The Invisible Armada

The Ba Jia Jiang (Chinese: 八家將) originated from the Chinese folk beliefs and myths represent eight members of the godly realm that defend the Gods in Taiwanese folk activities. Photo by Juan Alberto Casado, all rights reserved

Keyword «desinicization»

By Alain Brossat

29 April 2021

Can one both drive unrelenting agitation around the motive of the "cultural genocide" in Xinjiang and play with the idea of a "disinicization" of Taiwan?

It would seem that the combination of the former and the latter does not pose any particular problem of coherence in this island of wonders, since it is placed at the service of the good cause - independence and the back turned once and for all to the Chinese mainland.

In an editorial translated from Chinese, published in the Taipei Times of April 21, elegantly entitled "China is enemy of the free world," this interesting phrase reads: "At the end of the Cold War, Taiwan underwent a process of gradual democratization and desinicization, consolidating its unique, distinctive native identity from China."

Highlighted here on the same level as that of democratization, the motive for "disinicization" is clearly connoted here in an entirely positive way: Taiwan, since the end of the Cold War, would have de-sinicized as it would have democratized, which would have been the double condition for affirming its own identity. What the promoters of what presents itself as a general observation but which is here only an incantation finds its echo in all kinds of very practical issues: the campaigns led by the government separatists and those who are active in doubling them on their left (or their right, we don't really know...) in favor of a rigorous Taiwanization of general education at all levels, especially in the disciplines where these issues are most sensitive - history, geography, literature, anthropology, etc. Taiwanization here means distinctly (in a country that is still called Republic of China...) the putting on hold of the teaching of Chinese history and civilization and the refocusing of these disciplines on Taiwan's past, especially before successive waves of ethnic Chinese from the mainland settled there - fewer focus is needed on Chinese dynasties, therefore, or not at all (who cares?); less (or not at all) of the history of Chinese civilization through its different eras has to be studied (who cares?), while more emphasis is put on the singularity of a Taiwanese history and civilization tailored and reterritorialized in a large space imagined, rather than rediscovered, of the Austronesian civilizations scattered throughout the Pacific. It is therefore a question of nothing less than reformating the narrative of the past of the supposed Taiwanese nation in order to bring it in line with the plans and hopes of its present rulers.

"Taiwanize," id est de-sinicizise the contents of the teachings, in a country where the vast majority of the population is Chinese, ethnically, linguistically and culturally, this is a matter of carrying out an operation visible to the naked eye: it will be a matter of cutting this population off from what, in a common vocabulary, is called "its roots" - with the aim of assigning it to other narratives, other knowledge, other references. This is in view of a reshaping of collective identities, in line with the political aims of the elites in power.

It is not necessary to have a particularly malicious mind to detect strong affinities between the general spirit that inspires this project of disinicization and the project denounced with fervor by those very same that advocate for disinicization in Taiwan: the one in Xinjiang, the attempt to sinicize by will or force a people of different tradition and culture.

The motive of disinization is, in this context, all the more contentious because it does not encounter any deep, let alone irreversible, tendency arising from the depths of Taiwanese society and rooted in the civilization of morals - in contrast to the froth of petty political calculations and epidermal sensitivities of the day. The Cold War editorial referred to here is found in a newspaper which, being in English and thus intended for an international audience, publishes day after day lunar prophecies informing readers of good and bad auspices: "it's a good day for: Ancestral offerings, Consecrations, Travelling, Planting crops - It's a bad day for Nothing" (this was said the same day as the editorial). I did not have the vice to go check if the recent day a very deadly train accident occurred in the east of the island (49 dead), the lunar prophecy of the day telling us if it was a good (or a bad) day for traveling...

More seriously, if there is one thing that jumps out at the Westerner who stays on the island for a long time and who does not have his eyes in his pocket, it is that he is in the Chinese world and that there is nothing to lend credence to the vulgar and superficial commonplace according to which the forms of Western-style modernisation would have the automatic corollary of the "disinicization" of morals. On the contrary, what is striking, whether in terms of morals, behaviour, belief systems, body usage or family life, is the extent to which the common base of Chinese culture remains, established over the longest of periods, beyond the reach of the effects of mimetic modernisation placed under Western hegemony. It is in the same Taipei Times where these sinophobic and eradicating insanities are given free rein that reports are also published on the pilgrimages during which a million people make a procession to the sea goddess Matsu...

What strikes in Taiwan (as in China for that matter...), is the extraordinary ability of Chinese culture to absorb the essential elements of Western material civilization, to appropriate them to the point of competing with the West in terms of industrial performance and technological innovation without being really shaken in its foundations. Those who, still plagued by their little calculations, imagine that they will advance by a millimetre the cause of "disinicization" by promoting English as the official "second language" in Taiwan will be at their expense. Bilingualism, and sometimes even trilingualism, already exists in Taiwan, which is more flourishing than ever before - but it is Chinese idioms that are here at issue. The rest is made up of the inconsistent musings of that unappealing breed of cultural renegades, and the voice of their master who, to be sure, is not at all Chinese...