by | Apr 2, 2022 | Politics and Society
Ask “This” Taiwanese is an advice column dedicated to pesky and uncomfortable questions about Taiwan or about being Taiwanese. Our perspectives are a blend of Taiwanese and American. Our belief is in democratic values. Our motto is “We see you. We hear you. We will speak up”. We will go where no one is willing to go out loud – come with us! This should be fun!

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Someone asked me about my heritage, and I said I am Taiwanese, but then they asked “isn’t that the same thing as Chinese?” I am so annoyed but I really want to work out a good reply – can you help?
This question is something we’ve all gotten before, and something we’ve personally struggled with as well, in one form or another. I know you want to know why we get this question so often, but we will get to that towards the end.
To answer this question, we will have to think about our identity–what it means to “be Taiwanese” (or not). Generally, identity itself is not so easily defined as “is” or “isn’t” one thing or another. On top of that, there are specific triggers this question brings for the Taiwanese case that involves more than just culture or heritage.
The first key takeaway from this question is that Identity itself is not just one thing or another!
We’d very roughly define identity as a sense of belonging to a larger group of people. This means for each of us, that sense of belonging is not a rigid box, as we all belong to many different groups of people, large and small, local or global. The sense of belonging may be stronger for some people and weaker for others in the same group; it may be stronger or weaker at different times for the same person. It is informed and shaped by a lot of factors—family, friends, upbringing, language, heritage, nationality—just to name a few. For those of us who are Taiwanese Americans, those factors are compounded by our experiences as a minority within a minority in a diverse country that our parents or grandparents may not call their own.
Simply put, for each of us, identity is a very individual thing. It is a little different for each one of us. This means that identity is ultimately up to the individual to decide for him or her or themselves.
And that’s why a knee-jerk reaction of “isn’t your identity this or that” annoyed you so much because it implies 1) you don’t know what you’re talking about, 2) they know about being Taiwanese better than you do, and 3) Taiwanese identity can be simply defined as either “the same” or “not the same” as Chinese.
So the first part of the answer could be, “My identity isn’t just one standard thing, and being Taiwanese isn’t just the same or not as being Chinese.”
Now to the second part of the question about how is Taiwanese linked to Chinese.
But what if the person asking the question is genuinely curious? In that case, we’d reframe the question to ask: “how is being Taiwanese linked to China and Chinese-ness?”
First of all, many people around the world face similar questions. We may be genuinely curious about “what is the difference between Scottish and English?” Or “how is Ukrainian different from Russian?” Our general education and mass media just aren’t enough to comprehensively answer these questions, because 1) these questions are hard to explain in an instant so it all depends on what your appetite is for how deeply you want to explain, and 2) there are active political agendas that are pushing for a particular answer, even to the point of being against the facts.
In the particular instance of Taiwan and China, it is safe to say that Taiwan has a very complicated relationship with China—not just the current day countries of “Taiwan” and “China,” but the histories and identities that form what we think of as being Taiwanese and Chinese as well.
The second takeaway is that there are two layers to the question of Taiwanese and Chinese identities. The first layer is about nationality or legal citizenship; the second is about culture and heritage.
The first is a little easier to explain: Taiwanese ( ROC or “Republic of China”) citizenship is different from Chinese (“People’s Republic of China”) citizenship. PRC law does not apply to ROC citizens and vice versa. But even this explanation can quickly become complicated as well.
For instance, while both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and some Taiwanese Independence supporters subscribe to the theory that the ROC government on the island of Taiwan is a defunct government of China – the CCP bans any reference to the identity of Taiwanesebecause they claim Taiwan is ROC then all people in Taiwan should be Chinese and therefore Taiwan is part of China, but the independence supporters say that the Taiwanese people are stateless until the ROC is dismantled and hence rejects all reference to Chinese heritage or connection.
You can make your own conclusions regarding the various international law interpretations of Taiwanese statehood, but as of the writing of this article, Taiwanese and Chinese experience everyday life as people from two different countries.
The second layer is a bit more interesting. The standard narrative of why Taiwanese is “the same” as Chinese mostly rests on the fact that the ancestors of the vast majority of people in Taiwan today traveled to Taiwan from across the Taiwan Strait, which is part of what is usually considered to be “China” in the past. You should notice that last sentence for what is usually considered to be “China ” because the geography of nations has been fluid in the past too; also, the nation-state concept is also a relatively new concept developed in the recent century for Asian countries. That aside could be a topic for hours of discussion too.
If your friend is truly curious, we would even recommend a discussion to compare and contrast events and history from the last one hundred years in China vs. Taiwan to help frame a better understanding of the cultural heritage between the two. Here is an example of a rough comparison:
First the Taiwanese experience: Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire from 1985 to 1945. Its economy and the people then have developed very differently from the experience in the territory of China. And then from 1945 to 1986, while Taiwan was ruled under martial law, it remained an open market economy with strong ties to the West and once was labeled as one of the Asian Tiger economies. And then from 1986 onward, through continued democratic reforms, the Taiwanese enjoy free and fair elections and an open society that does not shy away from transitional and social justice topics.
Second, the Chinese experience: from 1985 to 1945 China experienced the fall of the Qing empire that led to warlord rules and the Japanese invasion, causing years of instability and war. Then from 1945 to 1986, China experienced even more years of instability and loss like the famines from the Great Leap Forward and social destructions from the Cultural Revolution, and when opening up its economic market in the late 1980’s CCP tightened its authoritarian ways most memorably with 1989 Tiananmen Square. Today, China does not celebrate freedom the same way Taiwan would.
Finally, culture and heritage vary from individual to individual, family to family, and varies from time and space in a way that defies easy definitions. On the other hand, national boundaries are zero-sum: you can only be on one side or the other. The Chinese regime has a political agenda to force the idea of national boundaries on the notion of culture–”everyone who shares some cultural heritage from China has to be part of us politically”. This is why this question is so charged because China is forcing us to choose our nationality based on our diverse set of cultural experiences. We must resist it.
Your identity is yours. It doesn’t need to fit into convenient categories, especially not when those categories are politically motivated to rationalize terror and war. We are already seeing how this kind of thinking allows soldiers to murder children en masse.
There is a lot here to take on as topics of discussion for how identity can go beyond what language, what food, what one wears, or what one looks like. And at Ask This Taiwanese, this is what we love about these questions from you. This is a chance to go deeper and explore further into our own humanity because ultimately any identity really is a self-identity. In a poetic sense, how we identify is really an act of love for what made us who we are. We do not need others to love us before we can love ourselves.
Here is to love,
Ask This Taiwanese

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