Study explores the ‘Kinmen Identity’
By Trista di Genova, The China Post
July 11, 2007, 12:00 am TWN
The history of Taiwan’s outlying Kinmen Island, known in the West as Quemoy, goes back 1600 years. When the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan after the Chinese civil war of 1949, the battles didn’t stop there for the residents of Kinmen. The island became the frontline for further battles such as the Quemoy Incident in 1958 between the communists in mainland China and the Republic of China on Taiwan until 1979, and a Cold War zone for another two decades. It has only been in the past seven years that the “three mini-links” re-opened transit and communication between the two.
A recent study published in the academic journal Intercultural Communication Studies by Professor Wei Jian-feng at the National Kinmen Institute of Technology attempts to demystify the complex forces behind the cultural identity of Kinmen’s people.
Wei conducted in-depth interviews of five male and five female Kinmen residents, aged 26 to 47, and based his work on the premise that “cultural identities have both subjective and ascribed meanings.” He holds that Kinmen residents’ ascribed sense of “Chineseness” was first constructed by the Kuomintang’s “back to China” ideal, through education and propaganda, during a time when China symbolized “a common cultural heritage” and a future united China was sought.
What would seem to be paradoxical, he wrote, is that “most of the interviewees identified with being jin-men ren (people of Kinmen), min-nan ren (people of southern Min, or Fujian Province), or Chinese, but not Taiwanese, whereas they all identified with being citizens of the ROC.”
As Wei explains, for four decades, Kinmen’s people could not visit nearby Xiamen or the PRC, but they could visit or study in Taiwan, traveling by military ship.
After 1949, when the people of Kinmen lived in a war-zone atmosphere, “they couldn’t and didn’t develop a real avowal identity,” Wei writes. In other words, identity became something more obscure, an ascribed identity. As one physician pointed out, “I couldn’t go to the mainland at that time, but I had a strong feeling (“ganqing”) for Chinese history and geography. The culture of mainland China attracts me.”
This explains why several interviewees avowed a national identity with the ROC rather than a regional identity with Taiwan. As one interviewee pointed out: “I don’t identify with the word ‘Taiwan.’ The ‘Republic of China’ has more meaning for us, because I think Taiwan is included in the ROC.”
In the 1980s, the PRC’s military confrontation was replaced with detente, Taiwan began to withdraw troops, and Taiwan’s independence and “de-Sinicization” movement grew in strength. With these changes, Kinmen’s people grew concerned about being marginalized, and that “Taiwan didn’t identify with Kinmen.”
Said one Kinmen interviewee, “We had been ruled under martial law. We made sacrifices because of the war. Our government doesn’t pay attention to us.”
Another responded, “Some people say that Xiamen is a marginalized city, Taiwan is a marginalized place in the world, and Kinmen is a marginalized part of Taiwan.”
When the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2000, many Kinmenese opposed Taiwan’s independence for fear that Kinmen would someday be cut off from it.
But from 1992, Wei writes, the newly activated business, tourism and other sectors helped the Kinmenese forge a positive new cultural identification, an avowed identity, as “the interaction with others (is) one factor in developing the self.”
Seven out of 10 interviewees had traveled to China via the “three mini-links” and expressed a stronger sense of “Chineseness” than the other interviewees. And being overlooked compelled them to find a point of balance between the two shores of the Taiwan Strait, Wei wrote; they leaned toward China psychologically. One respondent who’d visited China and France wished to “be Chinese,” albeit “like in the case of Hong Kong or under the ‘One China, two systems’ model, or others.”
Others described the benefits of being Chinese while traveling abroad, saw “nothing wrong with being Chinese,” and after visiting, felt it was their “homeland.”
Others acknowledged similar cultural roots, but identified more with being Taiwanese, because “Taiwan is more democratic,” “there are more civil rights,” and “now we are ruled by Taiwan.”
Other Kinmenese voice a sentiment of localization, stressing the desire to protect the island’s culture and heritage, and “After living in Taiwan for some time, I find I love the traditional culture in Kinmen.”
“Under the impact of globalization,” Wei concludes, “residents of Quemoy have developed their own specific cultural identity, which circumscribes both a strong sense of being culturally Chinese, while not involving a political or national identification with China or the PRC.”
The Kinmen identity is dynamic, but “never stable and ever-changing,” he writes, and recommended stronger economic interaction with both China and Taiwan, “whether or not the cross-strait political tension continues.”