Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Why the name changes? Here's why.

Via The View From Taiwan, this excellent rundown on the rationale for renaming currently going on in Taiwan.

As part of this program, the Taiwanese government is pursuing a campaign to rename numerous state-controlled institutions. In 1949, when the Chinese Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war against the Communists and relocated the national government of the Republic of China to Taipei, they brought with them a host of the Republic’s state cultural, industrial and administrative organizations. These were maintained as a part of their forty year claim to be China’s legitimate government. The current government is removing these references to the Nationalists’ party-state and their legacy of nation-building on Taiwan in the name of China.

So China Post has been renamed Taiwan Post; the state China Petrochemical Company is now CPC, Taiwan; even the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, the grand square and monument to Taiwan’s former military strongman in central Taipei, has been renamed the Taiwan Democracy Memorial.

The naming issue is a cause of unease and a degree of confusion for the international community. The sharp response by the US State Department to the recent Taiwanese moves was modulated more by the Chinese reaction than a coherent position on the importance or otherwise of naming. Western governments generally have seemed to regard names as a rather eccentric preoccupation of the Chinese and Taiwanese, lying merely on the surface of their real regional geo-politics. The Chinese and Taiwanese, however,steeped in the intellectual heritage of Confucianism and its understanding of socio-political knowledge, have long understood the way names, and language generally, are the basis of politics and social structure. Naming defines the boundaries of power. In this, Confucius was something of a post-modernist, and two and a half thousand years later Western social theory has caught up in the work of writers such as Jacques Derrida.

The renaming program is just the most recent aspect in a campaign of post-authoritarian reckoning which has been going on in different forms for twenty years in Taiwan. The government is deploying the instruments of the state to redraw the boundaries of the island’s identity and history so that it is known as specifically Taiwanese. In so doing it consolidates the very basis of Taiwan’s political sovereignty.

The Taiwan that is being renamed by the government as “Taiwan” incorporates a distinctive island history. The received international shorthand for Taiwan’s history is to say that it “split from the mainland in 1949 at the end of the Chinese civil war”, but this is a very contingent and politicized reading. In Taiwan, a counter-narrative has been established over many decades which understands its history as a continuous narrative of its fraught location on the overlapping boundaries of the European, Manchu, Japanese and Chinese states which have ruled over it for four hundred years. Taiwan has an indigenous people who are Pacific islanders; its first modern government was a Dutch colonial administration in the 17th century, before being governed by the Manchu Qing dynasty until it became a colony of Japan in 1895. Taiwan was passed to the Chinese Republic in 1945 as part of an Allied agreement, and in 1947, the Taiwanese launched an uprising against Chinese Nationalist rule, which was brutally crushed. It was only then in 1949 that the national government of the Republic relocated to Taipei.


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