Asia has made an apparent rebound. Having faded as the West ascended, Asia has long been relegated to the world’s backwater, a living anachronism strewn with effete dynasties and kingdom. As Asia joined the modern world, it was caught in an unresolvable bind between utilizing some form of indigenous thought to fulfill a non-Western form of development and fully embracing the Western order of things. The unbridgeable contradiction produced a maddening fever, and the fever produced hundreds of years of chaos.
In the 21st century, the question would appear, at least on the surface, to have been settled now that free market logic has triumphed after the end of the Cold War and free market logic has triumphed in Asia. Yet despite this seeming appearance of things, what the apparent dominance of capitalism would evince is that questions dating back to an earlier period in time, from the onset of modernity in Asia, have not been resolved with any definitive answers. What exactly it is that has come to exist in Asia is, in fact, not as clear as it would seem. Nevertheless, it would appear that there is a lack of space for independent intellectual discourse dedicated to contemplating this problem.
New Bloom is an online magazine dedicated to cultivating localized subjectivities in Asia, once at the margins of the intellectual world and now the center of the contemporary economic order, by bringing indigenous forms of thought into conversation with international discourse. We hope that through this, the question of what exactly Asia is today, as understood by those living in it today, will become clearer. Asia would appear to be something like a world-riddle for our times.
Why begin with Taiwan? Though often neglected in considerations of Asia at large, Taiwan, the so-called “orphan of Asia,” would seem to point to something about the fundamental condition of Asia. In examination of the deeper structural basis of what lies behind Taiwan, we can perceive the traces of the larger historical problems confronting Asia as a whole.
What we today call “Taiwan” was originally inhabited by Austronesian peoples who are the ancestors of the people we refer to today as Taiwanese Aboriginals. It was only later that Chinese immigrants from Guangdong and Fujian successively migrated from mainland China to Taiwan.
As Taiwan’s location in the western Pacific makes it a geographically advantageous site for trade, Taiwan came under occupation from European powers in the early 17th century. Taiwan was initially colonized by the Dutch and Spanish, with the Dutch controlling southwestern Taiwan and the Spanish northwestern Taiwan. However, with the defeat of the Spanish by the Dutch, Taiwan fell for some time into the control of the Netherlands until the Dutch were driven out by Ming dynasty loyalist Zheng Chenggong, also known as “Koxinga,” who assumed control of Taiwan. As Zheng was a loyalist of the Ming dynasty, which had since collapsed to the Qing dynasty, Taiwan would revert to control of the Qing dynasty after the defeat of Zheng’s descendants some decades after Zheng’s early death. Yet with the defeat of Qing dynasty China itself to Japan during the Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan was ceded to Japanese colonial control in 1895 through the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Taiwan’s forcible modernization began in the late Qing dynasty but largely occurred in the period of Japanese colonial rule. In this way, Taiwan’s history variously repeats a cycle of colonization and resistance to colonization as bound up with the shifting terrain of powers in Asia.
After the defeat of the Japanese empire during World War II, Taiwan fell to the control of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT). The defeat of the KMT to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led to the large-scale retreat of the KMT to Taiwan in 1949, with then-plans of mainland reconquest that never materialized. The KMT’s rule over Taiwan involved brutal political suppression as inaugurated by the 228 Massacre, the period of White Terror that followed, and Taiwan’s decades-long martial law period—until recent times the longest martial law period in human history. The KMT period also saw the forced identification of Taiwan with China in such a manner as to maintain the fiction of Taiwan culture as synonymous with China when, of course, Taiwan’s history had already had many periods in which it diverged sharply from that of mainland China. Only with the lifting of martial law in 1987 has Taiwan taken gradual steps towards democratization.
As Taiwanese history has been a history of successive displacements and continual shifts in political rulership, each successive regime that ruled over Taiwan, though only pursuant of its self-interest, has left indelible traces upon Taiwanese society and culture. Yet perhaps we can say that colonialism has left its strongest impact upon Taiwanese subjectivity in lingering traces of the colonial mentality of domination that colonialism engendered that persist even to the present and the lack of a wholly discrete Taiwanese identity—but that this has left Taiwan with a hybrid sense of identity.
On the surface, it would appear that democracy has been established in Taiwan, although Taiwan’s authoritarian legacy remains. In regards to Taiwan’s sense of identity in the world, the influence of Chinese culture is repeatedly emphasized, in denial of Aboriginal influences and the multiple legacies of colonialism, in such a manner that the view of Taiwan as having a unique culture of its own remains suppressed. One need only point to the attempts made at erasing remaining Aboriginal culture or consigning it to the place of a quaint relic through commodification in order to bind Taiwanese culture wholly with mainland Chinese culture and extirpating Japanese colonial influence to the extent that such influence separates Taiwanese culture from mainland Chinese culture even when in some places it had contributed positively to Taiwanese culture. And, perhaps, as with many Asian countries, subjectivity itself remains undeveloped. As the complexity and deep-rooted nature of the problem makes it hard to define, much less address, Taiwan is representative of and also provides an entry point in considering the broader contradictions of Asia at large.