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The Emergence of the Concept of "Ethnic Group" in Taiwan and the Role of Taiwan's Austronesians in the Construction of Taiwanese Identity

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image of Historiography East and West

On March 12, 1996, the newly elected Taipei city mayor Chen Shuibian announced that the street in front of the president's palace in Taipei – "Long live Chiang Kai-shek Road" – had been renamed to "Ketagalan Avenue". The Ketagalan were one of the Aboriginal groups in Taiwan that had assimilated to Han society long before.

In his reflections on the structures of collective memory, Jan Assmann contends that after a period of 40 years the memory of a generation of people with shared experiences comes to a critical stage. After this period those who were witnesses of significant events as adults, gradually step out of professional life. When they die, their memory – or better, the "social frame" in which their memory was organized – vanishes, and certain aspects that have not been transformed into cultural memory yet may fall into – or may be left to – oblivion.

If we look at Taiwan, Taiwanese Han elites have showed tremendous efforts to reconstruct collective memory since the end of the 1980s – exactly those years when Mainlander elites' memory had begun to wither away and other memories had the chance to take over. The notion of "Taiwan's fate community" – a concept that was established by Taiwan's opposition party in 1989 – as well as the notion of "Taiwan's life community" put forward by the central figure of Taiwanese Nationalist Party (KMT) elites, Li Denghui, shortly afterwards – converged into a long-term community renaissance policy after 1992, which "in a time of national identity crisis in Taiwan had the main purpose to refocus people's identity on Taiwan and let the people's original collective memory reorganize and reappear". In this project, all communities in Taiwan – ethnic, rural and urban communities, most of which were either Hoklo, Hakka or Aboriginal – were asked to participate actively in local cultural life, to organize rites and festivals, and to engage in the preservation of local culture and the collection of oral history.

My article explores the role of Taiwan's Aborigines in this process of memory reconstruction in Taiwan since the lifting of martial law. The emergence of the notion of "ethnic group" in Taiwan and the construction of "the four great ethnic groups" were important steps in this endeavour. By shifting the focus away from the "Chinese nation" to distinct "cultural" and "ethnic groups", the framework in which people had forcibly organized their memory for forty years was broken up and newly arranged; though the new framework was not clearly articulated yet, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as well as KMT politicians conjured up the ethnic integration of the people in Taiwan, which would finally crystallize into either a "new arising nation" or into a "new Taiwanese" nation. In this process, Taiwan's Austronesians fulfilled an important role in political and historical as well as in cultural terms: not only could Taiwan's history now be backdated to a history of eight to ten thousand years, even longer than that of the mainland, but Taiwan's Austronesian heritage also served as a proof that Taiwan – in cultural and genetic terms – had its own particularity and was much more connected to the Pacific region than to any region to the west of Taiwan.


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