Identification with China: When it Made Sense in Taiwan

Identification with China is largely passé in Taiwan, where increasingly a majority of people now identify as only Taiwanese. Even young supporters of the Chinese Nationalist Party, which has traditionally favored unification with China, are”troubled by the party’s insistence that Taiwan is part of China.”

To the increasing majority of Taiwanese, Chinese nationalism–or identification with the ethnic Chinese nation–just doesn’t make sense. To them, Taiwan is a diverse place, on which many peoples and cultures have left their mark. Importantly, it is also a democracy, which makes Taiwan distinct in the Chinese-speaking world. They do not believe that Chinese-ness fully captures the experiences of even the descendants of immigrants from China (who hailed from many different parts and spoke many different languages), let alone the uniqueness of Taiwan.  Chinese nationalism is increasingly being eclipsed by civic nationalism similar to that of the United States–an identification with the nation of Taiwan based not on ethnicity or race but on shared values, such as democracy and multiculturalism.

However, before its decline, identification with China made sense to many. And not just because these people were “crazy” or “brainwashed.” This winter break, I read The Fig Tree 無花果, which a friend from Taiwanese-American Society had given me three years ago.

It is a volume of memoirs by Wu Zhuoliu 吳濁流 (1900-1976), a Taiwanese intellectual whose life spanned both the Japanese (1895-1945) and KMT (1945-1990s) eras. In his struggles against Japanese imperialism and KMT dictatorship, he turned to Chinese nationalism.

I took down passages that I found surprising (and may be surprising to young Taiwanese people now). —i.e passages where he displays deep resentment for Japan and Japanese imperialism and passages where he expresses solidarity with China, which he sees as his motherland. Although Chinese nationalism is largely discredited in Taiwan today, this memoir shows, in an impassioned and deeply personal way, that there was a time when Chinese nationalism made sense in Taiwan. The book also serves as a reminder that the rise of Taiwanese nationalism was by no means inevitable. Had it not been for a variety of reasons, Taiwanese people might still identify as only Chinese today.

After reviewing the author’s views, I will present passages that highlight his affinity for China and his distaste for Japan.

About the author

But first let’s understand the author (and his biases).


Wu Zhuoliu was a teacher, a journalist, and novelist, who spent his entire life in Taiwan but also lived briefly in China. While the English subtitle of his memoir is Memoirs of a Taiwanese Patriot, this can be quite misleading. Although “patriot” can simply mean someone who loves their country, in the United States, the term “patriot” connotes those who “violently rebelled against British control during the American Revolution and in July 1776 declared the United States of America an independent nation.” Key to the American conception of patriotism is independence. Whereas Wu did wish for Taiwan’s liberation from colonial rule, he did not want it to be it to be an independent country. He always saw Taiwan in the context of China and wanted it to become a “model province,” a “showpiece for the Three Principles of the People.”

Neither is his vision of Taiwan inclusive of all, a trait associated with the modern Taiwanese identity. Aboriginal Taiwanese, or the first nations of Taiwan, if mentioned at all, are an external “other” to him. For instance, he attributes the “spirit of resistance in the Taiwanese” people partially to the need to fend off “bloody attacks by the mountain savages” (236). His nation is one that is ethnically Chinese: “Creating a Taiwan of material and spiritual wealth, a Taiwan of freedom, is the task of everyone living here, and in this respect I make no distinction between mainlanders and Taiwanese” (263). Aboriginals are clearly not part of his vision for Taiwan.

So how representative were Wu’s views at the time? Taiwan was then, as now, a very complex society, so we definitely cannot say that his views represented everyone’s views. There were certainly differences between how different generations, socioeconomic classes, etc perceived Japan. (One elderly Taiwanese woman admits to feeling apprehensive when Japan surrendered, because she felt she was Japanese.) However, given the massive celebrations with which the Taiwanese welcomed the Republic of China, the islanders’ frenzy to learn Mandarin (the language of the Republic), etc… it is probable that Wu’s Chinese nationalist views resonated with a large swathe of the population.

Feelings of Solidarity for China

At the time, there were many Taiwanese who saw China as their motherland and would have wanted to see it for themselves. Wu was one of them who actually made the trip.

As he had to temporarily leave his wife and three children behind in Taiwan to fend for themselves in the wartime days, this was not an easy decision. But China had recently ended thousands of years of dynastic rule and set up a republic, and Wu wanted to see it firsthand. The following passage shows how he justifies his decision to leave his family behind (granted he brings them over soon afterwards):

“the shackles of colonialism had deprived us of our freedom, turning us into slaves for whom the future held nothing. I gritted my teeth, determined not to let emotion get the better of me, and set about restoring my wavering morale. ‘You have made the right decision—there’s freedom over there in that vast continent. How can you not go to that paradise of free man?’”

China = freedom; Japanese Taiwan = slavery. Wow, how different from the view now. Also, using “slavery” as a metaphor for colonialism was something I noticed in Korea, and I’m sure it is common vocabulary of the colonized around the world. However, I was surprised to see it used in the context of Taiwan, as the Japanese colonial era is not usually remembered this negatively.

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Example of use of the word “slavery” to describe Japanese colonial rule of Korea @ the Seodaemun Prison Museum in Seoul.

However, when he gets to China, his inability to speak Mandarin impedes his ability to communicate with locals:

“the most pressing problem facing me right then was my inability to communicate with people. In Shanghai I had understood not a single word of what was being said to me and, to complicate matters, people’s reactions were different, their customs were different and I was shut away in an alien world of my own.” (118)

Nonetheless, it is notable that despite the language and cultural barrier, he still imagined himself as a part of the Chinese nation. In the passage below, he expresses disgust at the wanton acts of foreigners in their concessions, and characterizes the “tyranny” of foreign powers of China as the great tragedy of being Chinese-

“In a mere four days of exposure to all of this I experienced the full tragedy of what it meant to be Chinese…. The real obscenity was the existence of the foreigners, the savages of unreason who exerted their tyranny over us. I felt nothing but deep and bitter resentment at the suffering which was being inflicted on my beloved China and shed tears at the pitiful state to which she had been reduced.” (117)

Typical of a Chinese nationalist, it does not occur to him that his “beloved China” had often imposed itself on other peoples throughout history. But such is nationalism.

Then when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, he secretly rejoiced that the US would now help China defeat Japan–

“On 8 December… Japanese forces launched a sudden attack against Pearl Harbour. The world was astounded and in their innocence the Japanese were overjoyed by their success. But for me a secret ray of hope had started to gleam—China was now allied with the forces of America and Britain; she had partners; she was no longer isolated, and defeat no longer seemed inevitable. In the War of Resistance things were going to change for the better.” (137)

Now that China had allies, it would be a matter of time until the Japanese were overthrown and Taiwan restored to its motherland, he believed (and rightly so).

So we see that Chinese nationalism made great sense to some Taiwanese intellectuals, as it served as a force to resist Japan. (Of course the irony here is that while Chinese leaders such as Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek supported Taiwanese independence from Japan, they would not think of Taiwan as Chinese until the 1940s.)

But we cannot discuss Chinese nationalism without discussing anti-Japanese sentiment; the two go hand-in-hand, and we will explore that in the next section.

Examples of anti-Japanese (imperialism) sentiment in Taiwan:

There are many examples of this in the memoir during the colonial era. For instance, he expresses resentment at the increasingly harsh policies Japan implemented after their invasion of Manchuria in 1931. They are very similar to the resentment felt by Koreans at having their culture crushed and replaced with that of Japan’s—

“Their aim was to destroy our identity through the Kominka movement—a deliberate attempt to turn us into faithful Japanese citizens of the Emperor. Everything Chinese was to be wiped out—decree followed decree suspending temple ceremonies, banning the wearing of local dress and banning the use of the Taiwanese dialect…. All households were obliged to burn taima, the paper offerings of Shintoism, the national cult, and speak in Japanese.” (97)

Earlier in the book, he also explains how “Dog Gu” which “referred to a person of that surname who, when the Japanese had landed in Taiwan, had personally led them into Taipei,” was used as an insult among the Taiwanese (41). Collaboration was resented, just as it was (and still is) in Korea. I find that the most illuminating examples of this resentment against Japan, however, are in the part of the book on the lame duck period after the Japanese surrender and before the arrival of the ROC. This period was cathartic for many Taiwanese, who were overjoyed to be liberated. Importantly, it is also before their disappointment in the ROC regime set in. Perhaps the best period to see the blossoming of Chinese nationalist sentiment in Taiwan and its cousin, anti-Japanese sentiment.

For instance he writes about his frustration at the systematic inequalities he faced throughout his career as a teacher:

“[before liberation,] there was absolutely nothing I could do but clench my fists in anger and watch. But it was different now, liberated from the grasp of the Japanese imperialists; we were free once more, and when I thought of that it was impossible not to feel elated. There had been the sportsfield incident at the school in Xinpu when the inspector had slapped me; the unfairness of getting less than Japanese who were my juniors, however hard I worked; the demotions to rural backwaters, and having to work harder than the Japanese for forty percent less pay. All that was over, completely over. And in the burning intensity of that moment tears of gratitude streamed down my cheeks.” (179)

All of these instances of inequality and discrimination are explained earlier in the book and a testament to the fact that, unlike now, there was much indignation at Japanese rule.

He writes the following to describe how victorious (and morally superior) the Taiwanese felt-

 “Look, our nation, our people, have been crushed beneath the iron heel of you Japanese for fifty years yet the Taiwanese have never yielded and have gone on resisting at the spiritual level. In school, on the sports field, in every kind of office or organization, we have competed against you and striven not to lose to you. You Japanese have constantly proclaimed your superiority, conceitedly assuming you were far better than us, but we Taiwanese consider ourselves to be Han Chinese and as such culturally more advanced than you.” (169)

Here we see the haughty Han Chinese chauvinism that is so often associated with Chinese nationalists in China today. Apparently, this kind of ethnocentric superiority complex existed in Taiwan as well, feeding into anti-Japanese sentiment.

What I found most illuminating was his description of a ceremony he attended on Taiwan’s first Double 10 Day (basically the birthday of the ROC). Celebrations were held all around the island, and a special ceremony was held at what is now Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. After the initial addresses, delegates from all around Taiwan furiously denounce Japanese imperialism-

“the audience, wild with joy, could contain itself no longer. On the platform delegate followed delegate with strident denunciations of Japanese imperialism and its colonialist policies.” (178)

The delegates lashing out at Japan here had many real grievances against the colonial regime. This also makes me wonder, however, how much of this was for Taiwanese to ingratiate themselves with the new government from China. Whatever their motives, it is clear that anti-Japanese tirades were highly encouraged in the aftermath of the Japanese surrender. Had there been a better relationship between the ROC regime and its new subjects in Taiwan, I have no doubt that Taiwan today would also have a nationalism defined against Japan, just like China and Korea.

However, it is important to note that his anti-Japanese imperialism sentiment did always not translate to anti-Japanese people sentiment. For instance, he condemned Chinese and Taiwanese carpetbaggers who took advantage of the Japanese in Taiwan—

“these conmen, who were all too aware of how vulnerable the Japanese had become after their country’s unconditional surrender, blatantly took over their house and started weighing in with their connections to pursue all sorts of rackets” (175).

Wu also worked with Japanese colleagues at a newspaper company in China, whom he deeply respected:

“I had never before imagined that among the Japanese such noble and educated individuals could be found. Compared to the Japanese who came to teach in the common schools in Taiwan, they were a breed apart” (127).

Wu also read about early Meiji Era reformers, “like Itagaki Taisuke, a hero in the field of human rights whose cry ‘You may kill Itagaki but freedom never’ as he braved the assassin’s knife, never failed to move me” (61).

So in summary, the Japanese colonial era left Wu with a bitter resentment of Japanese colonialism and the systematic discrimination that characterized it. The joint suffering of the “Chinese people” against Japan therefore served as a narrative of solidarity in this struggle to throw off the yoke of imperialism. Chinese nationalism made sense.

Overall, a fascinating read, and I might have to blog on other interesting passages in the book.

I will conclude with a personal remark: I had grown up with a deep resentment towards Chinese nationalism, which I had seen as infringing on my right to identify as Taiwanese. In college, my studies of history have impressed upon me the need to be critical of any form of nationalism–Chinese OR Taiwanese–but at the same time made me realize the need to understand it, since it is such a powerful social force (#Bismarck). While I will continue to be critical of any form of nationalism, I am thankful to this book for making me more empathetic to those Chinese nationalists who I would have merely dismissed as ridiculous growing up.

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