In Search of an Authentic Identity

In Search of an Authentic Identity

Mandarin Chinese is my first language, Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese are my “mother tongues” as my mother was native Taiwanese born and my father Chinese. Even though my maternal grandparents could speak some Japanese as a result of the Japanese colonial rule over Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, I didn’t pick up much Japanese from them as we lived some 200 kilometres apart. My first experience with English was when I was no more than six when my “little” (youngest) uncle was preparing for his high school entrance examination. For some reason unknown to me, he came to live with us so my mother, his big sister, could look after him. He taught me the English alphabets and I quickly learned how to say them, write them, in both capital letters and lower cases. I could even sing the Alphabet Song. My parents liked to show me off to friends and relatives by telling me to recite the 26 English alphabets in front of such bemused audience. Being “able to speak” English was an act of vanity rather than real evidence of intellectual accomplishment at the age of six.

Before English became a subject to be studied and examined on at school when I started junior high school, I was already surrounded by different languages, dialects and accents; it was more of a circumstantial and environmental inevitability.

Taiwanese aborigines deer hunting

Internet image

I grew up on an army estate where many Chinese Nationalist soldiers married the local Taiwanese women. This broad distinction by birth place is deceptive. Many of the Nationalists soldiers came from all corners of China with geographic distances as wide as their dialectal disparities. For example, my father was from Henan province with a singsong quality of the Yellow River Plains accent. He pronounced the /yu/ sound as /oo/. The colour “green” would sound like “road” to listeners unfamiliar to his accent. My friends would struggle to understand my father just as I found their fathers’ Shanghai or Shandong accents and idioms equally confusing. The local women were not all ethnic Han Chinese either. Some of them were Plains aborigines as opposed to Highland aborigines. Even so, the aboriginal women did not belong to one ethnic group. Instead, they came from the eight distinct peoples with their own languages, cultures and customs with visible traces of influence from their ancestors’ contact with the Europeans and Han immigrants from China through intermarriage.

1635 Dutch map of Formosa

Image source:荷蘭人所繪福爾摩沙臺灣.jpeg

The ethnic mix of the native Taiwanese people is such that since the mid-1980s, anthropologists and historians began to trace their genetic lineage to ascertain the lasting impact of the external forces on the shaping of the islanders’ ethnic identity. The picture is a complex one. Taiwan appeared in the European consciousness in the 16th century during the European Age of Exploration and colonisation of the “new worlds”. Having successfully circumnavigated round the Cape of the Good Hope to the East and set up a permanent base in Macau, the Portuguese continued to extend their trade route to Japan in 1544 and “discovered” the forest-cloaked island in the Pacific Ocean that was not marked on their map. They named it “Ilha Formosa” (Beautiful Island). Significant impact of immigration started when the Dutch East India Company set up a stronghold in Fort Zeelandia in Tainan in southern Taiwan in 1624 and opened the immigration of labour from Fujian province of China across the narrow Taiwan Strait of 220 kilometres at its widest point and 130 the narrowest. In 1626, the Spanish arrived at what they called Cape Santiago in the north east of Taiwan but found it unsuitable for defence purposes. They continued their journey along the coast westward and found a deep and secure harbour in Keeling where they set up a settlement named Santissima Trinidad and established Fort Salvador. A second base, San Domingo, was created in Tamsui in 1626. During the conflicts between the Spanish and the Dutch, the indigenous aborigines were used by both sides to defend their colonial interests.

The ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity of the small community into which I was born was such that between being carried by my mother in her womb and the age of ten, I grew up in this cacophony of linguistic symphony. Imagine living on a small army estate but densely populated with 100 families in terraced, single-story houses. Living cheek by jowl, the locals expressed affection, resentment, form friendships, break relationships, negotiate business, share secrets, argue and console in languages, dialects, accents that shared little superficial similarities. Above the human noises, another auditory battle took place as the residents shared their musical tastes through shrieking Peking Operas, sentimental Taiwanese pop, and spirited Aboriginal choruses.

How come I don’t feel that I had actually benefitted from such a linguistically and culturally rich environment? Political necessity instrumented through ideological control ensured that a “Taiwanese” self-consciousness was thawed if not eradicated completely. The racial and cultural homogenisation made sure of that. Speaking Taiwanese was forbidden at school and in government department. “Please speak National Language (Mandarin Chinese)” was displayed as an ubiquitous reminder. This was the visible damage. The real linguistic casualties as a result of the reinforcement of Mandarin Chinese as the National Language are the aboriginal languages. Of the 26 Formosan languages, 10 are now extinct, 4 or 5 are now moribund and several others endangered. Identified by Robert Blust (2009) as the origin of the nine out of ten major branches of the Austronesian languages, Taiwan’s loss of such linguistic heritage has a devastating impact on the disappearance of indigenous cultures and the means through which greater understanding of different traditions can be achieved.

The tumultuous colonial past under the Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese rules was subjected to further violent incidents following the defeat of Chang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Army and the re-establishment of the Republic of China on this small island. The 228 Massacre in 1947 that witnessed an estimated 10,000 deaths of civilians during the uprising of the Nationalist government (Kuomintang) carved a deep divide between the indigenous peoples, the native Taiwanese and the incoming Mainlanders. The memory of this most recent past remained a noticeable social divide in my childhood Taiwan of the 1960s and 70s under the reign of the White Terror. Political dissidents were secretly arrested, imprisoned and even murdered. Completely unaware of such a blatant violation through racial, political, cultural and linguistic hegemony, I grew up a Chinese, not Taiwanese – also a common fate of many ethnic minorities in Taiwan.


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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