the right idea, but she/he does not make the point clearly. Using the phrase "ethnic Chinese" does not "hide" racism; rather, it openly endorses the racist idea that "blood" constitutes "Chinese" or any other national identity. The phrase implies that cultural differences such as those you allude to are superficial.

The real problem, I think, is that "national culture" is usually a racist idea, too. It begins by assuming that there is a distinct group of people with a shared identity, and then proceeds to characterize their "culture." Since this shared identity is logically prior to "culture," it can only be based on race, blood, or some other mystical idea (e.g., "nation"). Trying to reason in the other direction, from Taiwanese culture to Taiwanese identity, just begs the question of what "Taiwanese" means.

Anonymous said...

I think there's a bit of semantics issue. Most laypeople (including me) are not super clear on exactly where ethnicity fits between race and nationality. Some of the comments above reflect this.

Rather than get hung up on the semantics, I think added comment is right: the obsessive focus on ethnicity or race when it comes to non-Western countries is an absurd double standard. No one asks if Austrians are ethnic Germans or if Norwegians are ethnic Swedes, and no one questions whether these countries are sufficiently different to "deserve" independence. It just doesn't matter (except maybe to some really far-right nationalists??). It shouldn't be necessary to justify one's political existence to the West but we find ourselves having to do it.

What I like about what you said: Taiwan has a lot of great stories (not necessarily having to do with history or politics) that have largely not been told to the world. Why is that? I don't know but this is why I like what the MoC is doing with their translation grants. From the books I've read, Taiwanese literature feels like it follows a very different tradition than Chinese literature. I hope they continue this program, regardless of whether the books sell, because it's definitely worthwhile (and I hope every country does the same thing!)

B.BarNavi said...

I know why you told that story - to prop up a false equivalence between top-down imposition and an overreaction to it.

SEA concepts of "Chineseness" simply do not compare to the Taiwanese experience. For one, despite flirting with nationalism during the 20th century, the SEA Chinese had really only been a confederation of vaguely related ethnic groups (Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, etc.) with a common origin in China, living life in contrast (and often opposition) to a native Malay Muslim population. Such a living environment engenders a stronger Chinese identity, as it was basically a fortress mentality. (The South Asian community had a parallel experience, but they had already long been brought together by British colonialism so...) In contrast, Hoklos in Taiwan ended up as a majority on the island, but still removed from their roots in China. That's a surefire recipe for constructing a new identity.

I know that the description of Taiwan as "an ethnic Chinese democracy" is aimed at Singapore as much as it is aimed at China. The problem with that is that Singapore presents itself as a multi-ethnic cultural melting pot, despite being majority Chinese. Perhaps it's time for Taiwan to be presented as such?

Anonymous said...

So, let me get this straight. In this topic we are trying to apply "race and ethnicity" to the same human species (homosapiens)? "Culture" and "nationality" based on unfixed territory that has been in constant flux and through an analysis of 0.02% of the history of modern humans? That's just how tiny China's "long" history is, and, it is no where near the longest.

Ok cool! My big toe is slightly longer than normal - I declare myself to be of of the bigtoenese race. You are welcome to join my race if you like. I'll get some orange cones to mark off our territory and we can rip off and mix together bits of other "cultures" and "languages" to create our own, like everyone else did. Ooops...umm....I mean create our own superior culture and language which is 100% unique to us!

Hail the bigtoenese!

Michael Turton said...

Did you know the founding father of Taiwan Independence Koo Hsien-jung had his children learn the Chinese classics because, as Koo Kwang-ming stated, his father wanted he and his brothers to not forget their Chinese heritage despite the family's relationship with the Japanese? I know its sexy for expats to try to out green each other but keep in mind that not all Taiwanese greens reject Chinese heritage.

Did you know that not being ethnic Chinese is not the same as rejecting all things Chinese? I know it is sexy for anonymous commenters to be critical, but keep in mind that you have to be able to think as well.

Randolph Cheng said...

ya, works like a charm everytime pulling out "aboriginal" people's housing, and drag indigenous into this equation like indigenous people really cared whichever terms or names they were given by any outsiders.

onghiok said...

Ethnic Han, please.

Alcibiades said...

When I have a conversation with someone and they say "a Chinese guy" did X, I sometimes need to stop and ask them if they mean a Chinese national or an ethnic Chinese. Is this politically incorrect now?

I am also under the impression that using Taiwan as an example of a 'successful Chinese democracy' is mostly a jab at Beijing's claim that "the Chinese" are particularly ill-suited for democracy rather than an attack on Taiwanese independence or an example of racism.

Is this where the battle is being fought now? If only we could find a DNA test to show that the Taiwanese have a right to independence?

Michael Turton said...

I am also under the impression that using Taiwan as an example of a 'successful Chinese democracy' is mostly a jab at Beijing's claim that "the Chinese" are particularly ill-suited for democracy rather than an attack on Taiwanese independence or an example of racism.

Even as an attack on Beijing, it is racist, because Beijing's original comment is racist.

When I have a conversation with someone and they say "a Chinese guy" did X, I sometimes need to stop and ask them if they mean a Chinese national or an ethnic Chinese. Is this politically incorrect now?

Poor you. What a dilemma, eh?

Is this where the battle is being fought now? If only we could find a DNA test to show that the Taiwanese have a right to independence?

If only ethnicity had anything to do with DNA....

Anonymous said...

You eat, drink, talk, and dream like Chinese. Yet, you refuse to call yourself Chinese. This is nothing but absurd petulance in the view of most Chinese. Its just being a traitor to your own kind. That is why Chinese people hate any notion of Taiwan independence so much.

Taiwan nationality is an artificial construction based on the fact that China was weak to take back Taiwan in 1949. It is natural for people to construct fake nationalities to reinforce political goals. Even East Germany tried to claim itself as a separate nation.

Political differences alone do not construct a nation. That is why so called Taiwanese would start calling themselves Chinese as soon as China becomes strong enough to take it back.