Liu Yan Chun grew up in Taiwan firmly believing that her family would someday go back to mainland China. It took most of her life to realize that there would be no triumphant return, as envisioned by the Nationalists when they retreated to Taiwan after defeat by the Chinese Communists in 1949. It took her longer still to realize that she had no desire to return.
While the world's attention has been riveted on dramatic change in mainland China, Taiwan has undergone a cultural revolution of its own. In the last decade, enthusiasm here for “reuniting” the Chinese people has waned, even among some of its original proponents. Taiwanese people have redefined themselves, embracing a blend of Chinese, local and foreign ideas and prompting change in education, music, art and, most of all, in politics.
For the first time in 50 years, Taiwan’s leaders have been forced to discuss the long-taboo topic of independence.
The Nationalist era
For most of the last five decades, Taiwan lived under the martial law of the Nationalist (Kuomingtang) leadership. Exiled mainlanders controlled the government and families of Nationalist soldiers grew up in their own communities, separate from the indigenous population.
Such was the case for Liu, 54, who came to Taiwan with her parents when she was just four years old. Like other Nationalist military families, her parents never settled down and bought property. They rented housing because they saw their time in Taiwan as temporary. All her life, Liu was told that the Communists were bandits who stole the motherland. She understood that eventually the bandits would be defeated.
It would be many years before Liu realized that outside her protected environs were people who deeply resented Nationalist rule, people who did not consider themselves Chinese. This opinion was unheard, because the government controlled the press, and native Taiwanese were excluded from prominent government jobs.
The government also waged a silent purge of dissent. By some estimates, 25,000-30,000 people were spirited away and executed for expressing their political views. Thousands of others were imprisoned.
But hopes for reunification faded when the United States recognized China and cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1978. Increasingly, the old guard soldiers admitted that there would be no military retaking of the mainland.
“When my father got old, he told me there would be no chance to go back, that he would be buried in Taiwan,” Liu recalled. “But he never said the reasons, so I didn’t understand why would couldn’t go back.”
That separate feeling
It was in the 1980s that Liu began to see things differently, influenced in part by her son, Sau Lee Chung, a college student in Taiwan during a time of growing unhappiness with government corruption and repression. “Taiwan self-determination” also was a strong undercurrent.
But for her son, the idea of a “Chinese nation” - nurtured in him by exiled parents and grandparents - was turned on its head when he went off to study in Canada.
“I began to realize that modern nations weren’t based on the blood of the people, but are based on the common future of the people, the common interest of the people,” Sau said. “They’re not based on race, on skin color.”
This was a radical change of thinking for the time - independence was not even discussed openly until around 1992.
Taiwan’s political culture didn’t radically change until the early 1990s, when political agitation finally broke the Nationalist lock on the government. After the first free presidential elections in 1996, Taiwanese began to assert themselves, electing Lee Teng-hui as the first native-born president of Taiwan.
In the meantime, Sau sent a letter home to his mother. On the envelope, instead of addressing it Republic of China (ROC), he wrote: “Republic of Taiwan.”
“I was scared to death,” said Liu, who feared government retribution aimed at her and her other children still in Taiwan.
For Liu, her dreams of returning to the mainland ended only after travel restrictions were lifted and she finally had a chance to go to China in person.
“When I was landing in Beijing, I was feeling that I had finally come back to my country, but after being there for three months, I felt that Taiwan was my real home,” she said.
Now she and her son are members of the Democratic Progressive Party, which openly advocates independence from China, despite the threat of reprisals by Beijing.