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Taiwanese Film Stirs Romantic Nationalism

“Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale” is a new Taiwanese film about an aboriginal revolt against Japanese overlords in the 1930s. It’s violent (the Economist says “its violence is disturbing to the extreme”) but apparently historically accurate as these things go. And, much more importantly, it is stirring deep nationalist pride in Taiwan:

In 1930 hundreds of Taiwan’s Seediq people living in the central uplands, oppressed and exploited by the Japanese and believing their culture was being destroyed, revolted against their overlords with scant hope of success…The rebellion’s leader, Mouna Rudao, is still seen as a folk hero by many Taiwanese…

Its message of a unique, empowering Taiwanese identity is unmistakable, and the main reason for its popularity. No Chinese is spoken in the film. Rather, only Seediq and Japanese are used, with Chinese subtitles. Both Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, and Tsai Ing-wen, his challenger in next year’s election, set aside their sniping to sit down to a screening together.

This type of movie, done well, can inspire whole societies with nationalist pride, reinforce the prominence of folk heroes (including, quite often, violent ones), and strengthen a people’s togetherness at the expense of foreigners. For Taiwan, that could be a dangerous recipe.

The enemy in the film is Japan but its popularity in Taiwan has generated scorn in China. Critics “have noted its ‘provincialism’, a slur that mainlanders usually reserve for Taiwan’s independence movement”. It’s part of simmering tension between the island and mainland China that may increase during the months leading to Taiwan’s presidential election in January. Just yesterday, opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen, speaking at Harvard, said:

Externally, the greatest challenge to our democracy comes from across the Strait…In recent elections, the Chinese government has exerted influence on Taiwan’s elections to compel their desired outcome.

Ms. Tsai and the incumbent, President Ma Ying-jeou, were dead even in the polls, according to a recent survey. Were she elected, Ms. Tsai’s anti-China sentiment would undermine the recent warming of relations between Taiwin and the mainland overseen by Mr. Ma’s administration. As the FT notes, “since Mr Ma took office in 2008, Beijing and Taipei have signed a historic trade deal, opened the island to growing numbers of Chinese tourists, and held frequent talks”. Ms. Tsai’s rhetoric is not popular with the Obama administration. After meeting with her, several officials told the FT that she left them with “distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-strait relations”.

But Ms. Tsai’s popularity, combined with the enthusiasm generated by “Warriors of the Rainbow”, shows that much of Taiwanese society harbors anti-China feelings despite the recent political and economic rapprochement. Tension in east Asia is never a good thing, and this particular conflict has thankfully been very quiet in recent years. That may not always be the case, however, especially as China continues to clash with its neighbors in the sharpening contest for regional primacy.

Here’s a scenario to chew on: the mainland economy slows as Taiwanese nationalism grows.  Not a pretty prospect — but not an unlikely one, either.  In bad economic times Beijing would feel the need to play the nationalism card, just as a Taiwanese government was looking for ways to assert its distinct identity.  Just what American foreign policy does not need: another world hotspot.

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  • peter38a

    “This type of movie, done well, can inspire whole societies with nationalist pride, reinforce the prominence of folk heroes (including, quite often, violent ones), and strengthen a people’s togetherness at the expense of foreigners”

    Dr. Mead I believe you have put your finger on the reason for Hollywood’s disinclination to produce cowboy movies. If only we would, culturally speaking, order them to “fill your hand.” And of course we can by not paying for the clap-trap they produce.

    Tsai? Some nice parallels with Churchill don’t you think? He thought it better to die as a free people than live like slaves.

    And by-the-by, main land China; isn’t this the regime that goes to bed each night wondering if they will awaken to another poisoning of the countries children, or collapse of buildings from shoddy cement, finding that this finally was the last rice grain on the camel’s back? Wars seldom turn out as the initiator believe they will so the real question is just how much “war” can the mainland paradigm take before it trembles and, look out aunt Sally, tumbles to the ground.

  • St0815

    Strange idea this “warming of relations”. What does it consist of? Is China reducing the military build-up against Taiwan? Reducing the number of missiles it’s targeting on the island? Relinquishing claims against Taiwan’s territorial integrity? Stop blocking Taiwan from joining international organizations?

    It does nothing of the sort, it makes increasingly aggressive territorial claims against all of its neighbors and supports some of the most evil regimes in Asia (like North Korea and Burma).

    And now Tsai stating that China has exerted influence over Taiwanese elections counts as “aggressive rhetoric”? It’s plainly true, certainly it must be possible to complain about this in an election campaign if another country puts on pressure regarding the outcome? What precisely is aggressive about that?

    Tsai makes no claims to Chinese territory, does not want to attack China, does not even want to formalize the de-facto independence of her own country. And *that* already counts as being aggressive.

  • HYM

    @ 2. St0815,

    what a load of [stuff with which I disagree]. read your own words again. stop using lies to attack others.

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