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The BBC's April 5, 2023 Is Taiwan in danger of being loved to death? includes the following:

Meanwhile the Communist Party of China has mounted its own charm offensive, by inviting President Tsai's predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, to tour the mainland.

Mr Ma went on an unprecedented five-city tour, ostensibly to pay homage to his ancestors. He has indeed visited their graves in central China. But the trip is also political. In fact, it's the first time a former president of Taiwan has ever been invited to the People's Republic of China since its founding in 1949.

"Beijing is trying to soften the tone towards Taiwan... winning more hearts and minds, and also avoiding a surge of Taiwanese nationalism during the [2024] presidential campaign," Mr Sung says.

Mr Ma's visit, he adds, provided the necessary "political cover" to do that.

When he landed in Nanjing last week, Mr Ma made a strikingly political speech: "The people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese. And both are descendants of the Yan and Yellow Emperors."

"Beijing is being nice to Ma Ying-jeou because he represents capitulation," Prof (William Stanton1, former director of the American Institute in Taiwan2) says. "He says 'we are all Chinese'. That's something he and the Chinese agree on, but it's not something the Taiwanese agree on."

The risk in Mr Ma's strategy is that more than 60% of Taiwan's residents, according to surveys, describe themselves as Taiwanese, and not Chinese.

The last sentence is an oversimplification of an oversimplification of a false choice; in my experience someone walking up to you in Taiwan and asking for a one word answer to "Are you Taiwanese or Chinese" is pretty much considered laughable either in its naivety, or its nature as a "trick question"3.

Nonetheless, 'we are all Chinese' would certainly be a heavily loaded statement for a former president of Taiwan to make (per Prof. Stanton's likely informed paraphrasing) in a speech in Nanjing as an invited guest of Beijing.

Question: What exactly did former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou say in his "strikingly political speech" in Nanjing? Is there a source with a reliable Mandarin to English translation that captures the necessary subtleties and nuances to understand what he really said in his whole speech?


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    It's worth noting the BBC is writing first for a UK audience which has a different understanding for questions of national identity than your US example. "Are you British or Scottish/Welsh?" is liable to lead to interesting arguments in Glasgow or Cardiff (and is on the census). "Are you British or Irish?" is liable to lead to violence in Belfast.
    – origimbo
    Apr 5, 2023 at 12:27
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    Political speeches are often intended to have multiple meanings and interpretations to different groups. It's optimistic to think there's a single pure meaning in anything politicians say. Given they often say different contradictory things to different groups at different times, it's probably not a good idea to rely on nuances in a single speech to work out what they really intend. Apr 6, 2023 at 12:54

2 Answers 2

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I'm Taiwanese.

The English translation is pretty accurate, there is no lost nuance between what Ma said in Mandarin and what you read in English.

I'm not quite sure what is confusing about this even in English.

The last sentence is an oversimplification of an oversimplification of a false choice

Not in the context of Taiwanese society. The identity of "Chinese" and "Taiwanese" comes with a whole set of political-orientation and self-belief which are in many cases opposite to each other.

  • If you identify as "Chinese", it means you believe forceful annexation of Taiwan is not only permissable, but inevitable. Your ethnic identity is your destiny, therefore your political orientation is more about "being" rather than "doing".

  • If you identify as "Taiwanese", it means you believe in some form of Taiwanese self-determination. Your social identity takes precedence before your ethnic identity, therefore your political orientation is more about "doing" rather than "being" - if you cease civic action then you cease to exist.

This diverging identity informs your view on other things as well, specifically democracy. A person who identifies as Chinese works within democratic system out of pragamtism, but not necessity. A person who identifies as Taiwanese has to anchor their identity within civic action, so democracy is required for their existence.

The comparison between "American" and "Irish" simply does not hold.

So what the survey said is true. At least 60% (last time I checked it was around 70%) of Taiwan citizens identify as "Taiwanese". What this means is that the vast majority of the population do not see their destiny in annexation, but in some form of Taiwanese self-determination. That's all it is.

Ma's speech is controversial because his position is already far outside the mainstream.

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    It's worth noting that English speakers may think of the word "Chinese" as referring to both a nationality and an ethnicity, so we imagine that if a Taiwanese person identifies nationally as Taiwanese, they may still identify ethnically as Chinese. But, in technical terms, the ethnicity is "Han", and "Chinese" is just a term of nationality. English speakers rarely use the term Han, but Mandarin speakers do. So I think Taiwanese people are likely to identify as Han regardless of their political beliefs; but identifying as Chinese is a statement of nationality.
    – T Hummus
    Apr 5, 2023 at 20:51
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    @THummus Thanks for pointing that out. It didn't occur to me that knowledge is uncommon in the anglo-sphere, I think that is why English speakers often get tripped over with these lingos. Apr 6, 2023 at 6:20
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    I think your description of identifying as Chinese is unnecessarily negative and restrictive. Someone who believes that mainland China and Taiwan should reunite peacefully, somewhat similar to East and West Germany could also self-identify as Chinese and might think that a forceful annexation is wrong at the same time.
    – quarague
    Apr 6, 2023 at 13:40
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    @jcaron I think the most accurate comparison is Ukraine-Russia. Ukrainians have their own distinct identity that is primarily about social history rather than ethnic history. You see the Putin regime frequently claiming Ukranians to be "Russians", which is used as a pretense for current annexation / genocide. At the end of the day, it's really just about democracy vs authoritarianism. Apr 6, 2023 at 14:49
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    @QuantumWalnut, I think it would be more accurate to say it's about right-wing liberals versus assorted opponents. The liberal is only "democratic" in the historical sense, where rich capitalists have voting weight according to wealth, and working people are disenfranchised.
    – Steve
    Apr 7, 2023 at 8:21
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His words was "兩岸人民同屬中華民族,都是炎黃子孫".

兩岸人民同屬中華民族 means "The people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese". I would say this is a rather standard translation.

炎黃子孫 may need some explanation more than just "descendants of the Yan and Yellow Emperors". I can't find a better one at the moment so I just cite the explanation from its wiki item

Descendants of Yan and Huang is a term that represents the Chinese people and refers to an ethnocultural identity based on a common ancestry associated with a mythological origin.

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