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 this question:  Are we Chinese, Taiwanese, or Taiwanese and Chinese?  The answer seems simple, but some may find it confusing and unsure.  To address this question, it will be helpful to first briefly review the background history of Taiwan and later use it as a basis for clarification.

  1. Taiwan was first inhabited by Polynesian tribes for more than 5000 years.
  2. In 1360, Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Empire) established an outpost in Pescadores (Penghu澎湖), which was later abolished by the 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).  Thus, Taiwan was placed on the world map and ever since has been known throughout the world as “Formosa”.
  4. In 1603, the Dutch attempted to occupy Pescadores, but failed. In 1622, the Dutch made a second attempt and succeeded in taking it.  Two years later, the Chinese  (Ming Dynasty) drove the Dutch out of Pescadores and let them move to Taiwan.  So they did and a Dutch colony was started in southern Taiwan in 1624.
  5. In 1626, the Spaniards from Manila occupied northern Taiwan and stayed for 16 years until driven out by the Dutch.  The Dutch ruled Taiwan for 38 years.  Chinese began emigration to Taiwan in the late 16th century, more so during the Dutch and Spanish period because of manpower needed for cultivation and plantation.  By then, the total population of the Chinese immigrants numbered one hundred thousand. 
  6. In 1644, Ching of Manchuria replaced Ming as the ruler of China.  In 1661, Koxinga (國姓爺鄭成功), a remaining force of Ming, fled from China, got rid of the Dutch and ruled Taiwan for 23 years.
  7. In 1683, Ching took Taiwan.  At first, Ching decided to abandon Taiwan because:  (1) Taiwan was never a part of China, (2) Taiwan was an under-cultivated raw land, too tiny to be of any value, (3) in 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, 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, Ching imposed immigration quarantine.  Very few selective men were permitted to move to Taiwan, and then only without their wives or children.  Women were not allowed.  Most of the immigrants moved 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 ownership of their spouses’ property.  In the late 19th century, foreign powers were eager to colonize Taiwan; e.g., Japan, USA, France, and Great Britain.  Ching, realizing the seriousness of this, then changed immigration policy and encouraged Chinese 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’s rule for 212 years. 
  8. In 1895, 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 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 attempts of Taiwanese rising up by force to fight against the Japanese.  For the next 30 years, fighting turned into civil and political means.  The Japanese set the foundation for modernization, including population and land survey, railroads, irrigation systems, telephone/telegram/postal services, banking, commerce, gold and coal mines, harbors, public health and medical resources, hydro electrical power plants, modern buildings; e.g., presidential pavilion, museum, hospitals, as well as all kinds of industry, trade, and education.  Taiwan was much more advanced than China in many aspects; e.g., total length of railroad was one-third that of China and electricity equaled to that of China; Taiwanese were better-educated and more modernized.
  11. Japan ruled for 50 years until the end of WWII in 1945. The Chinese army was ordered by Allied Supreme Commander General MacArthur to receive Japanese surrender and report back to the UN; however, the Chinese have occupied Taiwan and stayed illegally ever since.     

      There are several points of difference separating Taiwanese from Chinese:

1.  Race

Our ancestors came from China to Taiwan 100-400 years ago.  By marriage, they mixed with the Aboriginal people.  We are of mixed-blood, both Chinese and Aboriginal, not “pure” Chinese.  Perhaps some of us are unknowingly the pure descendants of the Aboriginal tribes; that is, because during the Ching period those people were given Chinese surnames, they later hooked up with the family tree of the same surnames in Mainland China and thought they were Chinese.  The pure Aboriginal people having no Chinese blood are naturally the native Taiwanese.  On the outside, Taiwanese look different from Chinese, and inside, they have been differentiated by recent DNA studies.  We can often spot a Taiwanese from Chinese in a crowd.

2.   Culture

Taiwanese culture is a mixture of Aboriginal, ancient Chinese, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, modern-day Chinese and western.  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 (番薯foreign yam), guava (番石榴foreign pomegranate).  Manchurian—queue hair style (薙髮結辮pig-tail), clothes (旗袍、長袍馬褂).  Japanese—sashimi (生魚片), takuan (pickle radish), tatami.  Modern-day Chinese—cuisine from all provinces, language (Mandarin), and Peking opera.  Such mixture is apparent in all aspects of the unique Taiwanese culture, different from Chinese culture.     

Because of 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, and body language are different from those of Chinese.  We have a different temperament—being honest, mellow, mild temper, kind and considerate, humble, shy, and not as assertive. Taiwanese can easily be distinguished from Chinese.

3.  Political Identity

      • a. Taiwan belonged to the Aboriginal people before the Chinese came over.
      • b. Taiwan was outside of Chinese rule during 38 years of Dutch and 23 years of Koxinga regimes.
      • c. For 212 years of Ching’s rule, China and Taiwan both were territories of the Manchu Empire.  Because of this, one can not 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 stupid.  
      • d. Taiwan was clearly a Japanese colony during her rule for 50 years.
      • e. After WWII, the Peace Treaty of San Francisco states that Japan gave up ownership of Taiwan and Pescadores, but mentions no replacement or successor, certainly not China.  This means Taiwan belongs to Taiwanese by self-determination.  But in 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek fled to Taiwan and occupied it as “The Republic of China”, so called “Free China”, which was neither free nor China.  Taiwan has been under this banner ever since and never had a chance yet for self-determination.  Now China wants to take Taiwan and proclaims “Taiwan is a part of China”, but the People’s Republic of China has never ruled Taiwan for even one 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 Chinese considered Taiwanese as their own people.  But funny, this is not true. China knew
all along that Taiwanese were not pure Chinese but mixed-blood, and therefore never considered or treated Taiwanese as Chinese.  Historically, China looked down upon  those who had emigrated away from China to foreign lands as non-Chinese equal to “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 did not care.   
      • b. In 1603, twenty-three thousand overseas Chinese in Manila were slaughtered by Spaniards.  The Chinese official position stated:  “Those wondered away from 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 Taiwanese, China never considered Taiwanese as Chinese.  Ching imposed immigration quarantine to Taiwan for 190 years and the Chinese were
prohibited from moving to Taiwan.  Those who did illegally got no help from their government.  They were like abandoned orphans.  The Dutch treated Chinese
immigrants as slaves, but China did not care.  In 1871, there was an incident 牡丹社事件, Okinawan fishermen, after being shipwrecked in southern Taiwan, were killed by local natives.  Japan protested and asked for compensation.  Ching replied:   “Taiwan belongs to the natives, we bear no responsibility”.  Japan then sent troops to southern Taiwan and killed those responsible natives.  Japan threatened to occupy Taiwan, and finally Ching paid up.

      Ching treated Taiwanese as second-class citizens.  Taiwanese were not allowed to fill in for high governmental or military positions.  In 1895, 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 Taiwanese as Chinese.

      Furthermore, because of Japanese rule, Taiwanese were turning into more like Japanese.  China considered 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 Taiwanese as second-class citizens.  In 1947 the so called “228 Incident” (“227 Massacre” to be exact!), they slaughtered more than twenty thousand Taiwanese, most of them intellectuals.  They never treated Taiwanese as their own countrymen, but foreign colonial subjects.  Even now, Taiwanese are still being treated by Chinese in both Taiwan and China as non-Chinese.

      But for the purpose of easy control, Chinese educated Taiwanese to be Chinese, although deep down Chinese never looked at Taiwanese as Chinese.  They would carefully not let Taiwanese realize the fact that Chinese does not recognize Taiwanese as Chinese and therefore will not treat Taiwanese as equal to Chinese.  Taiwanese are brain-washed into ignorance and mistakenly look upon themselves as Chinese.   They lose their wisdom and will to build Taiwanese identity as well as an independent Taiwan nation.

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
assimilated with Taiwanese indeed.  Their offspring born and brought up in Taiwan all their lives, are the natural Taiwanese.  The livelihood of both old and new
immigrants are tied to the fate of Taiwan.  We are all in it together as Taiwanese.


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


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