The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Taiwan is using same-sex marriage to assert its national identity

Liberalism in marriage laws helps bolster a separate, progressive national identity

Two couples seal their legal marriage with a kiss on May 24 at the registration office in Xingyi District in Taipei, Taiwan. (Johnson Lai/AP)

When Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage last month, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted “#LoveWon,” celebrating the move for making Taiwan “a better country.” A first for Asia, the legislation showcased Taiwan’s commitment to progressive values. The resulting wave of international media attention underscored Taiwan’s political agenda as distinct from the behemoth next door, mainland China.

People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, then tried to blur the lines. During the same weekend, the paper posted a celebratory tweet: “local lawmakers in Taiwan, China, have legalized same-sex marriage in a first for Asia.” The tweet, which included a rainbow-colored GIF that read, “love is love,” incensed Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, who retaliated: “WRONG! The bill was passed by our national parliament & will be signed by the president soon. Democratic #Taiwan is a country in itself & has nothing to do with authoritarian #China. @PDChina is a commie brainwasher & it sucks. JW.”

Wu’s strident response and the way it sought to distinguish Taiwan from China reveal how the bill had become a display of national identity — a purposeful strategy to mark out a difference between Taiwan and China by positioning itself as the more progressive power. While a popular referendum held in November 2018 saw a majority voting to restrict legal marriage to that between a man and a woman, the Taiwanese government pushed forward a bill for same-sex marriage that ultimately received a high level of cross-party support and passed comfortably.

Why? Because in both form and content, the whole process was political, aimed to show Taiwanese as promoting equality and human rights in direct contrast to the Chinese government, which has notably intensified crackdowns on homosexuality in recent years.

Taiwan has stood at the forefront of innovative approaches to marriage before. In 1933, when Taiwan was ruled by Japan, the colonial government legalized Han-Japanese intermarriage on the island. Historians treat this marriage reform as blatant imperial oppression. But looking more closely reveals that promoting intermarriage in the 1930s had a purpose similar to that of legalizing same-sex marriage today: laying claim to a distinctive and progressive imperial brand.

Taiwan, which became Japan’s first external colony in 1895, was the stage for the new Asian empire to make its mark. Japanese leaders wanted to demonstrate that they were not blind mimickers of the British or other European empire builders. Instead, they strove to integrate new ideas, including nationalism, anti-colonialism and collective security on their own terms.

Legal intermarriage resonated with Japan’s advocacy of racial equality at the League of Nations. Japanese leaders saw themselves as representatives of nonwhite peoples and offered their model of empire-building as more progressive than Western-style discrimination. Intermarriage marked Japan as more than just another European power, and the ideal of “harmonious integration” (naitai yūwa) was designed to show off Japanese colonial rule as egalitarian.

While primarily self-interested rather than altruistic, Japan’s commitment to intermarriage was a breakthrough at a time when European empires were discouraging or banning miscegenation. (It would be 34 more years before the United States would strike down anti-miscegenation laws.) Remarkably, the dominant model of intermarriage represented in state-sanctioned media was that between Japanese women and Taiwanese men. This further contradicted European norms, by which a perceived need to protect white women from local men justified further segregation.

A similar assertion of independence is likewise occurring in Taiwan today. Even decades after the end of Japanese rule in 1945, Taiwan continues to be a stage where the tension between imperialism and progress plays out. The island’s political status remains a controversy, as are talks of its eventual unification with or independence from China.

In this context, the culturally transformative experience of Japanese colonial rule is often seen through the lens of nostalgia, as a time of development that gave Taiwan its unique identity independent from China. Within a political and intellectual environment that focuses on Taiwan’s colonial memory, mainland Chinese nationalism is characterized as a form of colonial activity, and “true” post-colonial Taiwan is increasingly articulated as an independent nation-state. Even as Japan no longer controls the island or debates over marriage there, China’s claim over Taiwan still stands. As Taiwan’s closest cultural and geographic neighbor, and the biggest power in the region, China’s looming presence requires Taiwanese leaders to find alternative means of gaining the international recognition necessary for protecting national sovereignty.

With its legalization of same-sex marriages, Taiwan seeks to set itself apart from the mainland and assert its own brand. It is no coincidence that the incumbent government is led by Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Unlike their main opposition, the Kuomintang, the DPP refuses to acknowledge the one-China principle.

Legalizing same-sex marriage provided an opportunity for Taiwanese leaders to articulate their own brand of Chineseness, shaped by their negotiation of different forces and enshrined in their law. It is easy to dismiss these innovative approaches to marriage as mere political acts, but here, as elsewhere, progressive ideals and politics are not mutually exclusive. The legacy of intermarriage laws in the 1930s is not unblemished, but it stands as a leading factor in the liberalization of marriage laws generally in east Asia. Same-sex marriage laws are poised to do the same.