A Bear and a Complex Character: New Symbols of Taiwanese Patriotism?

Photo: J. Michael Cole / TNLI
Why you need to know

Symbols are essential to nationalism, and Taiwan will need more of those if it is to succeed in making the case for its continued existence as a distinct political entity on the international stage.

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Developments in China in recent years have showcased how expressions of patriotic or nationalistic fervor can spin out of control and cause apprehension in the region.

Several incidents in recent months, from online campaigns launched by the Communist Youth League against “separatist” performance artists to Beijing’s intransigent stance in the South China Sea dispute, stem from a deepening of the Chinese nationalism cultivated by the Chinese Communist Party and drilled into the minds and hearts of Chinese citizens from a very young age. Some would argue that the Chinese nationalism on display today, what with the many references to Han blood and militaristic undertones, is now approaching its much more worrying related cousin — fascism.

Across the Taiwan Strait, the liberal-democratic nation of Taiwan, which China regards as indivisibly part of its territory since time immemorial (nationalism again), has countered the overbearing Chinese narrative much more quietly. The overarching principle, of course, has been the desire of Taiwan’s 23 million people to maintain their way of life and political system by not being incorporated into China. Every day that this system is preserved constitutes a victory for Taiwanese nationalism.

However, while its way of life itself is a symbol distinguishing Taiwan from China, other, subtler forms by which to express the differences have emerged in recent years, mostly, I would argue, in reaction to the more strident forms of nationalism observed across the Strait and the perceived threat of Chinese encroachment. In other words, in some instances Taiwan has expressed its nationalism not by stating what it is, but rather by emphasizing what it is not, a classic case of narcissism of small differences.

Two expressions of that difference have caught my attention in recent years, and both were primarily meant to serve as a contrast.

The first is the much more frequent use of the complex first character for Taiwan. Increasingly, in advertisements, company names, on television and in official government documents, the character 臺 (tai) has been used instead of the more common simplified form known by all, 台. Taipei and other municipalities, such as Tainan and Taichung, have followed suit. Admittedly there is nothing scientific in this observation, but after more than a decade in Taiwan it is clear to me that the complex form of the character is used much more frequently today, to the point where it is almost ubiquitous. Small linguistic adjustments such as this one may not alter Taiwan’s status internationally, and may in fact confuse some people who do not immediately recognize the complex character, but they nevertheless speak volumes about self-perceptions: such acts emphasize a distinction — in Taiwan, we use complex characters.

The second symbol that has emerged, and which is also much more prominent today on television, ads and government events, is the Formosan Black Bear, which due to overdevelopment and neglect is now on the brink of extinction. As with the character 臺, there is no doubt that the emergence of that symbol was also a direct counter to the symbol that China has used with tremendous success in its global “soft power” efforts, the beloved (or reviled) panda. Indicatively, the celebration of the Formosan Black Bear seems to have coincided with the arrival in 2008 of two pandas — Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan — at the Taipei Zoo, a “goodwill” gift from China that, to many here, had unpalatable political undertones.

Since then, several trinkets, stuffed toys, key chains and mascots (e.g., V Air) have made their appearance at souvenir shops across the nation. Cartoon versions have also taken over the public imagination, including one in which the Formosan Black Bear is about to smash a foldable plastic chair on the head of a hapless panda. Although Taiwan doesn’t have an official national animal, if one were to be chosen today, surely that would be the Formosan Black Bear.

Symbols are essential to nationalism, and Taiwan will need more of those if it is to succeed in making the case for its continued existence as a distinct political entity on the international stage.


Edited by: Edward White

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