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Asian history European history Personal experiences

Civilizational swaggering in Free China in the 1980s

In the 1980s, people in Taiwan were still proud of their Chinese cultural heritage. Sometimes, I mentioned places in Europe which also have an impressive history, like Cyprus.

During my fist stay in Taiwan more than 30 years ago, most people still considered themselves part of what the Nationalist propaganda called Free China, as opposed to Red China, referring to the Chinese mainland occupied by communists bandits, which basically had destroyed China’s millennial culture.

This was reflected in the books that we used in class at the Mandarin Training Center in Taipei in the late 1980s. It emphasized on the long cultural tradition, of which all Chinese rightly can be proud of. In contrast, at the East Asian Institute in Berlin, where I had started to learn Mandarin, our books smelled of Cultural Revolution. We had to read stories about the good friendship between Han Chinese and Uighurs, the hospitality of Communist cadres in Mao uniforms, and good-hearted soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army who helped old ladies cross the street.

Notwithstanding that some of our teachers in Berlin admitted that all teaching material for beginners printed in Taiwan was much better at the time, for purely political reasons they wouldn’t use any of it. So in that aspect a completely different emphasis was quite refreshing for me and I warmly welcomed it. Sometimes though, I felt that they were overdoing it a bit. Especially, as it went hand in hand with a constant boasting about those 5000 years that Chinese culture had on its back.

When I got tired of too much civilizational swaggering, I just mentioned that a relatively small place like the Mediterranean island of Cyprus also looked back at roughly 3000 years of history. Alexander the Great used the experienced Cypriot fleet during his campaign into India. Ancient Greeks, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans and in modern times the British all have left traces there. As expected, people usually didn’t understand the point I was trying to make, as they had no idea where Cyprus is located. Unfortunately, according to my long experience as a language teacher for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan, that hasn’t changed much.

On the other hand, that’s not surprising since Taiwan and Cyprus severed diplomatic relations on January 12th 1972, after China and Cyprus had established them on December 14th 1971. Due to the One-China-Principle no dual recognition was possible, and that’s still the case. The Taiwan Trade Office established shortly afterwards closed on January 5th, 1991, and since then bilateral exchange has almost been non-existent.

Another curiosity was the occasional comparison between the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall. “What do Germany and China have in common? Both countries have a wall!” Of course, it had to be pointed out that the Chinese version could be seen from the Moon. Never mind that such a claim is nonsense and one of those myths that will probably live on forever in the hearts and minds of all Chinese nationalists.

Anyway, nobody in Taiwan would say something so absurd nowadays, and I don’t know if in China they ever did… Today, it’s almost exactly the opposite: too many Taiwanese try to deny their obvious Chinese roots because of Peking’s constant bullying and its stubborn denial of a distinct Taiwanese identity. Therefore, an adapted version of the Middle Way concept suggested by Buddhism is probably the best solution: one should be aware of the past without throwing it overboard for reasons related to the present.

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