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Taiwan, Europe and the Problem of Nationalism

Recently I have been criticised by some people because I used the term “Taiwanese nationalism”, which to some apparently sounds too negative. 

In this post, I will briefly explain what I mean by nationalism and why I am in principle sceptical about it. I am not arguing that nationalism is not a legitimate ideal. But I view nationalism as very problematic; first, because it presupposes a collective identity and the subordination of the individual to the community; second, because the “nation” itself can hardly be defined rationally and objectively.

I won’t be using any academic material as reference this time; since I want to respond to recent critical comments, I didn’t have time to write down any quotations. This post will just be a blueprint, perhaps to use in the future for a more detailed analysis. 

The Problem of the Nation


On April 2, 2014, the Italian police arrested a group of Venetian separatists who allegedly were plotting to commit terrorist acts (note). Some of them were also involved in a violent action that took place in 1997, when armed people stormed San Marco Square in Venice. The aim of their movement is to found a separate state comprising the whole Veneto region.

Veneto is not Italy – 2009 campaign for
Venetian local elections
(source: Wikipedia)

Since the 1980s, nationalist independence movements within Italy have been on the rise. Especially in the North, parties and movements in different areas have been founded which advocate the secession of some regions from the Republic of Italy and the establishment of new independent states. The most important of these parties is the Northern League (Lega Nord) which promotes the creation of a Northern Italian state, the so-called Padania. But there are also many other movements in different parts of the country.


Before 1861, Italy existed only as a geographical entity but not as a state. There were many different kingdoms, and some of them were ruled by foreign dynasties. The nationalist movements of the 19th assumed that Italy was a nation and that it should have its own state, like the French and the English had their own states. After many decades of war, finally in 1861 a united Italian state was founded, and Italian nationalism was so strong that it led to the rise of Fascism in the 1920s. But in the 1980s, Italian national identity began to be called into question by several separatist and nationalist movements. 

Italy is just one of many cases in history that show: the nation can hardly be defined rationally, and its meaning and interpretation change over time.

What is a nation? This question has been asked many times, but one can barely find a coherent practical definition. 

The nation has often been defined as an imagined community of individuals with a shared history, language and culture (one may also add ethnicity). The problem is: what is a a shared history, what is a common language, and what is a common culture or ethnicity? 

First of all, the difference between dialect and language isn’t clear. But also a shared history or a shared culture are extremely subjective criteria.

The assumption that there are communities of people that inhabit a certain territory and share the same identity, is a fiction, a construction, an ideology.

In fact, most societies are not homogeneous – as nationalist ideologies assume -, they are heterogeneous. 

First of all, a nation consists of a large number of individuals. They have different ideas, opinions, personal histories, characters, and economic situations. Then, many states also have strong regional differences, and many also have a mixed population. Moreover, because people migrate, individuals enter and exit a certain community.

Let me give you an example: Germany. 

If we believe in the nationalist theory that every nation has or should have a state, then Germany is a nation. Therefore, Germany must be a community of people that inhabit a certain territory, have a shared culture and a shared history or ethnicity. 

In reality, Germany is a heterogeneous amalgam of different groups and individuals that do not correspond to this definition.

Like Italy, before 1871 Germany did not exist as a state. There were many different kingdoms, and the regional differences between them are still obvious.

Germany has a North-South, West-East divide. The South tends to be Catholic, the North protestant. The West and the East were two separate states until 1989; East Germany had a communist regime, West Germany was a liberal democracy with a capitalist economy. Therefore, people in different parts of Germany may have very different collective memories, and also different identities. Germans in the South are linguistically and culturally very close to Austria; however, Austria is a separate state. After 1945, West Germany saw unprecedented waves of immigration; therefore, many German citizens nowadays have a multiethnic background or are descendants of immigrants. 

One European contradiction is that the whole continent has both great differences and great similarities. The peoples of Europe are extremely mixed, since they have been in contact with each other for centuries. In the whole of Western Europe, we read and write an alphabet that was invented by the Phoenicians, a people from the Middle East; that alphabet was later adapted by the Greeks, and then again adapted by the Romans. The most important religion of Western Europe is Christianity, which is shared by the whole continent, but actually comes from Palestine and the first nucleus of Christians were Jews. The numbers we use were invented by the Arabs. 

Most cultural currents of the West are common to all countries. Christianity, the Renaissance, the Age of Discoveries, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Nationalism and Socialism, the World Wars, the Economic Boom etc. are only some of the phenomena that all of Europe have in common. It is almost impossible to talk about the history of one single European country without referring to the history of at least some of the others. 

The extreme extent to which European peoples have influenced each other is shown by the language. 

Many German words are of Greek or Latin origin: Straße (street; from Latin: strata); nüchtern (sober; from Latin: nocturnus); Arzt (doctor: from Greek archiatros); Tisch (table; from Greek diskos [see English disc]; and even the word Kampf comes from Latin campus, meaning in this case battlefield

Italian has many words of Germanic origin, like tasca (pocket; see German: Tasche); banca (bank: the word “bank” in the modern meaning was first used in Italy, but it was originally a word introduced to Italy by Germanic tribes); albergo (hotel; from Germanic ‘hari’: army [see modern German: Heer], and ‘berga’: housing; see German ‘Herberge’).

Such lists could go on and on.

Another fact that challenges the common understanding of nation is that many European states were or are multiethnic. The Habsburg Empire had numerous nationalities and ethnic groups. Many of them even shared the same territories. One example is a region called Julian March (Italian: Venezia Giulia; Serbo-Croatian, Slovene: Julijska krajina). Prussia had a large Polish-speaking population. France has a Basque, German-speaking, and Corsican population. Countries like England are the result of many migrations; first the Celts, then the Romans, followed by the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes, the Scandinavians, the Norman-French (the same who drove the Muslims out of Sicily and founded a powerful reign in Southern Italy). The vocabulary of the English language is influenced by the languages of all these peoples. 

One example I find particularly interesting is the Julian March.

The Julian March is now divided between Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. For centuries, Slavic-speaking people and Italian-speaking people shared the same territory of the Julian March; the Italian-speaking people (who were often Italianised immigrants from the Slavic-speaking countryside, other Balkan areas, or Austria, especially Austrian Jews) were the majority in the big cities like Trieste (Trst), Capodistria (Koper) Pola etc., while Slovenes and Croatians were the majority in the countryside. 

So, was the Julian March Italian, Slovenian, or Croatian? This is the problem with nationalist ideologies. It actually belonged to all of them; but competing nationalisms did not allow peaceful coexistence. During the second half of the 19th century, there were enormous tensions among the Slavic-speaking and Italian-speaking groups. Italian nationalism in that area was strongly anti-Slavic, and indeed it went so far as to deny the right of existence of the Slovenes and Croatians.

Most of the Julian March became part of Italy after the end of WWI and the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Italian state now had to deal with a mixed population. The Italian-speaking population, which was now part of the Italian Kingdom, felt strong enough to attack the Slavic population. When I was a student in Trieste, I often studied in the university library of Filzi Street. I didn’t know that in the past, that building housed the biggest organisation of the Slovenes of Trieste. The building, called Narodni Dom (‘National House’ in Slovenian), was burnt down by Italian Fascists. The purpose was to wipe out everything that was not considered Italian. 


This proclamation issued by the Fascist Squads in Dignano, a city about 80 km from Trieste, reads:
Attention! It is strictly forbidden to sing or speak in the Slavic language in public places or on the streets of Dignano. In every shop, too, only the Italian language must be used. We, the Fascist Squads, will see to it that with our persuasive methods the present ordinance be carried out.” (source: Wikipedia)



The secretary of Trieste’s Fascist party declared on that occasion:

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, this is the law that we must establish. It is necessary to remember and to hate … We must act; in our homes we have sharp and shining knives which we laid down peacefully at the end of the war, and those knives we shall now use again – for the salvation of Italy. Those Yugoslavian intriguers, those cowards, all those who are against us shall see who we are. (note)

Narodni Dom burning down
(source: Wikipedia)


In 1922, the Fascist party seized power in Rome, and the repression of the Slavs in Italy intensified. They were not allowed to speak their language, many of them even had to italianise their surnames. After 1938, when the Fascist regime introduced racial laws, the Jews, too, were targeted, and the thriving Jewish community of Trieste nearly disappeared. Trieste, which used to be the third-biggest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a multicultural and thriving bourgeois city-port, declined and lost its multifaceted identity within a few decades. Trieste had never been a homogeneous city. And it was exactly this which disturbed so much nationalist ideologues; they did not claim that Trieste was Italian because this was a fact, but because this claim legitimated their violent destruction of everybody and everything that didn’t fit their nationalist myths.

Trieste (source:
Wikipedia)


When Italy lost WWII, the Slovenians and Croatians avenged themselves. Tito’s Yugoslavia occupied the Julian March, including Trieste, killing Italian-speaking people. After 1945, a part of the Julian March was given to Yugoslavia, and the Italian-speaking population left the coastal cities and moved to Italy. “Eye for an eye, too for a tooth”, Italian nationalists indeed got what they wanted.

The Yugoslavian Army enters Trieste (source: Wikipedia). What many Italian-speaking citizens perceived as a brutal occupation, was perceived by the Slovenian-speaking people as a liberation from Fascist oppression.

I lived in Trieste, where there is still a large Slovenian community. The legacy of ethnic strife is still present in the minds of the people, with a mix of mutual suspicion and hatred.

Italy has remained a multi-ethnic and multicultural state, despite all nationalist rhetoric. There are German-speaking areas in the North, conquered during WWI; French-speaking areas, Greek-speaking areas, Albanian-speaking and Slavic-speaking areas; and all Italian regions can be considered different nations. All these communities are themselves mixed, and there is a continuous exchange. On top of that, migrants from all over the world have come to enrich the country over the last few decades. What I perceive as a great multiethnic society, is to nationalists a nightmare.

Italy is only one of many examples that show that states and nations do not coincide, and that the very concept of what a nation is changes. In 1945 there were no serious independence movements in Italy; now, the very existence of an Italian nation is called into question. Meanwhile, Yugoslavia doesn’t exist any longer.

But even if we consider the smallest possible national units, there are many contradictions. I come from Sicily, which according to nationalist theories could be regarded as having a distinct history and language. I never spoke the dialect, and I don’t identify myself with Sicily. Some Sicilian friends say that I am a traitor; if everybody was like me – they argue – the Sicilian language and culture would die out. 

This is what happens with national identity; because it is a collective identity, it restricts individual freedom to choose. Whether I want to speak Sicilian or not, or whether I want to eat Sicilian food or read Sicilian books or not, is my choice; but when nationalism becomes state ideology, these choices are not made by the individual any more, they are imposed by the state. The reality is that Sicily has never been homogeneous. It has changed many languages: Greek, Latin, Arabic, Norman-French, modern Sicilian, Italian, etc., and in many phases of its history, these languages coexisted (for example, most Sicilians are now bilingual, speaking both Italian and Sicilian; some, like me, speak no Sicilian, others still speak only Sicilian). But nationalist thinking sees the nation as a museum, as something that has reached a form and should never change. National identity means the end of time.

The situation is also more complex because of immigration. 

Immigration has always existed. European peoples moved inside Europe, and also moved to other continents. But mass migration from other continents to Europe is a recent phenomenon. The reason why immigration is so controversial is partly economic; but mostly, it is because immigration reveals the inherent contradictions of nationalism, and the difficult coexistence of nationalism and democracy.

In fact, if we have a democracy where everybody is equal before the law, then religion, skin colour, culture, political ideas, and origin should not matter, as long as one abides by the law. But if we assume that a state should represent a homogeneous community of people with shared language, history, and culture, then what are we going to do with the immigrants? They risk to become outsiders by definition, or to be subjected to extreme external pressure.

To sum up my points: nationalism is an ideology that tries to impose a collective homogeneous identity that is not naturally given; it makes democratic equality impossible, since individuals who do not correspond to the alleged pattern of national identity tend to be excluded. 

These are the reasons why I believe that nationalism has seldom been a good foundation for the peaceful coexistence of a state’s population. I believe that identity is an individual, not a collective matter, and that a democratic system is better served if people assume that they are diverse, rather than they must be all the same.


What about Taiwan?


Taiwan itself is a multiethnic and multicultural state. There are ‘native Taiwanese’ (i.e. mainly Fujianese that lived in Taiwan before 1945), ‘mainlanders’ (descendants of Chinese that came to Taiwan after 1945, and especially after 1949), Hakka, aborigines, and a growing number of foreigners. How can all these individuals have a shared culture and identity? Moreover, these groups are themselves mixed, through intermarriage and constant exchange in everyday life.

During KMT one-party rule, pan-Chinese nationalism was the official ideology. The KMT suppressed every alternative form of collective identity. From the 1980s onward, it became possible to voice Taiwanese nationalism publicly. But ever since then, what started as a voice of dissent, threatens to become an ideology that strives to replace KMT pan-Chinese ideology. 

I am sceptical about the growing Taiwanese nationalism exactly because it might tend to radicalise and make the coexistence of the people in Taiwan ever more difficult. We already have examples of Taiwanese nationalists who do not accept any Chinese identity and regard the KMT and all those who feel Chinese as foreign elements.   

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4 replies »

  1. Very interesting and well written, a good response to the criticism I think. Overall though, whilst nationalism and Taiwanese national identity (as opposed to Chinese) is clearly present in this case, I think this is more about citizenship and wanting to be heard (along with a lot of fear of the unknown).

    As you know there've been massive protests in Taiwan for the past few years and the common thread doesn't appear to be nationalism but direct democracy in a country where ruling on 'behalf' of the people has been the norm. The government have shown in the past that the people can be ignored, they have made unpopular decisions in the face of huge protests. I'd far rather live in a society where citizens engage in rather extreme protests to make their points as it forces the government to consider whether what they are doing is wrong, rather than sleep walk into decisions that, for Taiwan more than almost any other country, could lead to a path where the decision to declare independence could no longer happen. If the government now deliberate and honestly decide to sign the trade deal there's no chance they won't explain this decision to the population. That's due to direct action.

    This is especially the case for the Guomindang which became an institution that was comfortable in being unaccountable. I also think it's disingenuous to treat the elections as sacred and say that the KMT should be allowed to make deeply unpopular decisions because they were voted into office. Accountability should be central to democracy and when the government are making decisions very very few agree with the government should listen to them. The KMT were dictators only 25 years ago, they are not an ordinary party. They controlled the economy and therefore today have cash reserves that are wildly higher than all other parties. At election time this surely has a massive effect.

    So whilst Taiwanese nationalism can be seen on this issue, the protest has more in common with the protests over the death of Hung Chung-chiu than underlying nationalism, as they were in reaction to how the government treated the citizens (and continued to treat them until yesterday).

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  2. Hi David,

    thanks a lot for your comment : ) I know I am in the minority and that what I write may be unpopular. But I can't help, I wouldn't be truthful to myself if I joined in the general chorus of praise for the Sunflower movement and in the general euphoria.

    First of all, I don't regard elections as sacred, but I don't think popular mandate conferred by the electorate is meaningless, either, as some people seem to think in this case.

    What really annoys me about the reaction of Western media and commentators is their double standards and their ideological bias.

    1) we have in the West many unpopular governments. We have lobbies that have direct access to our politicians, while most of us can't just phone an MP and get an appointment. We have undemocratic and totally unaccountable international organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank, which come to our countries and tell our governments what they should do despite mass protests. Some Western governments like the Bush, Berlusconi or Thatcher administrations have been extremely unpopular with a large number of people. But we do not storm our parliament, and the media seldom sympathise with the protesters. Some have said that comparing Taiwan with other countries is like comparing apples with oranges, but that's what people always say when they have no arguments. Many Westerners wish revolutions and turmoil in other countries, but they are very careful to avoid radicalisation and extreme protests in their own countries.

    I am not a supporter of the Ma administration. But he has been clear from the very beginning that trade liberalisation with China was his goal. I posted a video on my FB page, where Ma says this in 2006. He got the majority of the votes in two elections, but the opposition both inside and outside the parliament don't want him to implement his programme. How can a government govern if people can always storm the parliament if they don't agree? Some people have suggested the Ma administration has done something illegal in this case, but I have not found any article that explains which laws or procedures he breached, except for a non-binding inter-party agreement.

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  3. As I have said, I think the anti-Chinese component of the protests is what made them so popular among Westerners and anti-KMT and anti-China groups in Taiwan. There are so many Westerners who are totally anti-Chinese and anti-KMT, they think the KMT is a relic of history, China is an evil and imperialist country that should break up into different separate states, like an independent Tibet and Xinjiang, and it should adopt Western-style parliamentary democracy. Some Westerners seem to find it impossible to let countries alone to find their own way, and they seem to find it impossible to promote all over the world these naive principles of nationhood that come from the 19th century and that have wreaked havoc in Europe after WWI, when President Wilson tries to redraw the map of Europe on such premises. I can't even tell journalism and political activism apart, since many people seem to do the latter by means of the first. When there are anti-Chinese protests in Hong Kong or Taiwan, the anti-Chinese sentiment of many Westerners flares up, too.

    In one point I agree: it is not acceptable that China threatens Taiwan. However, we often forget that if our own Western governments had not accepted the one-China principle in order to normalise relations with the PRC, Taiwan would be in a much better and safer international environment. We have condemned Taiwan by recognising the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China and by accepting that Taiwan is part of China. It is no surprise that China is so assertive since it can prove that most governments agree with its own viewpoint (a paradox of the PRC is that it seeks international support when its suits it, but rejects intereference when it deems foreign influence destabilising for the regime).

    So why don't all Western people who sympathise with Taiwan organise mass protests in their own countries to force their governments to repel the one-China principle and admit the ROC as a member of NATO?

    Or does solidarity with Taiwan stop short of doing anything specific and possibly dangerous to us?

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