Ang Lee’s Chinese roots fuel cultural controversy in Taiwan

Ang Lee’s Chinese Roots fuel Cultural Controversy in Taiwan
Bevin Chu
October 5, 2007


Ang Lee receives another Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, this time for “Lust, Caution”

The following Associated Press article on famed Chinese director Ang Lee is better than most. Most major media reporters in the West parrot the ruling DPP’s official line with every line they write. The following AP article parrots the ruling DPP’s official line only every other line.

The ruling DPP has shamelessly exploited Lee’s hard-earned global fame to promote its artificially concocted “Taiwanese, not Chinese” ethnic and cultural identity.

Academy Award winning auteur Ang Lee has never been happy about being abused this way, especially since his feelings about cultural identity are nothing like the ruling DPP’s.

But Lee, in contrast with politically oriented directors such as Oliver Stone, focuses on character development rather than ideological conflict. As such, the soft-spoken Lee has refrained from openly complaining about having his personal fame exploited by the ruling DPP, and his actual views on cultural identity grossly misrepresented.

To its credit the following IHT article on Lee exposes the DPP’s opportunistic exploitation of Lee’s achievements, which are individual, not collective achievements.

To its discredit however, it continues to convey a misleading impression of the political situation on Taiwan.

To correct this impression, I have added my own comments to the article.





International Herald Tribune

Ang Lee’s Chinese roots fuel cultural controversy in Taiwan
The Associated Press
Monday, September 17, 2007

TAIPEI, Taiwan: As Taiwan’s government ratchets up a campaign to emphasize its cultural separateness from China, one of the island’s internationally famous cultural icons insists his mainland Chinese roots have played a major role in his film-making.

The China Desk: AP’s title for this news article implies that Ang Lee is “Taiwanese, not Chinese,” but has “Chinese roots.” No such thing. Ang Lee doesn’t “have Chinese roots.” Ang Lee, like all 23 million citizens of the Republic of China, is Chinese.

Some citizens of the Republic of China do not want to be Chinese. They want to redefine themselves as “Taiwanese.” But the fact is they haven’t succeeded in doing so. Not yet anyway. So until they do so, they and everyone else on Taiwan will remain Chinese, i.e., citizens of the Republic of China.

“Taiwan” doesn’t have a government, unless one is referring to the Taiwan Provincial Government, which has been “frozen” since 1998. The government that exercises jurisdiction over the island of Taiwan is the Republic of China government. Today, most nations, including the UN, no longer recognize the Republic of China government.

But those nations that do recognize the Republic of China government, consider it the legitimate government not only of Taiwan, but of the whole of China, including the mainland, Hong Kong, and Macao.

In any event, it is simply wrong to refer to the Republic of China government as “Taiwan’s government.” The Republic of China government governs Taiwan, to be sure. But it is not “Taiwan’s government.” It is quite literally “China’s government.”

Taiwan is hardly the only territory it governs. It also governs the Penghu Archipelago, which is an entirely separate territory not part of Taiwan. It even governs portions of the mainland Chinese province of Fujian, such as Jingmen and Mazu, and portions of Hainan Island, such as the Dongsha and Nansha Islets in the South China Sea.


Lust, Caution (2007, directed by Ang Lee, written by Eileen Chang, James Schamus)

IHT: “A big part of (my culture) is Chinese tradition from my parents, from school, so that is who I am,” said Ang Lee, director of the Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain.” Lee’s spy thriller “Lust, Caution” won the top Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month.

“I grew up in Taiwan, but you know where my ideas, my brushstrokes came from,” he said.

Lee was born on the island 53 years ago, after his parents fled the 1949 communist victory in a civil war on the Chinese mainland. Their generation of immigrants — about 15 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million people — tends to pay homage to Chinese roots, seeing the island as a strong repository of China’s cultural and historical tradition.

The China Desk: My late father used to mock the “2 million mainlanders” factoid. The “2 million mainlanders” factoid is based on the estimated number of individuals who migrated from mainland China to Taiwan between 1945 and 1949, when the population of Taiwan was a mere 6 million.

The population of Taiwan is now 23 million. Yet Taiwan independence spin controllers have continued to talk of “2 million mainlanders who withdrew to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek’s troops in 1949.”

On the one hand, the presumption is that the 2 million mainlanders did not bear a single child. On the other hand, any children born are counted as “native Taiwanese,” inflating the numbers for “native Taiwanese” and capping in perpetuity the number of “mainlanders.”

That would be fine, except that every time an election rolls around these children of the “2 million mainlanders” are instantly reclassified as “wai sheng di er dai” (second generation mainlanders) instead of “first generation Taiwanese,” and excluded from the ranks of “zheng gang de tai wan ren” (authentic Taiwanese).

IHT: But descendants of those who came from the mainland in the 17th and 18th centuries, and form the island’s majority, think of themselves as primarily Taiwanese. Many play down their Chinese connections.

The China Desk: Wrong, wrong, wrong! Some, not all, descendants of those who came from the mainland in the 17th and 18th centuries, and form the island’s majority, think of themselves as primarily Taiwanese. Some, not all, play down their Chinese “connections,” i.e., identity.

Political pundits on Taiwan have a saying: “min yi ru liu shui” (the will of the people is like running water). Depending upon when one asks the question: “Do you consider yourself Chinese, Taiwanese, or both Chinese and Taiwanese?” one will get any number of different answers.

Actions speak louder than words. Judging by actions and not words, only Deep Green Taiwan independence hardliners, who constitute a mere 15 to 20 percent of the island’s population, truly consider themselves “Taiwanese, not Chinese.”

IHT: The identity question is fast becoming a major issue in Taiwanese politics, with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party or DPP pushing separateness from China, while the main opposition Nationalists seek eventual unification with the communist colossus 160 kilometers (100 miles) to the west.

Lee has not spoken out publicly on politics, but “Lust, Caution” is a paean to his Chinese background.

Set against the backdrop of Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II, it is based on a short story by famed Chinese writer Eileen Chang.

The film — casting mostly [mainland] Chinese and Hong Kong actors and actresses — marks Lee’s return to Chinese-language films after the highly acclaimed “Brokeback Mountain,” set in the American west.

The China Desk: Mainland China is not “China.” China is mainland China plus Taiwan, plus Hong Kong, plus Macao, plus numerous offshore islands in the Western Pacific.

Until the Taiwan independence movement succeeds in founding a sovereign and independent “Republic of Taiwan,” Taiwan will remain a province of China, under the jurisdiction of either the Republic of China government in Taipei, or the People’s Republic of China government in Beijing.

Therefore mainland Chinese actors, within the context of the IHT article, should not be referred to as “Chinese actors,” since this misleadingly implies that Taiwanese actors are not Chinese actors.

IHT: Taiwan has its own rich cultural tradition.

The China Desk: This remark is disingenuous Taiwan independence spin control. It implies that Taiwan’s “rich cultural tradition” is not part of China’s rich cultural tradition.

Taiwan does indeed have “its own rich cultural tradition,” but only in the sense that Bordeaux “has its own rich cultural tradition.”

Just as Bordeaux’s rich cultural tradition is part of France’s rich cultural tradition, so Taiwan’s rich cultural tradition is part of China’s rich cultural tradition.

IHT: In the decades following the end of a half-century of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, the mix of newer Chinese immigrants and local talent turned the island into a hotbed of cultural innovation, from movies and pop songs to stage shows, at a time when [the mainland region of] China was being torn apart by violent political movements.

The China Desk: The newer Chinese were not “immigrants.” They were migrants.

Japan extorted Taiwan from China at gunpoint in 1895. Japan retroceded (gave back) Taiwan to China in 1945. By 1945 Taiwan was already Chinese territory.

One does not “immigrate” to another part of one’s own nation. One immigrates only to foreign nations.

Australians who move from Sydney to Hobart are not “immigrating” to Tasmania. They are migrating from one region of Australia to another region of Australia.

And so it was with Chinese who migrated from the mainland region of China to Taiwan between 1945 and 1949. They were not “immigrating” anywhere. They were migrating from one region of China to another region of China.

IHT: Taiwanese film critic Liang Liang said the island played a key role in preserving China’s cultural heritage. He praised Lee’s cinematic works “as an embodiment of this shining legacy.”

Liang blasted the DPP for trying to represent Lee as an avatar of a distinctly Taiwanese culture.

“The Taiwan government [i.e., the ruling DPP regime] should feel ashamed as it tried to make use of Lee’s international fame,” he said.

The China Desk: When Taiwan independence spin controllers speak of a “distinctly Taiwanese culture” they mean a “distinctly Taiwanese national culture that is not Chinese.” In this sense, there is is no “distinctly Taiwanese culture.” The culture of Taiwan is not distinctive enough to qualify as “distinctly Taiwanese.”

Taiwanese culture is Fujian’s Hoklo culture and Canton’s Hakka culture, with a dash of Aboriginal culture. Taiwanese culture is only distinct enough to qualify as a regional Chinese culture.

The differences between the culture of Taiwan and the culture of the mainland are almost too small to be of significance. The differences between Xinjiang and Canton, for example, are far greater than the minute differences between Taiwan and Fujian.


Lust, Caution Stars Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Wei Tang

IHT: Following Lee’s acceptance of the Golden Lion prize, Taiwanese officials nicknamed him “the glory of Taiwan.” They offered him a subsidy of up to 80 million New Taiwan dollars (US$2.4 million; €1.7 million) for his next production, and campaigned for an Oscar nomination for “Lust, Caution” in the category of best foreign film.

The China Desk: Ang Lee, who is “wai sheng di er dai” (second generation mainlander) would not be referred to as “The Glory of Taiwan” if he were a Pan Blue legislator or pundit, instead of a largely apolitical film maker. If Ang Lee were a KMT or New Party legislator or pundit, “Taiwanese officials” would be calling him very different names. Names such as “Chinese pig” or “Mainlander pig,” and demanding that he “Get the hell back to the mainland.”

IHT: Lee has long played [sic] homage to both his Taiwanese and Chinese roots in several films, including the 2000 Oscar-winning martial arts hit “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

The China Desk: “both his Taiwanese and Chinese roots”? What kind of asinine conceptual muddle is this? Does a Frenchman from Bordeaux “pay homage to both his Bordeaux and French roots”? Ang Lee’s “Taiwanese roots” are Chinese roots. There is no such thing as “Taiwanese roots” that are not simultaneously Chinese roots.

IHT: His international success contrasts sharply with the generally unhealthy state Taiwan’s film industry.

Once seen as a world leader, it faltered badly in the 1990s, unable to compete at the box office with big-budget Hollywood films.

Some critics blame Taiwan’s government for the decline, saying its insistence on emphasizing distinctly Taiwanese heroes limited local films’ appeal in the broader Chinese-language market.

The China Desk: And so they should. Political Correctness is the serial rapist that strangles creativity in the arts. For all its very real faults, the KMT did a terrific job of nurturing Taiwan’s fledgling film industry. Once Taiwan independence fundamentalists usurped power, it was all over.

IHT: But Taiwan government spokesman Shieh Jhy-wey brushed the criticisms aside.

“Taiwan’s freewheeling democracy has worked as an incubator for talents like Ang Lee,” he said.

The China Desk: Nonsense. What little help Ang Lee got was provided by the state owned film industry established by the KMT during the Two Chiangs Era. The ruling DPP never did anything to help Ang Lee become the internationally renowned director that he is today.

Just as it never did anything to help New York Yankees star pitcher Wang Chien-ming, also a “wai sheng di er dai” (second generation mainlander), also touted as “The Glory of Taiwan,” become the Major League baseball star that he is today.

The rulling DPP is merely attempting to take credit for after the fact. Hence Taiwanese film critic Liang Liang’s fully justified outrage.

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2 responses to “Ang Lee’s Chinese roots fuel cultural controversy in Taiwan

  1. Mr. Chu! Your blog is incredible. I have been looking for information on Chen Shui Bian and you have done very extensive research on the mysterious events of 2004. I’m currently working on a fiction book in which one section deals with these events. Would you have time for an online interview by email? I would truly appreciate your help.Thank you!– J.S. Parkjpbronsin@hotmail.com

  2. Actually I haven’t done that much research on the 319 Shooting Hoax. Just enough to realize it was indeed a hoax. What’s noteworthy about the 319 Shooting Hoax is that it was so obviously phony, yet Taiwan independence spin controllers and Western Taiwan independence fellow travelers made such a effort to pretend it wasn’t. The fact is, in private, out of the public spotlight, Pan Green legislators grudgingly admit that they too know it was staged, but have to keep up the pretense to keep “their man” in office.

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