Editor’s note: William Hahn (Tweet embedWriter and lawyer. His book, From Wall to Water, will be released in September. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
On the first day of March when my father passed away, I went to visit my grandparents’ final resting place at the Wuzhi Mountain Military Cemetery outside Taipei.
It was partly because I was in Taiwan, where I was born and raised, while my dad was in New Zealand, where my family moved in the ’90s. There was nothing I could do about the pandemic travel restrictions that kept me from standing by him.
But I also went to the cemetery out of the sense that I was a member of a dying dynasty.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine began recently. Images of young Ukrainians rushing to join the fight were fresh in my mind as I searched for the place where the ashes of my ancestors were buried. I can’t help but think that these Ukrainian teenagers were now doing exactly what my grandparents did when they were that age: in 1937, when news of the Japanese invasion of China reached their villages, both my grandparents left. Home to conscription into the Army of the Republic of China (ROC).
The Russian invasion sparked a wave of soul-searching in Taiwan. Just as Ukraine faces a much larger and more powerful neighbor seeking to accommodate it, so does Taiwan face the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which claims the island as its own.
And the Taiwanese wonder if war happened, would they be as brave as the Ukrainians? Will they fight for their homeland with the same strength?
Families like mine also think about the legacy of service left by our ancestors, which made us who we are. My grandparents’ choice to volunteer in World War II led to them taking the side of the Nationalist government or the Kuomintang (KMT) government against the Communists in the subsequent Chinese Civil War. The victory of the Communists and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the Chinese mainland in 1949 led to their emigration, primarily as refugees, to Taiwan under the auspices of the now-in-exile KMT government.
So my family became part of the ethnic minority in Taiwan known as “Waishengren”, meaning “people from outside the county”. The term contrasts with “benshengren,” “the people of this county,” referring to those descendants of Chinese settlers who arrived by 1895, when China ceded Taiwan to Japan at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War before taking it back again in 1945.
But Waishengren’s identity is about to fade. The death of my father, like the death of my grandparents a few years ago, brought us close to extinction.
The Waishengren have always been a minority in Taiwan: it is estimated that they are less than 12% of Taiwan’s population. After mass immigration in 1949, they took control of the government of the Republic of China, mainly being members of the military or KMT officials and their families.
The KMT then ran an authoritarian regime until managing a gradual transition to full democracy in the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, the persecuted Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is in power, and the KMT is the largest opposition party. More representative of the majority of Penchengreens who feel little connection to the land of their distant ancestors, the DPP is seen as favoring de jure independence from China. Western media often seem to sympathize with this end of the Taiwanese political spectrum.
In return, my father would occasionally say to me: “Son, don’t forget that we are Chinese.” To pass on to true believers like him, the Republic of China must be the legitimate government of all of China, and we are its rightful heirs. The tragedy for him is that this dream of the republic died in 1949. At this late date, there is no realistic chance of reviving it.
Demography wasn’t on my father’s side. As the 1949 generation was mostly dead, and as the second generation of Weichengreen progressed, young people naturally had less and less attachment to China. It doesn’t help that the People’s Republic of China continues on its authoritarian path while Taiwanese pride themselves on their democracy.
A poll published this week by the Center for the Study of Elections, National Chengqi University, shows 63.7% of Taiwanese now identify as only Taiwanese, up from 17.6% in 1992. And only 2.4% now identify as Chinese only, down from 25.5% in the same time frame. And 30.4% today consider both Taiwanese and Chinese.
Little by little, the DPP government is building a Taiwanese identity distinct from the Chinese.
Particularly annoying for Waishengren is the DPP’s “de-Sinicization” policy in education. A new curriculum, implemented in 2019, removes thousands of years of Chinese history and literature. The curriculum reclassifies Chinese history as part of “East Asian history” rather than the history of our country. It skips entire epochs like the Three Kingdoms and fails to mention historical figures who were quite basic knowledge.
The tales of youthful ignorance shocked the Weichengreen parents. Sparking public controversy, a Taiwanese writer recently reported that her teenage daughter and her classmates don’t know Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the republic.
Another controversy arose over the daughter of Teri Gu, a prominent Taiwanese businessman, who was allegedly unaware of the Song Dynasty national hero Yu Fei. A household name in generations past and traditionally considered a model of service to the country, Yue Fei was probably on my grandparents’ minds when they set out.
I would like the Taiwanese government to reverse course on de-Sinization, but I’m not holding my breath. Over time, as younger generations become increasingly educated under the new symbols, the type of Washingrin who insist on their Chinese cultural identity will cease to exist. This kind of wishengren like my family.
The kind of Waishengren who pride themselves on the valor and patriotism of their fathers and grandfathers, Americans celebrate the “Greatest Generation” that stormed the shores of Normandy, while the British speak proudly of their ancestors who served in the Battle of Britain, and Ukrainians today are proud of their brave defenders.
Once upon a time there was a dream called the Republic of China. It was a dream for which my grandparents were willing to give their last full devotion.
It remains to be seen whether today’s nascent Taiwanese nation-builders will be equally willing to sacrifice for their ideals, when the time comes to pay. It remains to be seen whether the Taiwanese will hold together in the event of war, and now some may still love the lost republic while others are trying to create a new one.
My father always remembers the legacy of my grandparents. I too will always remember her – even if our memories can’t eventually live forever. We will rage on the dying light.