Why do Chinese care about Taiwan?

Posted: January 12, 2012 in Chinese Culture
Tags: ,

If you’ve ever been to the mainland and said something that could be remotely construed as implying Taiwan isn’t part of China, you’ve probably been called on it. I’ve had two separate people tell me a nearly identical story that sounds something like this:

Chinese 1: What countries have you been to?

Foreigner: Japan, Korea, Thailand…

Chinese 1: Thailand isn’t a country. It belongs to China!

Foreigner: Um, what?

Chinese 2:  她说泰国。不是台湾  (She said Thailand. Not Taiwan.)

Chinese 1: Oh, sorry. Hehe.

People taking something so personally that has no obvious effect on their lives is usually a bit jarring for foreigners. Often when I talk about this with Chinese friends, they’ll say something like, “Well how would you feel if Hawaii tried to become independent?”

They tend to be surprised when I say I couldn’t care less if Hawaii becomes independent…or Puerto Rico…or Texas for that matter.

After four years I’m still trying to figure out exactly why normal Chinese care so much about their sovereignty over the island. Like many cultural differences of opinion, it’d be easy to chalk this up to China’s education system and call it a day. The emphasis on Taiwan is indeed huge in Chinese schools, media, and official rhetoric. It certainly plays a very big role, but to say it’s the only reason would be like saying Americans care about freedom and liberty because they’re educated to.

I would argue that stability and territorial integrity are the core Chinese values – values which are complementary. Much like freedom and liberty to Americans. I think the Hawaii analogy illustrates the opposing ideals between the countries well.

I can’t speak to other countries, but America is defined by its political system more than anything else. It’s more of a concept than a geographical location. There was certainly history on the land before the United States was established, but “America” was effectively born on July 4th, 1776 in the eyes of most Americans. 99.2% of the current population is non-native and the freedoms the political system gave are what are credited for the country’s success. Geography has never been especially important. The country expanded west for 150 years and even today it enjoys land far more abundant than it needs.

So if Hawaii wanted to secede, the national government would certainly care, but you’d have a hard time getting individual Americans too upset about it. Sure we see Hawaiians as every bit American as we are, but we don’t feel any deep historical or ethnic ties. At the end of the day, if they’re not happy being part of our system, they’re free to show themselves the door.

China however, is nothing without history, geography and ethnicity. It’s seen political systems come and go – some of which lasted longer than the entire span of United States history. And land has always been critically important. With little arable land compared to the massive population, geography is something you cling to for dear life. It’s still common to meet families in the countryside who’ve been tied to the same patch of land for hundreds of years and generations as far back as they can remember.

Chinese haven’t had the luxury of being able to just pack up and head west if circumstances shifted beyond their liking. They hold on to their land or die trying.

In the past 200 years, Americans have endured exactly four years of significant upheaval at home. It would be hard to put such an exact number on China, but it’s safe to say the years of unrest outnumber the years of peace. And if you look back at the big scheme of history, land was always shifting hands violently between Chinese. Then in the past two centuries it was often stolen violently by foreigners.

Hence, the complementary values of territorial integrity and stability. In spite of his enormous failures, Mao is still very revered for being able to unite the whole of China and usher an era of relative peace (Cultural Revolution aside). But Taiwan was the one that got away. The historical umbilical cord was cut and an imperialist western power provided the scissors.

Chinese also have a strong tie to the island since “Chinese” is an ethnicity more than a nationality. If I, a white man, were born in China and raised by Chinese parents to be 100% linguistically and culturally Chinese, I would still never actually be considered Chinese. But an ethnically Chinese man born and raised in Pittsburg could come over and be considered by many as a compatriot that’s just been on a long trip. I spoke with a Chinese friend once who said she could bear Tibet being separate from China, since it’s completely different culturally and ethnically. But she just can’t accept the idea of Taiwan separating.

So a foreigner telling a Chinese that Taiwan isn’t part of China would be like someone coming to America and telling locals that they’re not allowed to criticize their political leaders. Chinese education, very influential yes, but you’ll meet plenty of very intelligent, non-brainwashed Chinese who share the same defensiveness on Taiwan.

  1. A lot of the desire for reunification comes from the fact that much of China’s cultural treasure trove was nicked when the old leadership fled to Taiwan and the people of China and the Beijing leadership would like that stuff back.

  2. Augis says:

    Are you sure that most Americans share your sentiments?
    Giving away a part of your land is like cutting off a part of your body, don’t you think so?

    How about giving Alaska back to Russians?

    • sinostand says:

      I think most Americans share my sentiments in that they wouldn’t get defensive at the mere suggestion of a state seceding (as Texans often suggest). And giving a state to another country or having it taken would be quite different than it making the decision to become independent. I didn’t see any Americans in an uproar when Puerto Rico voted on whether to become independent.

      And sure, there are many good reasons why Americans would care when thinking from a national interest perspective. But as individuals who wouldn’t notice their daily lives change in the least, I don’t think they would feel as if a part of their body was cut off. I certainly wouldn’t.

  3. Duncan says:

    Granting Scotland independence is the British equivalent. It’ll be interesting to see if there is any coverage of the issue in the Chinese press over the next couple of years…

  4. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Recently, Scottish Premier Alec Salmond has been vigorously “laying pipe” with the Chinese, so we’ll see, Duncan……..

  5. Augis says:

    I like the discussion in this thread.

    Not by chance in my previous comment I compared losing territory with amputation of body part.

    I don’t know the political realities of US, but it’s interesting that you brought an example of Texas because it seems that you treat Texas as American periphery. Or in analogy with body – a limb.

    Sure, a person can live without leg. And there is no doubt that if my name is John, then also without leg I am still John – while my leg is not John.

    So, I guess that it will be America without Texas which will still be America. Just like China without Taiwan is China (and Taiwan is something else).

    I wonder, however, which parts of US would be considered as vital organs without which America will already not be America – and possibly nobody would ever agree to let those parts become independent?

  6. Photo_LA says:

    i think you need a better analogy.

    Its more like what if after the american civil war the confederates fled to hawaii and continued to rule it as an independent nation. Regardless of which side you are on the KMT lost the chinese civil war, but because of protectionist, pro-democratic movements during the cold war they have been able to remain independent. I like Taiwan, this isnt a pro or con against them personally or politically. It’s just factually a part of China and I think anyone thinking from the view of a chinese citizen would be as defensive about it as well.

    • James says:

      I think to say that it is “factually” part of China is a bit misleading, given that there are a lot of facts that make the situation exceedingly complex. Chinese citizens are certainly entitled to feel defensive about the subject, given the history of Taiwan and the politics between the two, but it seems the more interesting discussion (to me) is not about the facts, but about the perceptions and opinions held by both Mainlanders and Taiwanese.

      The problem with analogies is that they are analogies. The Chinese Civil War is so different than the American Civil War that it’s mostly fruitless to compare the two. Though the American war was ostensibly about politics (states vs. federal rights), the fact is that it was, at the end of the day, about slavery. The Chinese war was actually rooted in ideology and was for the rights to lead the country in one political direction. Mao won, the KMT fled, and now here we are, at a place in history so drastically different than that of sixty years ago that it’s boggling.

      To me, the issue is less about who feels they have ownership or not, and more about the reasons for the Mainland defensiveness and the Taiwanese stubbornness. Say Taiwan is ‘factually’ a part of China all you want, but it seems to me that you’d have a hard time convincing most Taiwanese folks of that. It’s an opinion easily argued online, but a tough stance to defend at a bar in Taipei.

  7. FOARP says:

    “I would argue that stability and territorial integrity are the core Chinese values”

    Except that Taiwan also shares China’s cultural roots (indeed, is in many ways has retained more of its traditional culture than the PRC) but people do not react in this fashion. What you’re saying when you say that mainland Chinese all respond in the same pre-programmed fashion regardless of their background is that they have been brainwashed.

    You also find Argentines responding in this fashion regarding the Falklands, Northern Irish Protestants/Catholics respond similarly on the question of the fate of Northern Ireland, Koreans on the question of national unity – and in all cases that is because they’ve been taught from a young age to think in only one way. Do all these places share the same culture? Clearly not.

    As for not caring if Hawaii, Texas or Alaska declared itself independent, my guess is that you’d be in a minority.

    • sinostand says:

      I don’t remember saying ALL mainland Chinese respond in the same pre-programmed fashion. In fact, plenty couldn’t care less about Taiwan. But like I said, education plays a huge (if not predominant) role in the majority who do care. I don’t want to downplay its significance. But it doesn’t explain it all. And how do you draw the line between education and other factors? Learning non-Taiwan things in school in history, social studies and geography classes can reinforce cultural values that lead to the same conclusion. Just like there’s a lot of direct education in the US saying how important freedom and liberty are, but the overall feeling you get from your greater upbringing is more significant. Hardly any Americans would say they care about these things because they were educated to. Same with Taiwan in China.

      Falklands were in a dispute with another country – not really comparable. Americans would certainly care if someone tried to take Hawaii by force. I think the Korea example is pretty comparable though. North Korea seems very culturally similar to China in this respect and it’s very gung-ho about reunification. South Korea seems somewhere in between Western and Chinese culture. Overall it seems like South Koreans support reunification at some distant point in the future, but overall, they’re not willing to suffer to make it happen. Things must be politically and economically equal before that can happen. I’ve not been to Taiwan, but I get the impression feelings are somewhat similar there – although with maybe a smaller proportion ever wanting reunification. So again, I think you can chalk up education to a lot in both cases, but not totally.

      As for the states, if the situation were like Taiwan, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be in the minority. I’m not sure I am now even. When Puerto Rico votes between statehood, independence or status quo, it’s not even the top story of the day. And you don’t see Canadians calling for blood if Quebec declares independence.

  8. CS chang says:

    It’s an interesting opinion, although I am not familiar with anthropology.

    I think a grow up whose all values and so called culture background are formed through education. The wolf raised human kids don’t have concepts of separation, unification, judging president, individual, country, even group.

    Of course, Most Chinese think Taiwan, Xizang(Tibet called in west) belongs to China, those concepts are taught by the social and school education when they were children. But, Most westerners be taught by the counterparts in west too, only the opposite concepts.

  9. CS chang says:

    When Puerto Rico votes between statehood, independence or status quo, it’s not even the top story of the day. And you don’t see Canadians calling for blood if Quebec declares independence.
    I don’t know Perto Rico story, but I know a few history about Quebec, in fact, Quebec independence caused some bloods in 1960s.

    And Canada revised their law to pretend Quebec independence too. At last, I don’t think Quebec or Puerto Rico are good examples. Since Puerto Rico and Canada ‘s history are very short, most people in these 2 country are descendants of immigrants. But Chinese and people in Xizang are aborigines in the land, even Han Chinese in Xizang lasts thousands years, That’s quite different with Canada.

    The most important is Chinese has their own culture and values, Chinese don’t need to copy Canadians or Puerto Ricoeses. Just like some westerners feel Xizang,Taiwan should blabla.
    Chinese feel Xizang, Taiwan should not blablabla.

  10. Becky Su says:

    Taiwan to China is more like a family member of China, and family are one of the core values of Chinese. Chinese don’t want Tainwan go just like people do not like a broken family. This is largely part of the reason why Chinese are about Taiwan, regardless the politics.

  11. […] Why do Chinese care about Taiwan? « Sinostand […]

  12. Potomacker says:

    A better analogy is how some Zionists feel about the occupied territories and about ‘greater’ Israel. In that case, the facts are the Biblical land transfer as notarized by Jehovah and the sense of entitlement of a certain chosen people.
    I once taught a class in which the students were required to give a group presentation. One group wanted to discuss Taiwan. I was reluctant but I crossed myself and let them go ahead. And the presentation turned out quite good. In one portion, they showed a timeline of the control of Taiwan. Impressively, there was the acknowledgement of the Portuguese, Dutch, Qing reconquest, Japanese, and the KMT control. I felt that these students were scholars in hiding and I had allowed them to blossom. Then in the question and answer phase, one student (a plant?) asked the group whether Taiwan was part of China and the same student who had just gone through that changing status of Taiwan spouted perfunctorily: “Taiwan is and has always been part of China.” It seems normal to have a debate opponent dispute conflicting interpretation of facts; it is quite another matter to have a debate opponent ignore the facts that she herself has presented!
    As a result of this episode and others, I find it simply better to avoid discussing Taiwan under any circumstances. Some mainlanders insist that they can rationally discuss this topic, but they proclaim that because they have only debated the issue with like-minded mainlanders. For anybody who feels otherwise, one strategy that has served me well is that when dealing the emotional attachment to Taiwan as being forever and always part of China, all one has to do is to invoke Mongolia, which is a much larger piece of territory and was more recently part of mainland China than Taiwan. This glitch is enough to force most mainlanders to pause and reconsider his position. It is obvious that this contradiction is never discussed, at least openly, inside mainland China.
    For me, the saddest aspect of this example is what the political priorities have done to education. That young presenter who had ignored the information that she herself had presented in order to parrot the partyline hates the study of history as much as nearly all Chinese student have told me that they do. The majority of students have learned at a very young age that knowing the right answer for a test is the only purpose of their education and right answers are what they are told they are, not what they determine them to be.

  13. The reason is , during Wwii, the region dished up as an evacuation online site for all the research institutes across china and taiwan.

  14. Brittany says:

    I don’t really care about Taiwan but Taiwanese people disgust me. My parents fled the Communists too but so what? Regardless of what party Mainland China is, I’m Chinese and I am proud of it, regardless of nationality. Sure, being Taiwanese is a political status but seriously, what’s with being uppity? Even a Hong Kong person knows better. For instance, “I speak Taiwanese” is as stupid as saying “I speak American”. And Becky is right, family is family. If pretending that China is a freaking island on the ocean is okay, then I think that’s just fucked up and totally rejecting China’s 5000 years of great civilization. If Taiwan wants to become independent, don’t speak and write Chinese anymore. Deny anything Chinese and be like the Japanese and Koreans. I feel that being Chinese is not a political status of any sort but an ethnic identity and one that a person can be proud of. They say, oh ROC is the legitimate government. Maybe back then but how had democracy fared for China back then? Multiple war lords? Ethnic group clashes? The Republicans could even barely put their act together and fight against the Japanese as a whole. And also, sure the Republicans put a greater effort into WW2 but they let so many innocent Chinese civilians to be slaughtered. Hey, I grew up worshipping Sun Yat Sen over Mao but still, I don’t see why anyone would be proud being a Taiwanese history-wise, culture-wise, or just any aspect in general. My family is from Hong Kong with origins in Guangdong. Hey, I never once said “I am not Chinese. I am Hong Kongese American.” To me, that is bullshit. As long as it’d need to be, I’d say “I am Chinese with origins in China and my parents were from Hong Kong.” One time, a I helped a Chinese student do a survey and he introduced himself to me, “Hi. I’m Taiwanese. Are you Korean?” … Seriously… 1/5 people in this world is Chinese and he asked if I’m Korean even though I clearly don’t have Korean features? I said right to his face, “No, I’m Chinese.” He quickly ran away…. How retarded is that?

    • Brittany says:

      By the way, Texas tried seceding and in the Texan constitution, technically Texan counties may secede. However, the Supreme Court struck that down and said, “Texas is part of a Union and the Union may not break up.”

      Wake up Americans and don’t be cocky….

      Secondly, while self-determination is recognized by the international community, only a sovereign state has the authority to recognize another sovereign state. So, United States can recognize Kosovo if it wants and then to United States, Kosovo is its own country. Unfortunately, many countries refuse to recognize Taiwan so really, what power does Taiwan have in the international community? Barely any.

    • Potomacker says:

      Brittany, that was brilliant satire. May I use it in teaching my students how ridiculously illogical their essays come across? I mean, “I don’t really care about Taiwan…” and then you write two responses to explain detail how much you really don’t care about the topic. Just amazing.

    • Ladna says:

      “I speak Taiwanese” is as stupid as saying “I speak American”

      Look, everyone that read this… do yourself a favor and look up “Taiwanese language” on Wikipedia before you repeat this somewhere and embarrass yourself. When people say “Taiwanese” they don’t mean Mandarin. The two are unintelligible and in Taiwan there are actually more people that speak Taiwanese as their first language, especially in the south.

      “If Taiwan wants to become independent, don’t speak and write Chinese anymore.”

      America, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Argentina….
      If we need new languages before countries can be independant they we are going to need a lot more languages soon.

  15. Sunny says:

    I’m from Taiwan and I refer myself asTaiwanese. Not that I deny my long ago Chinese roots or something. It’s like saying all white Americans are Europeans, because their ancestors are from Europe. Taiwan has been separate from China for a long time, it wasn’t until 1949 when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) came to Taiwan that Taiwan is again governed by the chinese. Although we do share a lot in common we also share many differences that we feel uncomfortable with each other’s cultures. Countries don’t recognize its sovereignty, doesn’t mean it doesn’t. Taiwanese people are still having their own president, and own system. Taiwan doesn’t need to gain independence because it is run independently in reality, what it need is recognition from the world. Maybe to non-Taiwanese, we are all chinese, but to us its like living in fear that one day the country you lived in just collapse and people just come and take over your country and forcing you to live in a different system. Also, when mainlanders always complain the fact Taiwanese that Taiwanese call themselves Taiwanese is funny. Do Chinese-Americans or Singaporeans say to others they are Chinese everyday? The fact that PRC didn’t invent the Chinese language and they don’t own it either. Imagines if people say”Why are they so many Chinese speaking and writing English, don’t can’t do that they ancestors didn’t use it.”, it would be hilarious. Taiwan also is not 100% ethnic chinese, you just can’t force them to call themselves Taiwanese, its ignorant. People just have to remember that more than a hundred years of separation can bring a lot of differences and the “chinese identity” are just very foreign.

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