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Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Taiwan: Catalyst for Change in China

I'll leave it to someone with better skills at analysis to comment on the implications and assumptions of this commentary by Fei-ling Wang in the Christian Science Monitor, but these words caught my notice:

Since the time of its first emperor, Qin Shihuang, China had been under centralized, authoritarian rule. But when the ROC was formed in 1912, hopes were high for democratic political change. However, external and internal wars, self-serving warlords, and abysmal ROC leaders tragically retarded China's political progress. In 1949, a peasant rebellion influenced by communist ideology created the PRC and drove the ROC offshore to Taiwan. Mao Zedong, the self-proclaimed new Qin Shihuang, perpetuated and intensified mainland China's despotic political tradition.

Apparently Wang, a professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, doesn't recognize the long periods of de-centralization throughout Chinese history. He says that since Qin Shihuang, "China had been under centralized, authoritarian rule." Well, what about the long period of division between the collapse of the Han Dynasty and the Sui/Tang unification? What about the period between the Tang and Song dynasties? What about the various regional rulers (often viewed as rebels) who challenged the authority of the Central State. From a Song Dynasty perspective, the rulers of the first Vietnamese dynasty would have been quite similar to Taiwan's independence advocates.

Now, I have no illusions that the majority of rulers during the "Central State's" inter-dynastic periods were any more democratic-minded than Qin Shihuang, but the idea that all of China was for thousands of years under centralized rule is also an illusion. I am also skeptical about the level of penetration of the Chinese court's authority even at the height of China's dynastic periods, especially in peripheral areas.

And where was Taiwan when Qin Shihuang unified all-under-heaven? What was it? Who lived there? Was it even an asterix in any of the official histories? Was it within the domain of the Chinese worldview, part of the Nine Continents? I am curious how Professor Wang would answer these questions.

The notion of unification--so important to China's official elite--is one that goes back well before the first emperor, probably to the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, when several states emerged in the midst of the Zhou Kingdom's disintegration, all vying for power. Even then, there were those who advocated (and fought) against unification.

Throughout the entire history of the discourse about unification, where was Taiwan? It didn't factor into discussions, at least in written ones, if anyone in China even new about its existence. It first came within the orbit of the Great Qing State only during the period of Western colonialism. That it is even an issue today is a mere by-product of a civil war that did not involve the people who inhabited this beautiful island. It was then that the new KMT rulers imported the idea, and applied it as a reaction to their loss of the mainland (though I am curious about what people were saying during the Japanese colonial period).

Interestingly, Wang says there is an "an emerging consensus among the Taiwanese elite to make conditional unification with China a firm future choice." I suppose Wang's view of "Taiwanese elite" is blue.


At 2:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess what Mr. Wang try to imply is "if you are a Taiwanese and you do not support unification with China, then you are NOT elite". :-)

Elite like Mr. Wang never can answer this question, With the population difference between China and Taiwan, if by any chance Taiwan reunify with China, how can we sure democracy system in Taiwan will conquer China and accepted by most of Chinese? Not to mention the separation of China and Taiwan in past 60 years had made culture in both area so different that try to reunify both countries together will just lead to disaster.

Don't give me BS like democracy will rule and fix all the problems. In human history, democracy can not guarantee anything. Hitler was also elected through democracy process, wasn't he?

At 1:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In terms of historical and cultural context, you're missing the point if you're focused on the legal definitions of reunification + centralized rule.

Yes, there were at least 300+ years in the post Qin Shihuang era in which there was no centralized rule... heck, we can even point to the early 20th century for more of the same.

But the real point of that passage is the cultural and social *imperative* that made reunification always desirable, always possible. After every dynastic change, after every period of separation... individual warlords/kings were always defeated and centralized rule re-established. That's not a historical coincidence: that required the willing contribution of generals, intellectuals, and every-day citizens who were inclined towards unity... a willingness to be small fish in a big pond, so to speak. And that cultural/social imperative is relevant today, not just immediate legal history.

I find it interesting you aren't up to speed on what the Taiwanese might have felt before the KMT "imposed" their Chinese nationalism in 1949. There are a thousand different takes on this, of course, but one take comes from Lien Chan's grandfather Lien Heng. He's been slandered by some as being a Japanese collaborator rather than a true Chinese nationalist... of course, the truth is, he was both throughout the course of his life. I personally think his writings speak for him.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Luffi said...

Those self-branded 'elite' are racists, and many of those are narrow-minded who knows little about whats happening outside of Taipei.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Poseidon206 said...

I enjoyed reading this blog Wulingren. It's very enlightening. However I need to respond to a comment made by anonymous above me, which is:

"Not to mention the separation of China and Taiwan in past 60 years had made culture in both area so different that try to reunify both countries together will just lead to disaster."

I'll have to disagree with that comment. To my impression Taiwan was not in anyway "separated" with China, because China and Taiwan were never connected in ANY WAY. Let's look at some of the historical facts to support my say:

When Konxinga chased the Dutch away, the strait was pretty much off-limits to Taiwanese and Chinese residents by then. => not connected.

When the Ching government defeated the Koxinga clan, the travel across the strait was again restricted. => not connected.

When Taiwan was mercilessly signed off to the Japanese in 1895, the mere connection was then completely cut off.

If the word separation has to be enforced, then the period of separation should be from 1895 and still going strong. That's at least a hundred and eleven (111) years of "separation".

To me, we were never connected. Chinese goverment over time never paid close attention to Taiwan, as if Taiwan was not part of China, which it never was! So in my opinion we were never separated, because we were never once connected.

At 11:18 PM, Blogger Wulingren said...

Thank you Poseidon206. As for anonymous#2, you represent the dynastic view of Chinese history very well. It is also what the Chinese government argues--and if I remember correctly, the final message of the movie, Hero. It is also the underlying theme of Professor Wang's essay. I should have also mentioned the sub-title: "Taiwan and China must unite in order for both nations to prosper." In what way is that better than Taiwan going its own way, fostering its budding democracy. Yes, Wang says he supports Ma Ying-jeou's talk of conditional unification, but where are the guarantees that Ma won't be guiled, and wouldn't his energy be better spent in other endeavors than joining rallies to oust a democratically-elected president?

I am skeptical that there was a social and cultural imperative towards unification. Sure there was one written into the official histories, which were written only after dynasties were formed. And perhaps the unification myth extant in the Chinese historiographical tradition fueled a social and cultural imperative among the officialdom. It is hard for me to see it being quite as powerful an instinct among the peasantry.

There is also much writing going all the way back to the Warring States period about how the chaos in the world is caused by rulers fighting amongst each other for control of all under heaven, i.e. unification. Ultimately, Qin Shihuang did exactly that, as did Mao Zedong. Chiang Kai-shek tried to do that.

Some of the most creative periods in Chinese history were the ones that are referred to in the histories as periods of division.

But yes, I should read Lien Heng and others from that time period. I am curious about the whole range of views.


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