Sinologist in Taipei

Special guest post everyone!

I bring to you all this special post by one of San Diego State University’s most super awesome professors, Dr. Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley! She was in Taiwan last month for research and was kind enough to write about some of her impressions of the people, politics, and of course, history for my blog.  She will also be writing another book soon, so stay tuned for that.

Notes from Three Weeks in Taipei, 7/3-7/25, 2015

Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley,

Department of History, San Diego State University

This summer I had the opportunity to spend 3 weeks in Taiwan conducting research at three different archival collections.  My eight-year old son Peter came with me, and attended a Mandarin language camp while I worked.  After the archives and Peter’s school, we went on lots of short trips around Taipei and met with two sets of Taiwanese friends.  We also got to visit Hualian and the Taroko Gorge.  We received a free copy of the Taipei Times each morning, so I read that each day.  As a Sinologist, I have spent a lot of time in China, but had not visited Taiwan since I was there in 2001 while doing research for my dissertation.  I was struck by what a complex, interesting history Taiwan has, and how thorny the identity questions are for a small island country of only 23 million people.  Below are some of my observations from my short stay:

Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley and her son Peter at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, July 2015.
Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley and her son Peter at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, July 2015.

PERSONAL IDENTITY: People in Taiwan are very divided over whether to identify themselves as Chinese or Taiwanese. Even two people married to each other can disagree on this.  For instance, Peter and I had dinner twice with a lovely older couple I’ll call R and M.  When they mentioned that their families had both come over from mainland China in 1949, and that they had visited mainland China a few times for work and interest, I asked them what it was like to be a Taiwanese-Chinese person in China.  They said that was a difficult question, because they did not feel the same way when they visited.  R, who was born in China and came to Taiwan when he was 4, said going to China made him feel “more Chinese,” and that he still sees himself and Taiwan as fundamentally Chinese.  M, on the other hand, was a few years younger, and was born after her parents fled to Taiwan.  She said going to China made her feel more Taiwanese, and that it angered her when Chinese people tried to claim that Taiwan is part of China and should come home.  After explaining this, they sighed and said that Taiwanese people are so divided over this now.  “Young people want to be Taiwanese and cut ties with China,” mourned R, “but I think that’s a real mistake.”

In another example of this, my friend PL, who is a professor in her early 40s, said that when she has gone to China for academic conferences, she feels that China is very similar to Taiwan, but she thinks it’s just too crowded. Her family came to Taiwan well before 1949.  Her grandparents could speak fluent Japanese and Taiwanese, but could not speak any Mandarin.

HISTORY WARS: The identity issue was also evident in many articles and editorials in the Taipei Times. For the entire 3 weeks of our stay, the newspaper covered student protests occurring on an almost daily basis. The protestors were high school students who protested outside, and eventually tried to occupy, the Ministry of Education building in Taipei. The students were furious with the Ministry for trying to promote what they called a “China-centered” history of Taiwan in the newest versions of high school history textbooks.  The students were lobbying to stop the proposed revisions from being adopted, and also to include more Taiwanese history in school texts.  They were not satisfied with bland statements made by Ministry of Education officials, and eventually pushed their way into the Ministry building and occupied it.  When some of them were arrested, other students led protests to demand the release of their classmates.

I was impressed that high school students were this politically active, and curious about what precisely they meant by “China-centered” or “Taiwanese” versions of history. I asked PL and her husband and R and M about this.  PL explained that when she was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, the history she learned in school was all about China.  They were not taught any history that focused on Taiwanese experiences that were different from China’s.  For instance, she never even heard of the 228 Incident in school, and was shocked to learn about it later on her own.  The 2/2/8 Incident occurred after Taiwanese-Chinese (Han Chinese who settled in Taiwan before 2 million anti-Communist Chinese fled to Taiwan with the Guomindang during the Chinese civil war (1946-49) led a major uprising against the Guomindang in February 1947, and the Guomindang sent troops in to brutally crush the movement, killing tens of thousands of Taiwanese in the process. All discussion of the Incident was suppressed during the period of one-party rule (GMD rule) that lasted from 1949 until the mid-1980s, but after martial law was lifted in 1987 and Taiwan gradually developed into a multi-party democracy, the massacre was brought back into public awareness. Now there is a museum about the incident in central Taipei, and a large memorial to the victims of 228.

After the first non-Guomindang president was elected in 2000 (the DPP’s Chen Shuibian), support grew for a more Taiwan-centered history. It appears that the “China-centered history” was especially problematic for the World War II period.  The Chinese/GMD version of history was that the brutal Japanese invaded China and killed and raped their way through the country, while the Chinese people, led by the Guomindang, heroically resisted the Japanese. Since Taiwan was colonized by Japan in 1895, though, many Taiwanese worked with the Japanese during World War II, and Taiwan was not treated particularly harshly during the war. The Guomindang narrative of the war years, then, simply did not match what many Taiwanese-Chinese experienced. Moreover, given the violent crackdown on 2/28/1947, for some Taiwanese the Guomindang seemed more repressive and violent than the Japanese.  A Taiwan-focused history textbook, then, would focus more on Taiwan’s unique experiences – including the Dutch and Spanish presence early on and Japanese rule from 1895-1945, instead of teaching modern history from a mainland Chinese perspective.  After the Guomindang defeated the DPP in the 2008 elections though, textbooks were revised to bring back a more China-centered history.  This is what high school students were protesting against so vigorously.


Another identity-related issue is how the current population of Taiwan is described. In one museum Peter and I visited (I think it was the Sun Yat-sen memorial hall, but it may have been somewhere else instead), there was a fascinating chart showing the demographic break-down of Taiwan.  Instead of breaking the population into Chinese-Taiwanese (about 98%) and indigenous/aboriginal (2%), it divided the population into indigenous and several different Han-Chinese groups: Hoklo, Hakka, and “Waisheng ren,” or “people from outer/foreign provinces,” meaning Chinese who came over in 1949.          I was fascinated to see the museum chart use the character “wai” (foreign/outside) for Han Chinese who came after 1949, because that character is used for foreigners (wai guoren) and aliens (waixingren), and has a very distancing ring to it.  I asked PL and R and M about that, and they said waisheng ren is a new term used by DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) supporters and other Taiwanese nationalists.  It would never have been used by the Guomindang when Taiwan was still under one-party rule (1949-1987).


I was also interested by Taipei Times editorials and articles about the opposing candidates for the 2016 presidential election. The GMD president, Ma Ying-jeou, cannot run for a third term.  He appears to be fairly unpopular (at least according to the Taipei Times), and everyone I talked to thought that the DPP will probably win in 2016.  The Taipei Times was extremely critical of both President Ma and the GMD presidential candidate for 2016, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱).  According to the newspaper, President Ma and Ms. Hung are hopelessly blind to the threat posed by China, and their insistence on promoting a one-China policy is dangerous for Taiwan.  In contrast the DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), also a woman, was praised for standing up to China.  I thought it was great that the candidates for both major parties are women, and look forward to seeing one of the two in office in 2016.

In sum, Taiwan is clearly going through a major period of questioning in terms of its identity and its relationship with China. The 2016 election will certainly be one to watch!


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I began writing Elle's Adventure in China (EACh) in June 2014 as a fun summer project, but as obstacles kept interfering with my plans, I forked and forked more options. I took writing this novel much more seriously in mid-July, and want to have it officially published someday in my lifetime. As many artists put their hearts into their projects, so do I. I did not start out liking to read, but a professor suggested a book for me for homework a few years ago, and it was an amazing book. Since then, I read for pleasure, and I hope my novel, Elle's Adventure in China, does the same for as many of you as possible. The same thing goes to writing. I did not like to write until I took a course where the professor and papers made me love to write. I hope every one of you find what makes you happy and dedicated to work. In May 2015, I started my other blog, Read and Write Here (R&WH), as a place to post other things that aren't China- and Chinese culture-related and not EACh. I share some of my memories and experiences from student teaching, irregular participation in Daily Prompts, etc. I'd like to have regular people and bloggers to write book reviews and post it on R&WH someday. Keep reading and writing!

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