Apart from the incorrect ‘breakaway province’ cliché, another favourite of the press when writing on Taiwan is to mention that the island was separated from China in 1949, at the end of the Chinese Civil War. In this piece I argue that this is wrong. Taiwan was separated from China in 1895, when the Treaty of Shimonoseki ceded Taiwan to the Japanese Empire. There has been a distinct Taiwanese society ever since. The chaotic 1945–9 period during which it was part of a Nanjing-based Republic of China (ROC) was too short and tenuous to undo this. The post-1949 period was indeed initially dominated by refugees from the Mainland, but they were migrants making a new home in an existing society. The fact that they brought their Chinese cultural background with them and sought to remould Taiwanese society in that light does not change the fact that the end-product was something new and different. The real point of divergence for Taiwan was 1895.
Creation of separate Taiwanese society
Taiwan was not the only province of the Great Qing Empire to have its own characteristics. But there are a few reasons why this frontier zone was a bit further removed from the Chinese cultural heartland than, say, Zhili, even before 1895. Taiwan came under the control of ‘China’ only when the Qing captured it in 1682. Before the 17th century—apart from a few thousand traders and some temporary military interest in the Penghu Islands (Pescadores)—Taiwan had been inhabited by its own people, a variety of austronesian tribes related to the Filipinos and Malays, commonly referred to as the Taiwanese indigenous people or aborigines (原住民 yuánzhùmín).
The chain of events that led to the Qing absorption of Taiwan began with Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch colonial activity. The Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) established the colony of Formosa in 1624, with the capital Zeelandia based in what is now Anping District in Tainan City. Its main purpose was to facilitate trade with and between Japan and China, but the Dutch also began proselytising among the aborigines and welcomed large numbers of Chinese settlers from Fujian to open up the land for commercial (taxable) agriculture. The VOC was expelled, however, in 1662 by the Japanese-Chinese Ming-loyalist and pirate-merchant-prince Zheng Chenggong (鄭成功), also known as Koxinga (國姓爺 Kok-sèng-iâ). His successors were eventually defeated by the Qing Dynasty in 1682. Beijing incorporated Taiwan into a Chinese empire for the first time in the island’s history, as a prefecture of Fujian Province (臺灣府 táiwān fǔ).
Taiwanese society would be a frontier society for its entire time under Qing control. Large parts remained outside government control, inhabited by the aborigines. There was constant back and forth over Han migration, there was armed conflict with the aborigines over their slowly shrinking territory, there were uprisings and there was secret society violence, and in the 19th century there was struggle against Western imperialist incursions. Taiwan was made a province of its own in 1885–7 (福建臺灣省 fújiàn táiwān shěng) and under enterprising governor Liu Mingchuan (劉銘傳) saw some of the self-strengthening and modernisation movement that was sweeping through China, but there was little time before 1895. After being given up by Beijing, there was some resistance to Japan by local elites under the banner of the hastily declared Republic of Formosa (臺灣民主國 táiwān mínzhǔ guó), but the army sent by Tokyo quickly established control over most of the island.
Taiwan became part of the Japanese Empire at a critical moment in history. The heritage of the Qing Dynasty, Chinese literati culture, and the customs and beliefs of the various peoples living in the empire were still being fused into the modern notion of ‘China’, written using words that were relatively new for this purpose either as 中華 (zhōnghuá) or 中國 (zhōngguó). This process, still very tenuous among the Han society in remote Taiwan, was abruptly stopped on the island in 1895. It subsequently was not part to critical events in the creation of the modern Chinese nation-state. It missed out on the late-Qing attempts at reform, the failed 1898 Hundred Days of Reform under the Guangxu Emperor, the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, the 1905 reforms and the acceptance of the new concept of the ‘Chinese Volk’ (中華民族 zhōnghuá mínzú), now a staple of Chinese discourse. In October 1911 the Xinhai Revolution ended the last Chinese dynasty and 1 January 1912 began year 1 on the Republic of China calendar (民國1年). In Taiwan, however, it was the 45th and last year of the Meiji reign (明治45年).
The first half of China’s 20th century was full of conflict and intellectual fervour. The May Fourth Movement or New Culture Movement was at the root of the creation and recreation of modern ‘Chinese’ culture. The new Republic itself was quickly split up between feuding warlords. The anti-imperialist May Thirtieth Movement was only a part of the broader national struggle against Western and Japanese powers, and played a big role in the momentous Northern Expedition of 1926–8 that brought the ROC under control of the KMT. That party did not have much time to instil its vision of tradition-rooted Chinese modernity, though. Quickly the government in Nanjing had to deal with wars against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Japanese Empire, wars which would ultimately spiral into the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) and the Chinese Civil War. These gargantuan struggles with battles where casualties were sometimes into the hundreds of thousands would be seared into China’s public memory, often mangled through the kaleidoscope of CCP’s self-serving view of history.
Meanwhile, Taiwan underwent an aggressive modernisation campaign as Japan sought to make the island into a model colony. For the first time the whole island was brought under one government, including the parts that had always been outside the control of the Qing authorities. Tokyo developed railways, industry, and commercial agriculture to make Taiwan serve the needs of its empire and began organising and ordering society. This did not only involve an intrusive surveillance system and mass organisations, but also schools and newspapers that taught Taiwanese to think about themselves in certain ways. Although events in big China did not leave Taiwan undisturbed, younger generations, educated in Japanese, learned to think in new ways. Those who wanted to pursue further education had to look for that in Japan.
The local Taiwanese elite had to work against this background when it sought to assert itself. Taiwan had its own New Culture Movement (新文化運動) in the 1920s and 1930s, which was a struggle to maintain and cherish its local culture under a Japanese state and to obtain a measure of self-governance or home rule within the Japanese Empire. The cat and mouse game with a first increasingly lenient and then increasingly harsh Japanese government-general would provide many lessons that later proved useful under the KMT party-state of the martial law era. This was the first time that Taiwanese organised themselves politically on such a scale.
After the Japanese left in 1945 at the end of the Second World War, the Taiwanese came to have mixed feelings about this period. Initially glad that their abusive colonial overlords had gone away, the harsh oppression under the ROC state led many Taiwanese nationalists to stress the positive aspects of Japan’s colonisation. The people on the island had also experienced the Second World War very differently than the Chinese; they had not only lived on the other side, some had even joined the Japanese Imperial Army. Meanwhile, China was brutalised by the incessant fighting that began in 1932 and turned into a full-blown war in 1937, lasting until 1945. To this day, Mainland Chinese are often unable to comprehend the positive attitude of many Taiwanese to the evil Japanese Empire.
Limited impact of the 1945–9 period
Although both the KMT and the CCP had not given much thought to Taiwan until the Second World War, its return to China was seen as a matter of course when the 1943 Cairo Declaration included its restitution to the successor state of the Qing. It joined the ROC as Taiwan Province (臺灣省 táiwān shěng). But the island had been under enemy control for so long that the Nanjing government did not fully trust the Taiwanese. Taiwan was kept as a kind of special zone after 1945, partially because of the complexities of establishing control over newly acquired territory and partially because the KMT desperately needed the resources of the modern and relatively intact former colony in the escalating civil war. Taiwan kept a separate currency, the New Taiwan Dollar (NT$) still in use today. The administration established was different from the regular provincial structures elsewhere in China, which were nominally at least more democratic. Chiang Kai-shek put general Chen Yi (陳儀) in charge as Chief Executive of the so-called Taiwan Provincial Administrative Executive Office (臺灣省行政長官公署 táiwān shěng xíngzhèng zhǎngguān gōngshǔ) and made him the province’s garrison commander. Most positions, including mayors, went to incoming Mainlanders.
The new government obviously needed time to establish control. Any transition of power requires the replacement of officials from the previous regime, changing names and reordering bureaucracies, writing new textbooks for the schools, having the people get used to a new regime, and so on. This process usually takes a few years. The 1945–9 period was already quite short, but besides the distraction of the growing chaos on the Mainland, a few controversial moves from Chen Yi’s administration created a large divide. Taiwanese had been taught Japanese in schools and generally spoke Hokkien or Hakka at home. When the government forced papers and schools to drop Japanese and only use Mandarin, that created a lot of anger among people now shut out from these important cultural resources. Similarly, the ROC-KMT’s take-over of former Japanese property, the establishment of monopolies, the spreading of corrupt practices, and the political dominance of Mainlanders led to enormous frustration among the Taiwanese.
This tension came to burst in the determining moment of Taiwanese nationalism: the 28 February Incident (二二八事件 èr èr bā shìjiàn). On 28 February 1947, riots turned into an uprising that was bloodily beaten down by ROC troops hastily sent from the Mainland. From now on, the ROC became a foreign oppressor in the eyes of many Taiwanese. Some describe it as a colonial regime. Two new identities had solidified after the dust settled: the Mainlanders (外省人 wàishěng rén)—those who had moved from China to Taiwan after 1945—and the Taiwanese or Locals (本省人 běnshěng rén). Initial Taiwanese nationalism was a kind of ethno-nationalism that sought to expel all the Mainlanders from the island to leave it to be governed by its ‘own’ people, often ignoring the aborigines.
Post-1949 period was not just ‘ROC’ and Mainlanders
We have now established that there was a distinct society that developed on Taiwan prior to 1949. It was strong enough to lead to a violent revolt in response to Mainlander dominance. The reason that many people still hold 1949 to be the year of separation, however, is that this is the year that the last of what was left of the defeated KMT and its followers and captives fled to Taiwan, euphemistically termed the Move to Taiwan (遷臺 qiān tái). They took over the island, occupied its commanding heights, and attempted to remould it into ‘Free China’.
Although the Move did indeed have a major impact of Taiwanese society, we have to contextualise this event. These Mainlanders were indeed to play a dominant role in Taiwan during the martial law era for sure, but they did not arrive on an empty island. It is hard to quantify how many people moved, because record-keeping was not reliable during that chaotic period and because Chiang Kai-shek exaggerated the size of his army, likely in an attempt to hide his weak position. Realistic scholarly estimates hold that about 1 million Mainlanders came to Taiwan, where there were already 6 million Taiwanese. These new arrivals were migrants. Many were soldiers with little or no formal education. It was not just that common people in China back then were still much more determined by their provincial culture. It was also, as I have argued in the previous two sections, that Taiwan had developed an identity of its own. The Mainlanders did not just get up and relocate to a different part of the same country. The new arrivals were refugees from a different society (or societies), taken up and remoulded by an existing Taiwanese society, which was the product of the preceding 54 years of separation and its frontier history before that.
It is true that the ROC elite was deeply ‘Chinese’ and that those who moved with them also had a Chinese cultural background. But the Mainlanders were and are a minority in Taiwan. The elite families may have intermarried and mostly managed to keep themselves pure and orthodox, but the bulk of the poor soldiers had no choice and ended up marrying into Taiwanese families. The Mainlanders should be accurately described as migrants, because—coming from various Chinese provinces—they found themselves in a different society and joined it. The resulting Mainlander culture was not purely ‘Chinese’, but the usual diasporic mix between country of origin and current place of abode. There is a rich tradition of literature and cinema that explores Mainlanders’ pain of having to leave behind home and family in China and starting anew in strange Taiwan. By now, most of the originally Mainlander families have merged into the ‘local’ Taiwanese, eased by the slow replacement of earlier ethno-nationalism with a civic nationalism.
Moreover, Mainlander dominance does not mean the culture and identity of the Taiwanese under them just disappeared. The current government is led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which came out of the Taiwanese dǎngwài (黨外) democracy movement. From the start of KMT rule there have always been activist and localist layers in society that reject the ROC. Moreover, although the ‘civilisational’ campaigns of the KMT during the martial law era may have used the label ‘Chinese’, they differ not only from the nation-building effort undertaken by the CCP in China, but also from what the ROC was able to do in China before 1949. That something uses the same label does not mean that its content and effect are the same.
The years after 1949 consolidated Taiwan’s separate identity now that it had become an independent state together with the scraps of Fujian Province the KMT managed to hang unto. Chinese dissidents who pine for the ‘restoration’ of the Republic of China on the Mainland ignore how fundamentally Chinese culture and society have been reshaped by the experience of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the CCP, a history that cannot be wished away. More fundamentally, they also ignore the extent to which the ROC on Taiwan is a new state. There is no need for us to play along with the KMT’s propaganda that their ROC on Taiwan represented the real ‘China’, in a kind of unbroken ‘transmission of orthodoxy’ (道統 dào tǒng) from before 1949. The old ROC died in 1949. The remnant of the ROC-KMT that ended up fleeing to Taiwan had to reinvent itself, as it now had to govern a different country. What resulted is a merger between the existing society of the Taiwanese majority, the culture of the Mainland refugee minority, the imposed ROC structure, and the nation-building efforts of a new developmental state. Putting aside the question of international law, what President Tsai calls the ‘Republic of China Taiwan’ (中華民國台灣 zhōnghuá mínguó táiwān) is not a continuation of the ROC on the Mainland. This should have been made abundantly clear to the KMT when they ran into difficulties incorporating the people who already lived there and had their own ideas about who they were. Building on the Japanese-era legacy, these Taiwanese never accepted that their country was ‘Free China’, began to organise, and struggled for freedom and independence, culminating in the transition to democracy from 1987 to 1996, and eventually their own ascendancy to power in 2000 (presidency) and 2016 (legislature).
Taiwanese history has been separate from China since 1895. The reason we still use 1949 so often is because of sinocentrism and KMT-centrism. The former is easily understood: China has a bigger voice and more people are familiar with it and its narratives, so people more easily use Chinese history as the standard to describe Taiwan. This leads some people to describe Taiwan as a ‘breakaway province’, even though it has never been part of the PRC and thus cannot have broken away from it. The problem of KMT-centrism is often ignored. The KMT and its Mainlander elite were a minority in Taiwan, but managed to monopolise the top of society by requiring Mandarin, demanding political loyalty, and discriminating against Taiwanese. The people who got to study at good universities, learn English and meet foreigners, become historians or government officials, and generally represent Taiwan were disproportionally linked to the KMT and its ideology. Because Taiwan democratised so recently and never had a revolution with accompanying defenestrations, many of these ‘Blue Camp’ figures are still ensconced at the top of politics, civil service, military, business, and academia, even though their views represent a tiny minority.
But an honest appraisal of Taiwanese history makes it obvious that the pivotal year was 1895 and not 1949. This separation is one of the many ways in which Taiwan differs from Hong Kong, which has always had close links with Mainland China, even though its current protests might be a kind of slow-motion 28 February Incident. But the clearest proof comes perhaps from the tiny Taiwan-controlled island groups of Kinmen (金門縣) and Matsu (連江縣). Located right off the coast of China, these were originally part of Fujian Province and have never been colonised by Japan. They were only cut off from China in 1949 and do not fully identify with Taiwan. Their contrast with the rest of Taiwan only shows more clearly how a distinct Taiwanese identity has developed, not over the past 71 years, but over the past 125 years.