In third grade, I received a school assignment to interview a family member. I chose my mother, who had immigrated to the United States after marrying my white American father. We began with a simple question.
“Where were you born?”
“Taiwan,” my mother answered.
No, I argued. I had seen it with my own eyes: “Republic of China” in sharp black ink on the letters and packages my grandmother sent. I insisted that she was from China. She tried to explain the difference between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, but I could not comprehend how a place could be called China but not be China. The interview ended there, at the first question, with my mother frustrated and me in tears.
This past week, reading news accounts and analysis of President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, it was my turn to feel frustrated. Taiwan was discussed primarily as an appendage of U.S.-China relations, an irritant in the delicate relationship between two countries. “Bargaining chip” has been a common descriptor of Taiwan’s role. A flood of headlines reorients the attention on China: “Trump’s Phone Call To Taiwan’s Leader Risks China Tensions.” “Trump’s Taiwan call shows China he’s not a pushover.” “The Taiwan call was no ‘courtesy’—Donald Trump means to wreck US–China relations.” A former Asia director at the National Security Council, Evan Medeiros, said of the call, “Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.” Even those who supported the call made it about China. On Twitter, New York Representative Pete King called it a “strong message to China.”
Even though Trump’s repudiation of diplomatic protocol is troubling, this is a long overdue chance for us to return our attention to Taiwan for Taiwan’s sake and reconsider America’s outdated position on it.
When I started working on my novel “Green Island,” set in Taiwan during the second half of the 20th century, I had to wade through the history of words used to describe it. Free China. Chinese Taipei. Republic of China. Taiwan. Reunification. Unification. Province. Country. I have watched the media struggle through this negotiation around language in the past week. In the clamor to parse what China will do, or what this means for America, the perspectives and stories of the people of Taiwan have been ignored.
From 1895 to 1945, under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, Taiwan was a colony of Japan, acquired from the Qing Empire. When Japan gave up its colonies at the end of World War II, the Kuomintang (KMT), also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party, which then ruled China, took control.
One of Chiang Kai-shek’s most successful projects after the KMT occupied Taiwan was revamping the educational system. Not only did the KMT enforce Mandarin language use, but it also replaced Taiwan’s history with China’s. This erasure continued throughout Chiang’s authoritarian regime and over 38 years of martial law.
The end of World War II also saw the resumption of the conflict between the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT. Losing the Chinese Civil War, the KMT fled to Taiwan in 1949, establishing the island as its base for the Republic of China with a plan to return and rule China again. There was no “split” but rather a retreat by KMT members and their families, around 2 million people, to Taiwan, where nearly 6 million people already lived. Having recently emerged from 50 years of Japanese colonialism, the Taiwanese encountered considerable friction with the newly arrived Chinese, who had spent eight years fighting the Japanese.
This is why words matter when it comes to Taiwan. Much of the coverage describes Taiwan’s history as if it began in 1949. Using words like “split” and “reunification” effaces the history that existed before that. I can’t help but think about what stories get lost.
For example, the story of Mona Rudao, chief of the Seediq tribe, one of 16 indigenous groups of Austronesian heritage that have inhabited Taiwan for thousands of years. In 1930, Rudao led an armed resistance against the Japanese colonizers. The Japanese countered with double the forces and mustard gas bombs in such an appalling display of violence that their policies regarding the indigenous population would subsequently be revised. Rudao killed himself to avoid being caught, and his remains were put on display as warning to other would-be rebels. His image now graces the 20 Taiwanese-dollar coin.
We lose the story of the painful Japanization movement, during which Taiwan’s people were forced to speak Japanese and take Japanese names. Young men conscripted into the Japanese army paid a “blood tax” by proving their loyalty to Japan with their lives. Young women were forced to serve soldiers as sex slaves.
Also gone is the story of the people who wished for American-style democracy after the Japanese colonists left in 1945, only to have their hopes crushed by the Kuomintang forces.
A narrow view of history makes it easier to forget Feb. 28, 1947, when protests began in response to the beating by Tobacco Monopoly Bureau agents of a young widow selling black-market cigarettes — the kind of tragic encounter that surely resonates in contemporary America. The KMT responded with a month-long massacre in which as many as 30,000 Taiwanese were murdered or disappeared to suppress resistance to its authority.
And it erases the tens of thousands imprisoned and executed during the decades of terror that followed the massacre. For nearly 40 years, the people of Taiwan had barbed wire wrapped around their tongues as they were forbidden to speak of the horrors committed by Chiang and his men. The sorrow of that era still lingers: Martial law ended only in 1987. Claiming that Taiwan’s history begins in 1949 is a second silencing.
Finally, we can’t forget that despite this painful history, Taiwan transformed itself into a democracy, with freedom of the press, universal health care and a democratically elected female president. These are achievements of resilience we should recognize and applaud.
We can’t change policy in a day, or reinstate recognition of Taiwan with a snap of our fingers (or a phone call), but we can at least do the honest work of understanding the nuances of the history of Taiwan and its people.