Formosan Nationalism – Taiwan After 1945 (Part I)

In previous posts I briefly discussed some of the characteristics of Chinese nationalism. Now I would like to talk about the emergence of Taiwanese nationalism. As Taiwanese nationalism we should understand the movement that propagates a distinct Taiwanese national identity. According to Taiwanese nationalist theories, Taiwan is a nation, and Taiwan and China are two different nations with similar culture, like Austria and Germany, or Australia and New Zealand. 

I would like to point out that the premise of my argument is that nationalism, as an ideology, is never objective. What a nation is, can never be explained rationally and scientifically. Nationalist movements may claim that nations are objective entities, but I fully reject this claim. National identities redefine themselves over time, and different groups or individuals may have different opinions about national identity. 

Many people who talk about Taiwan and China do it from a nationalistic perspective. They either support Chinese or Taiwanese nationalism, and they are emotionally involved in this issue. As far as I am concerned, I have no ulterior motive in writing these posts. I just want to explain some of the issues related to China and Taiwan without siding with the one or the other side. 

Formosan Nationalism

What people call ‘Taiwanese national consciousness’ is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, the emergence of a distinct Taiwanese collective identity can be traced back to the end of World War II and the retrocession of Taiwan to the Republic of China. 

I would suggest to divide the development of Taiwanese nationalism into two separate stages: Formosan nationalism (around 1945-mid 1980s), and Taiwanese nationalism (mid-1980s to present). During the first stage, Taiwan’s nationalist movements were still illegal; they were brutally suppressed by the Guomindang regime and whoever advocated that Taiwan and China were two separate nations would inevitably face the might of the Guomindang police state. Advocates of the Taiwanese identity could not form political groups or discuss their ideas openly. Therefore, Taiwanese national consciousness could not become a coherent ideology with a political programme and influence on the government, education, media, etc. Taiwanese nationalism was in an embryonic stage. It existed, but it could not be expressed publicly. On the other hand, the Guomindang regime did its utmost to promote Chinese nationalism through media, laws, education, state rituals, military service etc. 

With the liberalisation and democratisation of Taiwan that began in the 1980s, this situation changed. Taiwanese nationalists could organise themselves, form parties, and influence public opinion. Taiwanese nationalism became stronger, and it started to permeate all levels of public life, from the media to the government. For practical reasons, I therefore propose to define Formosan and Taiwanese nationalism as two historically different phases of the same social and intellectual movement.

Why do I use the name ‘Formosan nationalism’? As I will show later, the first generation of advocates of Taiwan’s independence from China themselves used the words ‘Formosa’ and ‘Formosan’. Until today, the word ‘Formosa’ is used by supporters of Taiwanese nationalism with this particular semantic nuance. For example, former President of the ROC Chen Shui-bian called his private foundation ‘Formosa Foundation’, and not Taiwan Foundation (Ching 2001, pp. 21-22). 

For centuries, Taiwan was known in the West as Formosa. The name is derived from the Portuguese Ilha Formosa, meaning beautiful island, which is the name the Portuguese seafarer bestowed on Taiwan when they sailed through the Taiwan Strait in 1544 (Jacobs 2012, p. 19). The name Formosa was commonly used in the West until the 1970s and 1980s, when it fell into disuse. 

The first Taiwanese nationalists used the term Formosa, perhaps because this foreign name suggested that the history of Taiwan was somewhat detached from China. By calling Taiwan Formosa, they – more or less consciously – implied that the history of Taiwan was one of foreign domination (Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese) and that Chinese rule was yet another foreign yoke. At the same time, the name Formosa downplays the importance of Chinese imperial rule over Taiwan, and emphasises foreign rule and the years of independence from China. 

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