The Origins of Taiwanese Identity

The current discussion about Taiwanese identity is very much influenced by the ideological and political battle between those who think that the Taiwanese people constitute a separate nation, and those who think that the Taiwanese are simply a subgroup of the larger Chinese nation. Between 1945 and the end of the 1980s, when Taiwanese national identity was repressed by the official pan-Chinese ideology of the Guomindang regime, the only point of view that could be publicly expressed on Taiwan was that Taiwan was a province of the Republic of China (ROC) and the ROC was the only legitimate government of China. After the end of the Martial Law era, Taiwanese who believed in independence from China began to shape public discourse. 
It is important to note that collective identity – and the case of Taiwan is no exception – is seldom coherent and homogeneous. Identity is a combination of different elements. A person can have a class identity, a religious identity, different local identities (city, region etc.), national and cosmopolitan identity etc., and all these layers can – and usually do – coexist. For example, a person who was born in Berlin can be a Berliner, an East or West German, a German, and a European, and if he is an immigrant, another layer might be added. These different elements do not exclude each other (as nationalist ideologies often assume), but just make up the complexity of individual identity.
Let us now examine the emergence of Taiwanese identity during and after the Japanese colonial period.  


1.Taiwanese Identity Before 1895

2.The Japanese Period

3.Taiwan and Christianity 

4.Japanese Taiwan and the Medical Profession

1. Taiwanese Identity Before 1895

In 1684 Taiwan was annexed by the Qing Empire and remained an integral part of imperial China for over two hundred years. However, even prior to the Qing conquest, thousands of Han Chinese settlers had traversed the Taiwan Strait to seek their fortune on the island. By the 1680s, the Han population of Taiwan had risen to about 150,000-200,000 people (Gary M. Davison. A Short History of Taiwan: The Case for Independence, 2003, Chapter 3). The flow of mainland migrants continued steadily, and by the 1890s Taiwan’s population exceeded 2,500,000 (ibid., Chapter 4). These settlers displaced the native aboriginal people.
The majority of Taiwan’s Han population prior to 1895 came from the southern Chinese province of Fujian. Settlers from different cities of Fujian had themselves their own distinct identity, and so there were constant feuds and rivalries among them. People of Fujianese origin are called Hoklo, which is also the name of their dialect. Besides the Hoklo, a large number of Hakka people also settled in Taiwan. The Hakka people are a Han group that has its own language and customs (for instance, they didn’t practice foot-binding). They lived predominantly in Guangdong Province.
The bulk of Taiwan’s population is still made up of the descendants of these immigrants. In 2011, the island’s population stood at about 23 million. The aborigines accounted for just 2% of the total (around half a million people), while the descendants of Han Chinese settlers accounted for 98% of it. The Han themselves are divided into three groups: The Hoklos (70%), the Hakka (15%), and the so-called ‘mainlanders’ (14%), i.e. people who came from mainland China after 1945 (May H. Hsieh: From Invisible to Visible: Stories of Taiwanese Hakka Heritage Teachers’ Journeys. 2012, Chapter 2).
During the period in which Taiwan was part of the Chinese Empire, the Han population doesn’t seem to have had any specifically Taiwanese identity, as distinct to Chinese identity. The settlers that came to Taiwan maintained the customs, language, and culture of their hometowns. Writer James Wheeler Davidson, who lived in Taiwan from 1895 to 1903, described the Han population in this [unflattering] way:

The Haklos [=Hoklos], who number over two million, are the predominant race throughout the island. There is little of interest to record about them. They have brought with them the customs of their home-land to such a degree that a country Chinese village in Formosa presents the same features as a village in their home province. The houses are of like materials and are crowded together in the same unsanitary way, the narrow ill smelling streets present the same filth and are as irregular, the street hawkers have the same calls and exhibit the same wares, and the people are alike in their dress and habits (J.W Davidson: The Island of Formosa, Past and Present: History, People, Resources, and Commercial Prospects. Tea, Camphor, Sugar, Gold, Coal, Sulphur, Economical Plants, and Other Productions1903, p. 591).

The Qing government, too, built its administrative centres according to patterns prevalent on the mainland. For instance, the structure of Taipei Walled City, with its walls and gates, administration halls, temples, examination halls, memorial arches and family shrines, reflects the religious and social organisation of a typical Chinese city. 

2.The Japanese Period  

In 1894 the Sino-Japanese War broke out. China, the former superpower of East Asia, which was revered and admired by all of its neighbours, was defeated by the small Japan, which the Chinese considered a country of barbarians. On 17 April, 1895, China and Japan signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Article I of the treaty stipulated that China would cede to Japan “in perpetuity and full sovereignty” the island of Taiwan (which at that time was known as “Formosa”) and its outlying islands as well as the Penghu islands (also known as “Pescadores”).

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At the beginning, many Taiwanese, most especially imperial officials and literati, resisted the Japanese invasion. But within a few years, the Japanese had pacified Taiwan. There are four main reasons why Japanese colonization was successful:
1) Japan was a rising Asian power which was soon recognized by the West as its equal; the strength and organisation of the Japanese imperial system gained the admiration of the world. Japan became a major centre of modernization in East Asia, an example of how Asian countries could succeed in achieving the same level of economic development and military prowess as Western countries. Many Chinese politicians, such as Liang Qichao, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and the future infamous governor of Taiwan after 1945, Chen Yi, lived in Japan and tried to learn from it how to make China strong. Obviously, many Taiwanese, too, admired the power of the New Japan, while the appeal of the decaying and rotten Qing Empire diminished year by year.
2) Japan’s military strength was superior to that of the Taiwanese resistance fighters, so that the idea of expelling the Japanese by force became unrealistic and people simply learnt to live with the new colonial system.
3) Japan co-opted native Taiwanese and created a local elite. While the Japanese who invaded China in the 1930s committed numerous atrocities, in Taiwan their behaviour was quite different. The Taiwanese were second-class citizens, but they were given opportunities to rise in the colonial society.  
4) Japan modernized Taiwan, raising its standard of living, improving infrastructure and sanitary conditions. Therefore, a large number of Taiwanese enjoyed material benefits.  
During the colonial period Taiwan was cut off from the mainland. A new society and a new allegiance, that to the Japanese Emperor, came into being. There were numerous intellectuals who – especially in the first decades of Japanese rule – clung to their Chinese identity and created associations that nurtured the Chineseness of the Taiwanese (like Ts’ai Kuo-li in Tainan, Hung I-nan in Taipei, Wu Te-kung in Changhua, and Cheng I-lin in Lukang, who all sought to preserve Chinese culture and prevent it from being overrun by Japanese culture; see Tse-Han Lai / Ramon H. Myers / O. Wei: A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947, 1991, p. 17).
However, in the 1920s a new class of Taiwanese began to emerge who had grown up under the Japanese and who had benefited financially and professionally from the colonial state. To this group belonged the family of Taiwanese politician Peng Mingmin.
Peng Mingmin (彭明敏; pinyin: Péng Míngmǐn) was born in 1923, had enjoyed a Japanese education and studied in Japan until World War II. He witnessed the bombings of Nagasaki (during which he lost his left arm) and was a major political activist after 1945. He advocated democracy and Taiwan’s independence, and for that reason he was persecuted by the Guomindang. In 1970 he fled to the United States and returned home only in 1992, after the end of the Martial Law era. Peng was the first presidential candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party in the 1996 presidential election. 
Peng Mingmin came from a family that belonged to the elite of Japanese colonial Taiwan. Therefore, his personal experiences and worldview were very different from those of his mainland Chinese contemporaries. 
When in 1945 troops of the National Revolutionary Army of the Republic of China (ROC) arrived in Taiwan, the euphoria felt at first by the island people about their liberation from the Japanese colonial regime soon turned into disillusion. To many people reunification didn’t feel as if Taiwan had come back to the motherland, but as if the mainlanders were as foreign – if not more foreign – than the Japanese. 
Peng Mingmin (source)

3.Taiwan and Christianity

For a certain period in the history of Taiwan (as well as that of mainland China) Christianity was one of the main vehicles of “Westernization”. In 19th century Taiwan, which had only a small number of Westerners and was virtually isolated from the rest of the non-Sinocentric world, it was the Christian missionaries who first introduced elements of Western education and medical knowledge to Taiwan.
In 1858, after her defeat in the Second Opium War, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Tianjin. This was followed by the Convention of Beijing in 1860. The two “unequal treaties” opened up several Chinese ports to Western merchants and missionaries. Among these ports were Taiwan’s Danshui and Tainan. Subsequently, members of the British Presbyterian Mission settled in Tainan (Murray A. Rubinstein: The Protestant Community of Modern Taiwan: Mission, Seminary, and Church. 1991, p. 18). In 1873, the Canadian Presbyterian Church opened a mission in Danshui, near Taipei Walled City (ibid.). 
The leader of the British Presbyterian Mission, Dr. James L. Maxwell (a name we should remember), set about the task of introducing in Taiwan some elements of Western modernity, most especially medicine and education. He set up hospitals and schools in the Tainan area. As the Christian community grew, the mission opened a theological seminary for Taiwanese and began publishing a newspaper in the Hoklo dialect, but written in Latin letters (ibid., p. 19). 
Another famous missionary, the Canadian George L. Mackay, arrived in northern Taiwan in 1872 and established his mission in Danshui. He, too, opened a seminary, schools and hospitals (Rubinstein 1991, p. 19). Present-day Aletheia University in Danshui originates from the school set up by Mackay. James Wheeler Davidson gives a contemporary description of Mackay’s work in the field of education:

At Tamsui (Hobi), the headquarters of Dr. Mackay’s mission, through the bounty of the Methodist church, Woodstock, Canada, from which was collected a considerable sum, a college or school was created, styled Oxford College, in which the youth of the church are trained in Biblical History, geography, and the systematic study of the doctrines of the Bible, besides which due prominence is given to the most important subjects in the curriculum of a western college. The students are Chinese and Pepohoans, and the whole work may be said to have been initiated and carried on by Dr. Mackay himself, with a result that is really no less surprising than interesting to the privileged spectator. Closely adjoining is the girls’ school, where equally excellent educational work is in active operation (Davidson 1903, p. 605).

Danshui Girls’ school, founded by Dr. Mackay
At about the same time, Peng Mingmin’s great-great-grandfather, a poor fisherman, moved from mainland China to Taiwan’s Kaohsiung area to try to make a living there. In 1865, Peng’s grandfather was born. He was the first Christian convert of the Peng family, associated with Tainan’s Christian mission established by J. L. Maxwell. In his autobiography, Peng Mingmin traces his own spiritual and political breakaway from China back to the history of his family. He writes: 

My grandfather … was an optimist, a man of good will, and intensely interested in new ideas. His long association with the missionary doctors and teachers at Tainan influenced him to look away from China and the past, and try to make the best of the dramatic change the Japanese were determined to bring about. Though lacking in formal education, he was a truly enlightened man (Peng Ming-min: A Taste of Freedom, 2012, Chapter I).  

The first phase of the Pengs’ separation from traditional Chinese culture and society was determined by their closeness to Western missionaries. The second one was brought about by their rise to the top of the Japanese colonial system after 1895. 

4.Japanese Taiwan and the Medical Profession

As Ming-cheng M. Lo has shown in his masterful study Doctors within Borders: Profession, Ethnicity, and Modernity in Colonial Taiwan (2002), from the beginning of the Japanese era until today the medical profession has had a particularly important meaning in Taiwanese society. One can say that doctors are regarded per definition as an enlightened and progressive elite of the island.  The reason why the medical profession is so important in Taiwan is that Western medicine, hospitals and health care system were introduced to Taiwan by the Japanese, and that doctors played a central but ambivalent role as agents of modernity, of Taiwanese national identity, and at the same time of collaborators with the colonial system. 
As we have seen before, the only modern medical facilities and trained doctors in Taiwan prior to 1895 were confined to the small church hospitals set up by the Christian missions. But the scope of these private initiatives was limited, and the overall sanitary conditions of the island remained inadequate. When the Japanese occupied Taiwan in 1895, they soon found out that the climate and the poor hygienic situation were their worst enemy: in fact, more Japanese soldiers died of disease than on the battlefield (Lo 2002, p. 40). The task of bringing to Taiwan modern Western medicine and improving hygienic and sanitary conditions was thus a priority for the Japanese colonial regime.
However, the importance of medicine in the Japanese colonial project went beyond the immediate need to safeguard soldiers’ lives. In fact, the Japanese understood their colonial enterprise as a mission to bring civilization and modernity to Taiwan. This is best explained by referring to the concept of “scientific colonialism”, the formula which Japanese colonial supporters devised to justify Japan’s colonialism. After studying the colonies established by Western nations, the Japanese  concluded that Japan could do better: their strategy was to share with the colonies the fruits of science and civilization (Lo 2002, p. 5).
The Japanese constructed modern hospitals, made the cities more sanitary, and trained native Taiwanese to take up the medical profession. At the same time, traditional Chinese medicine was discouraged and in some cases even prohibited. Practitioners of traditional medicine were required to take an examination to receive government permits. However, the number of permits was very limited, the practitioners could work only in certain areas and under the supervision of Japanese-trained physicians. All these limitations led to a drastic decrease of practitioners of traditional medicine: from 1,223 in 1901, to just 97 in 1947 (ibid., p. 43).
In 1898, Goto Shimpei became civil administrator of Taiwan. As a doctor himself, he was in the best position to carry out a series of extensive health care reforms. He built the first water supply and sewage system for the whole island, implemented immunization measures, regulated the medical profession and reduced the consumption of opium. 
Goto Shimpei
As Lo explains: 

By 1920, state regulation of the medical profession was well established; a medical school and several hospitals regularly served the Taiwanese; the sanitary conditions of private residents, slaughterhouses, graveyards, public bath-houses, parks, and other public gathering places were supervised by the police and public physicians; and major epidemic diseases, such as pestilence, malaria, and cholera, were brought under control (ibid., p. 42).

The Japanese saw these undeniable results as the proof of their superiority, of the goodness of the colonial system, and of Japan’s role as the greatest modern and technologically most advanced nation of Asia. There are many reasons to suppose that a large number of Taiwanese at least partly shared this view and came to admire the Japanese.
Within a few decades, the Japanese colonial system not only improved the health condition of the island’s people, but it also created a new, self-conscious, and wealthy class of Taiwanese medical doctors. They were well-paid, enjoyed high social status, and were valued by their Japanese colonial masters as loyal subjects (ibid., p. 5). 
After 1895, Japanese officials sought to co-opt the old Qing elites of scholar-officials and landlords. By 1901 almost 50,000 Taiwanese had accepted various positions in the lower ranks of the colonial administration. There were also some Taiwanese who still preferred to live the old scholar lifestyle according to Chinese tradition. At the beginning of the colonial era, it appears that the old elites remained intact; some collaborated with the Japanese, while others retired from public life (ibid., p. 34). 
However, the emerging new colonial elites gradually supplanted the old Qing imperial ones. Medical and teaching professions were the most attractive ones, as they allowed native Taiwanese upward social mobility. Until the 1910s the old elites were still dominant, but by the 1930s Taiwanese doctors, teachers and business people outnumbered the old elites; figures show that by the 1930s around 64% of the Taiwanese elites were Japanese-educated professionals, while the old elites were just around 24% (ibid., p. 38). 
This shows that deep changes had taken place within Taiwanese society. These new elites were the product of the colonial system, were fully integrated into it and supported it. Though they remained aware of their Chinese heritage and of their being subordinated to the Japanese, they were given opportunities to be part of the system and receive a Japanese education (ibid., p. 37). 
Peng Mingmin belonged to exactly this new colonial elite. In his autobiography, he recounts:

At a young age my father entered the medical school at Taipei. At Tamsui and Taipei the young stranger was introduced to members of the Presbyterian community. There he met my mother who was a school girl at the Canadian mission in Tamsui. Her family had settled long ago in Patou village, on the road between Keelung and present-day Taipei. Her parents were acquainted with the first foreigners who passed that way and with the missionaries in the northern region. They too had become Christians sometime after 1872 when the Canadian Dr. George MacKay founded his Tamsui mission …

Moving down to the small coastal town of Ta-chia (Tai-ko) in central Formosa, my father opened his first practice. This old coastal community of less than twenty thousand inhabitants was then quite famous; it was a very prosperous community of household craftsmen producing finely woven hats and mats for export to a world market.In its best years Ta-chia sent nearly ten million hats to the United States alone, and the number exported to Japan was very large.

Once established in Ta-chia, my father prospered too. A doctor’s income was rather high and in every community the doctor enjoyed prestige and influence. Since my father was the first in our family to earn money, he sent his brothers to the medical school as soon as he was able to do so. One after the other they too began to prosper, and the brothers together took great pleasure in making my grandfather’s life more comfortable.

As both a doctor and a Christian, Peng’s father had been exposed to Western influence. Moreover, he was a member of the Taiwanese social and economic elite, enjoying wealth and status in the community. Peng Mingmin himself studied at a Japanese school in Taiwan – a privilege granted to only a few Taiwanese – and later he attended university in Japan. 
The Taiwan which Peng Mingmin describes in his memoirs is not a backward, humiliated colony. It is a rich, modern country, efficiently run by the Japanese administration, where through education one could rise up to the top of society. The Pengs had not belonged to the elite of Qing Dynasty Taiwan. Their fortune began in 1895. 
We do not know how many Taiwanese thought like Peng Mingmin. However, we can assume that the Taiwanese elites before 1945 had been deeply influenced by the colonial society in which they grew up and prospered. We know that out of a population of around 6.5 million in the 1940s, Taiwan’s elites amounted to approximately 300,000 people. Around 47,353 people were serving in the colonial bureaucracy, 3,455 were members of city, town and district councils; and about 100,000 Taiwanese families had adopted Japanese surnames after 1941* (Tse-Han Lai / Ramon H. Myers / O. Wei: A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947. 1991, p. 22). 
It is no surprise that a man like Peng Mingmin found it so hard to identify with China after 1945. He had grown up in an environment that was entirely different from that of the mainland. In his memoirs, he articulates his dislike for mainland China in terms of modernity vs. backwardness, honesty vs. corruption. Feeling neither Japanese nor Chinese – though being familiar with both civilizations – the only possible and logical outcome for people like him was to embrace Taiwanese nationalism. 
*However, there were also Taiwanese who identified with Chinese civilization. One notable example is Lin Xiantang (林獻堂), a landlord from Taichung. He co-operated with the Japanese, but he always refused to speak a word of Japanese and to be in any way assimilated (Lai / Myers / Wei 1947, p. 22-23)
If you want to support our website, you might be interested in taking a look at our translations of Chinese literature on Amazon. Currently available is ‘Craven A and other Stories’ by Mu Shiying. Thank you for your support!

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