NüStories Magazine

Anthropologist: Taiwanese identity is a ‘paradox’ of conflicting beliefs – but social bonds create unity


In Taiwan, national and cultural identities are often in conflict.

Taiwan is a rare example of a thriving Asian democracy. The re-election in January 2020 of President Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who advocates for the island’s continual political freedom and independence, only served to underline the nation’s difference from the People’s Republic of China. But during my fieldwork as an anthropologist, researching Chinese nationalism during and after the election, I discovered that ordinary people’s conception of identity was more complicated than the headlines suggest.

Back in 2018, President Tsai’s support did not look as clear. Han Kuo-yu, a former legislator and pro-China politician, was freshly elected as the mayor of Kaohsiung. This victory in southern Taiwan was a surprise win for the Kuomintang (KMT), the party that backs closer ties with mainland China. Some saw Han as the most popular KMT politician since the island’s long-term authoritarian ruler, Chiang Kai-shek, who had fought against the Chinese Communist Party in China’s civil war. The comeback of the KMT was a surprise, especially to younger Taiwanese were born and raised after the end of martial law in 1987, who mostly see themselves as distinctly Taiwanese.  

Han’s rising popularity was not just because of his pro-China leanings. His comments on same-sex marriage also reflected a rise in conservative populism, much like in other parts of the world. Taiwan legalized gay marriage in 2019, following a ruling by the Constitutional Court that a ban was unconstitutional in 2017. But the conservative backlash against the country’s increasingly liberal social agenda exposed an underlying tension between Taiwanese national identity and cultural values. Many Taiwanese saw the LGBTQ+ community and their allies as being at odds with traditional Chinese culture. This concern was particularly prevalent among Taiwan’s discreet but politically influential Christian groups. Commenting on the annual Pride in different cities throughout the year, many people who I interviewed during my fieldwork expressed their anger with the Pride participants for “messing with our family values.” 

Many liberal Taiwanese had assumed these conservative voices to be a minority. KMT supporters were seen by their political opponents as a remnant of the nationalist curriculum that emphasized the Han Chinese culture and its legitimacy as the sole Chinese republic that dominated Taiwan for nearly forty years. During this period, many people saw Taiwan merely a small portion of the “Homeland” of mainland China.

Throughout the authoritarian rule of the KMT in Taiwan, from 1949 to 1987, the government emphasized China as the “ancestral home” of the Taiwanese people and Taiwan as the land of “Free China.” This made sense to the military figures, civil servants, and their families who had come to Taiwan with the KMT. For decades, these displaced Chinese immigrants known as “Mainlander” or “Wai-Shen-ren” (out-of-province people) identified foremost with the Chinese provinces they – or their parents – immigrated from, instead of with the island they lived on. This identification was often inherited through the father; the mother’s heritage, whether it was indigenous Taiwanese or from another province in China, was mostly invisible. 

A rally in support of Han Kuo-yu in Kaohsiung on December 2019. Credit: Ashley Deng-Yu Chen

But this inherited identity could often contradict one’s self-expression. While in Taiwan, I met Fang, a woman in her sixties and a close family friend who had offered to recruit interviewees via her extensive social network. Fang proudly identified herself as a “Mainlander,” as her father had hailed from Mainland China but settled in Taiwan after 1949. Her mother was a local Taiwanese Hoklo, a community of Han Chinese people with ancestral homes in Southern China. An avid supporter of Han and the KMT, Fang laughed about how her parents could hardly understand each other because her father spoke Mandarin Chinese. In contrast, her mother spoke Japanese and Taiwanese Hoklo, having been raised in Taiwan when it was under Japanese rule.

“There was no ethnic division back in those days, unlike today,” she remarked, seeming to feel nostalgic about the past authoritarian regime. And despite her mixed heritage and being born and raised in Taiwan, Fang expressed her worries that she might have become too “localized,” in contrast to her identity as a Mainlander.

Fang’s political identity was common among KMT supporters. Her concerns were the fodder for Han’s mayoral campaign in 2018 and the presidential campaign in 2020. Alluding to a “simpler” time when Taiwan was unified through a collective identity of being “ethnically Chinese,” Han many times condemned the recent political development in Taiwan for its messy” cross-strait relations with the PRC and the failure in economic revitalization. Indeed, many older voters were nostalgic for Taiwan’s years of authoritarian rule, alluded to by Han, when restrained political freedom had ensured prosperous economic growth before all the “political correctness” took over.

But a Sinocentric nationalist narrative often contradicted events on the ground. I observed that local people, regardless of their political preference to the DPP or KMT, continued to defend Taiwan and its contemporary sociocultural structure as they knew it without realizing the paradox. With their own interpretations of the attachment with Taiwan, most locals supported their preferred nationalist imagination, be it Chinese or Taiwanese, without the awareness that their everyday life had placed their position in between. This was especially apparent when most of my interviewees expressed their disapproval of the incumbent DPP government while also sneering at the Chinese people who thought poorly of the Taiwanese democracy.

In reality, people’s identities tend to pop out selectively. Many of the people I spoke to would defend Taiwan against China while also professing their affiliation with Chinese nationalism. Political and social identities are often in flux. But an incoherence between social and political identities can reveal the tensions in Taiwan’s national identity today.

There is no single narrative that can capture the diversity of Taiwanese identity. During my fieldwork, I realized that my own prejudices had led me to expect to find a homogenous society. But there is not always an easy consensus between political and cultural belonging. Many look back on Taiwan’s years of authoritarian rule with nostalgia and fear for the country’s future. But powerful social bonds between community members can create a sense of unity when political hopes and values diverge. And while Taiwanese people may disagree about the past, these social bonds offer a pathway into a shared future.

About the author

Ashley Deng-Yu Chen is originally from Kaohsiung, Taiwan. She currently resides in Canada, and is a graduate student of anthropology at the University of Ottawa. She is interested in identity studies, the anthropological aspect of political life, and advocating for Taiwan in an international context. She tweets @a_dyc_

About the editor

Amy Hawkins is a journalist based in London. She tweets @amyhawk_