Saturday, 19 February 2011

A "land-locked" island?



Is Taiwan a culturally "land-locked" island? Hsia Li Ming, a professor at NTTU's Institute of Regional and Policy development thinks so. Whilst there will be many whose views on this will be largely decided by whether they are for or against independence for Taiwan*, I think he has a point even if, leaving the independence issue to one side, you view it only from the point of view of culture and geography.

Taiwan's population largely lives in the west of the country, facing the mainland**, with the beautiful Pacific-facing east coast only sparsely populated. Taiwan's mountainous terrain (the mountains of central Taiwan are Asia's second tallest next to the Himalayas) means that you don't have to go far from the sea for it to seem as if it were hundreds of miles away.

In my home country, the UK, everything - road, rail, ancient fortifications, canals, the orientation of streets and houses - seems directed towards the seas. The sea-front is the heart of a seaside town, and people living further inland do not hesitate to head off to the beach on a public holiday (presuming it is sunny).

In Taiwan, on the other hand, the impact of the sea is not felt in the designs of even the large ports like Gaoxiong. Hsia's description of (beautiful) Taidong as being a city which is geographically next to the sea but unconnected to it matches my own impression of the place.

Outside of Kending, the Penghu islands and a couple of other locations, the beaches rarely draw crowds, and a large percentage of people cannot even swim. Whilst Taiwan is a relatively small island compared to the UK, its people have a more distrusting attitude towards the ocean than people in the UK, and you will rarely meet anyone who has been to sea.

Given the centrality of the Pacific Ocean to Taiwan's economy and history, I think Hsia is correct that Taiwanese should develop a better understanding of and familiarity with the sea around it. Though some particularly mainland-oriented observers may disagree, Taiwan is a Pacific society, and it should start to act like one.

*One thing I rarely ever see discussed on pro-independence forums is the actual importance of independence for Taiwan per se rather than the mere avoidance of conquest by a mainland currently dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. Perhaps the necessity for a more ocean-oriented culture might be an example of this?

**Nowadays my independence-oriented Taiwan friends rag on me for using this word to refer to the territory currently controlled by the CCP. Guys, when I lived in Taiwan, this is what everyone - pro-independence or not - called it, but now you want to change things up? This seems like a form of political correctness to me. At any rate, it's also useful for distinguishing Hong Kong and Macao from the territory controlled by the CCP before 1997, so I'm not going to stop using it.

[Video: Green Island Serenade by US-born pianist and singer Vienna Teng, a traditional song sung on Taiwan and a favourite of mine when I first started to learn Chinese because of its simplicity]

3 comments:

MKL said...

I think Keelung is a city that's most connected to the ocean of all Taiwanese cities.

Miles said...

The fact that most Taiwanese cannot swim is mind-boggling. Living in Taipei, it'd be easy enough to believe the ocean was 1000km away. You're spot on with this post.
As a diver, though, I was fascinated to actually see how large and active the Taiwan diving community is. Like so much of China and Taiwan, smaller social sub-groups can exist pretty much unknown to the average noodle-slurper.

Michael Turton said...

Another term I've heard people use is "mainland culture." The Taiwanese act culturally as though they live only on land, on a mainland, instead of on an island. Their main god is an earth god and they worship big trees. They farm. Unlike England they never had their own navy and their own trade policies; always the recipient of other people's colonialism.

The DPP has strongly emphasized the island's pacific ocean status in many of its pronouncements and policies -- such as setting up a pacific democracies forum. Ordinary people may not think about the ocean much, but policymakers constantly intersect Taiwan's global fishing presence.

Michael