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Imagined Taiwan

By David Pendery

Debates about nationality regularly swirl in Taiwan, revolving around thorny


notions of just what it is to be Taiwanese or Chinese (or a combination of the two),
and how these two ethnicities/nationalities should view and transact with one another.
Heavy migration from China to Taiwan, and substantial economic relations, have
deepened the associations that connect the peoples on the two sides of the Taiwanese
Strait, further complicating matters. At one lofty and very conflictive political and/or
cultural level, that some people question whether there even is a Taiwanese nation (an
independent nation, I should say) makes the issues that much more difficult to deal
with, while the looming colossus of China, the Chinese people and Chinese culture
casts its long shadow over every facet of these debates.
Languages are at the center of any examination of nations and nationalism, and
this is no different in Taiwan. Although Taiwan, like many countries, has a number of
languages spoken within its borders, most foreigners no doubt think first of Mandarin
Chinese when they think of Taiwan, and to be sure it is the most widespread language
in use here. But as anyone who lives here knows, at least two other languages, Hoklo
(Taiwanese) and Hakka must also be given strong credence (I will for the time being
bypass English in Taiwan, though to be sure it is important, as are other indigenous
languages). Benedict Anderson, in his classic study, Imagined Communities, provides
ideas that I think are applicable to Taiwan, focusing attention on languages and how
their circulation and reception in cultures and bodies politic is fundamental to the
development of cohesive nations and national consciousnesses.
What gives rise to the idea of nation, where before there was none? A number of
factors are at play, but perhaps the most important is the language of a people, and the
ways they use their language to represent their experience to themselves and others.
Anderson writes that the essence of any nation is its status as “an imagined political
community,” which is to say it is less an unchanging essence, than a mutable,
associative and very much invented fraternity that, by way of written and spoken

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language, evinces a “secular transformation of fatality [fate] into continuity,
contingency and meaning.”
Here we should note that it “is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that
certain nationalist ideologues treat them—as emblems of nation-ness…. Much the
most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined
communities, building in effect particular solidarities.” Any language, Anderson
posits, can contribute to the construction of imagined community. In this respect,
those who would perhaps like to minimize or even eliminate Mandarin in order to
elevate Hoklo or Hakka to the status of “national language”—the one and only
language that can represent the true identity of people in Taiwan—are barking up the
wrong tree.
The fact that Mandarin is the most widely-used language in Taiwan, particularly
by way of “print capitalism” and modern communications, no doubt establishes it as
the principal vehicle by which Taiwanese people “think about themselves, and…relate
themselves to others, in profoundly new ways.” In short, Mandarin (along with
various other languages in Taiwan) is capable of expressing and contending a given
Taiwanese national identity in necessarily contingent and imaginative ways.
This pragmatic view is important, and Anderson writes that it is “print
language…that invents nationalism, not a particular language per se,” and in turn it is
a community of “fellow readers” accessing the chief print language that forms “the
embryo of the nationally imagined community.” This print culture (in any country
teeming with competition/cooperation among different languages) creates “unified
fields of exchange and communication,” while also establishing “a new fixity to
language” which contributes to an “image of antiquity so central to the subjective idea
of the nation.” A nation’s print culture also gives rise to “languages-of-power,” which
are not the repressive regimes that some might expect, but are richly variegated fields,
“fragmented, pluralized, territorialized,” and essentially amenable to different
linguistic paradigms in a nation.
Taiwan is fortunate in the above respects, for as an advanced capitalist democracy
with a vibrant press and publishing field, it is in a good position to assert its national
aims and dreams—the imagined national community of Taiwan, and ultimately a
“memory of independence,” should that eventuate. The question becomes less which
language is predominant, than whether these aims and dreams are being coherently
and/or authentically expressed. The elevation of Taiwan’s native languages within the

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nation’s print culture would be a big challenge, and I suspect that such a development
would be slow and cumulative (a headlong, partisan thrust would no doubt do more
harm than good). The importance here is that emplacement in the print culture allows
for wider dissemination of ideas, affording more equality alongside more predominant
languages. Importantly, skilled, well-informed, worldly bilingual interpreters,
publishers, academics, and even popular spokespersons would be needed in these
processes, all performing “the unifying rites, interpreting to their respective
followings the meaning of their collective motion.”
All that we have been discussing is interesting in another respect, in that
Anderson writes how the diversity and spread of given subversive “vernaculars”
within imagined national communities leads definitively to the downfall of
“dynasties,” which have archaic conceptions of universal “script languages” with
“privileged access to ontological truth.” We might see here something of a description
of Chinese cultural attributes and beliefs—which the imagined community of the
Taiwanese nation could countermand. Of course China would object to the
developments discussed here—as many other nations have objected to the emergence
of national consciousnesses in countries in their ambit. Additionally, Taiwan’s
situation is problematized due to significant historical and political baggage, which
will make more assertive national development quite a bit more difficult.
Were we to see a greater presence of Hoklo and Hakka in Taiwanese newspapers
and literature, Taiwan’s “mother tongues” could go far toward asserting a unique
Taiwanese national consciousness. No doubt such a move would be knotty, not least
because of China’s opposition, but also because translation would be necessary and
we would inevitably be drawn back into the orbit of more prominent languages, such
as English and Chinese, as they performed roles as carriers of Taiwanese national
representation. This would seem to reverse the direction of the overall effort, but in
fact something of a continuum exists, and as noted less widespread dialects can
perform significant roles alongside more prominent languages, with the very
predominance of these languages allowing for greater visibility and potential impact.
Translation here, Anderson writes, becomes part of an overall process of
“venacularization…in alliance with print-capitalism,” which is essential to the
emergence of nations.
In sum, although it would be a challenge fraught with difficulty and conflict,
were we to see development of the smaller, local languages in Taiwan within the

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greater communications culture, they could ultimately play a significant role in
excavating a deeper, unique Taiwanese identity and nationality.

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