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  • Confronting Colonization and National Identity The Nationalists and Taiwan, 1941–45
  • Steve Phillips


Over the past decade a variety of factors have fostered interest in the study of identity and nationalism in China, including the end of the Cold War, the Chinese Communist Party’s retreat from socialism and dependence upon nationalism to maintain legitimacy, China’s growing economic and military power, and the sensitive issue of Taiwan’s international status. 1 These discussions combine empirical research into the history of China with theoretical approaches to nationalism first developed by scholars of Western Europe and later expanded upon by experts in decolonization. Recent books and articles have exposed the shifting definitions of the Chinese nation and have tied varying understandings of nation to class interests or political affiliation. Many monographs focus on competition between the Nationalists and Communists, and their efforts to monopolize the discourse on nationalism in order to enhance political legitimacy. 2 Scholars of China have become aware of the consciously constructed nature of nationalism, in particular by those who utilize the power of the state to promote one vision of the nation. For example, Prasenjit Duara discusses how some would-be nation builders in China embraced certain historical narratives to justify centralization and uniformity across provincial lines. 3 These works build upon earlier studies of nationalism, such as Benedict Anderson’s focus on the role of “official nationalism” in an imagined community, or Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s discussion of the “invention of tradition.” 4

While scholars search for a single broad definition of the nation and nationalism, the reality of modern China suggests a more confused and often contradictory picture. 5 One way to investigate nationalism in China is to examine how the Jiang Jieshi and the Nationalist Government and Party approached the possible re-integration of Taiwan into the national polity. 6 During the War of Resistance (1937–1945) Jiang and his supporters brought to bear several concepts to justify their control of Taiwan, which had been under Japanese colonial rule since 1895. These elements, some mutually reinforcing, others contradictory, illustrated how they envisioned national identity and how they wished mainlanders, Taiwanese (Han Chinese immigrants to the island prior to 1945), and non-Chinese to perceive Taiwan. 7 First, the rhetoric of racial solidarity made a Han Chinese bloodline (xuetong) one defining element of the nation. Second, historical precedent, the legacy of Qing rule of Taiwan, established an unchangeable national identity. A crucial aspect of nation building by the Nationalists is what Prasenjit Duara deems “descent,” the legitimacy that grows out of tracing the nation back into the distant past. The Nationalists could not and did not portray their efforts as nation building. Rather they placed their efforts in the context of awakening Chinese (Chinese on Taiwan included) and the international community to a pre-existing national identity. Third was the assertion that any treaty to abandon territory, as the Qing Dynasty had ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895, was not legitimate. The island’s return to China became a way to erase over a century of national humiliation. Fourth, Jiang and his supporters pointed to the international sanction for retrocession offered by the 1943 Cairo Declaration. Thus, while China could agree to regain territory, it could not consent to losing territory. Finally, although the Nationalists emphasized that national identity could not be refuted or changed, they also raised the issue of choice. Nationalists hoped to promote the idea that Taiwanese were loyal Chinese who eagerly sought to rejoin their nation.

With these five ideas, the Nationalists set the pattern for how mainlanders, Communists included, would portray Taiwan as part of China. 8 Political agendas hinder any study of Taiwan’s long-term relationship with the mainland. Since the early 1940s, the Nationalists have claimed that they never accepted Japanese rule of Taiwan, nor did they waver in their efforts to restore Chinese (represented by their government, of course) control over the island. 9 Publications ranging from popular magazines to citizenship education materials point to the efforts of Sun Zhongshan, the Father of the Nation, who connected the Nationalists’ mission of restoring Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan to a larger movement for national strength...

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