Taiwan's Patriotic Education and Textbook Nationalism
Earlier, I talked about the Patriotic Education curriculum instituted in China after 1991 and how it sprouted a generation of fervent Chinese nationalists. But China is not alone in its cultivation of an individual national identity. The same effect can be seen across the Strait in Taiwan.
For this piece, I want to talk about Taiwan’s own version of ‘patriotic education’. The same educational indoctrination and historical narratives that worked to make a generation of Chinese nationalists have also been applied towards making a generation of Taiwanese nationalists. The momentous step towards this event was the implementation of a series of textbooks.
Taiwan’s Patriotic Education
Before democratization in the late 80s and early 90s, Taiwanese were taught a historical curriculum that was generally China-centered. The ruling KMT regime's officially stated policy was gearing the population towards taking back the mainland.
Whenever Taiwan did come into the picture, the island was positioned as a “model” province showcasing the superiority of the KMT’s model of governance. The narrative went something like this: In the past foreign scum invaders invaded and took advantage of the Taiwanese, but the glorious Chinese people, led by the Kuomintang party, took back the island after a great struggle. Over the years, the party painstakingly developed the island's economy and society into a shining light of civilization.
After democratization, governments sought to change the direction of the people of Taiwan. That includes cultivating a Taiwanese identity amongst the growing young generation. This naturally sparked a titanic controversy centered on a series of textbooks called “Knowing Taiwan”.
What The Textbooks Say
“Knowing Taiwan” (Renshi Taiwan) is the name given to a series of standardized textbooks introduced in 1997. For the first time, junior high school kids would be assigned something exclusively about Taiwan island — its history, geography and society - as opposed to something about China.
From the viewpoint of a neutral American (myself), the textbooks are pretty tame and impartial. It does not quite seem like the Taiwanese “Mao Red Book”. So what is the big deal? Reading closely, you note the subtle shifts in perspective and narrative. The books were written with the intention of setting Taiwan apart from China.
First, the books do not refer to the people of Taiwan as being members of the “Chinese Nation”. Nor does it even identify them all as being ethnically Chinese (this also swerves from the American perspective). Instead, in a chapter titled "We Are All Taiwanese" the textbook presents Taiwan as a multi-cultural nation made up of four ethnic groups: The Hokkien, the Hakka, Mainlanders, and the Aboriginal people. This grouping offers an alternative to the China narrative. China and the Chinese people are not a single homogenous ethnic group. It is instead a diverse agglomeration of peoples unified under a set of nationalistic characteristics - much like the United States.
The history of Taiwan is chronicled as well, and has been subject to exceptional controversy especially with regards to the Japanese occupation. The book’s historical narrative spans 400 years starting with the Dutch colonization and continues through the island’s rule under the Ming, Qing, and Japanese. The book ends with the 1996 democratic election.
The Chinese perspective is downplayed in these cases, replaced with a Taiwanese one. This new narrative paints the Taiwanese people as victims of various occupations from foreign regimes. Having gone through “a tragic history”. It would not until the present day that they could finally be “masters of their own home” with the coming of democratization. Here are a few examples:
1) The Republic of China is referred to as the “ROC on Taiwan”, emphasizing the regime’s temporary (and almost exiled) status.
2) The 50 years Taiwan existed as a Japanese colony is referred to as period of “Japanese Rule” rather than as an “occupation”. It downplays much of the brutality and second hand treatment suffered by the Taiwanese and emphasizes the economic and social benefits that the colonization offered to the people.
3) Japan's loss in World War II forced it to return Taiwan island to the Republic of China. This date is no longer referred to in the books as "the glorious retrocession" like it had been in previous books
Over the years after the introduction of "Knowing Taiwan", the books show an increasing "detachment" from China. They present a Taiwan that is not explicitly "Chinese". You get more Taiwan content and less Chinese ones along with some notable deletions like the removal of Sun Yat-sen's honorific as "father of the nation". It is not a complete separation - such a thing is not practical after all - but it is a quiet deletion of certain language and phrases that aligned closely with the people on the mainland. For example, the removal of references to the mainland as “our land” and as a thing to be reclaimed in a future great war (something that is no longer possible anyway).
What ends up is something not totally unfamiliar to us in the States with "three spheres" of focus. In the US high schools we study US history, state history (California, Alaska, etc), and foreign history. It is much the same in Taiwan - Chinese history, Taiwanese history, and "history of the rest".
The interesting thing is that though these books came out during when the rival DPP political party controlled the government, the textbooks more reflect the national views espoused by preceding President Lee Teng-hui, who belongs to the KMT. For example, the textbooks are strangely favorable of the Japanese - traits the former President are known for. The writers of the textbooks rejected this indoctrination and the propaganda angle - stating simply that the people of Taiwan should learn about their own location.
The result, however, of this new, reformed education curriculum is clear. A generation of people with greater awareness of Taiwan as a distinct identity of its own. Helped along by a deepening cultural and economic divide between themselves and the mainland, these new people consider themselves Taiwanese, rather than Chinese.