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Political/Cultural Analysis: Imagined Taiwan

Political/Cultural Analysis: Imagined Taiwan



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Published by David Pendery
My analysis of Taiwan national identity and language, with reference to China, based on Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities." The piece was rejected by The Taipei Times in Taiwan, a hugely bigoted and utterly failed newspaper published in English. Truly atrocious journalism.
My analysis of Taiwan national identity and language, with reference to China, based on Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities." The piece was rejected by The Taipei Times in Taiwan, a hugely bigoted and utterly failed newspaper published in English. Truly atrocious journalism.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: David Pendery on Jul 28, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Imagined Taiwan
By David PenderyDebates about nationality regularly swirl in Taiwan, revolving around thornynotions of just what it is to be Taiwanese or Chinese (or a combination of the two),and how these two ethnicities/nationalities should view and transact with one another.Heavy migration from China to Taiwan, and substantial economic relations, havedeepened the associations that connect the peoples on the two sides of the TaiwaneseStrait, further complicating matters. At one lofty and very conflictive political and/or cultural level, that some people question whether there even
a Taiwanese nation (anindependent nation, I should say) makes the issues that much more difficult to dealwith, while the looming colossus of China, the Chinese people and Chinese culturecasts its long shadow over every facet of these debates.Languages are at the center of any examination of nations and nationalism, andthis is no different in Taiwan. Although Taiwan, like many countries, has a number of languages spoken within its borders, most foreigners no doubt think first of MandarinChinese when they think of Taiwan, and to be sure it is the most widespread languagein use here. But as anyone who lives here knows, at least two other languages, Hoklo(Taiwanese) and Hakka must also be given strong credence (I will for the time being bypass English in Taiwan, though to be sure it is important, as are other indigenouslanguages). Benedict Anderson, in his classic study,
 Imagined Communities
, providesideas that I think are applicable to Taiwan, focusing attention on languages and howtheir circulation and reception in cultures and bodies politic is fundamental to thedevelopment of cohesive nations and national consciousnesses.What gives rise to the idea of nation, where before there was none? A number of factors are at play, but perhaps the most important is the language of a people, and theways they use their language to represent their experience to themselves and others.Anderson writes that the essence of any nation is its status as “an imagined politicalcommunity,” which is to say it is less an unchanging essence, than a mutable,associative and very much invented fraternity that, by way of written and spoken© David Pendery 1
language, evinces a “secular transformation of fatality [fate] into continuity,contingency and meaning.”Here we should note that it “is always a mistake to treat languages in the way thatcertain nationalist ideologues treat them—as
of nation-ness…. Much themost important thing about language is its capacity for generating imaginedcommunities, building in effect
 particular solidarities
.” Any language, Anderson posits, can contribute to the construction of imagined community. In this respect,those who would perhaps like to minimize or even eliminate Mandarin in order toelevate Hoklo or Hakka to the status of “national language”—the one and onlylanguage that can represent the true identity of people in Taiwan—are barking up thewrong tree.The fact that Mandarin is the most widely-used language in Taiwan, particularly by way of “print capitalism” and modern communications, no doubt establishes it asthe principal vehicle by which Taiwanese people “think about themselves, and…relatethemselves to others, in profoundly new ways.” In short, Mandarin (along withvarious other languages in Taiwan) is capable of expressing and contending a givenTaiwanese national identity in necessarily contingent and imaginative ways.This pragmatic view is important, and Anderson writes that it is “printlanguage…that invents nationalism, not a particular language per se,” and in turn it isa community of “fellow readers” accessing the chief print language that forms “theembryo of the nationally imagined community.” This print culture (in any countryteeming with competition/cooperation among different languages) creates “unifiedfields of exchange and communication,” while also establishing “a new fixity tolanguage” which contributes to an “image of antiquity so central to the subjective ideaof the nation.” A nation’s print culture also gives rise to “languages-of-power,” whichare not the repressive regimes that some might expect, but are richly variegated fields,“fragmented, pluralized, territorialized,” and essentially amenable to differentlinguistic paradigms in a nation.Taiwan is fortunate in the above respects, for as an advanced capitalist democracywith a vibrant press and publishing field, it is in a good position to assert its nationalaims and dreams—the imagined national community of Taiwan, and ultimately a“memory of independence,” should that eventuate. The question becomes less whichlanguage is predominant, than whether these aims and dreams are being coherentlyand/or authentically expressed. The elevation of Taiwan’s native languages within the© David Pendery 2
nation’s print culture would be a big challenge, and I suspect that such a developmentwould be slow and cumulative (a headlong, partisan thrust would no doubt do moreharm than good). The importance here is that emplacement in the print culture allowsfor wider dissemination of ideas, affording more equality alongside more predominantlanguages. Importantly, skilled, well-informed, worldly bilingual interpreters, publishers, academics, and even popular spokespersons would be needed in these processes, all performing “the unifying rites, interpreting to their respectivefollowings the meaning of their collective motion.”All that we have been discussing is interesting in another respect, in thatAnderson writes how the diversity and spread of given subversive “vernaculars”within imagined national communities leads definitively to the downfall of “dynasties,” which have archaic conceptions of universal “script languages” with“privileged access to ontological truth.” We might see here something of a descriptionof Chinese cultural attributes and beliefs—which the imagined community of theTaiwanese nation could countermand. Of course China would object to thedevelopments discussed here—as many other nations have objected to the emergenceof national consciousnesses in countries in their ambit. Additionally, Taiwan’ssituation is problematized due to significant historical and political baggage, whichwill make more assertive national development quite a bit more difficult.Were we to see a greater presence of Hoklo and Hakka in Taiwanese newspapersand literature, Taiwan’s “mother tongues” could go far toward asserting a uniqueTaiwanese national consciousness. No doubt such a move would be knotty, not least because of China’s opposition, but also because translation would be necessary andwe would inevitably be drawn back into the orbit of more prominent languages, suchas English and Chinese, as they performed roles as carriers of Taiwanese nationalrepresentation. This would seem to reverse the direction of the overall effort, but infact something of a continuum exists, and as noted less widespread dialects can perform significant roles alongside more prominent languages, with the very predominance of these languages allowing for greater visibility and potential impact.Translation here, Anderson writes, becomes part of an overall process of “venacularization…in alliance with print-capitalism,” which is essential to theemergence of nations.In sum, although it would be a challenge fraught with difficulty and conflict,were we to see development of the smaller, local languages in Taiwan within the© David Pendery 3

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