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  • Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power, and Migration on Changing Identities
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Melissa J. Brown . Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power, and Migration on Changing Identities. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2004. xvi, 333 pp. Paperback $24.95, ISBN 0-530-23182-1.

The March 2004 reelection of President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will prolong the tension between this first Chinese democracy and the centralizing impulse of the People's Republic of China to regain all of China's remaining lost territories, now that the reversion of Hong Kong (1997 ) and Macau (1999) have taken place. Despite Chen's close election victory over Lien Chan of the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) by only thirty thousand votes out of thirteen million cast, and the dramatic attempted assassination of President Chen and Vice President Annette Lu during the final days of their campaign, the DPP, with its goal of independence for Taiwan from the People's Republic, appears to be the choice of the people.

In this timely book on the political question "Is Taiwan Chinese?" Melissa J. Brown gives an anthropological answer of "no," based on her study of the actual "social experience" of the people of Taiwan, encapsulated in the subtitle of her book, "the impact of culture, power, and migration on changing identities." Utilizing a wealth of historical-anthropological and ethnographic detail, she makes the bold claim that Taiwan has a distinctive identity of its own, quite contrary to the mythical claim of the People's Republic that there is one China and that Taiwan is part of it and to the popular world opinion that acquiesces to this claim. For Brown, "ancestry and culture are not what ultimately unite an ethnic group or nation. . . . [I]dentity is formed and solidified on the basis of common social experience, including economic and political experience" (p. 2; author's emphasis). She gathers her anthropological field research data (1991-1992, 1994, 2000) to reconstruct almost four centuries of the social experience of the Taiwanese people from the time of the Dutch presence (1624-1661) through Zheng Chenggong (1662-1683), the Qing dynasty (1683-1895), the Japanese colonial occupation (1895-1945), the recovery by the Chinese Nationalist government and the ensuing period of Martial Law (1945-1987), the post-Martial Law period (1987-1996), and, lastly, full electoral democracy from 1996 to the present—the pivotal point of her thesis. As situations change, the group identities of people also change, but the latter, according to Brown, must be close to the actual social experience of the group as a whole in order for general acceptance.

For the latest claim to Taiwan's changing identity Brown looks to the late 1980s, after Lee Teng-hui became the first president of Taiwanese background. Lee was succeeded by another Taiwanese, Chen Shui-bian, in 2000. For Brown, [End Page 30] such an identity claim is no less authentic just because of its happening only recently: "Since 1987, for [the] obvious political purpose of justifying their distance from the PRC, people in Taiwan have increasingly claimed Taiwanese identity to be an amalgam of Han culture and ancestry, Aborigine culture and ancestry, and Japanese culture (but not ancestry), in [the] making for almost 400 years, and separate from China for the entire twentieth century" (p. 2). The aboriginal people, whether "plains" or "high mountain," who were for centuries regarded by Han Chinese as "savages," on a continuum ranging from "raw" to "cooked," depending on their degree of assimilation into the more "civilized" Han culture (represented by the early "Hoklo" immigrants from Fujian Province in the sixteenth century), are now, for the sake of political expediency, included in the Taiwanese self-definition.

The bulk of this book is a reconstruction of the social experiences of interaction between Han Hoklo and Aborigine cultures and ancestries under conditions of power relationships and the context and policies of the different governing regimes in Taiwan mentioned above. Because the early migration from Fujian in the sixteenth century consisted primarily of males, Brown makes the case for intercultural interaction through the intermarriage of Hoklo men with Aborigine...


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