HOUSE AROUND THE CORNER
by Rip Rense
Originally published in The Rense Retort in 1999, this column won first place out of 25,000 entries in a Taiwan essay contest sponsored by the Taiwan government.
Imagine you have a big fight with your quarrelsome family, and get kicked out. Actually, you flee in fear of your life, and take up with friends in a house around the corner.
Years pass. You are accepted by your friends' family. You have children. They grow up as part of your friends' family, too. You prosper, there in the house around the corner, while your former family struggles, continuing its acrimonious ways.
One day, your former family proclaims to the community that you are still part of their family. What's more, your friends, your now-grown children and your friends' children are also part of your former family. Finally, the house around the corner and all your assets -- your children's assets, and your friends' assets -- all belong to the former family, too.
What? That's nuts, you tell your former family. I'm my own person. My children and friends have their own lives. The house around the corner was here before I got here. I was done with you years ago!
So your former family buys a lot of guns and announces that it's going to take you, your children, your friends, the house, and all your possessions, by force. That if you don't go along with it, you'll all be murdered.
This is more or less what is happening with China and Taiwan. The communists and nationalists fought, and in 1949, the nationalists headed for the house around the corner. The little island of Taiwan.
To say it is more complex than that, of course, is like saying Napoleon was ever-so-slightly ambitious. Chiang Kai-shek, who took refuge in Taiwan with his Kuomintang army, certainly had a hand in tying the whole Gordian Knot of 20th century China problems. Also, it is a matter of record that the Kuomintang army, on arrival, used brutal force to prevent uprisings by native Taiwanese.
Still, Chiang's record is downright humanitarian -- even saintly -- compared to the atrocities committed by the communist regime in China; the millions murdered, starved, tortured, brainwashed in the last 70 or 80 years. Chiang -- and more important, his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (CCK) -- saw to it that the house around the corner grew into a freedom-based, thriving economic powerhouse. CCK repealed the last vestiges of martial law in the 80s, anointed Taiwan-born Lee Teng-hui as his successor, and paved the way for the democracy that exists there today.
All of which is to say that China really has as much claim on Taiwan as New Delhi has on Jerry's Deli. As New Mexico has on the old one. As Roseanne has on Rosie O'Donnell. As Madonna has on The Madonna.
Sure, once upon a time, the Manchu Qing Dynasty wielded tentative authority over the island, but that went out with bound feet and queues. The Portugese, who named the place "Isla Formosa" ("Beautiful Island") in the 16th century, might just as well assert territorial rights as modern Beijing. Or the Dutch, who ruled for 40 years of the 17th century. Or the Japanese, who ran it as a police state from 1895 through 1945. Might as well give the Taiwan aborigines a shot; their descendants still live rudely in the mountains, or work grunt-jobs in the cities.
Taiwan, in short, belongs to the people who live there. End of story. It is not a "renegade province" of China. This is a different country, with a different government, different lifestyle, different history, different dialect. From its earliest history, it has been a haven for disenfranchised peoples from the mainland: the Hakkas escaping prosecution in Guangdong; Koxinga and the Mings thumbing their noses at the Manchus, etc.
Today, Taiwan is the world's 13th largest trading partner -- a buoyant capitalist society grown on the kind of ancient religious and Confucian cultural traditions that the mainland communists villainously sought to eradicate in the so-called "Cultural Revolution" of the 1960s. Taiwan is humiliating proof of Maoism's failure, despite having functioned as a kind of shadow-nation since the U.S. rapprochement with China in the 1970s.
In the current spate of articles about China/Taiwan tensions, there is much academic talk of Taiwan's value as a trading partner, scientific and technological innovator, and "good citizen" (Kosovo refugees received a whopping $300 million from Taiwan), but little about the island's ... personality. Perhaps I can address that aspect a little, having spent about a year, all told, in Taiwan -- the happy benefit of a failed attempt at matrimony.
I was given a "cook's tour" of the teardrop-shaped republic -- from rollicking Taipei in the north to subtropical Tainan in the south; from the perpetually drizzly seaport of Keelung to the perpetually sun-washed seaport of Kaohsiung. Trod delicately in the mountain bamboo groves of Hsitou, stood in the seaspray of the southernmost tip of the country Maopitou ("Cat's nose"), ignited New Year's Eve bottle rockets in the pastoral hamlet of Hsin-Pu. I studied Mandarin and tutored English in Taipei, gave a few lectures in high schools on the appreciation of classical music, and spent a good deal of time with the students of Fu-Jen Catholic University, where my then-wife taught. Ate in the best restaurants and the crudest street hawker grub-joints. ...
One thing I learned is that the beauty of "Beautiful Island" -- or any country -- is not in the surroundings.
Not that I was blind to Taiwan's flaws, to digress. Rather, I was almost blinded by them at first: the pollution, avaricious drive toward material wealth, status-consciousness, neglect of animals, often dreary architecture, and deafening, traffic-clogged streets. I was beaten up after a fender-bender and was treated condescendingly by bureaucrats. Yet all of these things -- most of which can be experienced on an average morning in Los Angeles -- were overshadowed by the spirit of the people. Easily.
In Mandarin, the term for this spirit is ren chingwei -- which more or less translates to "the flavor of human feelings." This defines Taiwan. Think enthusiasm. Whether it means singing, shopping for the best head of lettuce on a street market (or maybe even taking a swing at a fellow legislator), do it to the fullest. After a while, you can't see the gray dull buildings anymore, or the endless spring rains, or the gridlock, for all the ren chingwei.
I have never been in the presence of people more relentlessly optimistic, open-hearted, community-minded, family-oriented, achievement-driven, hard-working, inquisitive, hospitable. ... It's a saccharine cliché, but the whole country -- for all its goofy congressional fistfights, and the silly uneasiness between the native Taiwanese majority and the Chiang-era immigrant descendants -- pulses with a vivacious, familial joie de vivre. (Certainly compared to the tragically divisive USA.) This seemed especially true among high school and college kids, whom I found with their innocence and curiosity largely intact, untainted by morally ambiguous, intellectually bankrupt western pop culture.
What do Taiwan people want? I've had conversations with native Taiwanese (whose ancestors came mostly from the Fukien province of China, just across the Taiwan Strait, during the last 300 years); with descendants of those who fled the mainland in 1949, and with some old refugees from Chiang's retreat. I've spoken with doctors and university deans, students and merchants. Some were adamant that Taiwan should be declared independent, no matter the cost. Most felt it's best to let the economy speak for the country's independence, and not goad China into aggression. Many hoped for moderation in China's government leading to eventual reunification. But all said the same thing:
"In the end, we are all Chinese -- here, and in the mainland. Why is this happening?"
It's happening because Beijing wants Taiwan's wealth, because it doesn't like being shown up by the capitalists in the house around the corner, and because it wants to dominate Chinese Asia. Never mind that Taiwan has already invested billions in the mainland, and that travel and cultural exchange between the two countries is quite open.
Now Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, on the cusp of his departure from office (next spring), has shockingly changed his "one China, two systems" euphemistic ruse meant to appease Beijing. Suddenly, Lee is speaking the simple truth, that China and Taiwan are two "states." A dangerous posture, but also a bold one designed to give Taiwan increased stature. Good-faith capitulation to China has so far only weakened the Republic of China's unofficial, bastardized position in the international community.
As a result, the mainland is rattling its neutron bomb saber, of all things evil, and gearing up invasion "exercises." To attack and/or invade Taiwan would not only invite world war, but ironically would result in only short-term economic spoils for the troubled, overdrawn Beijing government. Yet both countries will only continue to prosper under current mutual investment. ...
China has an ancient, wretched history of instability and bloody in-fighting, and current conflicts only bolster the old argument that Chinese people are not capable of ruling themselves peacefully. A solid case can be made that Taiwan, in the last 50 years, is the finest example of peace (and certainly, democracy) in the history of China.
May it remain so.
And may the U.S. government---so daintily playing footsie with the volatile, hegemonic rulers of the mainland, treading a path between protecting investments in both nations---ensure that it remain so.
© 2002-2007 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.