Archive for October 3rd, 2009

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Weekender: Walking the Boundaries in Taiwan

“Grenzgang” has won this year’s German Book Prize*). Stephan Thome, the author, lives in Taipei, Taiwan. Grenzgang is about Germany, it means “Walking the Boundaries”, and this doesn’t refer to the old border between East and West Germany, as the title may make people believe. The tradition of walking the boundaries of neighboring municipalities in Hesse (and elsewhere), to control the correct positions of the boundary stones, is really  much older.

Living and working abroad can create a much stronger awareness of ones own, suddenly faraway culture, than staying in the middle of it. But Thome also writes about Taiwan – and inevitably, about China. In an article for Germany’s daily Die Welt, he reminds us of New Taiwan‘s forgotten 60th birthday.

“1949: The Birth of New Taiwan” is the title of a thematic exhibition at the National Museum of History (国立历史博物馆) in Taipei. It is an exhibition which tries to soften the political and ideological edges that run through Taiwan’s society, writes Thome, and gainsays readers’ possible suspicions that the show might be an effort by the country’s fake Chiang Ching-kuo‘s administration to instill Chinese patriotism into the Taiwanese.

The initiators’ concern is a differentiated view on Taiwan’s history and therefore, at the same time, a new definition of relations with the People’s Republic – in cultural terms, but with political implications. The self-perception of the better China, as instrumentalized under Chiang Kai-shek, gives way to the difficult search for democratic Taiwan’s identity. The question is if a history which is as volatile and to such an extent imprinted by foreign rule as Taiwan’s can endow identity at all. Yang Rur-bin [杨儒宾], the exhibition’s initiator, and professor at Taiwan’s Tsinghua University, gives the year of 1949 a context far beyond the Chinese civil war: after the expulsion of the Dutch in 1661, and the beginning of the colonial era in 1895, 1949 would be the third defining date in Taiwan’s some fourhundred years of history. But all these three stood less for political turning points and military conflicts, but for the moving in of new population groups with their languages, customs, and cultural accomplishments.

Thus having moved away from the exclusive focus on China – a society that defines itself not by its roots, but rather by its collective efforts for growth -, Yang Rur-bin finds leeway for himself to point out positive aspects of 1949, writes Thome. Without playing KMT repression after 1945 down, Yang argues that aside from bureaucrats and soldiers, outstanding scholars and institutions like the National Palace Museum (国立故宫博物院) and the Academia Sinica had arrived on Taiwan, too.

Cultural schizophrenia between Taiwaners and Chinese in Taiwan may develop into sovereign pluralism, Thome quotes Yang. But only on paper, Thome adds, because there was no such sovereign approach in 1895 or 1949. Taiwanization should not result in demonizing everything Chinese, but in recognition of positive elements of Chinese heritage.

Much suggests that the will of the people is indeed somewhere between pan-blue, and pan-green. Thome quotes from two opinion polls published by Yuanjian (遠見雜誌, Farsight Magazine). 91 per cent of the Taiwanese see Taiwan and China as two different states, and reject the 1992 concept of “One China, two Interpretations” as agreed between the KMT and the CCP in 1992. But at the same time, 80 per cent of Taiwaners see themselves as Chinese.

I don’t know how reliable the poll is, but from what I have seen in Taiwan myself, this doesn’t look unlikely to me. Neither the KMT nor the Pan-Greens won’t go away, and they should understand that. Finding common ground together could indeed do more to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty, than continuous infighting.

Of course, this will require politicians who listen to the people, before they try to speak for them. But will they? Guo Changfeng (郭長豐), commenting on the opinion poll in July, doesn’t sound like if he wants a middle way. If he and Thome are referring to the same opinion poll by Yuanjian, exactly 88.2 per cent of the respondents see themselves part of the Chinese nation (八十.二%的台灣人自認是中華民族的一份子) – among them 94.5 per cent of the pan-blue coalition, and – surprisingly – 66.3 per cent of the pan-green coalition. Among those who see themselves as neutral, it’s 77.7 per cent. “I don’t understand these findings” (我看不懂結果), Guo shakes his head (probably disapprovingly).

Under normal circumstances, Taiwanese and Chinese people in Taiwan wouldn’t face too many difficulties in developing their New Taiwan together – they have all the qualifications for that, and neither the repressive past, nor different identities don’t need to be lasting lines of separation. But the people of Taiwan aren’t living under normal conditions,  and it isn’t democracy which makes it difficult to debate openly and to common ground where necessary.  Beijing’s threat to “re-unite” Taiwan with the “motherland” is the problem.

It’s a threat which can encourage paranoia. Every suggestion that much of Taiwan’s culture might actually be Chinese may raise fears that this could be an argument in Beijing’s favor. But when facing a huge potential enemy, semantics should be less important than the common will to defend ones liberties – including the liberty to debate freely, without Beijing’s interpretation of it on ones mind. I’m not sure yet what sovereign pluralism actually is, but I’m sure that it exacts courage.


*) This is no book review – I won’t read Grenzgang before Christmas.

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