San Jose Mercury News

Taiwan forming its own identity

Friday, April 2, 2004

By Tim Johnson, Knight Ridder

BEIPU, Taiwan - Taiwan lies anchored off the coast of China, but the island is steadily drifting away from the mainland in its identity and outlook.

From the byways of this quaint tourist village to the glistening malls of Taipei, a deep shift has occurred in the way many Taiwanese view themselves, how they see the island's future and even what they eat, study in school and watch on television.

A marked social transformation -- in which more islanders view themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese -- was one of several key factors that allowed President Chen Shui-bian, a strong proponent of sovereignty, to squeak out a victory last month in a disputed re-election bid.

While many Taiwanese remain torn about their place in the world, and how to deal with Beijing's longstanding claim on the island, a deepening sense of identity is likely to grow stronger each year, experts say, presenting China with a profound challenge. Taiwan's youth have limited interest in China, and President Chen has pushed a profusion of initiatives to promote Taiwan's own identity.

"There are two very different societies now, on the mainland and in Taiwan, and that is why Beijing is very concerned," said Lo Chih-cheng, a political scientist.

As Taiwan drifts, China has acted with increasing acts of hostility, including positioning some 500 missiles aimed at the island. The moves have only alienated some Taiwanese further. Other factors -- including generational change, and vastly more open democracy -- contribute to an explosion of interest in Taiwan's history, literature and food.

Scores of cultural centers have sprung up around the island to promote local traditions. Dance troupes perform with native themes, bookstore shelves sag with bestselling works by Taiwanese novelists and essayists, and pop stars croon and rap in dialect.

In recent years, television stations began broadcasting talk shows and dramas not only in Mandarin Chinese, but also in Minnanese and Hakka, the dialects spoken by a majority of Taiwan's 23 million people. The dialects use the same Chinese characters as Mandarin, the standard on the mainland, but are very different as spoken. Taiwanese learn to speak Mandarin, but generally use their own dialects among themselves.

Many Taiwanese now see themselves as citizens of a sovereign nation with a proud cultural and social history far newer and somewhat distinct from China.

"Taiwan is a country," said Duan Jyh-ming, a 16-year-old doing yo-yo tricks along a Taipei sidewalk, dismissing the wrangling with China over Taiwan's status.

Taiwan, which is about the size of Maryland, has been buffeted since the 17th century, when Dutch and Spanish colonizers tussled for a foothold. China claimed it in 1683 but lost control to Japan for half a century until 1945.

When communists seized mainland China in 1949, the toppled Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, retreated to Taiwan, bringing several million people.

Today, about 12 percent of Taiwanese are "mainlanders" who came with the Kuomintang and have long dominated Taiwan's political life.

Other inhabitants include Minnanese, who came from southern Fujian on the coast of China centuries earlier and make up 65 percent of the population, and Hakka, who came from Guangdong province on the mainland and make up 20 percent of the population. The rest of Taiwanese are aboriginals, with a heritage from the South Pacific islands.

For decades, the Kuomintang ruled with a nostalgic fervor for China, fining those speaking anything but Mandarin Chinese. Martial law allowed them to suppress local traditions. Teachers force-fed students history and literature of China, ignoring centuries-old Taiwanese culture.

"While I was in school, teachers told us that one day we would return to China," recalled Culture Minister Tchen Yu-chiou. "We learned about the Yellow River and the Yangtse very well. But we didn't learn about the Keelung and Danshui," she said, referring to major Taiwan rivers.

"They said Taiwan was a cultural desert," added Michael Hsiao, a sociologist.

The Kuomintang lifted martial law in 1987, and ushered in a gradual return to democracy in the 1990s. The party lost power in 2000 when Chen, the son of Taiwan sugar farmers, captured the presidency on a pro-sovereignty platform. Chen's rise coincided with generational shifts that saw descendants of mainlanders reject their forebears' nostalgia for China.

"The kids these days have no interest in Beijing Opera," Tchen said.

"We're Taiwan born," said Chen Chia-rung, a young nursing student. "We have our own culture. We're developing our own style."

Polls underscore the shift in attitude. The number of those identifying themselves as Taiwanese has surged from 17 percent of the population in 1992 to 43 percent four months ago, according to a survey at National Chengchi University. In the same period, those identifying themselves as "Chinese only" dropped from 26 percent to about 10 percent.

"That change of identity is really important," said Bruce Jacobs, a Taiwan expert at Monash University in Australia. He said Beijing's insistence that it shares unshakable "blood bonds" with the Taiwanese ignores the social and political drift of the island.

"Identity can change, and it's not a matter of flesh and blood," Jacobs said.

Many Taiwanese fear angering China and starting a war, but after decades of cultural repression under martial law, they also thirst to learn more about their heritage. Some flock to places like Beipu village, a hub of the Hakka-speaking minority.

Huang Guiyou, a food vendor, voiced delight that her youngest son is now learning Hakka, rather than only Mandarin, in school. Chen began promoting bilingual education in 2001.

"The elementary school started teaching in Hakka about two or three years ago," Huang explained. "The teachers use rhymes, songs and poems to teach."

"The parents worry that the language might be lost if the children don't speak it," said Wen Chin-ching, a teacher and guidance counselor at Beipu Elementary School.

History textbooks are also being rewritten to de-emphasize Chinese history. Restaurants specializing in regional foods flourish. The Chen administration funds 70 local performing-arts groups, and has published 150 books on indigenous culture.

During the recent presidential campaign, candidates rushed to polish their Minnanese and Hakka to woo voters in dialect. At one event, the Kuomintang candidate, Lien Chan, bent down and kissed the ground to demonstrate his love for the island.

To China's dismay, Taiwanese identity seems to grow with each passing year.

"The longer the issue remains undecided, the less it favors the mainland. Beijing is getting more and more concerned about this `independence train,'" said Andrew Yang, a political scientist at the Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei.