WE ARE TAIWAN, BUT WHO AM I?

(An interruption from our regularly scheduled programming: this post is being used as a program note for a sound installation piece I did at Wellesley. I’ll post pictures and videos of the actual piece sometime soon [here are two previews via Instagram]. But for now, a warning: much nerdiness ahead.)

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The Five Colored Flag (五色旗) was used as the national flag of the Republic of China from 1912 to 1928. It is based off of Sun Yat-sen’s ideological principle of racial integration, exemplified by the effort to unify the minority ethnic groups residing in China’s frontier with the Han majority under one Chinese banner.

January 13th, 1988. Following nearly 40 years of authoritarian rule under Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, the Taiwanese presidential seat was greeted by a new face. Lee Teng-hui was the first Taiwanese benshengren to take presidential office, and in his 1996 re-election became Taiwan’s first president by popular vote. As president, Lee Teng-hui was a strong advocate for the Taiwanization movement and emphasized the necessity of a distinct Taiwanese identity. Taiwanization was a localization movement that utilized language, history, geography, and culture to encourage Taiwanese towards a Taiwan-centered perspective on their national identity.

Taiwan’s national identity is complex. Today, Taiwan bears the official international moniker of “Republic of China” — which, much like its mainland counterpart, evokes images of a Han Chinese-dominated population and a decidedly Sinified culture. Indeed, Taiwan boasts an overwhelming Han majority — nearly 98 percent — and with the growth of PRC international recognition quickly overtaking that of Taiwan, many Taiwanese are anxious to define and assert a Taiwan-centered national identity.

Taiwanese indigenous culture has become a frequent playing card in attempting to define Taiwanese identity. Unlike Han Chinese, most indigenous Taiwanese are Austronesian peoples whose ancestors inhabited the island of Taiwan prior to the arrival of European colonizers in the 16th century, as well as the first Han Chinese settlers in the 17th century. Today, indigenous peoples compose 2 percent of the total population and largely reside in the central and southern coastal provinces.

Any tourist who travels beyond the metropolitan walls of Taipei is made instantly aware of the cultural value placed upon indigenous cultures in Taiwan. Much like how Polynesian cultures are highlighted in popular Hawaiian tourist sites, Taiwanese indigenous cultures have become tourist attractions of their own — not only in the form of performances, museums, and national parks, but in branding materials advertising Taiwanese tourism on the whole. Tourism campaigns tend to prominently underscore indigenous peoples as an integral and unique aspect of Taiwanese cultural identity, as seen in this music video featuring Taiwanese pop singer A-Mei (who is herself an indigenous Taiwanese of Puyuma descent).

However, these rose-colored tourism poster stock images aren’t an accurate reflection of reality. Taiwan’s history of Han chauvinism traces back centuries to a Qing-era mandate named “Opening up the Mountains and Pacifying the Aborigines,” the main goals of which were to “open the mountains of the east to allow Han (漢) Chinese to develop and cultivate the land, to construct roads and to pacify the shengfan (生番, wild aborigines), as well as to promote the assimilation of the aborigines into Han culture.” This policy, as well as others like it, helped build a legacy that subjected indigenous peoples to systematic disenfranchisement, social bias, and reduced land ownership rights.

Though the indigenous and Han Chinese populations led a largely peaceful coexistence for most of their history, the Han-instigated erasure of indigenous culture during much of Taiwan’s early republican history has never been properly rectified. The idea of jurisdictive autonomy for indigenous groups has yet to be adequately addressed by the Taiwanese government.

Taiwanese politicians campaign aggressively in indigenous communities, with both the KMT and DPP trying to outrun each other for their support at the polls. Members of indigenous tribes are encouraged to appear on mainstream talk shows, oftentimes dressed in traditional costume and with a dance or song performance at the ready. Guests are encouraged to enlighten studio audiences with quirky stories about indigenous culture, oftentimes juxtaposing them with the “mainstream” Han Chinese culture more often seen in Taiwan’s metropolitan areas.

Today, indigenous peoples are regarded as the most prominent ethnic minority in Taiwan. Given the historical lack of conspicuous physical violence between indigenous groups and the Han majority, it has become easy to assume that interethnic strife is a nonissue in today’s Taiwan. However, the forced assimilation and systematic disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples throughout Taiwan’s history tells a different story.

For many, the seemingly amicable relationship between Taiwan’s indigenous and Han populations seems to supersede the need for Han Chinese to ask permission before appropriating indigenous culture for their own political or social agendas. The continued search for a defined Taiwanese identity is one that boasts colorful pictures of indigenous peoples in traditional costume; however, it is still one that has Han people and Han interests at its helm.

The systematic inequality experienced by Taiwanese indigenous people has yet to be properly and effectively addressed, and efforts to use indigenous cultures as a symbol for Taiwanese identity seem to merely sweep the issue under a wrinkled and worn-out rug. In the continued conversations to create an inclusive and diverse unilateral Taiwanese identity, it is important to remember the voices that are consistently in power, and the voices that are consistently overpowered.


“WE ARE TAIWAN, BUT WHO AM I?” was on exhibition at Wellesley College on May 8th, 2014, and was prepared as a final project for MUS 277 (Interactive Sound Art with Electronics).

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