Despite their wish to perpetuate their Chineseness abroad, mainlanders in Taiwan were changed by historical and social processes. They were creolized.
One of the greatest challenges facing Taiwan today is to strengthen national unity by countering ethnic and political divisions fueled by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) proxies and pro-Beijing elements in Taiwan. Besides their immediate political impact, such efforts should also be aimed at history to help the people of Taiwan understand what shaped their differences but also which elements currently bind them together.
Regardless of their lineage to Taiwan, the great majority of Taiwanese today acknowledge that they are in the same boat and share similar objectives, such as the continuation of the island-nation’s self-rule. Hence, discovering the history of “mainlanders” and the progression of their relation to Taiwan can go a long way to associate multiculturalism with a shared national narrative.
This article analyzes the causes and consequences of the ongoing assimilation of the second wave of Chinese immigrants to Taiwan — the so-called “mainlanders,” or waishengren in Mandarin.
* * *
Although Taiwan had been mainly populated by “Han” Chinese for centuries, the ethnic clashes that followed the arrival of a minority of Chinese after 1945 revealed two profoundly estranged societies on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Differences between the Chinese (“mainlanders”) and the native Taiwanese were visible in post-war Taiwan. For instance, mainlanders occupied higher positions in state-owned industries and administration, from which the Taiwanese were vastly excluded. Alongside the Republic of China’s (ROC) takeover of Taiwan, this spirit of segregation fed the ethnic resentment against mainlanders.
But the frontiers between those two social groups would eventually erode. Despite their wish to perpetuate their Chineseness abroad, many mainlanders didn’t escape the fate of the first Han settlers in Taiwan: they were also “Taiwanized.”
For Stéphane Corcuff of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei, the Taiwanization of mainlanders can be defined as the process “through which Mainlanders acculturate themselves, consciously and/or unconsciously, by partially adopting manners, linguistic idioms […] that were originally those of native Taiwanese. It is a process through which Mainlanders consciously and/or unconsciously recognize Taiwan as a possible object of identification, as an object of subnational, quasi- national or national status.” (Corcuff, 2011)
This process of assimilation also corresponds to what Edouard Glissant describes as “creolization,” which can be summed up as the unpredictable, dynamic and positive alteration of cultures that results from the interaction of two groups of people from different cultural backgrounds. Edouard Glissant theorized the concept of creolization in a postcolonial context, of which many aspects also apply to Taiwan.
By late 1949, the Kuomintang (KMT) had been defeated in China. Chiang Kai-shek and the ROC went into exile in Taiwan, where they tried to transform the island into a springboard for taking back “the mainland” from the hands of the “communist bandits.” In the meantime, the ROC created a new discourse on Taiwan’s Chineseness by trying to make the island “more Chinese than China.”
A sense of urgency animated the KMT administration, which feared for the survival of the ROC. The KMT saw Taiwan as the base for “rejuvenation,” and Chiang made recovering “the mainland” the rationale of his regime and its main source of legitimization. According to this view, Taiwan had to become the “real China,” in contrast with the one that had been “stolen” by the communists.
However, the “real China” that mainlanders claimed to have recreated on Taiwan was gradually emptied of its substance. Three political events fed this development:
- After the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) acquisition of a nuclear weapon capability in 1964 and, in 1971, Taiwan’s expulsion from the UN, the mainlanders began to accept the reality that they may never be able to go back to China.
- Fifteen years later, democratization in Taiwan forced the mainlanders to accept that they would have to share political affairs with the native Taiwanese.
- In 1996, the election of Lee Teng-hui as President (a Japanese-speaking Taiwan native) as well as the surge in Taiwan’s national identification among the Taiwanese population challenged the post-war consensus that Taiwan was part of China. All these contingencies were a shock to the mainlanders.
Taiwan is home
Intermarriage, mainlanders’ growing attachment to their new home and estrangement from the PRC also fed this development. Many of them therefore began to view China differently.
When trips to China were authorized in the late 1980s, many mainlanders finally had the opportunity to visit family members who were still living on the continent. However, they soon realized that the country and the life they had left behind in China decades ago had long disappeared. Taiwan and China had evolved differently./ Consequently, the mainlanders faced a dilemma: Where was home? Were they Chinese? Taiwanese? What was Taiwan to them?
The answer to the first question was clearly “both.” The answer to the second was also clear: mainlanders called Taiwan home. As such, according to Corcuff, the mainlanders saw a difference between a political China, from which they felt estranged, and a cultural China, with which they still felt somehow associated. It was therefore possible to live in two different states and to remain culturally Chinese.
Mainlanders saw a difference between a political China, from which they felt estranged, and a cultural China, with which they still felt somehow associated. It was therefore possible to live in two different states and to remain culturally Chinese.
With the Taiwanization of politics from Lee Teng-hui to Ma Ying-jeou, doubts on the feasibility of unification between Taiwan and China surfaced among the mainlanders. Most now stand behind Taiwan’s democracy and have no tolerance for the PRC’s authoritarian regime. Today, young mainlanders have nothing to do with today’s PRC, apart from a distant lineage, often from one of their grandparents. Young mainlanders hang out and work alongside native Taiwanese, and it is now difficult to tell who is native and who is Chinese. All agree that Taiwan is their common home.
When it comes to national politics, only a few members of the KMT, the People’s First Party and New Party believe that Taiwan should unify immediately with the PRC. The current generation of politicians has generally adopted a consensus over the sovereignty of Taiwan; for example, during his two terms (2008-2016), Ma Ying-jeou sought to appear as both protector of Taiwan and president of the Taiwanese people, a rather dramatic shift for the conservative KMT.
All of this, however, does not mean that the mainlanders believe in the same political projects as the Taiwanese nationalists — for example, on the question of renaming their country the “Republic of Taiwan” or the indefinite separation from China. After all, in a democracy differences of opinions need to cohabitate. Despite those differences, mainlanders have indeed ended up creolized, “a word originally designating locally born, offspring generations of the European settlers in America, in the sense that they were born on the offshore island of Taiwan of Chinese mainland parents, yet still not fully identifying themselves as Taiwanese” (Corcuff, 2011).
A shared future
Taiwan has become a multifaceted state where different minorities and histories live together peacefully. The reconciliation of different ethnic groups deepened in the 1990s, and the Taiwanese no longer hesitate to discuss their identity. The mixing of different groups, meanwhile, has helped to create a national community based on a shared destiny. Democracy and tolerance served to facilitate multiculturalism on the island.
It is very unlikely that this situation will reverse in the coming years. If there were a positive effect of Taiwan continuing to be named the ROC, it is that it allows a shared identification to the island-nation by both the mainlanders and other groups. Somehow, the ROC helps stabilize potential ethnic resentment by allowing the mainlanders to safeguard their understandable link to the remaining degree of Chineseness of Taiwan without allowing any unification with the PRC.
The identity transition in Taiwan has made the divide between unification and independence a moot point. Indeed, in Taiwan, there is no significant public support for unification. Whereas pan-blue supporters do not favor a formal declaration of independence, they also do not favor unification with the PRC. If we look for a consensus in Taiwan, the idea of sovereignty immediately comes to mind, and this extends to the mainlanders.
The duty of remembrance in Taiwan is not only useful in highlighting the dark side of the White Terror era. It is also necessary when it comes to strengthening national unity by documenting the history of the mainlanders, which shows that they are fully part of Taiwan’s national community. This does not mean that there is no division in how the Taiwanese perceive their relationship with China. Nevertheless, it suggests that the passage of time favors the political integration of mainlanders in Taiwan.
(The author expresses his sincere gratitude to Sylvain Dumas for his thorough proofreading.)
(This article was updated on 2017.03.14, 9:43 pm.)
 Corcuff, Stéphane, Liminality and Taiwan Tropism in a Postcolonial Context – Schemes of National Identification Among Taiwan’s Mainlanders on the Eve of the Kuomintang’s Return to Power, 2011, p. 20.
 Rigger, Shelley, Why Taiwan Matters: Small island, global powerhouse (updated edition), Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Maryland, 2014, p. 28.
 Lee Teng-hui, “Establishing a Taiwan centered identity,” in Lee Shyu-tu, Williams, Jack. F, Taiwan’ Struggle – Voices of the Taiwanese, Rowman and Littlefield, Plymouth, UK, p. 92.
 Taiwan’s Struggle, p. 4.
 Goldstein, Steven M, China and Taiwan, China Today, Cambridge, UK, 2015, p. 75.
 Corcuff, p. 22
 Ibid., p. 10.
 Cabestan, Jean-Pierre, Le Pesant, Tanguy, L’esprit de défense de Taiwan face à la Chine. La jeunesse taiwanaise face à la tentation de la Chine, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2009, p. 110.
 Corcuff, Stéphane, « Naissance des frontières d’une démocratie insulaire », Monde Chinois numéro 3, 2006, p. 8.
 Rigger, p. 37.
 Corcuff, Liminality, p. 20.
 Lee and Williams, p. 135.
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