Perry Anderson on Taiwan

by Reihan Salam

In 2004, Perry Anderson described the identity conflict that was at the heart of Taiwan’s rancorous politics. Conventional accounts emphasize the split between the “pan-Blue” and “pan-Green” coalitions, which correspond to the loose alliance of parties that favor defining Taiwan as part of China and those that favor defining it as a sovereign state. Anderson emphasized the ways in which these coalitions reflect ethnocultural divisions, with Taiwan’s large (10-15 percent) Hakka minority and its large (15 percent) Mandarin-speaking minority and its small indigenous minority generally in the Blue camp while the numerically dominant Fujianese Min-nan population, disproportionately concentrated in the less-developed southern part of the island, tends to tilt towards the Green camp. But what I found most insightful about Anderson’s reading of Taiwan is his description of how it fits into his brother Benedict Anderson’s “creole nationalism” thesis:

In an address given in Taipei a couple of years ago, Benedict Anderson suggested that it is best seen as a contemporary version of the originating form of modern nationalism: namely, the separation of overseas settler communities from an imperial homeland, such as gave birth to the United States in the 18th century, and to the Latin American republics of the early 19th century. This form, he showed in Imagined Communities, predated the romantic nationalisms of Central and Eastern Europe that are often thought to have set the pattern for 20th-century nationalism. Unlike these, the overseas settler – or ‘creole’ – type required no major linguistic or ethnic difference from the metropolis. Rather, the markers of nascent national identity were territorial and historical: geographical distance and colonial institutions engendered a distinct culture and self-consciousness, and, with it, a collective identity that laid the foundation for independent states. The late 19th century saw a repetition of this process in the white dominions of Canada and Australasia.

Seen in this light, contemporary Taiwanese nationalism belongs to a political family with a well-established ancestry. The great majority – perhaps 85 per cent – of its modern population of 22,500,000 descends from migrants who arrived in the island from Fujian and Guangdong between the 17th and late 19th centuries, pushing its Malayo-Polynesian natives back into the mountainous interior. Genetically and linguistically, they are as Chinese as white New Zealanders are British. But geographical separation and historical experience have produced over time a settler community with a national identity that is today as natural and legitimate as American or Costa Rican, Australian or Uruguayan. There seems little doubt that within the morphology of nationalisms, such an analysis offers the right classification of the Taiwanese case. But determining its place within a general taxonomy invites a further step.

Anderson goes on to describe the complicated ways in which Taiwan diverges from the script of European-origin settler nationalism. Yet his discussion is a vivid reminder of how patterns that we think of as uniquely American, or Anglospheric, obtain in quite different cultural environments. I sometimes think of the francophone community that emerged in Algeria under French rule — a melting-pot culture of Alsatians, Sicilians, Maghrebin Jews, and others that was as deeply rooted as many other settler cultures, but which was dramatically displaced in the wake of Algerian independence and which is essentially dying out over time. It’s useful to be reminded of the fact that these changes on this scale do happen from time to time.