TAINAN, TAIWAN — CHEN CHIH-SHANG'S mother is a native Taiwanese. His father came from the Chinese mainland.
Until Taiwan's recent presidential election, swept by incumbent Lee Teng-hui amid military threats from China, Mr. Chen says he never thought that much about his mixed parentage. Now, the factory worker in Tainan, Taiwan's oldest city and a stronghold of Taiwanese culture, says he regards himself as Taiwanese.
"Lee Teng-hui is the father of our country," says Chen.
A new Taiwanese identity, rooted in centuries of Chinese culture but refashioned by democracy and nascent nationalism, is taking shape. To the consternation of China, which claims the island as its own and vows to forcibly take it over if it declares independence, many in Taiwan draw parallels to the United States: descended culturally from the British but distinct.
In Taiwan, ethnicity is on the rise. During the years of autocratic domination by the mainland Nationalists, being an ethnic Taiwanese was considered inferior to the small, exiled mainlander elite. Taiwan's new political emergence is changing that and invigorating a cultural awareness, analysts here say.
About 15 percent of the island's 21 million people are mainlanders or descendants of recent emigres from China. After the Communist victory in 1949, General Chiang Kai-shek led his defeated Nationalist army across the narrow Taiwan Strait and asserted control over Taiwan.
The rest of the island's people, called ethnic Taiwanese, have ancestors who came from China's southern coast mainly after the 16th century. A third group, descendants of Taiwan's aboriginal people, live mostly in the mountains.
"What do we mean by the Taiwanese identity? It is a rediscovery of the history and lifestyle of Taiwan. We are becoming more competent and self-assertive," says Michael Hsiao, an ethnographer at the Academia Sinica research center in Taipei.
"The psyche of the people has really changed. There is the changing idea that we should appreciate the Taiwanese reality," he says. "We have emerged from Chinese culture and evolved into something different."
"China has made Taiwanese think more about ourselves," says Lee Tao who runs a popular TV talk show. "The Taiwanese people had to stand up sooner or later."
Culture gets a new lease on life
Taiwanese culture, politically repressed for decades and shaped by an onslaught of Western, especially US influence, is getting a new lease on life. After winning Taiwan in a war with China in 1895, Japan ruled the island with an iron fist until the end of World War II. With the arrival of the Nationalists in 1949, General Chiang pledged to retake the mainland from the Communists and reunite China, announced that he would tolerate no political opposition or cultural divergence from the official Chinese mainstream.
Democratic change since martial law was lifted in 1987 has given ethnic Taiwanese a new cultural voice intertwined with politics. After years of suppressing protest, the ruling Nationalists are being forced to deal with their legacy of brutality.
The education ministry is now rewriting history books to incorporate Taiwan's background as well as Chinese history. The Taiwanese language is expected to be made mandatory soon, along with the mainland Mandarin. Literature, which used to dwell on the Chinese civil war, is now featuring new themes. Aboriginal and folk music and dance is being rediscovered and universities now offer a whole range of courses in Taiwanese history and arts.
At the Green Peace Radio Station, once a pirate station run by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party but now government-licensed, political programming is being edged out by cultural features. "Before ... the government didn't let you talk about Taiwanese culture. They asked you to think about Chinese history," says Julie Liu, program manager.
"Along with democracy has come a revival of Taiwanese ethnicity," says Jean-Pierre Cobestan, director for the French Research Center on Contemporary China in Taipei. "They are also determined to preserve Taiwanese culture because it is under threat from internationalization and the West."
But some on the island worry that the new Taiwanese awareness is widening the ethnic divide. Increasingly, diehard mainlanders, those who favor reunification with China, feel sidelined politically. Mr. Lee, the president who is a native Taiwanese, retired many mainland veterans from the ruling party.
"For 5,000 years in China, there hasn't been a day without a battle. But at the end of the day, we are all still Chinese," Chiu Yu-tang, a retired government employee, said about the Chinese military tests in the run-up to the election. "In 30 years, when Taiwan and the mainland unite, China will be the most powerful nation on earth."
Taiwanese also worry that, despite their rousing election rejection of Chinese bellicosity, the mainland's determined nationalism will not go away. Since the election, China has silenced its threats while it rethinks Taiwan policy, and the Taiwanese government has made some overtures.
"I have met a lot of overseas mainland students. They can't even be rational about Taiwan," says Chieh Huang, who just returned from studying in the US. "Whether there is democracy or not, they think Taiwan is a part of China. Taiwan is theirs."
Cradle of Taiwanese culture
In Tainan, a modern city that has more than 200 ancient temples and is a symbol of cultural Taiwan, residents worry that the island's political evolution could also resharpen ethnic differences.
When architect Shen Kun-chih, a native Taiwanese, married his sweetheart, a mainland descendent, 25 years ago, there was great family uproar over the "mixed marriage." Now that the families are reconciled, he says, mainlanders and Taiwanese live side by side in peace. But he worries that the new politics could upset the ethnic equilibrium.
"Normally, there aren't really any differences," he says. "But the differences do come out at the time of elections."
Analysts predict that Taiwan's new identity will continue to grow. "Not many people here still agree that Taiwan will be part of the mainland. They consider themselves as Chinese probably, but they feel they are first Taiwanese," says Yves Nalet of China News Analysis, a China-watching newsletter based in Taipei. "What China has done for them is reaffirmed that they are Taiwanese first."