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Anthropological Quarterly 77.3 (2004) 611-614

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Is Taiwan Chinese?

The George Washington University
Melissa J. Brown, Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power, and Migration on Changing Identities. University of California Press, 2004, 349 pp.

Melissa Brown offers a timely analysis of an issue of central importance in the debate over the relationship between China and Taiwan—namely, the question of a uniquely "Taiwanese" identity. As Brown notes, some scholars, politicians, and nationalists in Taiwan have argued for such an identity marker as a counter-point to mainland Chinese assertions that Taiwan citizens, as members of a broad Hanzu family, "belong" to China culturally and hence politically. This seemingly academic debate has concrete political implications; if one accepts the Confucian precept that Han Chinese identity is rooted not in ancestry but in cultural practices, and Taiwan can be defined as culturally Han, then it would appear to be a part of China, much more so then, say, certain areas of Xinjiang (24). The counter-view claims a uniquely Taiwanese identity based on a mixing and borrowing among and between Hakka [kejia] and Fujian [minnan] migrants, local aboriginal peoples, and aspects of Japanese culture, beginning in the seventeenth century and continuing on until today (25). This debate illustrates the tension between Confucian concepts of Sinicization [in which "Others" become Han via cultural assimilation] and patriliny [in which one becomes Han through intermarriage] (31). [End Page 611]

The question that Brown addresses is basic, yet crucial: how does identity come to be? Her central claim is that, at least in this case, identity is rooted neither in cultural patterns nor ancestry, but is a product of what she calls "social experiences" (xi)—in other words, it is a social construct.

After providing a context for her argument in Chapter One by explaining the political role identity plays in the current China-Taiwan debate, she turns to history in Chapter Two, sketching out a broad overview of the social, cultural, and kinship ties between Han settlers and plains aborigines (pingpu zu) from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Two competing stories, what she terms "narratives of unfolding" seek to explain these ties. The normative mainland (Han) Chinese story argues that the arrival of Han settlers before and after the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, especially General Zheng Chenggong's 1661 invasion that displaced Dutch authorities, pushed some plains aborigines into the mountains while most were assimilated via cultural borrowings and intermarriage and in effect became Han. A recently constructed Taiwanese counter-narrative has sought to resurrect these plains aborigines as a distinct and unique aspect of Taiwan identity (35). Using historical records, Brown argues that these aborigines did not disappear through assimilation, but instead changed their identity, once in the seventeenth century and twice in the twentieth (36).

In Chapter Three, she discusses what she calls the "long route" to identity change, arguing that, contrary to the normative narrative of assimilation, most southwest plains aborigines only became "Han" when the last significant marker of difference (Han Chinese foot-binding) was banned by Japanese colonial officials in Taiwan in the 1930s (66-67). This followed over two hundred years of cultural borrowings by aborigines, clear patterns of uxorilocal marriages with property-less Han men, the disappearance of aboriginal languages, and the adoption of Han female children by aborigine families (71-76). Despite these extensive cultural borrowings and inter-marriage patterns, most aborigines remained "savages" (Taiwanese Hoan-a) in the eyes of their Han neighbors until this Japanese administrative intervention removed the last barrier to cross-ethnic marriages of all types (92-97). In recent years, "aborigineness" has come to be increasingly celebrated in Taiwan, with the result that some of these long-route Han villages have been reclassified as aboriginal villages—despite the fact that, as Brown points out, the only remaining difference of any type are certain temple practices (129).

In Chapter Four, Brown discusses "short route" identity change, examining how some aborigines became Han in the seventeenth century via uxorilocal [End Page 612] marriages with Han men following Zheng Chonggeng's successful...


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