Taiwanese Identity


Isabella Kern


This blog post explores explore the intricacies of Taiwanese identity, delving into its complex history and how it has evolved over time. It examines the impact of colonization, democratization, and economic growth on the formation of Taiwanese identity, as well as the ongoing political debates surrounding Taiwan's status as a sovereign nation. Additionally, the significance of Taiwan in global politics is highlighted, particularly in the context of U.S.-China relations, arguing for the importance of understanding Taiwanese identity as a key component of East Asian society.


In late October of 2022, I was presented with an opportunity to not only take part in a Taiwan-Seminar at a political academy; but also hold a presentation about any topic connected to Taiwan. Considering my partial Taiwanese ancestry, I opted for Taiwanese Identity, a topic that is dear to my heart and frequently misconstrued by many. Having spent five years of my childhood first in Taipei, Taiwan, then in Shanghai, China, I had plenty of personal experiences and connotations to give in my talk about a controversial topic that had followed me throughout most of my upbringing.

Why Taiwan, why identity, why now?

Taiwan has become a vital part of international discourse, mostly in connection to the politics of China and the United States. Despite this new-found popularity, one particular question seems to harbor many people's minds, as I have been faced with this question even more recently: ‘ethnically speaking, Taiwanese people are still Chinese people in the end, right?’

The issue of my personal identity became a dominant thought for me, and upon conducting some brief research, I discovered that many Taiwanese individuals, particularly those of the younger generation, share the same preoccupation. Many articles in well-known newspaper outlets can be taken as an example, such as “We are Taiwanese” (Ching & Chien, 2022) from the New York Times, or “What it means to be Taiwanese” (Chang, 2022) from the Brown Daily Herald. In the articles, the authors describe their experience of being at the center of the geopolitical stage, and how it has influenced their sense of self and solidified their identity. In an attempt to negate the dilemma of having two conflicting identities, public and personal, Chang (2022) stated that in order to maintain his sense of Taiwanese identity, he had to develop his own interpretation of it, one that takes his personal viewpoint on Taiwan into account.

In the following, central points of the Taiwanese identity will be analyzed and discussed to answer several questions connected to it: Why don’t the Taiwanese identify as Chinese? How was this individual Taiwanese identity formed? What does identity look like today? What theories can explain the specific formation of Taiwanese identity? Why is identity important and why is it often neglected in popular political discourse? Emphasis will be put on the differences regarding Taiwanese and Chinese identity, in which the colonial history of Taiwan plays an important role and recently conducted surveys will be used to explain the perception of identity on the small island. To conclude, the importance of this topic will be put into context with the current political world, a topic that often remains disregarded.

History and its impacts

In order to gain a deeper understanding of this matter, a comprehensive grasp of Taiwan's historical evolution is essential. Taiwan’s history can be divided into three distinct phases, with the first phase dating back approximately six thousand years, during which archaeological findings demonstrate that the indigenous people of Taiwan developed intricate trading networks. These networks extended to various countries in East Asia, including but not limited to the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand (Jacobs, 2018). Furthermore, according to the Out-Of-Taiwan Theory, Austronesian people originated from Taiwan and later migrated to other areas, including Madagascar, New Zealand, and Micronesia, where they can still be found today (Bellwood & Dizon, 2008). Surprisingly, “no such links have been discovered with China” (Jacobs, 2018, p. 16).

The second historical phase can best be defined as the colonial phase in Taiwan, where Taiwan stood under constant colonial possession of six different governments for more than 350 years. Beginning with the Dutch in 1624, then the Spanish in 1626, the Zheng Family or Koxinga in 1662, the Manchu empire in 1683, the Japanese in 1895, and ultimately, the Chinese Nationalist, also known as the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek in 1945. During the colonial phases, it can be observed that Chinese immigrants came from the mainland to Taiwan in four waves: The Dutch colony first brought in the Chinese for their labor (Jacobs, 2018). During the colonies of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, more people from the Chinese mainland immigrated to the island, characterized as the second and third wave (Huang, Liu, & Chang, 2004). The final wave came with Chiang Kai-shek win 1945, after his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), lost the civil war in China (Li, 2003).

Identity of colonial rule

The years under colonial rule influenced and shaped the inhabitants of the island, as they were suppressed and seen as second-class citizens (Jacobs, 2018). In addition, the Taiwanese were politically marginalized and discriminated against, as seen by the lack of political positions they held in the Japanese and KMT colonies. Around 90% of people identified themselves as Taiwanese during the rule of Chiang Kai-shek, meaning they did not come to Taiwan with the KMT. In spite of this, only people (Schneider & Schubert, 1997) who immigrated with the KMT in the 1940s, 10% of the population, held important political positions such as president, prime minister, minister of finance, and minister of economy.

Moreover, colonial rule in Taiwan killed thousands of the island's inhabitants. Most notably, the 228 massacre on the 28th of February 1947 under Chiang Kai-shek which initiated the time of the White Terror, an era that lasted 40 years. During that time, around 20.000 to 30.000 Taiwanese people were killed by the regime (Ni, 2020).

Records show that during the Japanese colonial period, a strong collective Taiwanese identity began to emerge. Expressions such as "Taiwanese people" and "Taiwanese language" were widely used, and political organizations were formed specifically to promote the well-being of the Taiwanese people (Lamley, 1981). This collective identity was further solidified after the 228 Massacre. The island's inhabitants were significantly shaped by their experiences under different colonizations, with the enduring effects of systematic oppression and isolation still discernible in the present-day identity of the populace (Schneider & Schubert, 1997).

According to official records, it was during the Japanese colonial era that a robust sense of collective Taiwanese identity began to emerge. Commonly used phrases such as "Taiwanese people" and "Taiwanese language" became prevalent, and political groups dedicated to advancing the welfare of the Taiwanese populace were established. The 228 Massacre served to reinforce and strengthen this collective identity. As previously alluded to, the island's inhabitants were significantly shaped by their experiences under different colonizations, and the enduring effects of systematic oppression and isolation are still discernible in the present-day identity of the populace

Taiwan: The Orphan of Asia

The situation of Taiwan under colonial regimes is often compared by many academics to that of an orphan (Storm & Harrison, 2007). In Zhuolio Wu’s book, a well-known work on the topic of Taiwan’s colonial history and its psychological, political, and cultural consequences, the nation is called "The Orphan of Asia". This title relates to the people’s and country's trauma of being abandoned repeatedly over the course of its existence: Taiwan was first handed over from its Chinese "motherland" to the Japanese, where the inhabitants had to detach themselves from their former culture to survive, and then rejected and discriminated against by the Kuomingtang due to the adoption of Japanese culture during the colonial era (Wu, 2008).

Only recently has the 228 Massacre been officially recognized, and nowadays, February 28 is treated as a day of peace and a national holiday.

Expression of Taiwan Nationalism and Identity Today

The death of Chian Kai-shek's son marked the beginning of the third phase in Taiwanese history. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officially became the opposition to the KMT. Lee Teng-hui became the first Taiwanese President and consolidated democracy in Taiwan. Political topics that were previously not allowed, such as the issue of identity, became part of the public political discourse. Taiwanese nationalism could be expressed, and Taiwan was in a period of democratization and Taiwanization. During Ma Ying-jeou's presidency, his pro-China policy was increasingly rejected from 2014 onwards. More people identified themselves as Taiwanese Taiwan instead of Chinese Taiwan and demanded independence. In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the DPP, became President.

The process of Taiwanization is clearly evident in the graph of citizens' identity pictured above. This graph is derived from surveys, which have been recorded since 1992, and shows the resulting percentage of four responses to the question of identity. The possible answers are Taiwanese (green), Taiwanese and Chinese (pink), Chinese (blue), and no answer (black). The table clearly showcases that the Taiwanese identity has continued to rise, reaching 63.7% this year. In addition, approximately 30,4% of citizens identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese, indicating that nearly 94% of all citizens in Taiwan have a sense of being Taiwanese to some extent. Moreover, the percentage of citizens who identify exclusively as Chinese has consistently gone down over the past thirty years. In 1992, 25.5% identified as Chinese, whereas in 2022, this number decreased to only 3.5%. Between 2006 and 2008, a critical period emerged where the pink line intersected with the green, marking a pivotal moment in Taiwan's history. During this time, the promotion of indigenous peoples' visibility and acceptance in Taiwan was prioritized in both the education system and general politics with the overarching goal of fostering a stronger connection among citizens with Taiwan's origins and history (Sullivan & Lowe, 2010; Simon, 2006).

Approximately 95% of the population in Taiwan today is made up of Han Chinese, while the remaining 5% are indigenous peoples. Within the Han Chinese population, about 80% of them immigrated to Taiwan during the Ming and Qing dynasties, 200-300 years ago. Another 15-18% of the Han Chinese population immigrated to Taiwan after 1945, with Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (Huang, Liu, & Chang, 2004). Those who identify as Taiwanese and support pro-independence policies are typically indigenous peoples or those who immigrated before 1945. The remaining population identifies more as Chinese and supports pro-approach/reunification policies (Li, 2003). The first apparent significant difference here is the shared colonial experience under Japanese rule and the Kuomintang.

Theoretical Approaches to Identity

The individual identity formation of Taiwanese people can be described and explained through various theoretical approaches: identity and historical memory, the theory of double identity, and the theory of changing identities. History and memory have a significant influence on identity and identity formation. According to identity research, they are two inseparable aspects: “Identity is constructed in the process of understanding the nation’s history, its current position, and possible and desired prospects, and, consequently, historical memory is a factor in the formation of this very identity” (Gusevskaya & Plotnikova, 2020, S. 1028).

Identity and Historical Memory

Taiwan's collective experience during the colonial period, particularly under Japan and Chiang Kai-shek formed the Taiwanese identity, and many researchers view the 228 Massacre as a pivotal event. Moreover, the island's residents have increasingly identified with a Taiwanese identity from 2006 onwards due to the permission and encouragement to address Taiwan's history. The inconsistent history between Taiwanese and Chinese people is also frequently discussed: “There was a particular emphasis on the uneven development of cultural mutation and the (dis)continuity of historical processes amid the colonial and national relations of various powers, with specific weighting being accorded to Japan and China” (Schubert & Damm, 2011, p.4).

Theory of Double Identity

The concept of dual identity addresses the significant difference in origin and politics between Taiwanese and Chinese people. Ancestral traditions and heritage are generally seen as compatible, while politics l and national traditions are viewed as antagonistic. This is reflected in the language: Taiwanese people are referred to as "taiwanren" (people from Taiwan, 台灣人), while Chinese people are called "zhongguoren" (people from China, 中国). The term "huaren" (华人) is used when referring to shared culture, which means culturally or ethnically Chinese. To further illustrate this, one can look at Chinese people who have immigrated to Singapore and Malaysia, as they refer to themselves as "huaren" rather than "zhongguoren".

Theory of Transformative Identities

The final theory used in this article examines the transformation of identity and is influenced by Taiwan's historical memory. Here, identity is seen as not permanent, illustrated by Taiwan's development into a different political and social direction due to its history and experience. Taiwan can be seen as a civic society, a society in the interest of its own community. Today, Taiwan is considered one of the most progressive countries in Asia, as it is the first country to legalize same-sex marriage, which draws a strong contrast to China. In addition, migration changes the national identity: Jacobs here gives the example of Australians who immigrated from Europe hundreds of years ago. Nowadays, the inhabitants of Australia are not defined as Europeans, but as Australians.

According to Jacobs (2018) “migration changes identity and that past ancestry does not determine who one is today. Thus, Taiwan – like Australia – has undergone a huge change in how it answers the question, “who are we?” (p. 33).

Taiwan in Geopolitics: Toward a Path of Self-Determination

In the current geopolitical landscape, Taiwan is frequently linked with the United States and China, and is perceived as a political pawn utilized by these two superpowers. It is important to redirect the discourse towards a Taiwanese perspective and emphasize that Taiwan deserves sovereignty and recognition based on its individual identity rather than democratic symbolism and microchips. Moreover, it is often ignored that Taiwan is still globally discriminated against and alienated. During the pandemic, Taiwan was unable to purchase vaccines from BioNTech, a German company, due to Chinese intervention asserting their right to decide vaccine distribution to Taiwan. On a personal note, I have also experienced situations where I was not allowed to express my Taiwanese identity freely, such as during my time at the German School Shanghai, another German institution. With this article, I hope to inform, raise awareness about this issue, and steer the Taiwanese narrative in the direction of self-determination.

For all sources and further reading material on the topic, go to "Research" and select the post "Research: Taiwanese Identity".

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