I know! I know! You’ve all been waiting around for my much anticipated entry on my escapades in Taipei. Well, actually, given the extraordinarily high readership of this blog, its actually probably just me, that’s been waiting for me to write this. Taipei is an amazing city–everything from its night markets to temples to monuments to technological feats make it a city worth exploring on both a historic and cultural level. Having seen little else in Asia, its difficult to compare Taipei, and Taiwan itself to other countries in the region, but what I’ll attempt to do here is speculate just a bit on what I think makes Taiwan, and its capital at Taipei, unique in the region. One of the primary questions I had upon visiting Taiwan was if Taiwan would be China as it would have been, had the KMT, or perhaps democracy in general, been the victor of the Chinese Civil War. I generally got the impression that to some extent this is true, though it’s a highly difficult question to answer given the numerous areas where Chinese and Taiwanese history, politics, economics, and culture began to diverge. For example, there is a high degree of Japanese influence in Taiwan, given the years the island was under Japanese rule in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. In addition, one has to remember that Taiwan only became of interest to China’s former imperial dynasties perhaps as little as 200-300 years ago. Taiwan has not been an integral part of China, as China now claims, until relatively recently in the history of the region. Still, one can gather the impression in Taipei, that yes, in terms of political culture, Taiwan is as mainland China might have been had the Communist Party not come to power there.
One can gather this impression from a variety of sources. In speaking to many of the local residents of Taipei, I found there is a high degree of recognition about what separates Taiwan from mainland China. The Taiwanese (as I’ll refer to them from this point) are highly aware of how their political and economic freedoms differ from the mainland. Walking in downtown Taipei one can clearly see a number of Lutheran Christian Churches dominating the skyline. And these aren’t run-down religious establishments by any stretch. On the contrary, they are very modern, and have clearly benefited from Taiwan’s technological prowess. Besides religious freedom, censorship of the internet is another area that separates Taiwan from mainland China. The Taiwanese seem to be very aware of the enormous gap between the state of the internet communication technology that exists in Taiwan and the ‘Great Firewall’ being developed across the Strait. One can easily tell that there are no apparent barriers to the freedom of information, in terms of the use of communication technologies by anyone that wants to harness them. I heard a number of the people I was working with (Americans) remark that China was 10-15 years behind Taiwan in terms of the freedoms it allows its citizenry in terms of information communication technologies. Generally, this seems to be true. China spends enormous resources directed toward controlling and censoring its citizens abilities to use these tools, whereas Taiwan focuses on strictly the innovation and further technological evolution of these tools and their continued permeation into all aspects of society. Of course, I’m just speaking about my impressions of this in Taipei, as I have no doubt that the rest of Taiwan would offer a different impression, especially on the degree of permeation of these technologies to other parts of the country.
The other main cultural issue I came across, was how exactly Taiwanese people identify themselves–as Taiwanese or Chinese? The subject of identity is always worth devoting a few lines to. One lady I asked about this, phrased it remarkably well–saying specifically, ‘When I first came to Taiwan many years ago, I considered myself to be Chinese, but now, as I have been living here for many years, I consider myself to be Taiwanese.’ The issue of identity in Taiwan is perhaps critically central to the country’s future, both politically and culturally. When a foreigner such as myself encounters some of Taiwan’s main cultural monuments–the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, National Palace Museum, Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial, to name a few–all of these monuments are inherently representative of a shared Chinese cultural and historical ancestry. It’s almost like you have a significant part of the population that is descended from the ethnic Chinese that fled to Taiwan during and after the Civil War, in addition to a native population, that say “we are Taiwanese”–yet their historical and cultural assets are undoubtedly Chinese in their origin. This seems to be a difficult identity conundrum to resolve, though I must admit I know little about it beyond what I write here, but I have little doubt that it can be no more complicated than the issue of identity in Lebanon, or many other places for that matter. Which means that it is undoubtedly complicated beyond all measure.
Especially when you look at how the histories of Chinese/Taiwanese historical figures are presented. Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen are figures of monumental importance in Chinese history, yet they are enshrined in memorials in Taiwan that celebrate their role specifically as it relates to the Republic of China–that being present-day Taiwan. It’s almost as if history just stopped in 1949. It would be too easy to consider for even a moment that these two movers and shapers of Chinese history failed in their attempt to establish the Republic of China–because they did–and all of the things they fought for, with the sole exception of unity on the mainland, became reality in Taiwan. It makes me wonder how both of these individuals are remembered and reflected upon in mainland China. Something tells me there’s little mention of them, beyond the negative, in Chinese textbooks and history books.
Unfinished/To be continued…