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Youth in Taiwan embrace Taiwanese language and independent mind-set

Cross-strait ties hit snag after historic 2015 summit with China's leader

Fans sing "Island Sunrise" at a concert in the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung by the popular rock band Fire EX. (Photo by Kensaku Ihara)

TAIPEI -- At a recent concert in the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung by the popular rock band Fire EX, hundreds of fans sang along with the group, "Dawn is about to break, and we are no longer afraid."

The song -- titled "Island Sunrise" -- was written in Taiwanese, a language once widely spoken on the island before Mandarin Chinese became the dominant tongue.

The song has more than 6 million views on YouTube, a surprisingly large number for one with Taiwanese lyrics on an island with a population of 23 million.

Lin Pei-wen, a 21-year-old university student in Taipei, struggled to memorize the song's words before attending the concert. In daily life, Ling speaks Mandarin, whose pronunciation is vastly different from Taiwanese.

"I don't speak [Taiwanese] well," she said, but added that he likes it because it is "my original language."

Young people walk at the night market in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

Young people of the so-called "tian ran du" or "natural independence" generation -- those in their 30s or younger who regard themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese -- are showing a strong interest in the Taiwanese language.

It mixes a variant of the Hokkien dialect spoken in China's Fujian Province.

The Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party of China, which fled to Taiwan in 1949 after its defeat by the Communist Party in the civil war, made Mandarin the official language on the island. Using Taiwanese in the media and in schools was banned.

As a result, "the number of people who speak Taiwanese fell sharply," said Yin C. Chuang, an associate professor at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. "I was even worried that the Taiwanese language would be gone in the future, as it is difficult to hand over to the youth," Chuang said.

Restrictions on Taiwanese relaxed considerably after martial law was lifted in the late 1980s. Now, people of the tian ran du generation have revived the language.

"It is extremely interesting to see that more and more Taiwanese are trying to use the language as a symbolic definition of indicating their Taiwanese-ness," Chuang said.

In the complex relationship between China and Taiwan, Beijing positions the island as an integrated part of its sovereignty. In Taiwan, many people trace their roots to China, but they also view themselves as separate from mainland Chinese. That confrontation has continued between the island's political parties.

Historic summit

In November 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan shook hands in Singapore, in the first meeting between the leaders of both sides of the Taiwan Strait since their separation in 1949.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou during a summit in Singapore in 2015.   © Reuters

Xi and Ma, who is a member of the KMT, confirmed at the time that China and Taiwan would promote bilateral economic and cultural exchanges under the principle of "One China," which treats mainland China and Taiwan as belonging to the same country. Xi praised the summit as opening "a new page in history" for Sino-Taiwanese relations.

However, since the election last year of Tsai Ing-wen as president -- she is with the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP -- Taiwan has shifted away from its conciliatory policy toward China, and her administration does not accept the "One China" principle.

Young people in Taiwan -- those born and raised in the affluent and free society -- are growing uncomfortable with China's pressure for cross-strait unification.

A survey this year by National Chengchi University in Taipei found that 56% of respondents regarded themselves as Taiwanese, an increase of some 38 percentage points from 1992, when Taiwan began to democratize. Although the percentage has slipped from a peak of about 60% in 2014, roughly 70% of people between the ages of 20 and 29 consider themselves Taiwanese, according to past surveys.

The percentage of people who see themselves as Chinese was less than 4% in this year's survey, down more than 20 percentage points from 1992.

Most of the remaining respondents consider themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese.

A 28-year-old woman surnamed Lin in Taipei said she uses a "deep-water shrimp" cartoon image when she expresses her gratitude on the Line social-networking app, because the pronunciation of the sea creature in Mandarin is similar to "thanks" in Taiwanese.

"The more forcibly I am pressured to consider myself as Chinese, the more uncomfortable I feel," she said.

Others take a more open approach to mainland China but still express some concerns.

"I want to go to China if I can get an attractive job," said Michael Liu, a 31-year-old engineer in Taipei. But China is a foreign country to him, and he is worried about the Xi administration's tougher controls on speech and society. Cross-strait unification, he said, is "unimaginable."

Many people of the tian ran du generation received their education after the 1990s when Taiwan promoted democratic reforms under then-President Lee Teng-hui. They recognized the differences between Taiwan and China, which has been enforcing social order since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Without the experience of living in China, the group lacks a strong sense of camaraderie toward mainland Chinese.

Older Taiwanese who have called for Taiwan's independence were united for years under the cause of gaining sovereignty for the island. To Taiwanese of the tian ran du generation, Taiwan is a "country" separated from China, even though it is not legally a separated country or recognized as independent.

In Taiwan's elections last year, Tsai of the DPP was swept into office in a landslide victory, dealing a major defeat to the Nationalists that called for closer ties with China.

The DPP gained support from young voters who had been dismayed at Ma's cozy exchange with Xi at the 2015 summit. After the ballots had been counted, they gathered at the DPP's headquarters and repeatedly shouted "victory" in Taiwanese.

The tian ran du generation is embracing the Taiwanese language as a forceful way to claim their identity, which will certainly affect the future of relations between China and Taiwan.

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