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Becoming Taiwanese

Memories and identities have proved surprisingly adaptable in a society forged by migration

Klaus Neumann Books 18 May 2021 2714 words

Surplus to requirements: these statues of the late Nationalist dictator and waishengren Chiang Kai-shek, in a park in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, are among hundreds that have been moved from their original locations in recent years. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

The Great Exodus from China: Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Modern Taiwan
By Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang | Cambridge University Press | £75.00 | 330 pages


On 15 May 1950, thirteen-year-old Jiang Sizhang became one of tens of millions of Chinese whose lives were turned upside down by the Chinese civil war. Born in a fishing village on Daishan Island, less than a hundred kilometres from the Chinese mainland at the southern end of Hangzhou Bay, he had been three when the island was occupied by the Japanese. All that he recalled changing when they left in 1945 was that the school stopped teaching Japanese.

On the mainland, though, the departure of Japanese forces had allowed the civil war to resume between Chinese Communist Party forces and the army of the Republic of China, led by the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. The fighting was still a long way from Daishan Island, but eventually the war would have a major impact on the island.

When Communist troops captured Nanjing, the Chinese capital, in April 1949, the Nationalist forces retreated initially to Guangzhou and eventually to Taiwan. During the months after Mao Zedong announced the creation of the People’s Republic of China on 21 September, hundreds of thousands of refugees and defeated Kuomintang soldiers arrived on Daishan and other Zhoushan islands. They made the islanders work for them, confiscated food and assaulted islander women.

By May 1950, though, the islands were no longer safe from the forces of the People’s Republic, and the Kuomintang prepared to leave. On that fateful day, the fifteenth of the month, Jiang and two of his classmates encountered a group of Kuomintang soldiers, who abducted them. The three boys were among 13,521 male Zhoushan islanders press-ganged into military service and taken to Taiwan.

Jiang had little choice but to serve in the Kuomintang army in Taiwan. He would later remember his service as a form of slavery. Once, he tried to escape, but he was caught and sentenced to three years in prison. It was not until 1982, inspired by the 1977 American television miniseries Roots, that he sneaked back into China. He reunited with his parents on Daishan Island, but he did so only as a visitor, and never returned permanently to his native island.

The title of Jiang Sizhang’s memoir, published in 2008, translates as “Nostalgia: Diasporic Displacement, Memory and Grief of a ‘Mainlander.’” The quote marks around “mainlander” are significant. Jiang, the abducted Daishan Islander who now considers himself at home in Taiwan, is one of the protagonists of Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang’s outstanding book The Great Exodus from China, which examines what it means to be a “mainlander,” or waishengren.


“Taiwan,” in the words of Sydney University’s Salvatore Babones, “has a messy history of invasion, occupation, colonisation, refuge, and intermarriage.” The history he is talking about began in the seventeenth century, when Hokkien- and Hakka-speaking Hoklo and Hakka settlers from coastal southeastern China began displacing the island’s Indigenous population, and Taiwan became part of the Chinese empire. After the Japanese replaced the Qing emperors as Taiwan’s colonial masters in the late nineteenth century, they set about Japanising the island and its inhabitants. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese moved to Taiwan; rebellions, by both Indigenous and Chinese Taiwanese, were brutally put down.

After the Japanese were defeated at the end of the second world war, the Kuomintang took over control of Taiwan. As far as most Hoklo and Hakka were concerned, the departure of one coloniser meant only the arrival of another. When the local population revolted against the Kuomintang government in 1947, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the director-general of the Kuomintang and the undisputed leader of the Republic of China, despatched troops to Taiwan. Thousands of Taiwanese were killed in the “228 Incident” (so-named because the massacre took place on 28 February).

Two years later, the Kuomintang were defeated by the Chinese Communists on the mainland. About a million mainlanders then either fled, were evacuated or were forcibly taken to Taiwan. They joined tens of thousands of refugees and Kuomintang personnel who had moved to Taiwan before 1949. Chiang Kai-shek’s government set up shop in Taipei, declaring it the “provisional capital” of the Republic of China. The Nationalist government’s imposition of martial law on 19 May 1949 initiated the “White Terror,” thirty-eight years of Kuomintang dictatorship. The island’s Nationalist rulers also embarked on the (re)Sinicisation of the islands and its inhabitants.

The influx of Chinese in the late 1940s left Taiwan with four distinct ethnic groups: the island’s Indigenous inhabitants (the yuanzhumin), who today comprise about 2 per cent of the population; the Hoklo and Hakka (referred to jointly as benshengren, meaning “people of the local province”), who between them make up about 85 per cent of islanders; and waishengren (“people from outside of the province”), the mainlanders who arrived after the Kuomintang was driven from the mainland, and their descendants. As long as Chiang Kai-shek was alive, waishengren ruled supreme. After his son Chiang Ching-kuo took over in 1975, the Kuomintang slowly relinquished some of its power and the waishengren’s supremacy gradually eroded.

Once martial law was lifted in July 1987, a process of democratisation began alongside a “localisation” of politics and society. A greater emphasis on a distinct Taiwanese identity naturally privileged the ethnic groups with longer ties to the island. Taiwan’s first direct presidential elections were held in 1996. Four years later, the Taiwanese elected their first non-Kuomintang president. In 2016, the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen, of Hakka and yuanzhumin descent, won the presidential race, and her party won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections — the first time that the Kuomintang had lost the majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s legislature.

Taiwan, once the country notorious for spending the longest period under martial law, had become a model representative democracy. In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s most recent Democracy Index, it ranks first in Asia, and eleventh globally, ahead of longstanding democracies including Britain, the United States and Switzerland.


For many of Taiwan’s waishengren, democratisation also meant the loss of the privileges they had enjoyed under the Kuomintang dictatorship. Taiwanese-born Canadian historian Yang traces a series of traumas experienced by waishengren in and on their way to Taiwan, and explores the malleability of their social memories and identities. Drawing on interviews, published memoirs and archival sources, he shows how people who once thought of themselves as exiles — and who were convinced that they would soon be able to return to mainland China — became Taiwanese. “[W]hat we are witnessing in contemporary Taiwan,” he writes, “is a paradoxical case of diasporic narratives/memories being used for an anti-diaspora purpose to claim a local identity — turning the concept of diaspora on its head.”

The Great Exodus from China begins with the arrival of waishengren in Taiwan, in itself a complex story. Some of the newcomers were military and government officials who were ordered to move to Taiwan with their families when the island became the last Nationalist stronghold. Some were civilian refugees who anticipated retribution at the hands of the victorious Communists. Others, like Jiang Sizhang, ended up in Taiwan against their will.

For some, the exodus out of China was an orderly and well-prepared departure; for others it was a risky escape. In January 1949, the ocean liner Pacific sailed from Shanghai towards the Taiwanese port of Keelung. It carried about a thousand refugees and was dangerously overloaded. A few hours out of Shanghai, it collided with a cargo ship. Only thirty-six of its passengers and crew survived, rescued by an Australian warship, the Warramunga, that happened to be in the area.

While the departure from mainland China was traumatic for many of the refugees and exiles, their arrival was no less traumatic for those already in Taiwan. “The great exodus disrupted normal social life and transformed living conditions on the island,” Yang writes. “A floating male population, many of them defeated soldiers and traumatised army abductees, contributed to a rise in the frequency of robberies, rapes, and other violent crimes — crimes that terrified the native Taiwanese.” The refugees were at once invaders and colonisers, taking what wasn’t theirs because they had the support of the Nationalist regime. “Displaced people from China with political clout forcibly displaced local people in Taiwan with little clout,” Yang notes.

But the mainlanders hadn’t come to stay. Taiwan was meant to be merely a temporary refuge. After all, the civil war hadn’t ended in 1949 (skirmishes would indeed continue for many years); soon, they thought, the Nationalist army would launch a successful counteroffensive, and then they would all return to mainland China.

It was only in 1958, after the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, that waishengren began to doubt that they would ever go home. In return for US assistance, the Americans had forced Chiang Kai-shek to publicly renounce the use of military force as the primary means of reconquering mainland China.

Yang calls the effect of those doubts the “social trauma of the diminishing hope (for return)”: “When the displaced waishengren thought they might not be able to return home in their lifetimes — and never again see the parents, grandparents, spouses, siblings, and children they had left behind, let alone resume the lives they once knew or be buried in a communal graveyard with their ancestors — intense feelings of loss, disorientation, and depression began to set in.” They had thought of themselves as sojourners, but now they became “reluctant migrants.”

From the 1980s, though, mainlanders were at least able to visit their home towns and villages. Jiang Sizhang, for example, entered China via Hong Kong with the help of a fake identity in 1982. Afterwards, he and other former soldiers formed the Veterans’ Homebound Movement to lobby for an opening of the border. Their efforts effectively forced the hand of the generalissimo’s successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, who in October 1987 “lifted the ban on residents in ‘Free China’ traveling to the ‘communist bandit territory’ of mainland China.” This decision, which was not the “logical corollary to the larger democratisation process” but the outcome of pressure on the regime by disenfranchised veterans, was perhaps as momentous for the future of Taiwan as the lifting of martial law had been three months earlier.

The government’s announcement resulted in what the Taiwanese media called the “visiting relatives fever.” Hundreds of thousands of waishengren travelled to the mainland, Yang reports, seeking to “rekindle old feelings of home: warmth, affection, and a sense of belonging.” For most of them, though, visits “home” turned out to be hugely disappointing. They couldn’t reconcile what they saw with their memories, and were confronted by greedy kin who expected the long-lost relatives from comparatively affluent Taiwan to shower them with gifts. They returned to Taiwan “physically exhausted and emotionally drained — many of [them] only with the clothes on their back,” Yang writes. “It was a déjà vu all over à la 1949. In a seemingly bizarre historical coincidence, elderly former exiles arrived back in Taiwan not too differently from how they first set foot on the island nearly half a century ago.”

Only a small minority decided to move back to the mainland for good, and even many of those decided to live with other former exiles rather than their own kin. As disappointed waishengren realised that their destiny lay in Taiwan rather than on the mainland, they began to remember their own past differently. Where once they had identified as people from particular home provinces and native places on the mainland, now they began to think of themselves as waishengren who had in common the traumatic experience of the great postwar exodus. They mobilised memories that had previously been publicly suppressed.

The waishengren were partly responding to how, during Taiwan’s democratisation and localisation, the formerly repressed majority of the population were increasingly treating them as remnants of the Nationalist dictatorship. “Behind the exilic/diasporic narratives is an autochthonous claim to a Taiwan-based identity,” writes Yang, “an identity that resists, negotiates, and at the same time, adapts to the rising trend of Taiwanisation and Taiwanese nationalism following democratisation.”

Would the trend of Taiwanisation necessarily pit waishengren against benshengren? As much as anything, “Taiwanese” identity had been an outcome of the Japanese occupation of the island. Hakka and Hoklo were presumably able to bury any differences they had when they found themselves at the receiving end of Japanese discrimination (before 1945) and mainlanders’ discrimination (after 1945). So far, the threat posed by Communist China seems not to have turned loyalist mainlanders against separatist islanders, as Beijing hoped; on the contrary, China’s increasingly blatant attempts to interfere in Taiwan’s affairs may have aided the Taiwanisation of the island’s entire population.


The Great Exodus from China is a carefully researched, intellectually ambitious and thoughtful history. Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang cast his net wide in terms of both source material and the academic disciplines that informed his analysis. In the process, he throws fresh light on wider issues: the meaning of diaspora and exile, and how trauma persists and is used by people — particularly those who have been forcibly displaced — to form their identities. His observations also apply to aspects of other histories and contexts, not least that of Palestine/Israel.

The book is also an empathetic, and at times moving, history of waishengren’s multiple traumas and their memory- and history-making. In the epilogue he confides that he began his research “being rather unsympathetic and sceptical of waishengren’s trauma.” Yang himself was born to Hakka and Hoklo parents; one of his grandparents had been imprisoned by the Nationalist regime for having served in the Japanese army, and a grand-uncle had been executed by Chiang Kai-shek’s troops during the 228 Incident. “[T]he traumatic experiences I am writing about are not my grandparents’ or parents’ experiences; rather they belong to people who had wronged and injured my family,” Yang notes, as if he too was surprised.

“How can we bring people with dissimilar pasts and incompatible historical memories together?” he asks. The Great Exodus from China is a plea for a “mending [of] fences between mnemonic communities wrapped in the aggrieved, self-righteous, or sublime ambience of their own historical wounds,” as well as an exemplary attempt at understanding. Mutual recognition of the strictures of identity and memory-making would go a long way towards reconciling communities at loggerheads with each other. Such recognition would entail an empathetic listening to others’ grievances and histories, but also a self-critical awareness of how one’s own narratives are used to justify injustices, lay claim to illegitimate possessions, and denigrate others.

In “a land of fantasy,” Yang writes, such a mutual listening would also be possible between those living in the People’s Republic of China and those in Taiwan. A mutual listening could help deconstruct the memories undergirding territorial claims and identities. It might acknowledge that the Chinese Communist Party’s One China Policy, according to which Taiwan is a breakaway province that needs to be reincorporated into China, is itself the outcome of China’s “powerful victim consciousness”: the existence of an independent Taiwan is a permanent reminder of the “century of humiliation” in which China was invaded and divided by foreign powers.

Back in the world we inhabit, US admiral Philip Davidson told the Senate armed services committee in March that China was poised to invade Taiwan as soon as six years from now. A couple of weeks later, John Aquilino, the US admiral who was recently appointed to lead the US Indo-Pacific Command, refused to be drawn on that time frame, but he was no less alarmist: “My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think.” Arkansas Republican senator Tom Cotton even suggested that China might act immediately after the Beijing Winter Olympic Games in February next year, in the same way that Russia invaded the Crimea four days after the conclusion of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The United States and their allies have their own geopolitical rationales, of course, for deterring China from swallowing Taiwan (as they had their own reasons for recognising the Communist government as the only legitimate representative of the Chinese people and agreeing to Taiwan’s expulsion from the United Nations in 1971). In the world we inhabit, the fact that Taiwan is a vibrant democracy counts for little. The attempts of Taiwanese — waishengren, benshengren and yuanzhumin — to work through their messy histories of invasion, occupation, colonisation, refuge and intermarriage count for even less. •

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Aiming small: treasurer Josh Frydenberg during his post-budget Press Club address at Parliament House last Wednesday. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Aiming small: treasurer Josh Frydenberg during his post-budget Press Club address at Parliament House last Wednesday. Lukas Coch/AAP Image