Sunday, 23 February 2014

Contested Nationalisms on Taiwan

"In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community - - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

Photo source: Xinhua News Agency (

        Benedict Anderson, leading authority on nationalism, delivered his lecture “Western Nationalism and Eastern Nationalism” in Taipei in April 2000, barely one month after Taiwanese nationalist Chen Shui-bian won the Presidency with 39.3% of the votes in Taiwan’s second direct presidential election.

        Arguing that there are no important distinctions between nationalisms along East-West lines, he offered a new typology. Creole nationalism is pioneered by settlers from the Old Country. They may share language, religion, etc., with the metropole, but increasingly feel alienated from it and develop new identities based on new history, demographic blending of settler and indigenous peoples, etc., perhaps moving toward independence if the metropole is distant or oppressive (Anderson 2001: 33-34). Official nationalism, in response to popular nationalisms, is a state attempt to impose unified national identity on diverse subjects (Anderson 2001: 35). Linguistic nationalism, the type we know in Québec, is based on the belief that each true nation is marked off by its own language and culture (Anderson 2001: 40).  

        Melissa Brown’s approach (2010), analyzing identities constructed in social experience and distinct from ideological rhetoric, makes it possible to better understand Taiwan’s nationalisms. Chen Shui-bian, to a certain extent, had ridden a wave of Hokkien linguistic nationalism, a reality reflected in the fact that all political candidates felt compelled to campaign in Hokkien (even if they sound as awkward as Stephen Harper speaking French). Linguistic nationalism, which emerged from subordination of Hokkien to the “new national language of Mandarin,” was part of Taiwan’s ethnic conflict. It remains the Achille’s Heel of the Democratic Progressive Party, as it alienates ethnic minorities (Mainlanders, Hakka and indigenous) uncomfortable with Hokkien. Official nationalisms were experienced in the Imperialisation (皇民化) of the Japanese period and the Sinicisation of the Republic of China. As Brown observed, these ideologies were not convincing when they conflicted with real discrimination in social life.  

        Taiwan seems to be moving toward creole nationalism, as Anderson suggested with his anecdote about a student, born in Taiwan to parents who arrived with the KMT in 1949, who reported “trying to be Taiwanese” (Anderson 2001: 33). This may also explain the rising numbers of people since 2008 who identify as Taiwanese and not Chinese. It is not surprising that President Ma Ying-jeou had to affirm an identity as “New Taiwanese” during electoral campaigns and felt compelled to honour a “Taiwan spirit” in his first inaugural address.

The future is uncertain, especially as a rising China “turning to official nationalism for renewed legitimation of its rule” (Anderson 2001: 38) seeks to annex Taiwan. History shows that alienation from the metropole can push creole nationalism toward independence; and that official nationalism often falters. Brown reminds us that governments can influence identities, “shifting claims by reshaping social experience” (Brown 2010: 466). The challenge, for Beijing’s leaders and counterparts on Taiwan, is to create a positive social experience with China for Taiwan’s elites and ordinary people. Only in circumstances of equality does renewed Chinese nationalism on Taiwan stand a chance.


Anderson, Benedict. 2001. “Western Nationalism and Eastern Nationalism.” New Left Review 9: 31-42.

Brown, Melissa. 2010. “Changing Authentic Identities: Evidence from Taiwan and China.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16 (3): 459-479.


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