Editor’s note: William Han (@w_t_han) is a writer and lawyer. His book “Du mur à l’eau” will be published in September. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.
In early March, the day my father passed away, I went to visit my grandparents’ final resting place at Mount Wuzhi Military Cemetery, just outside Taipei.
It was partly because I was in Taiwan, the place of my birth and early childhood, while Dad was in New Zealand, where my family had moved in the 1990s. pandemic travel restrictions that prevented me from traveling to his side.
But I also went to the cemetery because I felt like I belonged to an endangered race.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine had just begun. Images of young Ukrainians rushing to join the fight were fresh in my mind as I searched for where my grandparents’ ashes were buried. I couldn’t help but think that these Ukrainian teenagers were now doing exactly what my grandparents were doing when they were that age: in 1937, when news of the Japanese invasion of China reached their respective villages , my two grandfathers and a grandmother left home to enlist in the army of the Republic of China (ROC).
The Russian invasion triggered a wave of soul-searching in Taiwan. Just as Ukraine faces a much larger and more powerful neighbor seeking to absorb it, Taiwan faces the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which claims the island as its own.
If war should break out, the Taiwanese wonder, will they be as brave as the Ukrainians have been? Will they fight for their country with such tenacity?
Families like mine also think of our ancestors’ legacy of service that made us who we are. My grandparents’ choice to volunteer in World War II led them to side with the Nationalist government or the Kuomintang (KMT) against the Communists in the Chinese Civil War that followed. The victory of the Communists and the establishment of the PRC on the Chinese mainland in 1949 then led to their migration, mainly as refugees, to Taiwan under the auspices of the KMT government now in exile.
That’s how my family became part of Taiwan’s ethnic minority known as ‘waishengren’, literally ‘out-of-province people’. The term contrasts with “benshengren”, “people of this province”, referring to the descendants of Chinese settlers who arrived in 1895, when China ceded Taiwan to Japan at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War before recovering it. again in 1945. .
But the waishengren identity is about to fade. The death of my father, like that of my grandparents a few years earlier, brought us that much closer to extinction.
The waishengren have always been a minority in Taiwan: it is estimated that they make up only 12% of the Taiwanese population. After the 1949 exodus, however, they dominated the ROC government, being mostly members of the military or KMT officials and their families.
The KMT then ruled an authoritarian regime until successfully achieving a gradual transition to full democracy in the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, the once persecuted Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is in power and the KMT is the largest opposition party. More representative of the Benshengren majority with little attachment to the land of their distant ancestors, the DPP is perceived as in favor of de jure independence from China. Western media often seem to sympathize with this end of the Taiwanese political spectrum.
On the other hand, my father said to me from time to time: “Son, don’t forget that we are Chinese. For true Waishengren believers like him, the ROC should be the legitimate government of all of China, and we are its legitimate heirs. The tragedy for him is that this dream of the Republic died in 1949. So late in history, there is no realistic chance of reviving it.
Demography was not on my father’s side. As the generation of 1949 has mostly died out, and with the aging of the second generation waischengren, young people naturally have less and less attachment to China. It doesn’t help that the PRC continues on its authoritarian path while Taiwanese have come to take pride in their democracy.
A public opinion survey released this week by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University shows that 63.7% of Taiwanese now identify only as Taiwanese, up from 17.6% in 1992. Only 2.4% now identify only as Chinese, up from 25.5% in the same timeframe. And 30.4% now identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese.
And, little by little, the DPP government is building a Taiwanese identity distinct from the Chinese.
The DPP’s policy of “de-sinizing” education is particularly troublesome for Waishengren. A new program, implemented in 2019, removes millennia of substance from Chinese history and literature. The curriculum reclassifies Chinese history as part of “East Asian history” rather than the history of our own country. It skips entire eras such as the Three Kingdoms and fails to mention historical figures that were once absolutely fundamental knowledge.
Anecdotes of young people’s ignorance shocked the Waishengren parents. Sparking public debate, a Taiwanese writer recently reported that his teenage daughter and her classmates did not know Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic.
Another controversy erupted over the daughter of Terry Gou, one of Taiwan’s most prominent businessmen, who was allegedly unaware of the existence of Song Dynasty national hero Yue Fei. A household name in generations past and traditionally considered the paragon of service to country, Yue Fei may well have been on my grandparents’ minds when they left.
I wish the Taiwanese government would change course on de-sinization, but I’m not holding my breath. In time, with the younger generations becoming more and more educated according to the new shibboleths, the kind of waishengren that insists on their Chinese cultural identity will cease to exist. Kind of waishengren like my family.
The kind of waishengren who are proud of the bravery and patriotism of their parents and grandparents, as Americans boast of “the greatest generation” who stormed the beaches of Normandy, as the British proudly speak of their great -parents who served in the Battle of Britain, while Ukrainians today are proud of their brave defenders.
Once upon a time there was a dream called the Republic of China. It was a dream for which my grandparents were ready to give their last full measure of devotion.
It remains to be seen whether, when the time comes, the builders of today’s nascent Taiwanese nation will also be willing to sacrifice themselves for their ideal. Whether the Taiwanese will stick together in the event of war remains to be seen, now that some of them may still love the lost Republic while others try to bring forth a new one.
My father always remembered the legacy of my grandparents. I too will always remember it – even if in the end our memories cannot live forever. We will rage against the death of light.