Always trust odd titles to reveal propaganda at work. The “Root and Spirit Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Exhibition,” an event hosted by the Chinese National Academy of Arts, opened in Taipei on Nov. 27, with some 230 Chinese treasures on display, including a giant loom, Peking Opera costumes, wedding sedans, miniature replicas of riverside villages and a wooden imperial palace entry pass. Also on offer is music to “teach” Taiwanese about their Chinese roots.
As if the music — and the free admission — weren’t clear enough proof that this whole thing is an exercise in Chinese propaganda, Tian Qing, an academy professor who manages the exhibit, said that while “the two sides come from the same roots,” Taiwan should be mindful of the cultural influences from outside the region, such as that from the US. (Sadly, in its coverage Reuters buys into that propaganda by referring to Taiwan as “ethnic Chinese.”)
With his comments, Tian, like many of the Chinese academics and retired officials who have been visiting Taiwan in the past few weeks, is highlighting his ignorance of the historical influences that have shaped Taiwanese identity over centuries. Under this Sino-centric view, Chinese roots are pure and immutable and intangible (e.g., the 5,000-years of history held as religious belief, “Han” Chinese and historical “one China”), while every other influence — in this case American, but to which we could certainly add Japanese — is external and a pollutant.
Despite Tian’s beliefs, Taiwanese need not be mindful of American cultural influence; the Taiwanese nation is an amalgam of cultures — Japanese, American, European, as a colonial subject, and yes, Chinese — and it is this what makes it unique, just as worthy of preservation as the artifacts Tian says should be protected. It is perfectly OK to embrace the “shared roots” of Chinese culture, but this should not be done in exclusion, or with the perception that other shaping influences are deleterious to a people’s identity. A failure to do this helps explain, for example, why China does not recognize ethnicity or Aboriginal groups — everybody is simply “Chinese.”
This zero-sum way of looking at Chinese “civilization” is at the very root of the problems that China is facing in regions like Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan, and represents an immense obstacle to conflict resolution. Unless the Chinese elite and academics come to see difference as something positive rather than a threat, we’re in for a long period of trouble in East Asia.