Are We Chinese or Taiwanese? 


◎Emerson M. F. Jou, M.D. 周明峰

Many Taiwanese people, both inside Taiwan and abroad, have been pondering a question of self-identity: Are we Chinese, Taiwanese, or Taiwanese and Chinese? The answer seems simple, yet some may be unsure and find it confusing. To address this question, it is helpful to first briefly review the history of Taiwan and later use it as a basis for clarification.

  1. Taiwan was first inhabited by aboriginal tribes (later some emigrated southward as Pacific Islanders) over 5000 years ago.
  2. In 1360, Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Empire) established an outpost in Pescadores (Penghu澎湖), which was abolished by Ming Dynasty in 1387.
  3. In 1544, Portuguese sailors passing by Taiwan on the way to Japan discovered its beauty and exclaimed “Ilha Formosa!” (beautiful island). Taiwan was placed on the world map and ever since has been known throughout the world as “Formosa”.
  4. In 1603, Dutch attempt to occupy Pescadores failed. In 1622, Dutch made a second attempt and succeeded in taking it. Two years later, the Ming Dynasty drove the Dutch out of Pescadores, but allowed them to move to Taiwan. So they did and a Dutch colony was started in southern Taiwan in 1624.
  5. In 1626, Spaniards from Manila occupied northern Taiwan for 16 years until ousted by the Dutch. The Dutch ruled Taiwan for 38 years. Chinese emigration to Taiwan began in the late 16th century, more so during the Dutch and Spanish period because of the manpower needed for cultivating and farming. By then, the total population of Chinese immigrants numbered one hundred thousand.
  6. In 1644, the Ching Dynasty of Manchu replaced the Ming Dynasty as the ruler of China. In 1661, Koxinga (國姓爺鄭成功), a remaining force of the Ming, fled from China, rid of the Dutch and ruled Taiwan for 23 years.
  7. In 1683, the Ching took Taiwan. At first, the Ching decided to abandon Taiwan because: (1) Taiwan was never a part of China, (2) Taiwan was an uncultivated raw land, too tiny to be of any value, (3) In the Ching’s view, the aboriginal people of Taiwan were savages and barbarians and the Chinese immigrants were criminal and low-class; both were not worthy of being Chinese. After much reluctance, the Ching finally accepted Taiwan into her territory as a part of the Fujian Province. Two hundred years later in 1885, Taiwan was made a province. For 190 years, the Ching imposed immigration prohibition. Only a limited number of men were permitted to move to Taiwan, but without their wives or children because women were not allowed. Most of the immigrants came to Taiwan illegally. Due to the scarcity of Chinese women, they married native women. They did so also to take advantage of property rights, for in an aboriginal society the inheritance of family property was passed on to women instead of men. Whereas it was reversed in Ching society, Chinese men could then take over the wnership of their spouses’ property. In the late 19th century, foreign powers were eager to colonize Taiwan; e.g., Japan, USA, France and the United Kingdom. The Ching, realizing its seriousness, changed immigration policy and encouraged Chinese peasants to emigrate to Taiwan, giving them free passage along with incentives such as food, money, farmland, agricultural equipment, water buffalo, etc. This lasted only 12 years until 1895 when Taiwan was handed over to Japan. Taiwan was under Ching rule for 212 years.
  8. In 1895, the Ching went to war with Japan over control of Korea and was soundly defeated. By the Treaty of Shimonoseki (馬關條約), Taiwan was ceded to Japan.
  9. After being abandoned by the Ching, some Ching high officials in Taiwan established The Republic of Formosa, but facing Japanese invasion, soon escaped to China. The Republic dissipated after only 148 days.
  10. For the first 20 years of Japanese occupation, there were numerous failed uprisings of the Taiwanese people to resist the Japanese by force. For the next 30 years, violence transitioned into civil and political means to fight for their native rights. The Japanese set the foundation for modernization, including a census, land survey, railroads, irrigation systems, telephone/telegram/postal services, banking, commerce, gold/coal mines, harbors, public health, medical resources, hydroelectric power plants, city planning, modern government/commercial buildings as well as all kinds of industry, trade and education. Taiwan was much more advanced than China in many aspects; e.g., the total length of the railroad was one-third that of China and electricity output equaled to that of China; Taiwanese people were more modernized and better educated with a much higher literacy rate.
  11. Japan ruled for 50 years until the end of WWII in 1945. The Chinese army was ordered by Allied Supreme Commander MacArthur to receive the Japanese surrender and report back to the UN. Based on the UN Charter, Taiwanese people were entitled to self-determination; however, the Chinese have occupied Taiwan and stayed illegally ever since.

There are several points of difference separating the Taiwanese from the Chinese:

1. Race

Because the aboriginal people were given Chinese surnames during the Ching period, later generations thought they were Chinese merely by connecting to the unrelated Chinese of the same surnames. The aboriginal people, having no Chinese blood, are in fact the native Taiwanese and not Chinese. Perhaps some Taiwanese even with Chinese surnames are unknowingly the descendants of those aboriginal tribes. Our ancestors from China came to Taiwan 100-400 years ago. By marriage, many of them mixed with the aboriginal people. Most of us are of mixed-blood, both Chinese and aboriginal, not “pure” Chinese. On the outside, Taiwanese people look different from Chinese; we can often spot a Taiwanese person from among Chinese in a crowd. On the inside, they have been differentiated by recent DNA studies.

2. Culture

Taiwanese culture is a mixture of aboriginal, ancient Chinese, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, modern-day Chinese and other western elements. Some examples: aboriginal—betel nut 檳榔. Dutch and Spanish—pea豌豆 (荷蘭豆Dutch bean), pepper辣椒 (番仔薑foreign ginger), tomato番茄 (foreign eggplant), sweet potato甘薯 (番薯foreign yam), guava芭樂 (番石榴foreign pomegranate). Manchu—queue hair style 薙髮結辮 (pig-tail), clothes 旗袍、長袍馬褂 (cheongsam or long garment). Japanese—sashimi 生魚片 (raw fish), takuan 醃黃蘿蔔 (yellow pickled radish), tatami 塌塌米 (straw mats). Modern-day Chinese—cuisine from all provinces, language (Mandarin), Peking opera.

Because of the differences in culture, we have a language mixed with native tongue and Japanese. We speak Mandarin with a typical Taiwanese accent. Our written Chinese, English spelling of names, body language and manner are different from those of Mainland China. Our temperament is also different—being honest, mellow, kind, considerate, humble and shy but not as deceptive, rude, loud or assertive.

Such mixture is apparent in all aspects of the unique Taiwanese culture, different from Chinese culture.

3. Political Identity

a. Taiwan belonged to the aboriginal people before the Chinese came over.
b. Taiwan was outside of Chinese (Ming) and Manchu (Ching) rule during 38 years of Dutch and 23 years of Koxinga regimes.
c. For 212 years under Ching rule, both China and Taiwan were territories of the non-Chinese Manchu Empire. Thus, one cannot say that Taiwan is a part of China. Just like Canada and Australia were at one time British colonies and now both are members of the Commonwealth. If one says that Canada is a part of Australia or vice versa, it sounds silly.
d. Taiwan was clearly a Japanese colony for 50 years.
e. After WWII, the Peace Treaty of San Francisco stated that Japan gave up ownership of Taiwan and Pescadores, but mentioned no replacement or successor. This means Taiwan belongs to the Taiwanese by self-determination. However in 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek was defeated by the Communists and fled from China to rule Taiwan as “The Republic of China”, so-called “Free China” which was neither free nor China. Taiwan has been under this banner ever since with no chance for self-determination. Now China wants to take Taiwan and declares that “Taiwan is a part of China”, yet the People’s Republic of China has not ruled Taiwan for even a single day. Taiwan has never been a part of China, and therefore we are Taiwanese, not Chinese.

4. Historic Prejudice

Since China claimed Taiwan as a part of China, you would think that the Chinese regarded the Taiwanese as her own people, but this is not true. China knew all along that the Taiwanese were not pure Chinese but mixed-blood as if this were an “original sin”, and therefore never considered or treated the Taiwanese as Chinese. Historically, China looked down those who had emigrated to foreign lands and condemned them as non-Chinese; or even barbarian, the term used to call a foreigner.

For example:

a. In 1622 after taking Pescadores, the Dutch enslaved the Chinese inhabitants. Thousands of them died of hard labor, the rest were sent to Batavia (Indonesia) as slaves, but China was not concerned and chose to do nothing.
b. In 1603, twenty-three thousand overseas Chinese in Manila were slaughtered by Spaniards. The Chinese official position stated: “Those wandered away from the homeland are considered as non-Chinese, we despise them and will not protect them”.
c. Later in Java, nine thousand Chinese were killed by the Dutch. The Chinese government proclaimed: “Don’t bother us with those people who left their homeland. They deserved to be killed”.

The same for Taiwan, China never looked upon the Taiwanese as Chinese. The Ching imposed immigration prohibition to Taiwan for 190 years so that the Chinese were not permitted to emigrate to Taiwan. Those who did so illegally were given no help from their government. They were like abandoned orphans. The Dutch treated those Chinese immigrants as slaves, but China did not care. In 1871, there was an incident (牡丹社事件), involving Okinawan fishermen. After being shipwrecked in southern Taiwan, many were killed by local natives. Japan protested and asked for compensation. The Ching replied: “Taiwan belongs to the natives, we bear no responsibility”. Japan then sent troops to southern Taiwan and killed those natives responsible. Japan threatened to occupy Taiwan and finally the Ching paid up.

The Ching treated the Taiwanese as second-class citizens. Taiwanese people were not allowed to serve in high governmental or military positions. In 1895, the Ching ceded Taiwan to Japan. One Taiwanese hero Kan Toa-Sai (簡大獅) fought the Japanese with all his resources and failed. He escaped to Amoy (Xiamen廈門) asking the Chinese government for asylum, but was rejected and sent back to Taiwan to be hung by the Japanese. Before his execution, he said: “I am a citizen of Ching. Ching should protect her own citizens. I gathered one thousand men to fight hundreds of battles against the Japanese. I have done so much for my country. I should be appreciated, even rewarded. But instead, when I went to China for protection, how on earth did I end up being sent back to the Japanese to be killed?” This typical example indicates very clearly that China never considered the Taiwanese as Chinese.

Furthermore, because of Japanese rule, the Taiwanese were becoming more Japanese-like. China considered the Taiwanese not only as non-Chinese, but a different race altogether.

In 1945, when Chiang Kai-Shek’s army came to Taiwan, they looted all resources and insulted the Taiwanese as being second-class citizens. Anti-Chinese sentiment was mounting among the Taiwanese. There was an incident on 2/27/1947, a Chinese soldier bought cigarettes from a Taiwanese vendor but refused to pay. Chinese police sided with the soldier, accusing the vendor for being “unlicensed” (yet a license was not required) and confiscated all of her cigarettes. She resisted and was struck on the head by the policeman with a pistol. When some angry onlookers converged, the policeman hastily ran away firing his pistol randomly and killed a young bystander. Now more people were agitated, they smashed the police vehicle and marched to the police station asking for the arrest of the shooter in vain. The next day (2/28) a massive protest erupted. In front of the governor’s office, some were shot by machine guns. Later the crowd stormed into a police station, injured and killed several Chinese. Protests and killings continued here and there for a few days. In the following two weeks, Chinese troops deployed from China slaughtered more than twenty thousand Taiwanese, most of them intellectuals. By doing so, they suppressed the Taiwanese from any potential uprising. This tragic event has been officially called the “228 Incident” which blames the protesters as the troublemakers inciting a riot. It should be factually corrected to name it the “227 Massacre”, for the incident and the first killing actually happened a day earlier. This massacre indicates the reality that the Chinese never treated the Taiwanese as their own countrymen, but as foreign colonial subjects. Even now, the Taiwanese are still being treated as non-Chinese in both Taiwan and China.

For more than 50 years, the minority (15% of the total population) Chinese dominated all aspects of Taiwan, ruling the majority (85%) Taiwanese as second-class citizens. Very few Taiwanese were ever chosen to serve in high governmental or military positions.

For the purpose of easy control, Chinese rulers in Taiwan educated the Taiwanese to be Chinese, although deep down those Chinese never accepted the Taiwanese as Chinese. They would purposefully and carefully not let the Taiwanese realize the fact that they don’t recognize the Taiwanese as Chinese and therefore will not treat the Taiwanese as equal to the Chinese. The Taiwanese are brainwashed into ignorance and mistakenly see themselves as Chinese. They lose their wisdom and will to build a Taiwanese identity as well as an independent nation of Taiwan.

5. Assimilation

Those new immigrants, who fled from Mainland China after WWII, having lived in Taiwan for more than 50 years with no intention of moving back to China, are indeed assimilated with the Taiwanese. Their offspring, born and raised in Taiwan for their whole lives, are the natural Taiwanese. The lives of both old and new immigrants are tied to the fate of Taiwan. We are all in it together as the Taiwanese.

All things considered, we are Taiwanese, not Chinese. We must build a Taiwanese identity for ourselves and for all Taiwanese so that we can have our own nation of Taiwan.


August 10, 2009 Tustin, CA

July 4, 2020 Honolulu, HI


作者周明峰為復健專科醫師 (Emerson M. F. Jou, M.D., M.P.H.)