State or State of Mind?

Despite another rejection by the UN and China's continuing hostility, Taiwan is determined to assert its own identity - and is using its colorful aboriginal tribes to help support its claim to independence.

Dror Mishani
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Dror Mishani

1. Why doesn't anyone wear a swim suit?

TAIPEI - It was early evening in the small Taiwanese coastal city of Hua-Lien. The sun had already begun its descent, but the heat and humidity were still unbearable. After a tiring trek in the hills, we had gone down to the sea in the hope of finding a bit of a breeze.

Even though it is on the Pacific Ocean, Hua-Lien has no boardwalk; the sea appears suddenly, at the end of a narrow, winding road, behind a neighborhood of low, neglected-looking houses. But the beach was far from deserted. Along the waterline, in a row a few hundred meters long, the city's residents stood facing the sea, as though to welcome the evening. A few of them skipped stones on the water, a fisherman cast a line into its depths, others sat on the carpet of small, smooth stones and gazed at the sea.

The evening fell slowly, and on the shore of Hua-Lien there is no light to illuminate it. No one entered the water. No one wore a bathing suit, despite the torrid heat, which made one long for an Israeli sharav. Here and there a child dipped his toes in the clear water and ran back to his parents; a girl rolled her pants up to her knees and let the waves wet her legs. Only a blond couple, tourists from the West, maybe Germans, lay on a towel in bathing suits, drying off in the last rays of the sun after a long swim.

When I tried to find out why the residents of a coastal city behave on the shore like Jerusalemites, and why on this highly developed and built-up island the beaches are dark, I was told that it was due to "the situation." Years of military government, which was lifted only in 1987, and the permanent threat of the great power across the sea, China, turned the beaches of Taiwan into the preserve of the navy and the coast guard. So there are few bathing beaches, and most of the residents do not know how to swim.

Sometimes you have to go a long way to see the extent to which politics can shape people.

2. Chinese or Taiwanese?

In fact, this was a trip to a country that doesn't exist.

Near the end of July, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon again rejected Taiwan's request to become a member of the organization. But maybe the word "again" is out of place here. For many years - since the General Assembly adopted Resolution 2758 in 1971, stipulating that China would be represented by the People's Republic of China, which was then under the rule of Mao Zedong, and not by the Republic of China, meaning Chiang Kai-shek's Taiwan, which had represented China in the world body until then - Taiwan has been trying unsuccessfully to re-enter the UN.

Until now, though, Taiwan formulated its application as a request to "return" under the name of "Republic of China." But this year the government of President Chen Shui-bian changed its policy. Instead of seeking readmittance, Taiwan for the first time asked "to join" the UN, as though to erase the island's tangled history and open a new chapter. By the same token, the request was to be admitted as "Taiwan" and not as the "Republic of China."

None of this helped in light of China's fierce opposition. From its point of view, Taiwan is not a country but a rebellious province, which one day will be reunited with China under the rule of the popular government that was established in its territory in 1949, after the Civil War.

Taiwan's hopes that in the year leading up to the Olympics in Beijing the world would be able to pressure the Chinese government have also been disappointed. The West is now fixated on the vast economic market that is developing in the People's Republic of China, and no one is even considering the possibility of angering the awakening giant. Not for the sake of the independence of a few million Taiwanese.

In fact, it is not clear whether there are any "Taiwanese," not even to the inhabitants of the island. A cartoon published in the Taipei Times after Ban's decision showed a representative of Taiwan standing next to the entry gate of the "UN Club." On the back of his neck were the letters ROC (Republic of China), but on his hat was the word "Taiwan." The gatekeeper stretches out his hand to the man and says, with an apologetic look, "How can I let you in when I don't know who you are?" That riveting question is also being asked by the residents of the island - which the Portuguese conquerors in the 17th century called "the beautiful island" (Formosa).

Until the end of the 1990s, the answer seemed clear. The ruling party of Chiang Kai-shek and his successors, the Kuomintang, pursued a "one China" policy. Their official position was that they were the legitimate government of China, and they therefore sought to emphasize the "Chinese-ness" of the island's residents. In fact, they come from different parts of China. They arrived from the mainland in great waves of migration in the 17th century, and later withdrew to it in the wake of the defeat in the Civil War. Less than a decade ago, surveys showed that more than 70 percent of the residents of Taiwan considered themselves "Chinese" and only 20 percent defined themselves as "Taiwanese."

Since then, however, and in particular since the political turnabout that occurred in Taiwan in 2000, which brought the Democratic Progressive Party to power, a major shift has occurred. The party, which seeks to advance Taiwan's independence cautiously and has so far failed in the international diplomatic arena, is making tremendous domestic efforts to forge a "Taiwanese" national identity that will justify the claim to independence. It seems to have had considerable success. Surveys conducted last year found that 63 percent of the island's residents defined themselves as "Taiwanese" and only 13 percent considered themselves Chinese.

How did such a big change in national identity occur within such a short time? How is it possible to transform 20 million Chinese into Taiwanese, especially now, when the Chinese market is opening to the West and the ideological differences that once differentiated republicans and communists are becoming blurred, and when the trade relations between China and Taiwan are increasing apace and businessmen go back and forth across the border, despite the lack of diplomatic recognition? Bizarrely, the answer has to do with a few tens of thousands of aborigines, who once fled from the Chinese into the hills and now are returning to the center of life on the island, even if mainly in museums and multicultural festivals.

3. Why are the aborigines coming down from the hills?

We could hear the drums even before we reached the town square in T'ai-Tung, another coastal city, south of Hua-Lien. The sounds came with a riot of colors: hundreds of children, many with their faces painted, wearing the traditional garb of the aboriginal tribes - Taiwan's original inhabitants. They were preparing for the big parade that concludes the "annual festival of native cultures," which was being held in T'ai-Tung for the ninth year.

The children were divided into groups, according to the number of aboriginal tribes that inhabited the island thousands of years ago, long before the arrival of the Chinese and the Europeans. Each tribe has its own symbol and colors, and each has its own group of young drummers, who are getting ready for the parade, which will start at 5 P.M. on the dot.

This festival is only one aspect of the revival of the aboriginal cultures of Taiwan in recent years. Images of their painted canoes can be found on every brochure that is handed out to encourage Western tourism. Aboriginal artists are invited to perform "traditional arts" in galleries and museums, and aboriginal restaurants serve distinctly non-Chinese food.

We, a small group of journalists from around the world who were invited to visit Taiwan in order to become acquainted with its culture and perhaps assist in marketing it, underwent an accelerated course in the richness of the native cultures. It began in the Museum of the Other Taiwan, which was opened in 1991 in Taipei, the capital, opposite the National Palace Museum of Taiwan (on which more below). On display there are the remnants of the life once led by the island's native people. The visitor will see spears and models of straw houses, fishing utensils and musical instruments, all described in English from the cultural perspective.

The story of the Europeans and the Chinese, who reached the island in the 17th century and sent the tribes from their coastal communities into the hills, eventually closing them into reservations as servants of the conquerors - who sometimes massacred them - is related in less detail.

In many ways, the aborigines and their culture now constitute a basis for the Taiwanese claim to independence. Through them, Taiwan has been recreating itself in recent years as a melting pot and a multicultural society. The government is encouraging the aborigines to come down from the hills and integrate into urban life, initiating programs to improve their economic situation, and trying to get them to preserve their languages. The tourist pamphlets now even list Austronesian languages among the languages spoken in the country.

But at the T'ai-Tung festival, at least, I could not find anyone who could speak them - neither the children nor the parents. The latter said with embarrassed smiles that their grandparents still spoke those languages, but not their parents.

The parade got under way at 5 on the dot, with all the pent-up tension of the children channeled into a monotonous drumming of earsplitting intensity. One of the groups of drummers was led enthusiastically by an American instructor, and at the head of the convoy, the girls' dance instructor, a woman from Brazil, danced on the roof of a tall vehicle.

An hour later, when the parade returned to the town square, the children were worn out from the heat and the prolonged drumming. But with their last remaining strength, all the little drummers united for one final and truly ecstatic session, lasting for 10 minutes. By the time it ended, the traditional tribal symbols that were painted on their faces had been washed away by perspiration.

4. What is the world's smallest Holocaust museum doing here?

The next day, in the lovely city of Tainan, where the ships of the Dutch fleets first anchored in the 17th century, the mayor, Xu Tian-cai, opened the conversation with us by declaring, "Taiwan is a multicultural state."

A member of the Democratic Party, the mayor's position on the issue of Taiwan's independence is far more clear-cut than that of the government his party heads: "President Chen must insist on independence," he says, "even contrary to the position of the United States. Taiwan has to be independent, because more and more of its people recognize themselves as Taiwanese."

He attributes the shift in the perception of national identity among Taiwan's residents to the opening of the gates between China and Taiwan and to the fact that many Taiwanese visit China "and see the difference," but also to the fact that "the government has undertaken activity to reveal the history and culture of Taiwan." Since the start of his term of office, he adds, he himself has succeeded in bringing 2,200 aborigines back from the hills to the city.

Joe Cho, whom I met by chance in Tainan later that day, is not one of those aborigines, but is certainly living proof of multiculturalism, or of the odd forms that history sometimes fashions from the term "identity," which has become such a hot topic of discussion in the West of late.

Paster Joe, or Cho Chu-an (his Chinese name), was born more than 80 years ago in Tainan Province to an aboriginal family from the Siraya tribe, which inhabited the region where Tainan is now located before the arrival of the Dutch. His father was a convert to Christianity, which was imported to Taiwan via the ships from Europe, and he intended his son for the clergy. It was the period of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, and Joe was sent to Osaka to study at the seminary of Father Takaji Otzoki, an ardent admirer of Israel and the Jews. According to Joe, he prophesied in 1938 that within 10 years Israel would become an independent state and that its establishment would bring closer the coming of the Messiah.

After returning to Taiwan, Joe established a small church in Tainan Province and paid regular visits to Israel. Like his spiritual mentor, he, too, believes that tranquillity will come into the world only when peace comes to Israel.

In 1998, with divine inspiration he says, Joe decided that in order to hasten the process he had to establish a Holocaust museum in Tainan. For three years, he and his son Alex, also a pastor, worked on the project, visiting the Holocaust museums at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and in the States, and refusing to accept help from anyone. The museum was opened in 2002 and, Alex says with pride, it is "the smallest Holocaust museum in the world."

The museum is located on the second floor, above the Cho family's church, which contains not one image of Jesus ("We believe in Hashem," he says suddenly in Hebrew, referring to God as "The Name," as many religious Jews do) but has an Israeli flag flying at the entrance.

This is undoubtedly the world's most unique Holocaust museum. In a structure that resembles a residential apartment, a Taiwanese family of aboriginal ancestry has established an independent museum, without means, almost without visitors, with photographs and documents gleaned from a variety of courses, though mainly from acquaintances and Internet sites.

On the walls of the stairwell that leads from the church to the museum hang dozens of photographs of "Jews in Europe before the Holocaust." In the center of the living room are a television set, a DVD player and a stereo system. Alex screened images from the March of the Living, held in Poland, and played "Going to Caesarea," with words by Hannah Senesz. In the corner is a small souvenir shop where the visitor can buy books and pamphlets as well as original porcelain vases on whose underside the word Holocaust is inscribed in English and Mandarin.

From the living room we went through a hall to six rooms, each of which is dedicated to a different subject, such as Hitler taking control of Germany, the extermination camps, and children in the Holocaust. Joe and Alex collected most of the items - like small-scale models of piles of eyeglasses and shoes, or heaps of bones - from acquaintances. They made others themselves. The exhibits are protected by glass frames.

Among all these replicated objects one item stood out. No other Holocaust museum in the world has it, and it's unlikely that any of them would agree to take it: the Nazi Party uniform worn by Dr. Friedrich Weber, Hitler's close friend and his accomplice in the 1923 "beer hall putsch." Joe came into possession of this distinctive exhibit by chance. He met Weber's grandson - who married a Taiwanese woman, left Germany and settled in Taipei - at music lessons and became friends with him. A year and a half later, the grandson told the about his family past and agreed to contribute the uniform and his grandfather's pin, as well as an original photograph showing Weber and Hitler.

The last room, in which Alex usually concludes his guided tours (mainly for teachers who agree to visit the site) is a kind of prayer room. In its center, on a glass stand, is a child's shoe, and beneath it a yellow patch with the word "Juif" on it - the only items in the museum, he says, which he agreed to accept from Yad Vashem. The stand is encircled by barbed wire, and Alex asks the guests to kneel and say a prayer for the peace of the Jews and Israel and the world.

Explaining his deep ties to Israel and Holocaust, Alex said, "God chose the Jews to act as a model. The Jews dispersed and forgot their land, and through the Holocaust God reminded the gentiles: If you do this, you will be punished like the Chosen People."

Through the museum and this story, is he also relating something about aboriginal history, about the history of Taiwan? He says he is: "We, too, had a holocaust and exile and conquest. And now we do not have independence. The Jews are our model."

He then introduced his son, a youngster whose face exuded shyness. In two years, after he completes his theological studies at university, Alex hopes to send him to Jerusalem to study Hebrew and Talmud. His name is David, and in another two years the Taiwanese of aboriginal origin who will come to the church with the flag of Israel hoisted over it will refer to him, in Mandarin, as the "priest David."

In addition to all this, Alex told me afterward, in the car, there is another connection between Israel and Taiwan: Tainan is the twin city of Ra'anana.

Why it's worth visiting Taiwan even for one day

In 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek and his followers fled to Taiwan, they took two things of value: works of art and cooks.

The cooks were the personal chefs of the Chinese noble families that fled the Communists. In the Taiwan of the 1950s and the 1960s, when the economic situation was not as brilliant as it is today, many of them were fired and opened restaurants. Of course, many of them are no longer alive, but their recipes and their disciples are still here. That is why Taiwan has the best Chinese food in the world, and that's a fact.

The art works, in contrast, are all still very much alive; they are concentrated in the National Palace Museum, which was reopened a few years ago in one of the most beautiful areas of Taipei, on the slope of a hilly forest. This is probably the world's most controversial museum. China claims ownership of the hundreds of thousands of artworks that were brought from the mainland, which constitute the most comprehensive collection of ancient and modern Chinese art - and Beijing wants it back. For this reason, Taiwanese rarely lend collections to museums elsewhere and in recent years have done so only after the host country makes a firm commitment to return the works to Taipei.

Because of its vast scale, only 1 percent of the collection is on display at any one time in the huge museum; but three of the items are never replaced, and rightly so: they are unforgettable works of art. All three were created in the period of the Ch'ing Dynasty - that is, after the 17th century - and they are unsigned. None of them was fashioned as a "work of art" but as decoration for the palaces of the emperors in the Forbidden City. The first, entitled "Banded Jasper Resembling a Slab of Meat," is a life-size agate sculpture of a slice of steak, with a thin layer of fat and still thinner layer of skin. The second work is a "jadeite cabbage" fashioned from jade, glistening white below, dark green above, with a greenish insect crawling across it and seeming to nibble at its edge. The Taiwanese say that the cabbage and the insect are full of ancient Chinese symbolism, but to Western eyes these are two works that apprehend life and art in a manner that cannot be verbalized. It is hard to take one's eyes off them.

The third work is a painting, "Along the River during take out Ch'ing-ming Festival," done by court painters in the 18th century. The painting is only 35 centimeters high - but is 11.5 meters long. Its aim is to capture a moment of life in a frame that the cinema cannot even dream of and which could not be imagined by the European novel at its height.

For this is a divine frame - there is no other word for it. Thousands of miniature figures live their lives in it, thousands of stories unfold simultaneously: a wedding, a play, a martial arts competition, a parade, two people conversing, a kiosk being painted, a person on a swing, people eating in a restaurant, a painter painting. The vie wer would have to walk the length of this painting for years to see it all, to observe all the stories it tells. Years of observation to see all the people and a single moment of their lives. And it cannot be done. Perhaps this is the best way to end these notes from a journey.

(The works described above and others can be viewed at the National Palace Museum Web site: - under "Collection" click "Selections," then "Jade," "Curios" and "Painting.") W



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