Looking back over the history of the Republic of China, with reawakened memories of the break with the mainland, amounts to a bewildering exposure to a complex and now strongly politicised identity. Where do people stand in regard to this moment of history, when in Taipei the question of independence has become, with the passing of the years, a question of honour, and of pride in the national community?
And then, what should they make of those chevaleresque epics about warring kingdoms? Of the military and political greatness of the Qin Dynasty? Of the cultural influence of the Tang Dynasty? Of the humiliation represented by the Opium Wars? Of dignity regained on the day the Republic of China was formed, or of the feeling on hearing its national anthem today?
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Of the words they pronounce, or the Chinese characters they draw? Questioning the collective, family or individual career must, in the depths of the memories aroused, affect the perceptions that all young people make of their own identities and futures, within an unusually troubled political and geostrategic context. While all their families originate from mainland China, they have grown up with the policies of reform and openness launched in while benefiting, unlike their parents, from some measure of material comfort. Yet, recalling family experience inevitably draws these young people into a critical analysis of contemporary political history.
Those participants questioned in Paris are usually more restrained in their views, the drawbacks of the Maoist period being moderated by pragmatic considerations linked to the sociopolitical context of the time and minimised in light of the subsequent economic success of the Deng Xiaoping era. By contrast, the people questioned in China have, curiously, far less positive attitudes.
Some have no hesitation in condemning the vagaries of Maoism, especially during the Cultural Revolution, and they often regret the absence of freedom of expression or of worship in present-day China. This difference in viewpoint may certainly be explained by geographic distance. It is as though the annoyances and the disappointments of everyday life in a foreign land has bolstered, among the students settled in France, feelings of loyalty and patriotic attachment to their country of origin They received a traditional education tending to emphasise the feeling of belonging to the Chinese nation.
Some can remember that their school textbooks still spoke of the recapture of the mainland as an ideal to be achieved It was often at home that they learned that such discourse was somewhat fanciful. As young adults they witnessed the coming to power of Lee Teng-hui. The younger ones, who were barely five years old at the time when martial law was lifted, grew up in a society marked by the division created between Taiwanese identity and Chinese identity.
At the time when Chen Shui-bian was embarking on his first presidential term, they were just coming out of adolescence. Yet, their perspectives on the history of the split and on the question of relations with China are apparently more distanced, less emotionally involved, than those of their elders.
When it comes to the young people living in France, their lives abroad seem also to have affected the feelings connecting them to the country of their birth Several of them remarked, indeed, that while they saw themselves before leaving Taiwan as having both Chinese and Taiwanese identity, their experience of living in France for reasons that I shall mention later on had brought them to favour a strictly Taiwanese identity for the future.
They will also refer back with pride to some dynasties of ancient China. Lastly, they will speak of those Others, living on the mainland or in Taiwan, other people whom often they have met but who remain, however, unfamiliar. Yet, the understanding they have formed of this moment of history differs somewhat from person to person. They had taken advantage of the weakness of the Qing Dynasty to occupy significant areas of the country during the latter half of the nineteenth century and had acquired, by a series of military victories over the Chinese, extensive privileges.
These young people see the Republic of China as having given back dignity and hope to the Chinese people. It seems that they prefer to dwell on the intellectual, political and cultural renewal that the Republic of China ushered in. Though they also consider that it brought new hope for China, they are less concerned with washing away the humiliations inflicted by the West than with building a powerful and prosperous country.
The nation itself they are unanimous in seeing as linked, at that time, to the institutions and the political context of the Republic of China.
Similarly, they are as one in regretting the failure of the state and the society that it had set out to create. They attribute this project, often quite exclusively, to the efforts of Sun Yat-sen. They consider it to have been aborted in , the year of his death. The Republic of China that once included the whole of the Chinese nation and extended across the whole of its territory is, in their eyes, non-existent today. It no longer corresponds to the Chinese nation in the human and territorial dimension of the times.
In the same way, it no longer seems really associated in their minds with the idealised personality of Sun Yat-sen, but rather with the power struggle that broke out on his death within the Kuomintang, as well as with the Civil War and the territorial break-up that followed it. Nevertheless, it is still historically significant and, for the Taiwanese, has retained a cultural meaning that influences most of them deeply.
The policy of emphasising Chinese culture that was adopted in the early s in Taiwan also helped to spread the traditions. These cultural values, implanted from the early years of schooling, are a source of pride to the Taiwanese students. For this reason they all regret the simplified form of writing that has been introduced on the mainland, with the mutilation it has inflicted on Chinese characters. They are also surprised by a certain coarseness of language, which they generally put down to the influence of Maoist rhetoric. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, these seem to be lacking in the gentleness and subtlety appropriate to the standards of conduct prescribed by the Confucian heritage Nevertheless, it seems that this break-up is perceived differently by the Chinese and the Taiwanese.
The Chinese particularly deplore the splitting up of the nation, which they see in terms of its human and territorial consequences: they say China has been brutally despoiled of one of its provinces. Whereas for the Taiwanese, the break-up is hardly seen at all in nationalist terms, but rather in terms of history and morality.
It is as though they felt themselves entrusted with a system of values and a destiny that the mainland Chinese have abandoned. And they would like such symbols to be more visible, particularly during sports contests at the international level where Taiwanese athletes are competing.
Similarly, they are often inclined to claim an exclusively Taiwanese identity, to the detriment of the attachment they feel for the historical and cultural dimension of the Republic of China. Indeed, to acknowledge citizenship of the Republic of China amounts, for some of them, to validating the nationalist discourse that they have heard in the mouths of their Chinese fellow-students Thus, many will say they have joined the pro-independence movement, in order to show that the solution of unification with China is far from being achieved. It would seem as though the strength of the nationalist sentiments encountered among Chinese students, often asserted in unsolicited speeches about the future reunification of Taiwan with China, inclines these young Taiwanese to favour symbolic referents that they know the Chinese students do not share.
So they insist on belonging to a strictly Taiwanese community, the corollary of a national identity strictly limited to the frontiers of the island. Their approach is to favour that which distinguishes them from the Others and consequently to minimise the influence of the common heritage associated with Chinese civilisation. Many participants tell me that they have never felt themselves so Taiwanese as they do since they arrived in France and started meeting Chinese students Curiously, what they consider historically important is neither the invasion of China by Japan nor the defeat of Japan at the end of the Second World War, but rather the success of the War of Resistance kangri zhanzheng shengli.
Taiwanese and mainland Chinese, both sides refer explicitly to the feeling of national pride over this outcome. The majority of the Taiwanese, whether they be islanders or mainlanders, identify wholly with the protagonists in this historical episode. Yet, at that time, Taiwan was a Japanese colony and its inhabitants, subjects of the Japanese Emperor, were having to fight alongside the Japanese troops Also, the explanations they offer for the defeat of the Japanese are invariably couched in the language of nationalism. In particular, they insist that it is impossible for any invaders, whoever they may be, to defeat a united people determined to drive them out.
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The Pacific campaign waged by the Americans and the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not systematically mentioned or, if they are, not until much later in their replies. Mostly their accounts of it are lucid, though not necessarily faithful to official interpretations.
Thus, according to them, the war came about because the political leaders of the time, Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, found it impossible to reach a negotiated solution. For that they would have to have made concessions, and to have relinquished some of their prerogatives and a portion of their power.
However, the young people attribute responsibilities differently.
Bernd Bratsch (Author of Grown up in Taiwan !)
The Taiwanese see the question more objectively and impute the struggle to the overweening ambition of both men. Mostly they emphasise the cynicism of politicians, and the misfortunes that this can lead to. By contrast, they venerate the figure of Sun Yat-sen: in their imagination, as in Chinese notions as well, he appears untainted by any political manoeuvring and truly devoted to the good of the nation.
For the Chinese, it led to the break with Taiwan and so, as I have already pointed out, to the splitting up of the nation in human and territorial terms. They see this state of affairs as regrettable and, in particular, as difficult to resolve. While they are mostly favourable to reunification, they reject any prospect of war; yet, they are agreed in judging that it could happen.
They stress also that human and material losses would be considerable on both sides, but that China, unlike Taiwan, benefits from territorial and demographic power that would enable it to absorb the shock. Admittedly, the Civil War is seen to have led to the break of , but also and above all as having plunged China, because of the Communist victory, into a new and particularly harmful political and social organisation. They are sorry that the country subsequently fell behind in economic development; and they deplore the political violence and the damage inflicted upon the cultural tradition.
They think that China, without the tragedy of war and the errors of Maoism, would have become a world power to which perhaps, though this is not openly expressed, they might have felt proud to belong.
Susan Ho: “Jie Guo”
This nostalgia for a powerful, prosperous and respected China can be sensed also in their overall view of its history. It makes them sad, disappointed, regretful. On the other hand, they are happy to talk about ancient history with particular admiration for the Qin and Tang Dynasties.
Related Grown up in Taiwan !
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