Civilized Taiwanese vs Uncivilized Mainlanders: Peng Mingmin and Anti-Chinese Rhetoric

In recent years it has become common both in Taiwan and in Hong Kong to portray mainland Chinese as backward and uncivilized. Some controversial episodes that were covered by the media have shaped this perception. Only to name a few, in 2014 a mainland couple allowed their child to urinate on a street in Hong Kong; one year earlier, a mainland Chinese mother let her child defecate in a public area at Taiwan’s Kaohsiung Airport. Besides such incidents, mainlanders are often accused of behaving badly in other circumstances, too; for instance, they speak loudly, don’t line up, obstruct pedestrian traffic, etc.
   
In the present article we will try to show that the anti-mainland rhetoric based on mainlanders’ backwardness has a long history. A Taste of Freedom, the autobiography of Taiwan independence leader Peng Mingmin, is perhaps the first example of a consciously constructed anti-mainland rhetoric based on the contrast between civilized Taiwanese and uncivilized Chinese.
 
As we explained in a previous article, Peng Mingmin (born in 1923) belonged to Taiwan’s elite during Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945). He believed that the Japanese administration had brought modernity, economic development and efficiency to Taiwan. Long before Taiwan was returned to Chinese rule in 1945, Peng Mingmin and his parents travelled to Republican China. Looking back at his journey, Peng Mingmin described China as a backward, underdeveloped country that lagged behind Taiwan: 

 

When I was about five years old I was taken to China. I remember how cold it was in Shanghai, and I recall the long flights of steps to the newly constructed tomb of Sun Yat-sen near Nanking. Mr. Huang Chao-chin, one of my father’s acquaintances who was then in the foreign ministry at Nanking, guided us about the capital. He had just returned from study in the United States. I was too young to comprehend all that we saw, but this trip gave my father and mother an opportunity to compare the living conditions of the Chinese in China with conditions in Formosa after thirty-three years of Japanese rule. They were of course impressed by the immensity of China and felt some nostalgia toward the land of their ancestors. However, in terms of social development, industrialization, education, and public health they felt that, compared to Formosa, there was still much to be done in China (Peng 2012).

 
Peng Mingmin’s observations prefigure the Taiwan-mainland encounter of October 1945. 
 
In the 1930s and 1940s, Peng Mingmin enjoyed a Japanese education and went to study in Japan. He spoke the language and was familiar with the culture of Taiwan’s colonial masters, while he had never experienced the life and society of post-imperial, Republican China. He had no emotional attachment to China or traditional Chinese culture and society (see also Tse-han Lai, Ramon H. Myers, Wou Wei: A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947, 1991, Chapter 2). 
When Japan lost the war and Taiwan was handed over to the Republic of China, the differences between Taiwan and China that had accumulated over the past half century suddenly became apparent as Chinese soldiers and officials arrived on the island. Peng Mingmin witnessed the arrival of the Chinese army at Kaohsiung harbour and the disappointment he and his father felt: 
 

In late October word came at last that Chinese military units were expected to land at Takao [=Kaohsiung]. My father was made chairman of a welcoming committee. The job soon became a nightmare. He was notified that the troops would arrive on a certain date. Preparations included the purchase of firecrackers and of banners bearing appropriate sentiments, construction of temporary booths at the exits from the landing stage, and preparation of huge amounts of roast pork and other delicacies, soft drinks, and tea. Then came notification that the arrival was delayed. The perishable foods had to be sold or given away. This happened twice again, tripling the expenses, before a fourth notification proved to be correct.

An American naval vessel came slowly into Takao harbor, making its way among the sunken hulks. Local Japanese military authorities, awaiting repatriation with their men, turned out as martly disciplined honor guard to line the wharf, ready to salute the victorious Chinese army. A great crowd of curious and excited citizens had come to support my father’s welcoming committee and to see the show.

The ship docked, the gangways were lowered, and off came the troops of China, the victors. The first man to appear was a bedraggled fellow who looked and behaved more like a coolie than a soldier, walking off with a carrying pole across his shoulder, from which was suspended his umbrella, sleeping mat, cooking pot, and cup. Others like him followed, some with shoes, some without. Few had guns. With no attempt to maintain order or discipline, they pushed off the ship, glad to be on firm land, but hesitant to face the Japanese lined up and saluting smartly on both sides.

My father wondered what the Japanese could possibly think. He had never felt so ashamed in his life. Using a Japanese expression, he said, “If there had been a hole nearby, I would have crawled in!” (Peng 2012).

The demeanour of Chinese soldiers and officials strengthened the belief of Peng Mingmin and his father that Japan had freed Taiwan from “backwardness, bad government, and chaos”, which Chinese incompetence and pauperism were now bringing back. The different evaluation of the Japanese in China and Taiwan symbolizes the different collective memory of the two sides. While the Chinese had been invaded by a rapacious and brutal Japanese colonial empire and had fought hardly against them for more than a decade, the Taiwanese felt that the Japanese colonial administration was efficient, modern and humane (Lai, Myers, Wei 1991, p. 21).

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Peng Mingmin characterizes the Chinese as backward and greedy. In the following passage, he writes about unsophisticated mainland soldiers in derogatory terms:
 

Father’s sense of humor prompted him to suggest that someone should collect stories of the incoming Chinese, especially of the ignorant conscripts who had been shipped over to Formosa [=Taiwan] from inland provinces on the continent. Many were totally unacquainted with modern technology. Some had never seen or had never understood a modern water system. There were instances in which they picked up water faucets in plumber’s shops and then, pushing them into holes in walls and embankments, had expected water to flow. They then complained bitterly to the plumbers from whose shops the faucets came. There was a story of one soldier who took a seat in a barber’s shop, had his hair cut, and then when the barber picked up an electric hair-dryer, instantly put up his hands pale with fright thinking it was a pistol (Peng 2012, my emphasis).

 
To Peng Mingmin, the Japanese administration was a model of efficiency and honesty, and the colonial society was far superior to that which the Republican government was creating on Taiwan after 1945: 
 

In the nineteenth century, Formosa had been controlled by a disorderly garrison government, notorious even in China for its corruption and inefficiency, but after a half-century of strict Japanese administration we had learned the value of the rule of law. People made contracts and kept them. It was generally assumed that one’s neighbor was an honest man. In the shops a fixed price system had made it possible for every merchant to know where he stood. We had learned that modern communications, scientific agriculture, and efficient industries must operate within a system of honest measurement, honored contracts, and dependable timing. All these standards were ignored by our new masters (ibid., my emphasis).

 
The Guomindang administration that took over Taiwan appeared to many Taiwanese much worse than the Japanese colonial regime. Accustomed to a government that by the standards of the time was efficient and modern, the Taiwanese could not but feel disappointed with the Guomindang, which was not only notoriously corrupt, but whose entire worldview and style of government reflected the poverty and hardships of a country marred devastated by decades of war and civil strife. China couldn’t live up to the expectations of the Taiwanese. 
 
Peng Mingmin (centre) with colleagues at National Taiwan University, 1954 (source)
 
 
They were alienated by the greed of the Guomindang administration and the soldiers of the National Revolutionary Army. Peng Mingmin’s anecdotes about mainlanders’ misbehaviour are numerous:
 

American planes and ships ferried the Nationalists from China to the new island possession. Formosans welcomed them enthusiastically in October 1945, thinking that a splendid new era was at hand. Within weeks we found that Governor Chen Yi and his commissioners were contemptuous of the Formosan people and were unbelievably corrupt and greedy. For eighteen months they looted our island.

The newcomers had lived all their lives in the turmoil of civil war and of the Japanese invasion. They were carpetbaggers, occupying enemy territory, and we were being treated as a conquered people …

Incoming government officials and the more intelligent and educated carpetbaggers made it evident that they looked upon honesty as a laughable evidence of stupidity. In the dog-eat-dog confusion of Chinese life during the war years, these men had survived and reached their present positions largely through trickery, cheating, and double-talk, often the only means of survival in the Chinese cities from which they came… 

The common conscript roaming in Kaohsiung was simply taking what he wanted from shops and homes and the public streets. The newcomers from Taipei had been sent down by the highest officials to loot the sugar mills and warehouses, the factory stockpiles and industrial equipment. Junks were leaving the harbor every day loaded with foodstocks, scrap metal, machine tools, and consumer goods of every variety, destined for private sales along the China coast.

For Peng Mingmin and other members of Taiwan’s colonial elite, the fact that they were suddenly disenfranchised and not as valuable as they used to be under Japanese rule was a major point of dismay. The Guomindang was at that time entirely focused on reconstructing mainland China and fighting the Communists. Taiwan was a small, distant province, inhabited by Japanese-educated ‘traitors’. The Guomindang did not invest in the development of the island’s economy and society. Furthermore, Chinese nationalism and the Mandarin language were now the official cornerstone of the new government. Japanese-educated Taiwanese like the Pengs didn’t speak Mandarin fluently and did not have any pan-Chinese patriotic feelings. 
 
However, as it turned out, those ‘backward’ mainlanders who came to Taiwan after 1949 did contribute to the most impressive economic miracle in Taiwanese history. Today, Taiwanese ‘mainlanders’ are in no way backward or less civilized when compared to the native Taiwanese. Therefore, in 1945 as today, the main open question is whether describing mainland China as backward and uncivilized is the right way to address the differences between mainland China and other societies. Does backwardness really apply to all mainlanders? Is backwardness a consequence of permanent cultural traits, or just the result of temporary social and historical conditions that can be overcome by economic progress and better education?
 
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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