Re-interpretation Of Taiwanese Historiography Due To Democratisation

The notion that history is pliable is demonstrated through the revisiting and re-interpretation of Taiwanese historiography, in the attempt to consolidate a national identity distinct from the People’s Republic of China (the PRC), and gain a more legitimate foundation on which to claim autonomy on the world stage. Through the evaluation of the significance of the democratisation of Chinese imperial history, the criticism of such by contemporary historians, the employment of new historiographical methodologies and the evidence of such in emerging popular history, the nature of history is revealed as fluid and coherent with the societal values and collective identity. The construction of a distinct ethnic identity that resonates with the construction of a national consciousness and cultural identity is exemplar of historiographical interpretation being linear with two competing narratives within the same context, divergent only in their interpretation and indicative of the ambiguous nature of the past.

The democratisation of Taiwanese history from imperial authority undermines the island’s historical trend of subjugation, providing the islanders with the opportunity to interpret historical events from a Taiwan-centric perspective. Since the early 1600’s, the history of the island of Taiwan is one that spans several colonial conquests, from European and western powers to East Asian ones, with the most recent being the authoritarian regime of the Kuomintang. Since the rise of Mao Zedong in the 1940’s, the resulting 40 year prohibition of communication between the island and the mainland has led to ignition of a solely Taiwanese identity, a phenomenon extinct in the entirety of the island’s historiography and population, catalysed by democracy, increasing western influence and the island’s recent undeniable economic development and success. This has led to Taiwanese historians revisiting and re-interpreting national history in order to establish the foundations of a purely Taiwanese ethnic and cultural identity, made possible through the democratisation of the island’s history from the previously experienced, strict regulation by colonial powers of historiographies challenging their cultural narratives. Despite island history being integrated with Chinese imperialist history, historians through re-assessing empirical evidence regarding the extent of indigenous and Japanese influence on the construction of contemporary Taiwanese society, are attempting to construct a historical foundation on which to establish a distinct, national identity and therefore claim autonomy on the international stage as being separate from the PRC. Thus, the democratisation of such history has revealed the ambiguous nature in which history can be perceived, varying from historian, ideology and objective.

The role of the democratisation of island history in the re-evaluation of ethnic historiography can be seen in the allowance of Taiwanese interpretations of such and their effects, which in turn reveal the pliability of historiography through the establishment of a distinct historiography, conflicting with the official Chinese imperial narrative. Throughout the regime of the Kuomintang, the policy of domination eliminated the representation of Taiwanese history and tradition individually and symbolically, systematically associating the island with a socio-cultural identity coherent with the Chinese ideology of ‘One China,’ and repressing all other historiographies and distinguishers between islanders and mainlanders. Therefore, any historiographical debate was restricted to that of methodology and external appliances, and it wasn’t until after the lifting of martial law that Taiwanese historiography gained any scientific analysis. The exposing of the censorship of distinct island history by the Kuomintang led to the re-examining of the island’s national history, initiating the shift from the Sino-centric approach to a Taiwan-centric one, simultaneously creating an alternate representation of the history of the island that incorporated the plurality of experiences faced by the Taiwanese and Han immigrants. Thus, the call for new historiographical analysis that came with the democratisation of Taiwanese history, came the appropriation of official narratives and reveals the manipulatable nature of history to support or contradict political, cultural, social or ethnic ideologies and how the historiography of each era can be revised to represent opposing perspectives.

With the recent revision of Chinese imperial history in which the history of Taiwan in embedded, the criticism of such demonstrates the pliability of the past, and the ability for one to adopt a new historical representation that is linear with their own personal ideologies and reasons for historiographical investigation. Such an opposing perspective on a shared past is illuminated by sociologist Hsiau A-chin, whose analysis of Taiwanese colonial history incorporates western methodologies in the identification of ethnic representations to define a distinct Taiwanese culture and unique collective memory shaped by indigenous and Japanese influences. Similar investigations such as those carried out by Emma Jinhua Teng and Faye Yuan Kleeman reveal that historical and geographical records of the people of Taiwan from the Qing Dynasty and Japanese occupation are heavily reliant on stereotypes and ‘steeped in prejudice;’ assessments that are direct results of the application of new historiographical methodologies and that change the way other contemporary historians address and utilize imperial sources. These re-evaluations of dictated official histories are indicative of the introduction of a post-colonial approaches to island historiography as well as the scarcity of such illuminating one of the most predominant obstacles faced by Taiwanese historians seeking to establish distinct cultural roots from the Chinese, being the eradication of all traces of each colonial regime by their successor, demonstrated by the Japanese elimination of Qing cultural markers, and then the Kuomintang subversion of Japanese influences. Since the democratisation of imperial history in which Taiwanese historiography is intertwined, the criticism of such and the subsequent revision of historical representations is indicative of the manoeuvrability of historiography to accommodate evolving societal values and ideologies.

The democratisation of Taiwanese national history has initiated a transition in centricity to more appropriately represent the Taiwanese people as a consciousness, rather than an extension of the PRC. The anthropological-natured studies of Chen Chi-nan proposes the concept of the ‘indigenisation’ of islander society through the stressed articulation of discontinuity between experiences faced on Taiwan with those on the mainland. While previous historiographical analysis’ of the Taiwanese people addressed them as of Chinese heritage, an investigation of the relations between various ethnic groups on Taiwan suggests distinct social and cultural development of Taiwanese society under the Qing Dynasty, and particularly so after the extent of Japanese influence on the socio-economic structure of the island’s society during their occupation between 1895 and 1945. Aided by the democratisation of island history, including the evaluation of archives, events and the removal of state-sanctioned censorship, contemporary historiographical studies and ethnic divergence has expanded to include women, indigenous communities, occupiers, traders, etc., and are all contributing to the gradual transition of Taiwanese historiography to one that is island-centric, as opposed Sino-centric, encompassing the concept of a distinguished Taiwanese identity. This transition of the centricity of the historiography of a people reveals that history can be interpreted and manipulated to suit the perspectives of different parties within one historiographical context, in this case, coming to assume national history as supportive of a shared ideology.

With the new historiographical interpretations of Taiwanese history that came about with the democratisation of Chinese cultural narratives, the effects of such are designed to support Taiwan’s claim for political autonomy by differentiating themselves from the Chinese culture, exemplifying the use of history as a means of objective gain. A recent, alternative approach to investigating the history of the island which is adopted from the Marxist ideology, addressing the long-term trends in the economic and social spheres as cultural indicators as opposed to political eras. This is explored by Evan N. Dawley, who evaluates Taiwanese-centric historiography through the study and establishment of eras according to trends in the inhabiting population of the island, being indigenous groups and the periodical waves of Chinese migrants, the nature of their interactions and their relationships with the governing bodies of the time. This way, Dawley’s re-evaluation of the nature of historical observation by rejecting the use of traditional political indicators through the adoption of a social and economic priority, demonstrates that interpretations of historiography may not only be influenced by the historians ideologies but also the methodologies through which they evaluate the establishment of cultural identities. It also addresses the role of the islands geographical position, which as elucidated by Wu Mi-cha and Masahira Wakabayashi, places Taiwan in a position prone to cross-cultural influence, therefore demanding considerations of other external influences on Taiwanese society. These approaches can be, and are, used to establish structurally sound historical foundations on which to build the legitimacy of a claim to political sovereignty, being further indicative of the way in which history can be used to gain support on the world stage and the nature of such as pliable.

Since its democratisation, the adoption of historiographical interpretation to adhere to societal collective beliefs demonstrates how historical ideology is concurrent with the societal values of the time, in this case, particularly the evolution of the Taiwanese identity. The most recent ‘wave’ of mainlanders taking up residence in Taiwan would be those forced to take refuge there after the rise of Mao Zedong in the 1940’s. Following the 40 year isolation and the subsequent return of the first-generation to the mainland, many actually elected to remain in Taiwan, visiting their hometowns even serving to consolidate their Taiwanese identity, without necessarily abandoning their Chinese ones. This establishment of a Taiwanese identity by mainlanders has led to not the entire revision of national history but the substantial re-evaluation of particular historical episodes, particularly addressing key events in Taiwanese history previously acknowledged as taboo such as the 2/28 incident as well as the inclusion of indigenous and Hakka communities in a Taiwanese ethnic identity. This change in attitude and representation towards an inclusive Taiwanese identity is another factor indicative of the fluidity of historical interpretation. Since the democratisation of island history and the opening up of debates and population archives, the inclusion of indigenous and Hakka ethnic groups have contributed to the state-sanctioned establishment of a national identity, distinct from that of the Chinese, yet inclusive of the residents descendant from Han Chinese and Chinese migrants themselves. Thus, historiographical interpretation is seen to be respondent to the beliefs of the societal body, manipulated to adhere to societal beliefs and collective identities.

The influences of the democratisation of national history is not only seen in academic circles but also represented in popular history. Developing media representations of specifically Taiwanese history and perspectives are indicative the changing attitudes towards Chinese culture as well as the increasing rejection of traditional Chinese cultural markers and festivals. A study done by Yang Chui Chu highlights the rejection of qipao by the Taiwanese as a cultural symbol as too heavily associated with Chinese culture, illuminating how political ideologies prevent the representation of Taiwanese culture through the qipao dress despite being historically associated with such, so as to not be associated with the PRC. Additionally, the representation of the White Terror, a previously taboo subject has appeared through various contemporary films commenting particularly on Qing and Japanese colonial rule. One of the foremost being the February 28 Incident through the film recreation ‘A City of Sadness’ by Hsiao-Hsien Hou in 1989 and the Wushe Incident in ‘Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale’ by Wei Te-sheng, indicative of the developing acknowledgement of Taiwanese national history in popular history that was previously unspoken. Woo, the producer of ‘Warriors of the Rainbow,’ in attempting to ‘depict… original Seediq culture and history,’ not only presented one of the first representations of Taiwanese indigenous culture under colonial rule, but also inspired one of the first nationalistic films, reflected on by Walter Russel Mead as ‘inspiring whole societies… reinforcing folk heroes… and strengthening a people’s togetherness.’ This evident evolution of popular history is one of the most prominent indicators of the progression of historiography and historical analysis through nationalist interpretation, challenging Chinese ideologies through the representation of Taiwanese history with nationalistic undertones reflecting the pliability of history, which in turn can be interpreted to accommodate juxtaposing perspectives within the same context.

Catalysed by economic development, western influence and the democratisation of the Imperial Chinese cultural narrative, political and societal circumstances have led to the establishment of a new Taiwanese-specific identity. While the debate over the composition of such will continue, the investigation of the democratisation of the island’s national history, the revision of such by contemporary historians, as well as the utilization of new historiographical methodologies and their influences on emerging popular history, has revealed the nature of historiographical interpretation as manipulable to support the consolidation of an alternate perspective in a shared historiographical context. 

16 August 2021
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