25 August 2010

Are the Taiwanese Chinese?

Dear TCG,

I saw that your blog carried information and news about Taiwan as well as China (as most China blogs do), but the reverse is not true. How come?

I found these links from Wikipedia (about Taiwanese identity) - http://esc.nccu.edu.tw/newchinese/data/TaiwanChineseID.htm and http://taiwaneseamerican.org/census2010/ - is this true? Do Taiwanese see themselves as a different ethnic group, and as a non-Chinese group?


Dear Kait,

Figures I got stuck with the hard questions... (TCG Ha ha!)

Anyway, I'll start by going into a bit of a tangent. Let's talk about something called selection bias. That question is threefold.

Imprimis, I am guessing you do not read Chinese, so the China-blogs you come into contact with would be in English, yes? There is already a huge selection bias. It should not be any surprise for you to learn that the vast majority of blogs by those from China (I choose my words advisedly here, not Chinese, but those from China) are in fact in Chinese. I can give you half a dozen offhand that doesn't really deal with Taiwan at all.

Secundus, putting aside the question of Taiwanese ethnic identity entirely... what do you think a Taiwanese person who self-identifies as Chinese would call his blog? how about a strong Taiwanese nationalist? Exactly. Any blog calls itself that is liable to lean towards the Taiwanese side of the equation.

Tertius, even if the bloggers in question do in fact identify themselves as Chinese, if they were to focus their blogs in Taiwan, then there would be little focus on China. Just as a New York blog probably doesn't carry much news on America in general. This is not evidence of the secessionist feelings of New Yorkers, but a mere editorial interest.

Secondly, I will draw your attention to this statement: "I saw that your blog carried information and news about Taiwan as well as China (as most China blogs do), but the reverse is not true."

Without wishing to be offensive, let's just say that I cast serious doubt on your claims re: 'most China blogs'. How many do you read? Do you follow every one of them religiously? I am sure they carry news about Japan, Korea, or any other nation that come into contact with China. That does not imply a sovereign claim to said nations. I can give you a dozen 'China blogs' offhand that doesn't really carry anything about Taiwan at all. Similarly, I have equal doubts that you have done exhaustive research on the topic of Taiwan blogs and can speak with statistical backing on the China content of Taiwan blogs, or lack of same. What you really meant with that statement is that 'I saw a few Chinese blogs and they have news on Taiwan, I saw a few Taiwan blogs and they don't seem to have news on China!'

That is not a statistically valid claim.

Let us now move on to the core of the question: "Are the Taiwanese Chinese?"

1) First of all, to answer this question one has to define the word 'Chinese'. For some, it means a citizen of the People's Republic of China (which may or may not include Hong Kong and Macau). For others, it means an ethnic Han Chinese residing in said country. For still others it mean a person of ethnic Han Chinese descent (which for example includes persons of Chinese descent in other countries who may never have been to China, speak a word of Chinese or have any idea where to find Hengyang on a map). For yet others it means a person of ethnic Han Chinese descent who retains a degree of Chinese cultural identity (which for example includes most Singaporeans and a non-trivial subset of Southeast Asian Chinese).

To illustrate the point, your faith'l servant is 'Chinese' by almost any definition of the word, but the blogmaster, the Chinese Guy himself, may be considered NON-Chinese under some definitions. This is a non-trivial point. By the first definition, the answer is non-ambiguous - Taiwanese are not Chinese. Under that definition, even residents of Hong Kong and Macau are not 'Chinese'. Similarly, by the ethnic Chinese descent definition, there is equally little doubt that the Taiwanese are Chinese.

We are not really getting anywhere with this line of thought, and it rather dodges the issue. I suspect you would like to discuss more the ethnic identity of the Taiwanese, so we will move on to the fourth definition.

2) To understand the question, I'll do a super-condensed version of Taiwanese history. It was first colonised by Austronesians roughly 8,000 years ago. Around a millennium or so ago the Han Chinese came poking around (there are talks of 'historical Chinese world view does not support the idea of an Island lying beyond the seas, which is obviously total rubbish, since Hainan Island had been Chinese for close to 2,000 years), but serious settlement did not begin until the 17th century. It was invaded by the Portuguese, Dutch, Ming loyalists, and then finally conquered the Qing Empire, the Manchu dynasty of China, at the end of the 17th century. There it remained for a few sedate centuries until the Japanese took it away and ruled the island for some 60 years, after which it was handed over to the Republic of China. RoC lost the civil war to the communists and holed up in Taiwan, which is more or less where we are now. You will notice that for an area with an ethnic Chinese population and speaks Chinese, Taiwan has a relatively recent history, during which time it spent significant amount of time under foreign domination of various sort, and then by some of the most corrupt gits that ever wasted shoe leather. This has implications.

3) Currently the Island of Taiwan and various islands is essentially an independent country, albeit one that nobody important dare to formally recognise. It rules itself, elects its own officials, has its own government, code of law, and military, and is an independent polity in all respect, and an independent country in all but name.

4) The Taiwanese speak Chinese in two main forms. Essentially the Taiwanese dialect, a variation of the Minnan dialect spoken in Fujian, in China, and Mandarin. Both of which are Chinese languages, a fact that no serious linguist disputes. The Taiwanese classical literature repertoire has a near complete overlap with that of China (this doesn't mean as much as you might think - Korea and Japan also has significant overlap with Chinese classical literature - they read Chinese Buddhist canons, Confucian texts and read Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Tang poetry, but they also have a distinct tradition of their own, which the Taiwanese do not). Taiwanese festivals, customs, cuisine, traditional architecture, etc, all bear close resemblance to those of China. This will be no surprise considering that Han migration didn't start seriously until the 17th century, and Taiwan was under Chinese control for over two hundred years after that.

5) Over time, and after Japanese rule, the Taiwanese had developed some distinct cultural trends of their own. It is a matter of fairly subjective debate as to whether that constitutes a 'new' culture. I will not go into that here since people can scream until the cows come home and get nowhere on this. I will note that Australian culture for example is considered distinct from British culture. However I will also observe that Sephardi Jewish culture is often considered one culture. So you can argue either way.

6.) But that doesn't matter too much. I see that you found the National Chengchi University/ University of Hong Kong/ University of Ryukyu study on East Asian ethnic identities. If so you'll notice that those who considered themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese constitutes some one third of the population, while those who consider themselves exclusively Taiwanese is some 60%. I will not go into the methodology of the study or the statistical methods here, but we will accept the results, for the sake of this post, to be reasonably sound (a generous assumption, considering that in the report itself is stated the following: "本新聞稿並非正式的學術性調查報告﹐如果需要引用該新聞稿的內容﹐作為新聞報導以外的用途﹐請事先與三位主持人聯絡。" A disclaimer that this is NOT in fact an academic study).

Taken at face value, what that means is that while a majority of Taiwanese people see themselves as only that, a non-trivial minority see themselves as both. That right away renders the topical question highly problematic.

7.) We will offer a few concluding remarks.

Inprimis, the Taiwanese are not Chinese by the political definition, although legally they may be considered 'officially' Chinese.

Secundus, the Taiwanese are, at the very least, culturally closer to China than any non-PRC group anywhere. Whether that make them Chinese is a matter of opinion, but it is certainly fair to say, for example, that Taiwanese culture is not much more different from that of China than provincial variation within China itself, consider Hong Kong and Chongqing. Please note that this in itself does not answer the question - Vancouverites are culturally closer to the Pacific North West States of the US than Hawai'i, and yet Hawai'i is American and Vancouver is not. One can see signs of that, as Chinese and Taiwanese books, films, television shows are, to a greater or lesser extent, fairly popular on the other side.

Tertius, despite the above, a majority of Taiwanese probably consider themselves exclusively that, while a significant minority consider themselves both. This may be analogous to the imperial commonwealth period of the British's own imperial history. The two is in any case not mutually exclusive, cultural similarity does not in any way exclude strong local cultural and ethnic identity nor strong enmity (as certainly might be said to exist between Taiwan and China). Just consider the history of Europe... or to use a closer example, Mancs and Scousers. To those who know what those terms mean I need not explain any further. To those who don't... exactly. You won't even be able to tell them apart, and yet the two groups are fiercely protective of their unique identity. They don't usually go about trying to kill each other, but just put them in different countries and give the Mancs lots of missiles and have their mayor talk about reuniting Liverpool with the Motherland... you get the drift.

There is really no simple answer to this question, the answer must depend on your premise.


  1. Well the TW girlfriend often has some real Chinese inside her now and again ;)

  2. TL;DR

    Basically, the majority of Taiwan's population are Han Chinese. So ethnically, yes they are Chinese.
    Geopolitically however, it is debatable.

  3. Just to add to the issues as well Taiwan isn't in the UN since 1971 when it was part of China. China took it as PRC. Therefore Taiwan is sort of in limbo as the UN won't recognise it as a country.

    The only other two countries not part of the UN are Kosovo and The Vatican City.

    Even North Korea, Zimbabwe and tin pot dictator states like Afghanistan and Iraq are allowed in as part of the UN. Even though Taiwan has lobbied and applied each year since 1996.

    Funny old world isn't it? Last time I checked Taiwan was a country.