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Wednesday, 21 October 2015 10:22

Taiwan History Book Controversy: A Clash of Identities? Featured

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The latest history book controversy in Taiwan is not a novel phenomenon; it all started in the late 80's and 90' when the old history books were criticized for having no relation with Taiwan's history. The next great controversy was in 1997 when a new supplementary text book, Renshi Taiwan (Get to Know Taiwan) was introduced. The controversy over Renshi Taiwan was the first of its kind in Taiwan which clearly divided Taiwanese politics and society in two halves; one that emphasized China and Taiwan's linkage with it and one that identified themselves more as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. The book also included the forbidden 228 incident where many Taiwanese were killed by the Kuomintang Party. With the end of White Terror in Taiwan and the birth of democracy, there are many issues that have been debated repeatedly especially related to identity; are you a Chinese or Taiwanese? 

History writing is linked to nationalism in most cases and in Taiwan the question is; is Taiwan a part of Chinese history or does it have its own history? The complication started when KMT leaders came to Taiwan in 1949 followed by 2 million refugees after being defeated by the communists in Mainland China. The KMT treated Taiwan as a base from where it could fight the Communist party. This never happened but the KMT forced Mandarin on the Taiwanese people, propagated the ‘One China Policy' and hoped one day they could be united. This created two camps in Taiwan and gave birth to two philosophies resulting in a clear political division, which exists even today; the KMT believes there is one China and wants unification while the DPP says Taiwan and China are two different countries. A part of KMT supporters believe that they have to be practical as they cannot fight China and unification means a fillip to the declining economy. On the other hand the youth recognize themselves more as Taiwanese than as Chinese.  

The latest text book controversy validates the complexity of Taiwanese history, politics and philosophy. The changes or as the Ministry of Education calls it ‘fine tuning' (課綱微調) of the high school text books were completed with new books starting this year. Students from more than 150 high schools in Taiwan are protesting against the change and have occupied the office of Ministry of Education for two days. This is not the first time that linkages with China have seen such huge protest in Taiwan. The

Legislative Yuan was occupied for 21 days in March and April last year over a controversial services trade pact with China. The text book protests saw unexpected complications when a student committed suicide. Later, reports suggested that he had a mental disorder and did not commit suicide for the issue. This however, is been seen as a cover up for the death by many in Taiwan. There are two main points that resulted in such a widespread protest against the change; first, there is no transparency in the procedure and the changes are seen as preparing the youth for unification in the near future.

The students claim that the process through which changes were discussed and finalized were erroneous and lacked accountability. The committee which has proposed the changes is constituted of people whose interpretations of history tilt towards China's historic claims on the island. The second point is that the changes are mostly targeted at post 1949 history, such as the 228 incident, when a large number of Taiwanese protesting against the KMT were killed, as well as the nearly four decades of brutal martial law known as the White Terror. Although these incidents would be covered in the books, the way they will be portrayed would be different and many of KMT misgivings would be glossed over. The other major change prior to 1949 period is changing the ‘Zheng Dynasty', which was established by Zheng Chenggong, also known as Koxinga to ‘Zheng Ming' Dynasty. A descendent of the

Ming Dynasty, Koxinga escaped to Taiwan after the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Qing Dynasty. In 1644 he defeated the Dutch in Taiwan and established his rule. The Qing dynasty sent its navy and ultimately succeeded in defeating Zheng Keshuang, the grandson of Koxinga in 1683. Thus, Taiwan was annexed by the Qing dynasty to end any further revolts by the Ming Dynasty. The proposed change from Zheng to Zheng Ming dynasty emphasizes the connection between Taiwan and China since the Ming Dynasty countering the fact that Taiwan was never under the Ming Dynasty.  

 The Ministry is defending itself by saying that the books are not promoting linkages with China but are instead trying to delink Taiwan's progress to Japanese rule in Taiwan. The Education Minister recently said that the whole problem is related to Taiwanese identity and it is good to understand different positions. He further added that a way has to be found to resolve the differences to reduce conflict and provide a broader opportunity for reconciliation. His statement does justify the anxiety of Taiwanese people that the alteration is being made to prepare the Taiwanese youth for ultimate unification with China. However, he also highlights the complicated identity issue in Taiwan and second the inability of Taiwan to counter China which leaves it no option but to prepare Taiwanese to accept unification in the near future. 

 The upcoming elections make it more complicated as some see this issue as being used by both parties to gain supporters. The KMT wants to win over those who support unification and think it would be in Taiwan's favour, while DPP is using it to gain supporters who identify more as Taiwanese. No consensus has been reached between the KMT and the students and neither have private talks with the DPP resulted in any concrete forward movement. Some are worried that changing history for political purposes would ruin the future of Taiwanese diplomacy further. Rather than making it a political issue it is better to have a transparent committee and students study Taiwanese history without a Chinese prism and understand the nuances and complications of their country's relationship with China. The struggle between the two factions would result in confusion in and outside Taiwan as the international community would also be perplexed as to whether Taiwan has accepted itself as part of China or whether it still sees itself as a separate entity in every aspect.   

 Note: For an official Chinese view on the Taiwan text book controversy, the People's Daily Taiwan Channel ran a long story published on 30th July 2015. You can read the article here in Chinese:  http://tw.people.com.cn/n/2015/0730/c14657-27382567.html   

Read 35837 times Last modified on Thursday, 29 October 2015 08:53