Those of you who know your Japanese feudal history (that is, not many) may have heard of the following story.
A little bird had once perched itself on a branch of a tree in a Japanese courtyard. The courtyard was part of a monastery, and three men dressed in elaborately embroidered robes were in the monastery that day, accompanied by an elder monk well-schooled in Zen. All four men saw the bird.
"Honorable lords, Fate has it that this bird has come today to visit this humble shrine and grace us with its presence. Shall we stand here and listen to it sing?" asked the elder monk.
"It would be an honour," said one of the men.
"Very well," said the monk. Then he paused and looked at the visitors, before continuing. "But what if the bird will not sing?"
"Then kill it," said one of the three men. His name was Oda Nobunaga.
"Make the bird want to sing," said the second man, who was Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
The third man, Tokugawa Ieyasu, smiled gently and said, "Wait." gambitch [
Sunday, November 14, 2004
I don't quite consider myself a staunch supporter of the great journalistic institution known to us all as the gutter press. However, from time to time, I do spend the odd half-dollar or so to buy myself a copy of newspapers that carry stories that are sometimes so ridiculous, they prove that truth can be stranger than fiction. Unlike some of my stiff-collared acquaintances, I am very much a T-shirt and cheap slippers man much of the time, and I do like to keep some tabs on what exactly is going on among the ordinary citizenry (of which I am glad to say I am a part).
Of course, such keen interest in these things occasionally make me the target of some good, playful taunting and teasing among friends, who keep trying to egg me on into realizing my remote but not altogether absent political aspirations. (No, I am not running for public office. No hurry there.) But I don't find reading common-man press a chore, because it can lead to some very amusing insights. For example, a very colourful friend used to joke that over here, it is very easy for the common man to make it to the front page of the newspapers. All you have to do is call the news hotline for these particular papers and tell whoever is answering the call that (a) you are an undergraduate at one of the major universities here (there aren't many of them) and (b) you are gay. Which isn't that big a deal to many of us who are below 30 (and a good number of us who are above 30). Yet for some reason it can make front page headlines. That says something about our society, and it's things like these that amuse me.
Anyway, back to gutter press news.
A new socio-political controversy has come to the fore in Taiwan (which isn't that amazing, actually). A couple of people in its Examination Yuan, a body which I think deals with education and examinations in schools islandwide, have recently been trying to push through a change in history syllabus organization. There is some muttering about taking recent Chinese history (loosely defined as starting from the Qing Dynasty) out of the section known as national history and classifying it under general Asian history. This isn't new; in fact I think I have blogged my little bit of commentary about it before. What is newer is that some pretty big figureheads in this Examination Yuan have come out and said that Sun Yat-sen was a foreigner and thus not the spiritual father of the country. (Taiwan considers itself a country, and despite all official recognition of the One China Principle, most of the world do regard the island as a de facto country - they just don't say it as such.)
Now that latest statement has whipped up quite a furore, to put it mildly. Many people have stood up in protest and labelled the Examination Yuan head and another couple of politicians as 'criminals' and 'traitors'. The Examination Yuan head has since softened his stance a little by acknowledging that Sun was "a great man" and should be respected in the same way as Gandhi, without fussing about his nationality. The statement was not enough, however, to stop irate Taiwanese from demanding his dismissal.
For the unfamiliar in Chinese history, Sun Yat-sen was the man behind the 1911 Revolution that knocked most of the stuffing out of the heavily weakened Qing Government. The two main political products of this event were the Republic of China, that would replace the Qing Dynasty, and the Nationalist Party, better known as the Kuomintang (KMT). For the most part, the KMT ran the Chinese government for the next thirty-odd years, until World War II came along. In-fighting among the Chinese, split between the nationalists and the communists, who were introduced to Marxism-Leninism, was briefly put aside to unite everyone against Japan, but the end of that war only meant that normal service was resumed. Finally the KMT government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled south to Taiwan island, where they vowed to base themselves in an effort to fight back and reclaim China.
The gist of it is that, prior to democratization in the last decade or so, the inhabitants of Taiwan regarded themselves as the only Chinese territory still in KMT hands. Right up to the Chiang Ching-kuo era, the island was under martial law. Eventually these were relaxed and people gradually led better lives, as work was done to build the economy and infrastructure. The political changes were, however, something else. Yet all this while everybody in Taiwan recognized Sun Yat-sen as the father of their country. (For balance, everyone in the mainland also felt, and still feel, the same way. Sun Yat-sen is held in great regard, no less than Mao Zedong certainly.)
In a manner consistent with the way the Chinese traditionally think, the links between party and state have been very tightly-knit until the recent past. The Taiwanese flag is, uncoincidentally, the same as the KMT party flag, the "dark blue sky and white sun on a mass of red". Major venues all over the island, including schools, carried the portrait of Sun Yat-sen, and just as Ben Franklin and George Washington grace the bills of the US, Chiang Kai-shek's face can be found on Taiwanese notes as well. Until the cleverly-engineered victory of Chen Shui-bian in the 2000 presidential elections, the KMT were rulers of Taiwan, and very proud of it. (In fact, I have once stayed in a youth hostel run by the KMT youth wing.)
All this is by way of saying that the historical ties between Taiwan island and the amorphous socio-politico-cultural entity that is China are too firmly and closely linked for the average Taiwanese to swallow the claim that Sun Yat-sen was a foreigner. Even if Taiwan were to achieve independence from China (a feat that, given who they're dealing with, is nigh-on impossible) it is incredible to think that the significant historical contributions of Sun can be killed off just like that. Taiwan as a political entity cannot forget its KMT origins, because like it or not, this is their history.
I'm not exactly non-committal about the whole idea of Taiwanese independence. Frankly, I think China and Taiwan are both stuck. China may thump its chest and have justification in its claim for the island, based on historical and cultural factors. But the truth is that it lost its chance to settle the issue once and for all fifty years ago. When the KMT fled across the Taiwan Straits, the communists should perhaps have just given chase and wiped them out decisively. That they didn't, and instead allowed Chiang Kai-shek and his two sons to run the island thereafter was an act of gross ineptitude. Taiwan has since prospered both economically and socially, and until Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin got serious about building up China's own coastal cities they were lagging hopelessly behind. Actually, even now, most of China is still lagging hopelessly behind. Capturing Taiwan would thus be a great economic coup, but that is partly why China's desire to reclaim Taiwan has been greeted by suspicion - getting a fat catch on the island's economy while supplanting its political system with what China has (which on all levels isn't really regarded as better) is not exactly an attractive offer. Just ask the Hong Kong folks.
Things don't look that much better for Taiwan. True, the KMT government has delivered in terms of giving people bread and a roof over their heads. Taiwanese people don't have to worry about staying alive, and they get lots of great television. And they can travel! (Taiwanese passports do get them around, even in countries that have no diplomatic ties with them.) If the government can provide all of these services and amenities, we'd usually think that it's running the country right. But the Republic of China brand doesn't sell very well; it has no chance to participate in the international community because pitifully few countries recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state. In fact, it gets so bad that it can't even be a WHO observer. Of course all of this is the work of the communist government running mainland China, but that's besides the point. Taiwan remains an international problem child, albeit one of a very different variety.
Whisper it softly in the company of pro-communist mainlanders, but Taiwan is a place that is a country in deed that can never be a country in name. Yet at the same time forcibly implementing a reunification timetable is a pipe dream that does not truly meet the aspirations of Taiwanese inhabitants. The Taiwanese aren't eager to follow the path of Hong Kong. They're in no hurry to have another Tung Chee Hwa and another set of Basic Law and its infamous Article 23. Ideologically, the two brothers separated by the straits have long gone on divergent paths.
It's not entirely impossible to envision them as separate states with great socio-cultural and economic interaction, being all buddy and chummy with each other. It is possible; Taiwanese businessmen already do business in China, and Taiwanese television has a huge number of shows that talk about "our cultural heritage" and "delicious Chinese fare". Heck, Zhao Wei shot to fame thanks to a Taiwanese period melodrama, and A*Mei used to endorse soft drinks in China. There are opportunities.
The only problem with that kind of vision is getting there. The mainland is overly fixated on the grand cultural mission of reunification by any means necessary to even entertain any alternative. The DPP government in Taiwan meanwhile is in too much of a hurry to declare formal independence and get international leg room. And of course there's that man Lee Teng-hui, always willing and ready to stir up a storm. With players like these, it's no wonder they're all still deadlocked.
It's a sadly intractable problem, and its intractability lies in the fact that neither party is willing to admit the paradoxicality of the situation. China wants to break up what is a de facto country that hasn't really been failing the people. That can't be done, or at least not very well. Taiwan wants to break out of the Chinese siege and complete the formality of declaring independence. That too can't be done, or at least not very well. gambitch [