The "Taiwan Question" – Does Taiwan Belong To China? (Part I)

“In late October [1945] word came at last that Chinese military units were expected to land at Takao [now Gaoxiong (高雄), in Taiwan]. My father was made chairman of a welcoming committee. […] An American naval vessel came slowly into Takao harbor, making its way among the sunken hulks. Local Japanese military authorities, awaiting repatriation with their men, turned out a smartly disciplined honor guard to line the wharf, ready to salute the victorious Chinese army. A great crowd of curious and excited citizens had come to support my father’s welcoming committee and to see the show. The ship docked, the gangways were lowered, and off came the troops of China, the victors. The first man to appear was a bedraggled fellow who looked and behaved more like a coolie than a soldier, walking off with a carrying pole across his shoulder, from which was suspended his umbrella, sleeping mat, cooking pot, and cup. Others like him followed, some with shoes, some without. Few had guns. With no attempt to maintain order or discipline, they pushed off the ship, glad to be on firm land, but hesitant to face the Japanese lined up and saluting smartly on both sides. My father wondered what the Japanese could possibly think. He had never felt so ashamed in his life. Using a Japanese expression, he said, “If there had been a hole nearby, I would have crawled in!” [Peng Ming-min: A Taste Of Freedom, chapter III]

This scene from the autobiographical work by Taiwan-born politician and academician Peng Mingmin (Chinese: 彭明敏; pinyin: Péng Míngmǐn) has become one of the most emblematic descriptions of the first encounter between Taiwanese and Chinese mainlanders after the end of the Japanese colonial rule on Formosa. In this passage, we can see many of the contradictions in Taiwan’s post-war history. The Taiwanese, ready to welcome their fellow countrymen from the mainland and work together with them to create a new future for the island, became aware of how different China was from them and began to think about their own identity as something different from the “Chinese” identity.  The “smartly disciplined” Japanese, Taiwan’s defeated colonial masters, appear respectable and dignified, while the “victorious” Chinese are portrayed as a crowd of shabby, rapacious men, without a bit of the majesty and nobleness one may have expected from the army that had allegedly come to liberate Taiwan. From the beginning, the reunification of China and Taiwan was full of hostility between the two sides. 1945 is the year in which Taiwanese nationalism was born.

Taiwan’s Historical Heritage: Chinese Settlement, Qing Rule and Japanese Colonial Era 

The question whether Taiwan is Chinese or not is extremely complex. I think that there are arguments both in favour of and against it. In order to understand this issue, one must consider the history of Taiwan, which is in many respects both quite distinct from and closely linked to that of the mainland.

If we consider language and culture, China and Taiwan largely share the same cultural heritage. Taiwan’s population mostly consists of the descendants of mainland Chinese who came from Southern China, especially from Fujian Province. These settlers emigrated in vast numbers from the 17th century onward and colonized the island. First, it were the Dutch who, in need of labour to exploit the agricultural resources of Taiwan, sought to intensify the immigration of Han Chinese who worked for them in the fields.

Following the short-lived Dutch rule (1642-1662) and the de facto independent reign of the Ming-loyalist Zheng Family (1661-1683), in 1684, the 23rd year of Emperor Kangxi’s reign, the new Qing dynasty that had conquered China established itself on Taiwan and the Penghu islands, which were put under its imperial sovereignty. “The island that had previously appeared on official maps as rebel-held territory labeled Dongning (“Eastern Peace,” the name that Zheng Chenggong had used for Tainan and by extension all territories on the island under his governance) now was designated Taiwan.” [Davison 2003] It is important to stress that Taiwan was part of the Qing Empire from 1684 to 1895, and it is from the sovereignty rights of the Qing state that both the Guomindang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) derive their claim that Taiwan and China belong to the same country. Let’s point out that China’s territory as envisioned by the KMT and the CCP corresponds to the borders of the Qing Empire, and not of the Ming Empire or previous dynasties. (see map below)

Source: Wikipedia

Although imperial China imposed restrictions on immigration to Taiwan, this didn’t prevent thousands of Chinese from crossing the straits in search of new land. Qing policies, which for many decades impede the settlement of families in Taiwan, led to frequent intermarriages between Han Chinese and aborigines. Taiwan was “a frontier society populated by footloose and frequently unruly single men,” many of whom “ultimately sought mates among the aborigines.” [Davison 2003] In 1684, Taiwan had about 130,000 inhabitants, made up of Han Chinese and plain aborigines. Many aborigines were in the course of time sinicized, but many aborigines who lived in remote areas kept their own language and culture. By the 1890s Taiwan’s population exceeded 2,500,000, which represented a 20-fold increase since 1684. [Davison 2003]

Following the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Qing Empire ceded Taiwan to Japan, which ruled it until the end of World War II. During these fifty years, Taiwan and China, cut off from each other, went completely separate ways. When they met again in 1945, their divergent historical experiences had made them so different that a peaceful reunification became almost impossible. 

During Japanese rule, Taiwan underwent momentous changes:

1) After the initial period of military suppression, around 1900 Japan started to regard Taiwan as a model colony closely tied to the core of the Empire. For the conquered, there was little doubt that the Japanese were the masters: they administered the island, controlled the police and military, Japanese individuals and companies dominated the economy, and Japanese culture, language and even religion were propagated, monopolizing the cultural life of the island. Many Taiwanese spoke Japanese, and even writers used Japanese. However, Japan didn’t treat the Taiwanese as slaves or as a completely inferior race, like they did in mainland China. On the contrary, they co-opted local elites, guaranteed a certain level of participation in the economy and education. Peng Ming-min, like several other members of the Taiwanese elite, were even allowed to study in Japan. Though the Japanese punished those who rebelled, they rewarded people who distinguished themselves at the service of the Empire. They encouraged the formation of a middle-class, which was loyal, but also aware of the fact that they were second class subjects of the Emperor. 

2) The influence of Japan was for the Taiwanese elite the first encounter with modernity. At a time when modernity was almost synonymous with “Western”, the Japanese, being the first Asians to partly open up to the West and adopt a capitalist economic strategy, introduced Taiwan to a new worldview. 

3) Under the Japanese, the Taiwanese economy started a process of industrialization and increase in efficiency and productivity. Sanitation and public hygiene was also given high priority. The living conditions of the Taiwanese improved, which is reflected in an increase of the population from 2,650,000 in 1900, to 2,890,485 in 1905, and to 5,962,000 in 1943. [Davison] Thanks to the economic policy of the Japanese, Taiwan was the second most industrialized economy in Asia after Japan itself.

4) Taiwanese identity under the Japanese was ambivalent. “Some [political movements] pursued legitimacy for Taiwan as part of Japan, others held on to the Chinese imperial tradition, while yet others absorbed the reformist and revolutionary ideologies of the May Fourth intellectuals on mainland China, and argued for an “awakening” of the Taiwanese on those terms.” [Harrison 2006, p. 77]

From this premises we can easily understand why in 1945 Taiwanese people and mainlanders didn’t see in each other fellow countrymen. China was a poverty-stricken, backward and corrupt country, run by an inefficient government. China had been experiencing endless bloody wars ever since 1911: the revolution, warlordism, civil war and then the Japanese invasion. Mainlanders didn’t know what peace was. Furthermore, China had not yet been industrialized or modernized. When the mainlanders arrived in Taiwan, they found a peaceful, relatively prosperous country, at least compared to the mainland.

The mainlanders regarded the influence of the Japanese on Taiwanese culture and life as an evil. For the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the war had created strong anti-Japanese sentiments among them. The mainlanders wanted to “re-educate” the Taiwanese; teach them how to become good Chinese again. These attempts were not very successful, because the image of China got worse day by day. 

On the one hand there were the corrupt officials sent over to Taiwan from Nanjing by Chiang Kai-shek. They looted the treasury, assigned posts to protege’s, excluded the locals from the government, and took whatever they liked. Their mismanagement of the economy soon became evident.

On the other hand, there were the soldiers of the National Revolutionary Army (the army of the KMT), who became the symbol of Chinese backwardness and abuse. They behaved as though Taiwan belonged to them, stealing from restaurants and shops as they pleased. Here is what Peng Ming-min wrote about them:

“Father’s sense of humor prompted him to suggest that someone should collect stories of the incoming Chinese, especially of the ignorant conscripts who had been shipped over to Formosa from inland provinces on the continent. Many were totally unacquainted with modern technology. Some had never seen or had never understood a modern water system. There were instances in which they picked up water faucets in plumber’s shops and then, pushing them into holes in walls and embankments, had expected water to flow. They then complained bitterly to the plumbers from whose shops the faucets came. There was a story of one soldier who took a seat in a barber’s shop, had his hair cut, and then when the barber picked up an electric hair-dryer, instantly put up his hands pale with fright thinking it was a pistol.”

The conflict between mainlanders and locals became more and more serious as the years went by. It culminated in the so-called 228 incident of 27/28 February 1947. Thousands of civilians were massacred, both during the uprising itself and in its aftermath.

Ironically, it was on this island, for fifty years ruled by the Japanese and in which anti-mainland sentiment was on the rise, that Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang retreated in 1949, after having lost a protracted and bloody civil war against Mao Zedong’s Communists. The government of the Republic of China, established in mainland China in 1912, was entirely relocated to Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek saw Taiwan as a province of China from which he planned to reorganize his military and retake the lost mainland.

This is the beginning of the difficult symbiosis between Taiwan and the Republic of China. Today’s Taiwan can be seen as the overlapping of multiple layers of Taiwanese and Chinese elements from the 17th century until now.

In my next post, I will talk about the years of Guomindang rule, the making of contemporary Taiwan and what it means for China-Taiwan relations. 


Gary M. Davison: A Short History of Taiwan: The Case for Independence

Peng Mingmin: A taste of freedom: Memoirs of a Formosan independence leader

Mark Harrison: Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity


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