Nationalism in Taiwan: Are We Chinese or Taiwanese?

By Ophelia Chou


Taiwan throughout history had been given the status of terra nullius, until the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty was able to see the strategic value of the island. He eventually brought Taiwan onto the map, and ever since Taiwan has been considered as part of China. However, the First Sino-Japanese War changed the history of Taiwan, sparking a first identity struggle on the island. Suddenly, Taiwan was no longer part of the Han civilization but under the colonial control of the Japanese, where it remained for 50 years.

Taiwan only really came to be a nation with the end of the WW2, with the resumption of civil war between the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as the two proved unable to coexist in Mainland China without a common enemy and incapable of reconciling conflicting ideologies. Facing defeat, the KMT-led government of the Republic of China (ROC) fled to Taiwan.

My grandfather was one of the people who came with the KMT to Taiwan, where he settled and began a new life. I was born and raised in Taiwan, and though knowing the history of how Taiwan came to be, I find it difficult to identify myself as Chinese. For me, Taiwan’s history raises the following questions: Am I Chinese or Taiwanese? And furthermore, what makes a Taiwanese ‘Taiwanese’? To try and answer these questions, I will examine two competing narratives of what it means to be Chinese/Taiwanese.

Kai-Shek Chiang: Taiwan as Part of China

After the fall of the Qing dynasty, it was the KMT party who led the revolution to save China under the rule of Kai-Shek Chiang. It was also Chiang who proclaimed Taipei as the temporary capital of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1949 and continued to present his government as the sole legitimate Chinese authority. As the first president of the ROC, Chiang claimed Taiwan to be part of China based on a historical narrative[1].

Chiang used the Korean War as an opportunity to defeat the PRC and communism. To this end, near the end of the conflict he constructed the common national identity of Taiwan as an anti-communist country[2]. In 1954, the ROC government welcomed 14,000 Korean War Chinese fighters to Taiwan who refused to accept the ideology of People’s Republic of China (PRC). Suddenly Taiwan and the KMT appeared as the forefront of the fight against communism. However, despite Chiang’s efforts to migrate the Chinese identity into the Taiwanese one, the difference did not disappear overnight.

The 1947 February massacre, which marked a turning point in Taiwan’s modern history, is illustrative of this point. It was not only the first and worst confrontation between the local Taiwanese and ‘foreign’ Chinese, but it also became a critical impetus for the Taiwan independence movement. Following the surrender of the Japanese government at the end of WW2, the Allied powers handed the temporary administrative control of Taiwan to the ROC. Initially, the local inhabitants welcomed the arrival of KMT troops. However, because of the corrupt conduct of the KMT authorities and their privileged attitude toward the local population, the latter started feeling resentful about these ‘foreign’ rulers. The flashpoint of social disorder occurred on February 27 in Taipei. It was triggered by a dispute between a Taiwanese cigarette vendor and a Chinese police officer. The officer abused his power, resulting in the death of the vendor. Resentment and dissatisfaction towards the KMT crystallized around this event, turning into an anti-government uprising which caused the death of thousands of Taiwanese civilians. Eventually, the incident was suppressed by the military of the ROC government, and it has remained a taboo for decades. However, the different goals of the nationalist KMT (from portraying itself as the victor and savior of Chinese civilization to the Taiwanese government) and the native Taiwanese, coupled with cultural and language barriers, would continue to result in tensions on both sides.

Tsai Ing-Wen: Taiwan as an Independent State

OC 2The KMT having been incapable of entwining its nationalist goal with Taiwanese culture, the question of ‘who we are’ has continued to haunt the young generations in Taiwan. According to a recent survey, the percentage of Taiwanese identifying as’ Taiwanese’ has dramatically increased (from 17.6% in 1992 to 56% in 2017), while at the same time around 37% of the local population considers him/herself ‘both Chinese and Taiwanese’[3]. However, when I asked my family and friends ‘what makes us Taiwanese?’, none of them gave me the answer I wanted. For me, it is not simply about a passport or about Taiwanese culture. What I am looking for is an idea that we as Taiwanese can attach to and use to tell ourselves apart from Mainland Chinese.

One of the answers I have found is democracy[4]. In the current ROC president Tsai Ing-Wen’s inauguration speech, she stated that it was a historical fact that in the so-called 1992 Consensus both the Straits Exchange Foundations (SEF) and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) were able to set aside their differences and look for common ground[5]. In my opinion, the conference did not sacrifice the sovereignty of the country nor did it justify claims of Taiwan as part of China. Representing the prevalent will of the people of Taiwan, Tsai, as the elected president in accordance with the constitution of the ROC, believes she should safeguard the territory and sovereignty of Taiwan.

That is Taiwan, as the ‘staunch guardian of peace’ in the international community, follows the existing ROC constitutional order which clearly emphasizes the sovereignty of Taiwan and commits to democratic principles. Tsai recycled the idea of an eternal struggle between good and evil by attaching the notion to democracy and communism. Her conceptualization of the Taiwanese nationalist identity relies on a moral claim that distinguishes ‘us’ Taiwanese from ‘them’, the barbaric Chinese. She presents the ROC government as valuing human rights and as a ‘proactive communicator for peace’ regionally and internationally.

While during the Cold War period the Western countries relied on the powerful distinction between ‘good versus evil’ and ‘democracy versus communism’ to draw a clear line between them and the Soviet Union, is this same idea powerful enough to sustain Taiwanese identity? In my opinion, it seems Tsai’s claim does not offer a solid foundation. As we are unable to deny the cultural legacy and influence from Mainland China, choosing democracy to construct the Taiwanese identity is a good but ultimately weak starting point[6]. Taiwanese people tend to forget that right after the February 28 Massacre the island of Taiwan was placed under martial law. The authoritarian KMT-led regime imprisoned the social and intellectual elite out of fear that they might resist their rule (i.e. calling for the independence of Taiwan and criticizing the government) or sympathize with the communist party. The so-called White Terror era from 1947 to 1987 was marked by severe breaches of human rights (not unlike the current situation in the PRC!) and the KMT’s fear of losing power, which both contradict Tsai’s claim that Taiwanese identity is based on democracy and a commitment to human rights. Some might argue that the unpeaceful political transition in Taiwan was an inevitable process for a newly independent country before entry into the democratic world. But was it?


To answer the questions I initially asked, Yes, I believe I am Taiwanese. Even though democracy might not be a strong foundation on which to base a Taiwanese identity capable of unifying the two competing nationalist theories that have historically existed in Taiwan, I am Taiwanese. The constructivist scholar Alexander Wendt famously stated that ‘Anarchy is what states make of it’. Following the same logic, I believe that the identity of a Taiwanese is an artificial concept, constructed using existing ideas of ‘good and bad’. Therefore, if I believe that I am different from Mainland China natives, an identity that Beijing cannot touch has been constructed in my heart, and in the hearts of many Taiwanese. It might not satisfy all, but drawing the line between Taiwanese and Chinese using democracy is good enough for at least half of the population in Taiwan.



[1] Umut Özkirimli and Steven Grosby, ‘Nationalism Theory Debate: The Antiquity of Nations?’, Nations and Nationalism 13, no. 3 (2007): 523–537.

[2]中華民國50年代紀錄片:反共救國 保衛台灣 (The documentary of the ROC in 1950s) (Accessed 7 Jan 2018).

[3] Hui-ling Chen, ‘Taiwanese/Chinese Identification Trend Distribution in Taiwan 1992/6 ~ 2017/6’ (Accessed 7 Jan 2018).

[4]520總統就職大典 蔡英文完整演說 (May 20 2016 Tsai Ing-Wen’s Full Inauguration Speech) (Accessed 7 Jan 2018). The English text of the speech can be found in the further reading section.

[5] The SEF is a semi-official organization set up by the Government of the ROC in Taiwan to handle technical or business matters with the PRC while ARATS is an organization set up by the PRC for handling technical and business matters with ROC.

[6] Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (Columbia University Press, 2013).



Further Reading:

Featured Photo



Born and raised in Taiwan. Ophelia Chou is a third-year International Relations student at King’s College London. She is particularly interested in the topics of sovereignty and public international law in general.

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