Noah Smith has a recent substack note discussing Taiwan. In the comments section there are a number of heated arguments over whether Taiwanese language, history, politics, and so forth are enough to justify thinking of Taiwan the way Smith does: as its own “civilization.” When reading through these debates I was struck by the need for a succinct explanation for why the people of Taiwan believe themselves to be a separate and distinct nation from the people of China.
This is actually a fairly complicated story with many moving parts and ethnicities thrown in, but I think the essentials can be reduced down to about ten bullet points. To do this, I intentionally simplify historical events and movements. If these bullets are still too long for you, you can skip to the bottom where I have condensed the gist of the entire thing into one paragraph.
- The majority of Taiwanese citizens are the descendants of ethnic Han Chinese who migrated to the island from Fujian several centuries ago. “Han” is the word for the main Chinese ethnicity. There were already people living in Taiwan when the Han got there—genetic and linguistic studies suggest that they are related, believe it or not, to the people of Polynesia— but just as Native Americans make up only a small proportion of America and the Ainu are only a sliver of Japan’s total population today, so these Taiwanese aboriginals are only a small part of Taiwan’s population as a whole. This migration of Fujianese across the strait was not state directed; it began well before any imperial dynasty exercised political control over the island.
- The Fujianese migration that brought the first Han to Taiwan was a part of a larger seabound expansion, an expansion that seeded much of Southeast Asia with ethnic Han Chinese and other parts of maritime China with Fujianers. While a few of these migrants were Hakka, a separate Chinese ethnic group with their own language (you can find Hakka speaking villages in Taiwan today—I have been to a few in Miaoli), the majority of the seabound migrants were Han Chinese who spoke the type of Chinese found in southern Fujian. These people were China’s great sea-farers. In English, their language is known as “Amoy” or “Hokkien.” Chinese mainlanders usually describe the variety spoken in Taiwan and Southern Fujian as “Southern Min,” while Taiwanese usually call their language “Taiwanese.” This language is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin. It is as different from Mandarin as German is from English. On the other hand, the Taiwanese variant of Hokkien and the Fujianese variants are quite close. I once heard it compared to the difference between English spoken by a Scotsman and an American. This language is spoken in most Taiwanese homes today.
- The Qing dynasty took control of Taiwan in 1683. While the majority of their officials were Han, the Qing themselves were not. They were Manchus. They viewed Han China as but one part of a vast multiethnic empire (which included Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, etc.) Nationalism was thus not a big part of Qing rule—including its rule over Taiwan. The Qing viewed Han identity as a disruptive force and tried to tamp down on positive expressions of it. But this was not hard. The Han themselves were divided between a dozen major Chinese languages, and most Chinese had little experience with life in the rest of China. Identification with either the dynasty or with a larger Chinese nation was restricted to the educated gentry. Most Chinese were parochial. They had a village mindset. On questions of identity, they viewed themselves as members of their village or lineage group first, as subjects of the Great Qing state second, and as part of a continent spanning Han nation not at all.
- This was true across Qing China, but truer in Taiwan than most other areas of Qing rule. Taiwan was a remote frontier distant from the imperial center, settled late in Chinese history, and not home to any large urban centers. This meant it provided comparatively few candidates to serve in the imperial government, and its elites were less connected to the dynasty through marriage ties and government service than local elites in many other provinces. This was not unique to Taiwan; it describes the situation in many of the more remote provinces. From Beijing’s perspective there was little to distinguish Taiwan from a province like Guangxi, which came under formal Qing rule decades after Taiwan did. But the important point here is that in Qing Taiwan the footprint of the state was light and a sense of common identity with the rest of the empire was weak.
- That could have been said for many parts of Qing China. Without outside intervention, Taiwan likely would have been integrated into the modern Chinese nation-state just as Guangxi, Yunan, outer Sichuan, and the rest were. But the Sino-Japanese war of 1895 diverts Taiwan off towards a unique path. The Qing lost the war, and the Japanese demanded Taiwan as a victory prize. From the perspective of a Chinese nationalist this timing is unfortunate. It means the Taiwanese exit the Chinese political system just before the Manchu are thrown out and Han political leaders take power. These political leaders, and even more so China’s new intellectual leaders, conclude that China’s weakness and disunity are a result of Chinese parochialism. The Chinese will never be able to defend themselves or modernize unless united through a strong sense of shared national identity. Building this sense of shared identity is a century long project. This project largely passes Taiwan by.
- Instead, the Taiwanese spend the next fifty years subjects of the Japanese empire. It may surprise you to learn that many Taiwanese look back at this era with a warm sense of nostalgia. On the mainland, the Chinese are ravaged by four decades of warlordism, imperialism, and civil war. Taiwan spends these decades at peace. They benefit immensely from Japanese investment. In contrast to later Japanese behavior on the mainland, they rule Taiwan with velvet gloves. There was little violence after 1900, and no chaos. Most Taiwanese, for their part, came to see the transition from Qing to Japanese rule as simply switching out one far-away emperor for another. But the Japanese state was far more invasive than the Qing ever was. (The few massacres that occurred over the following decades involved aboriginal groups that the weak Qing state had not bothered trying to tax or control). It slowly reshapes Taiwanese institutions, education, habits, language, and loyalties. By the time you get to World War II, many Taiwanese are enthusiastic subjects of their new empire. The Taiwanese who fought in World War II fought on the Japanese side. Many did so gladly. I have met old Taiwanese in their 90s proudly speaking Japanese to each other.
- After the war is over Taiwan is handed over to the Nationalists (whose party initials are KMT). At this time they are busy fighting a war with the Communists (or preparing to fight with them). They mostly view Taiwan, one of the few parts of Asia relatively unscathed by world war, as a giant strip mine. They distrust the local populace (who had been fighting on the Japanese side of that war) and felt no compunction stripping away Taiwanese wealth for the sake of shoring up their power on the mainland and winning their civil war with the Communist Party. In 1947 popular discontent with all this leads to an uprising. The uprising is put down with force, some 5,000-10,000 Taiwanese are killed, and martial law is declared. Martial law will not be rescinded for decades. The Taiwanese call all of this “the white terror.” The important thing to grasp about this terror: this is Taiwan’s only moment of integration with the mainland in the 20th century. It was an experienced as a despotic attack on the Taiwanese people.
- The situation grows more complicated when the KMT loses their war with the Communists. They retreat with as many government officials and soldiers as they can ship across the Strait. This introduces a new element to Taiwanese life. The Qing and Japanese administrators had floated on top of Taiwanese society, a tiny demographic drop in a sea of people. This was different: two million KMT supporters would migrate to Taiwan (most of them settling in the north). These people came from every region of China, but their lingua franca was Mandarin—the language that nation-builders across the strait had decided would be easiest to impose on the Chinese as a whole. These people initially believed their retreat to be temporary. One day their armies would return victorious to the mainland. Although they no longer controlled most of China, they still called their government the “Republic of China” and for decades the legislature in Taipei has seats assigned for representatives of the left-behind provinces. These people, and their descendants, are known as the Waishengren, or the “outside province people.” The Taiwanese descended from the Han settlers who came to Taiwan several centuries previous are known as the Bendiren or Benshengren, or the “original land/original province people.” Many of Taiwan’s cultural, political, and identity divides reflect divisions between these two groups of people.
- The KMT regime was a dictatorship. Before it came to Taiwan it was committed to the Chinese nation-building project. Now restricted to Taiwan, the KMT would use the tools of dictatorship to force this project on the Taiwanese. This is why everybody in Taiwan speaks Mandarin today (though those in the south don’t always speak it well and usually speak it with a strong accent). Taiwanese Hokkien was banned from television and the schools, and all expressions of a unique Taiwanese identity were quashed by the state. But again, this was very much seen as a tyrannical imposition by an outside force. When the dictatorship ended all of that stuff came roaring back.
- The KMT’s nation-building efforts were undermined by what was happening in China itself. Their wish for Taiwan to become proudly Chinese was difficult to realize when their version of China was restricted to Taiwan. The longer the two were apart the more the two diverged. China became communist, cut itself off from the rest of the world, fought a war in Korea and Vietnam, underwent collectivization, rooted out traditional religion and clan structures, was subjected to a dozen major political and modernization campaigns, experienced mass famine, suffered through the culture revolution, experienced disillusionment with communism, and then reasserted the authority of a one-party state. None of this occurred in Taiwan. Instead, Taiwan reaffirmed old traditional customs and religions, opened its doors to Western and Japanese culture, industrialized, and saw its one-party state loosen its power and then transition to democracy entirely. By the time the two countries re-opened intercourse between them, they discovered their political systems and social attitudes had diverged completely. (This was also true in the world of pop culture: Taiwanese know who Indiana Jones is. Chinese do not).
- Since the reestablishment of contact there has been some limited convergence. This convergence is most dramatic in the economic realm. But you see it in terms of music, media, and movies as well (though in many important areas, such as preferred websites, the two live in very different worlds). But for the most part contact with the mainlanders has only shown younger Taiwanese how different they are from them. Far from bringing them together, cross-straits contact usually alienates both sides involved. The fact is that younger generations of Taiwanese, including the grandchildren of the waishengren have no memory of pre-communist China, have only distant relatives there, and have spent their entire lives living in freedom. This is an environment where the use of Taiwanese Hokkien is encouraged and Taiwanese nationalism has flourished. Thus very few people under 45 consider themselves Chinese. Chinese identity remains strongest among the waishengren who migrated to Taiwan 70 years ago and in the generation that was raised in the KMT state system and experienced the benefits of the KMT-led economic boom (the 55-65 year old demographic). Because Taiwanese fertility is so low this demographic has a lot of electoral power, but not enough to win the last two presidential elections.
That is the story in a nutshell. You could restate this story in a more abbreviated way:
Taiwan has spent the last 115 years on a separate political, economic, cultural track from the mainland. Taiwan diverged from the other subject of the Qing dynasty before Han nationalists began their century long project to forge a united Chinese nation. Not only did they never experience the fruits of that project, but they have not shared any of the other historical experiences or common cultural touchstones that have shaped Chinese identity over the last hundred years. The migration of the waishengren in the 1940s inserted a demographic group into Taiwanese life that had experienced some of these things, but the waishengren were always a minority within Taiwan and found their efforts to inculcate a sense of shared Chinese identity in the rest of Taiwan frustrated first by their complete isolation from Communist China, and then later by the opposite trajectories of the Taiwanese and Chinese political systems. Chinese who claim that Taiwanese are their blood brothers rarely appreciate the scale and scope of this divergence. As I have noted before, what divides Taiwan from China today far exceeds that what divided America from England in 1775.
As someone who has lived years in both Taiwan and in China I can also give a more anecdotal assessment: the differences between the two countries and their respective cultures (to say nothing of their political systems) is clear. They are simply not the same people. I would not go so far to claim the Taiwanese a separate “civilization,” as Noah Smith does, but they are clearly a nation distinct. They are peculiar in their religious beliefs, social attitudes, daily habits, and guiding customs. I often feel like Taiwan sits halfway between China and Japan, a melding of the manners and mores of each. Given Taiwan’s history the “Japaneseness” of Taiwan makes sense. I don’t know a good way to quantify this difference, but it will be immediately apparent to anybody who walks into a Taiwanese restaurant or talks to a Taiwanese policeman after having done the same thing on the mainland. The distinction is real.
This is one reason I hesitate to endorse an idea often see bandied about when Taiwan and China are compared to each other. People often suggest that Taiwan is living proof that democracy is compatible in Chinese conditions. But Taiwan and China do not have similar conditions! Their paths diverged more than a century ago, and it is difficult to say how stable Taiwanese democracy would have been had it not traveled its unique path through Japanese empire, non-Communist dictatorship, and close relations with the Western world. I suspect that the future of post-Communist China might be better discerned by looking at post-Communist transitions in Eastern Europe and the former USSR.
A concluding note: several years ago a Taiwanese reader sent me a letter describing how these issues played out in his own family, where one of his grand-fathers fought with the KMT in World War II and the other fought for the Japanese. I published it on this blog, and readers here might find it of interest.