Taiwan Is Not China – Or Is It?

There is a lot of confusion in the media about the status of Taiwan and its relationship with mainland China. Some people say that Taiwan is not part of China. Others – chiefly mainlanders, but also Taiwanese, most notably Guomindang supporters – argue that Taiwan is part of China.

The confusion comes from the fact that people don’t understand that there are two different political ideologies that compete with each other: Chinese nationalism and Taiwanese nationalism. Many observers explain the China-Taiwan issue according to their political stance: either pro-Chinese or pro-Taiwanese. I think that this should be avoided. Both Chinese and Taiwanese nationalism should be regarded as legitimate ideologies. 

Chinese Nationalism

The birth of modern Chinese nationalism was triggered by China’s defeats at the hands of Western powers and Japan at the end of the 19th century (see Zhao 2004, p. 37-46).

Chinese reformer Liang Qichao (1873 – 1929) reflected a feeling widespread among late Qing intellectuals when he wrote

Europe has evolved and the world has progressed since the sixteenth century for no reason other than the enormous power of nationalism … [I]n today’s situation if we want to counteract the national imperialism of all those world powers [the West and Japan] so as to save the country from total catastrophe, we must develop a nationalism of our own (ibid., p. 49).

The champion of Chinese nationalism during the late Qing period was Sun Yat-sen, the ‘Father of Modern China’. He shared Liang Qichao’s feeling of urgency in achieving China’s salvation from foreign oppression. He believed that China had to create a new state and that one of the core principles of this state should be nationalism.

Although Sun Yat-sen wanted to overthrow the monarchy and establish a new republican state, he drew on the tradition of the Manchu Empire. In fact, he argued that the borders of the new China should be the same as the Qing Empire’s, comprising all the ethnic groups that had been ruled by the Manchu Emperors. For Sun and all nationalists after him, China is a civilisation, an idea, which exists regardless of the individual’s will.

In order to understand this point, we must first of all make a distinction between nation and state. A nation can be defined as a “self-conscious and self-differentiating ethnic or cultural group of people, bound together by such ties as kinship, language, custom, or shared myths.”  A state, on the other hand, is a “sovereign political entity possessing tangible territorial, demographic, and governmental attributes regardless of ethnic and cultural divisions” (ibid., p. 60).

Contrary to what nationalist ideologies suggest, a nation is not an objectively definable entity. A situation in which every single individual shares the same identity and in which a 100% agreement on the characteristics of the nation is reached, is virtually impossible. Nations and individuals constantly redefine their identity.

The vagueness of the principle of national statehood is shown by the following points:

1) different states can have ethnically, linguistically and historically similar populations (Austria-Germany, Australia-New Zealand, Ireland-Northern Ireland);

2) the integrity of many states is questioned by the existence of independence movements (Catalonia in Spain, Northern Italy, Scotland in the UK etc.);

3) a large number of states have ‘ethnic minorities’ (Slovenians, Germans and French in Italy, Basques in Spain, Turks in Greece, Tibetans in China etc.);

4) many countries have more or less large migrant populations, and their status within the framework of ‘national statehood’ doesn’t fit into the ideal of a homogeneous national community.

These points show that most of the time the assumption that a nation is a homogeneous community of individuals and that every nation should have its own state is ambiguous and often impracticable.

When modern Chinese nationalism first became popular at the end of the 19th century, the Chinese Empire was ethnically fragmented. The Han majority was ruled by the Manchus, who were an ethnic minority. And there were numerous non-Han ethnic groups, the most important of whom were the Tibetans and the Uighurs. Paradoxically, it was the hated Qing minority that, thanks to their military prowess, added vast areas of the current national territory of China to the empire. When the Qing established their dynasty, they ruled over merely 40% of the territory of modern China. Subsequently they conquered Tibet, Xinjiang, and other regions that are now considered integral parts of China (see ibid., p. 61).

Some modern Chinese scholars justify the principle of ‘one China’ with different ethnic groups through mainly three arguments: 1) the Han have been the core ethnic group; 2) many ethnic groups have merged in the course of Chinese history; 3) contemporary China was created by the joint efforts of various ethnicities (ibid.).

Taiwan and China

Taiwan became part of the Qing Empire in 1684. For a long time it was merely a prefecture of Fujian Province in mainland China. It gained the status of a province only in 1885 (Huang / Li 2010, p. 11). Chinese immigration to Taiwan, however, had already begun in the 14th century. The waves of immigration intensified around the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, and before the Qing conquest, it is estimated that the Han population of Taiwan may have been around 150,000 and 200,000 (Davison 2003, chapter 3). 

Han Chinese were the main ethnic group in Taiwan, while the aborigines who had inhabited it since immemorial times were either assimilated through intermarriage or driven to mountainous regions. By the 1890s, Taiwan’s population had increased 20 times, exceeding 2,500,000 (ibid., chapter 4).

For over 200 years, the people of Taiwan were Qing subjects. Although Qing rule was relatively weak on the island, the immigrants saw themselves as Chinese, in the sense that they identified with the culture, customs, religion, and traditions of Chinese civilisation. A real identity issue did not emerge at that time (Hao 2010, pp. 27-28).

Following the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95, Taiwan was ceded to Japan and it was cut off from the mainland for 55 years. Those decades were extremely important for Taiwan. Its people were practically isolated from the momentous events that deeply changed Chinese history: the overthrow of the Manchu, the establishment of the Republic of China (1911), warlordism, civil war, and Japanese aggression (the Japanese were much more brutal in mainland China than they ever were in Taiwan) (see Huang / Li 2010, p. 11).

In December 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek declared in the Cairo Conference that all the territories that Japan had annexed from the Qing Empire would be restored to China (ibid., pp. 11-12). From 1945 to 1949, mainland China and Taiwan belonged to the same state, the Republic of China founded in 1912 and governed by the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Guomindang.

In 1949, however, the Guomindang was defeated by the Communists after a long civil strife. Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan, which was the last province of the Republic of China that he and his government controlled.  

Taiwan and Chinese Nationalism

From the point of view of Chinese nationalism, Taiwan is a province of China. Both the Communist Party and the Guomindang agree on this point. However, they disagree on which government is the legitimate government of China. In order to show this point of view, I will quote here a few interesting statements made by Chiang Kai-shek, Zhou Enlai, and Yip Kwok-wah.

1- Chiang Kai-shek was a Chinese nationalist, and he never saw himself as the President of Taiwan, but as the President of the Republic of China which he regarded as the legitimate government of the whole of China. In February 1955, he stated:

The territory of the Republic of China is not to be carved up. Although the Chinese mainland has been stolen [by the CCP] … it is still a part of the territory of the Republic of China, which the people and Government of the Republic of China are determined to recover … The [two-Chinas] proposal [put forward by the UN] is absurd. The four-thousand-year-old Chinese history shows that … the Chinese nation always has been a unified State … This has always been accepted by all Chinese as a basic concept of loyalty toward the country (Huang / Li 2010, p. 33).

2- Between 1956 and 1957, Beijing and Taipei tried to find common ground for eventual reunification. Chiang Kai-shek and his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo sent secret emissaries to the mainland. One of them was Hong Kong journalist Cao Juren (1900-1972). In July 1956, he went to Beijing. Zhou Enlai explained to him:

The KMT [Guomindang] and the CCP had cooperated twice in the past, which led first to the success of the Nationalist Army’s Northern Expedition and then to the success of the Sino-Japanese War. These are the facts. Why can’t we cooperate for the third time? The Taiwan issue is China’s internal affair and all patriots belong to one and the same family. So why can’t we cooperate in reconstructing China? We are not asking Taiwan to capitulate but asking for consultations between each other. So long as [China’s] government is unified, everything else is negotiable (ibid., p. 40).

3-  In his book The Uniqueness of China’s Development Model, Hong Kong Professor Yip Kwok-wah tells an interesting episode that reveals the core ideal of Chinese nationalism. Mr Yip is the Founder and Chairman of Hong Kong Policy Research Institute and he served as Special Advisor to the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (1997-2002).

In British Hong Kong, both the CCP and the Guomindang were politically active to gain the support of the Hong Kong Chinese people. There were even some exclusively ‘Guomindang areas’ in the city, like Tiu Keng Leng. As Mr Yip recounts, in his school Guomindang influence was very strong. Every Monday there was a flag hoisting ceremony in which the Guomindang flag was raised and the national anthem of the Republic of China was sung.

San Min Chu I. Our aim shall be to found a free land. World peace be our stand. Lead on, comrades, vanguards ye are. Hold fast your aim, by sun and star. Be earnest and brave, your country to save. One heart, one soul, one mind, one goal!

The anthem was first sung at the opening ceremony of the Whampoa Academy on 16 June 1924. At that time, Sun Yat-sen was still alive and Chiang Kai-shek was in charge of the Academy.

On 10 October 1997 Mr Yip was invited to attend the Double Ten Day celebrations in Hong Kong. He took a picture under the flag of the Blue Sky with a White Sun (the Guomindang flag). Some of his friends, who were mainland Chinese officials stationed in Hong Kong, were annoyed by that and said they would never have taken a photograph with that flag. Mr Yip replied:

If we do not admit the existence of this flag, we cannot talk about ‘One China’. If one day they raise the ‘green island flag’ (of Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party), I will not take any photos. But I do not see any problem related to political principle in hoisting the flag of the Blue Sky with a White Sun, especially in Hong Kong (Yip 2012, p. 8).

Nevertheless, he was publicly criticised for showing his closeness to the former enemy of the CCP. Ten days later, however, Taiwan’s Koo Chen-fu visited Beijing. When then-President Jiang Zemin met Mr. Koo, he sang “San Min Chu I. Our aim shall be…”, saying that when he was young, his understanding of the mother country began with that song and that flag. Afterwards, no one criticised Mr Yip any longer (ibid.).

These three statements show that the CCP and the Guomindang both share the view that there is only one China, that the Taiwan issue is China’s internal affair, and that the two governments of Beijing and Taipei should seek reunification.

However, Chinese nationalism is not an unchallenged ideology. Already in the 1940s, when Taiwan became part of the Republic of China, the Taiwanese population expressed discontent with Guomindang rule. The ‘re-encounter’ of Taiwan with the mainland after decades of Japanese rule was marked by conflicts and misunderstandings. The Cold War widened the distance between the PRC and the ROC. A strong Taiwanese nationalism emerged, which questions the claim of Chinese nationalism that there is only one China. Taiwanese nationalism will be the subject of a future post.

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3 replies »

  1. Nice article, and I agree with the view point. It's a model of understanding ideology that works elsewhere too: Arabic culture is widespread and the people with Arabic culture are divided into many states. There's no necessary congruence between a similar culture and the same state. You'll often see comments on sites that say China has always been a single state with a single territory are just wrong too, after the Han dynasty China has been divided again and again and then united with different boundaries (geographic and cultural) again and again.

    But I think there's something you don't allude to here which is hugely important (and you've alluded to before): the idea of the 'nation' is a Western social construct. In previous times China, with all the paraphernalia and signifiers that construct the idea of a nation, just didn't exist. And not just national anthems, but there was no linguistic, social, cultural, dietary unification, even within a single province, or valley to valley.

    I think this is even more necessary to point out for China than for other countries because China has always dealt with this issue of unity and diversity in an intelligent way: by allowing differences to exist without pressurizing to create a single national identity. At least until the Guomindang came along with a Western conceptual lens, applying political ideas eminently suitable for small states in Europe, to a huge diverse state in China.

    I find this a very sad situation, as China, more than any other non-Western civilisation, had found many practical methods of dealing with the idea of unity, giving provincial autonomy, not allowing great build up of armed forces but having other mechanisms of control from neighbourhood upwards (that Japan used to control Taiwanese society for example). It is sad too that the major forces of change in 20th century China were nationalism and communism, both developed in the West for the West and exported with disastrous consequences for China/Taiwan – e.g. simplifying Chinese characters in PRC and destroying Japanese architecture in Taiwan/creating a northern Chinese architectural style in Taiwan. These have fundamentally shaped the way they see themselves in a biased way which denigrated functional and suitable ways of dealing with 'nationhood' from past times.

    Anyway, off my soapbox!

    Thanks again for articulating this, it's very helpful and hopefully a small step in understanding that broader identities (e.g. 'Chinese') can co-exist with narrower identities (e.g. 'Taiwanese') without fundamentally compromising either.


  2. Ciao, sono molto colpita dal tuo blog!

    Infatti, per la maggior parte della nuova generazione taiwanese, secondo loro, non sono i cinesi ma i taiwanesi. Poi al giorno d'oggi senza dubbio c'è una sola Cina nella politica internazionale. La questione controversa tra Taiwan e Cina è che quale governo(ROC or PRC) può legalmente rappresentare “la Cina”; purtroppo, sotto l’oppressione della politica della forza, il ROC ha perso la battaglia ed è stato sostituito dal PRC.



  3. Republic of china is the legitimate china what the kmt says.

    PRC is the legitimate china what the CPC says.

    CPC illegally occupies most of the rocs territory but has right to claim PRC is the only china on the international stage how ridiculous! this is what I think.

    Taiwan is not part of PRC what most of Taiwanese think.

    Taiwan is even not part of ROC this is what some Extremists says!


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