Transcript: The Great Exodus from China

The Great Exodus from China2302

Length of recording:  29 minutes


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I: Welcome to the Nordic-Asia podcast. A collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Julie Yu-Wen Chen, professor of Chinese studies at University of Helsinki, Finland. Today, we have Professor Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang with us to talk about his award-winning book. This book is entitled The Great Exodus from China: Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Modern Taiwan. Professor Yang is associate professor of East Asian history at the Department of History, University of Missouri, Columbia, USA. His book was published by Cambridge University Press. Following the publication, the book won award from the Memory Studies Association first book award. So I have had honor to read the book myself already. The book has claimed to achieve what it really wants to achieve. Basically, it challenge our thinking of the conventional Chinese civil war historiagrophy. That there is the Chinese communist victory and the nationalist failure and the further retreat of Taiwan. I think that (-) [01:12] of this book shows the traumatic experience of hundreds of thousands of ordinairy Chinese people in the wake of the Chinese communist revolution. And I was really touched by the book and I think what really shocks me and make me really appreciate this book even more is about the background of the author and who is going to share his book with us himself today. A professor Yang, so welcome to our Nordic-Asia podcast. And perhaps you can explain a bit to us first about yourself and your positionality as a researcher in these great projects. I know you kind of (hint) it in the epilogue of your book. So you then talk about yourself and we were just reading a book, but you know, now I want to do it a reverse way. Could you tell us about your research, yourself and your positionality?


R: Okay. Thank you very much, Professor Chen. Thank you for your invitation, and it’s an honour and privilege for me to be here and introducing my book to the listeners. With regard onto my background or my positionality, now then in general, they are, for the audience, who have little understanding of contemporary Taiwanese society. There’s several groups in Taiwan when it comes to post-war Taiwanese politics. There are the mainlanders who I study. The people who came over with (Chiang Kai-shek) [02:43] when the nationalist regime fell in China. And there were the locos. The locos had, you know, different groups. Native population or the indigenous population. The aborigenese population, whatever you want to call them. And then the people who, the ethnic Han Chinese who have been on the island since the late Ming and early Qing dynasty. And these were the actual majority on the island. They’re called the (-) Taiwanese (-). So I actually came from a native Taiwanese background. For people who have understanding, any understanding of contemporary Taiwan history, there’s the native Taiwanese and the mainlanders, are kind of hostile groups, right? It’s basically, a lot of the (native) Taiwanese actually view mainlanders who came over of course with (Chiang Kai-shek), so they view the regime itself as kind of an outsider colony of force. And like suppressing the Taiwanese. And then, of course the mainlanders themselves, they don’t see it that way. They see Taiwan as a part of China because Japan did gave back Taiwan to nationalist China in 1945 when it was defeated. So when the nationalists came, they thought they were moving to another part of China. And of course, you do have these two like supposedly Chinese population, you know, speaking different languages and have sort of different backgrounds and of course I grew up in Taiwan in the late seventies and eighties before my family migrated to the United States. So I did have the tail end of the nationalists’ education, right? So I was sort of brought up- It was, you know, not in so, I return to Taiwan like two decades later as a graduate student. I started to learn the native Taiwanese view of history. But then that really got me intrigued of the also, this other side, the nationalist history, which I sort of learned when I was a child and have this very vague impression. When you actually study the mainlanders, have heard about the mainlanders, you’ve heard about their trauma stories, right? And then that doesn’t fit either with the original nationalist KNT narrative or the Taiwanese narrative and that’s, you know, I started wanting to find out more about it. And of course I have to say I go into this research at the very beginning, ‘cause I started this research in 2007, 2008, right around the time. And I have to say that I sort of went in with this prejudicial view of the nationalists. I did see them as colonizers and oppressors. And (-) [05:45] to a certain degree, I still see them that way, because the power relation in Taiwan between different groups, before democratization, was unequal, but at the same time, through researching mainlander history, trying to see things from their perspective, I came to a realization that this was a group of people that was traumatized. That lived in displacement. And their entire life has been governed by displacement. This nostalgia. This search for some kind of belonging. And of course, the first generation, by the time they got really old and when they had the chance, actually, sort of went back to China in the late eighties and early nineteen-ninenty and saw that China was not the China that they’d left. They came to Taiwan with some kind of appreciation for this Taiwan. And then the next generation, the Taiwan-born mainlanders, we call them the second and the third generations. They’re practically Taiwanese but they were brought up in a way that’s a little bit different from the local Taiwanese. When Taiwan democratized, both of the generations were called the Free Generation. They sort of went through another type of displacement and trauma again because of this sort of changing political scene in Taiwan and now the nationalist dictatorship ended and all this history that’s taught about China and Chinese history, how Taiwan’s connection with China all of a sudden becomes something that’s not politically correct. And the nationalist regime, they came over with, and they’re, like I said, the type of history that they were taught were, and they themselves were associated with this sort of brutal dictatorship, that they were accomplices to this regime. So you can imagine that’s another type of sort of displacement. It is too an understanding of this history from 1949 to basically contemporary Taiwan like in this sort of, from my position, as sort of from the other side of the isle, right? And also as an outsider, (half an outsider) [08:01] to Taiwanese society that I come to be extremely empathetic of this group of people. Like we’re talking about either one million or either a little bit over one million people that came from different places. Mainland China and were displaced to Taiwan in the late fourties and early fifties. This was one of the largest forced migrations in modern East Asia in the mid 20th century that was never seriously studied. And as Professor Chen has mentioned at the very beginning, it has to do with how the entire field of modern East Asia, modern China view the Chinese civil war as sort of this revolution. And when you’re talking about revolution, not war, there are enough forced displacements, forced migration, there are something that you gonna focus a lot more on instead of looking at peoples’ actual lives. And this not only goes for the migration. The displacement between Taiwan and China, but also internally, I think when you read this book, you can imagine those things that are talked ‘cause first half of Chapter 1, it’s all about these internal displacement within China as well before these people got to Taiwan. ‘Cause a lot of the refugees didn’t get to Taiwan. Only a percentage of, a portion of the nationalist refugees that got to Taiwan. And a lot of people got to Taiwan, one really on the nationalist side, either they were just escaping from the direction of the war, they just ended up in Taiwan. And well, there’s maybe in Hong Kong for the people that are still inside China, yeah, of course their history became different, but I just wanna say that there is another of viewing the Chinese civil war or the Chinese revolution without actually looking at it as a revolution became a lot more.


I: Actually, based on what you just shared with us, there are many small details we could go into. So I’m thinking maybe we start with this trauma that those people who have left China. So in your book, you also talk about different kinds of traumas. Could you summarize them?


R: Thanks for asking that question. First, the book itself is extremely complicated. It is basically describing how a group of people that was displaced. And of course, they were traumatized in the process, right? They weren’t traumatized, like let me put it this way, in the same way. There were different stages that they went through on Taiwan. It’s how people actually perceive the condition of their displacement, right? And in trying to understand this very complicated historical experience, I sort of set up a few categories of traumas. Basically, three. First one is the individual trauma. That’s something I don’t really talk about that much, except in maybe Chapter 1, when I talked about the exodus. When I talk about higher suicide rates when you compare the mainlander Taiwan- mainlander population to the Taiwanese population on Taiwan. Where these stats, when we have the numbers. You can see that’s individual trauma. But you know, the other two traumas or two categories of the traumas are the ones I talk more. One is called the social trauma. The other one cultural trauma. So what is the difference between social trauma and cultural trauma? It’s actually quite easy. Cultural trauma is basically memory. Memory narratives, right? So the great exodus from China, the stories of it. It’s actually the memory of, it’s telling a very traumatic story. Like histories of escaping from war or getting out the last boat and last ship out of China and seeing some of your friends and relatives just drown in the water. It was very, the experience was traumatic, but then the telling of this story, how this particular memory then become a marker of your identity. That happened in Taiwan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We’ll get to that point. And so, but that’s the cultural trauma. But social traumas are like changing society or changing historical circumstances that made people feel sort of displaced. Made people feel that they’re in shock. They don’t know what to do and what to deal with the situation. Of course, the very beginning, we see that different stage of traumatization. Or different forms of traumatization. For example, the exodus itself was a social trauma. You are forcibly displaced and that entire process, like when you got to Taiwan, you are an atomized individual. You need to really re-establish yourself again. And so that’s in ofcourse in the late fourties and early fifties, right? But when you get to, let’s say, the same group of people when they got to, the end of the 1950s and the 60s and I argue in the book, that’s the time when they enter another stage of social trauma. Like broken anticipation. That trauma was set in because that was the moment when a lot of the first generation mainlanders were Chinese civil war exiles on Taiwan realized that they might never go home again. So the idea is that that connection might be lossed to you forever and it’s basically an attack and destruction on your identity. The very concept of self. And when that trauma set in, when they went through the first stage with their sense of still, this think of that they could go home. The memory that they produced in those, I mean the first generation mainlanders, the exiles, was that they reflect time and time again back to their previous refugee experience during the anti-Japanese war. ‘Cause that war, that was the last war, right? And they also sometimes talk a little bit about the civil war as well, but not that much. Civil war and the defeat and the refugee movement that was a political taboo and so democratization in Taiwan. But you can talk about the anti-Japanese, and there was actually, again, I argue in the book that for them, it possessed great meaning, because in the end of that war they got to go home. A lot of them were also refugees during those wars and they were displaced to different marginal places in China. Usually, South, West, China. For these sort of marginal provinces, but in the end, they get to go home, right? So there was, people reflect on their experience. And like I said, it’s a way of making them better. When they got to the social trauma, their broken sort of anticipation or expectation. They really slowly move on to another memory. A memory that’s centering around their home provinces and hometowns in China. And when I say memory, I mean encyclopedic knowledge of it. They try to basically produce, you know, either through actual texts like magazines about their hometowns. The food, the music, the geography, folklores, like anything that you can think of. Like, informational. So a lot of these activities, the cultural activists, you know, they’re centered around what’s called a native place association. These associations were actually formed by first generation mainlanders trying to help one another. ‘Cause you can imagine that if you are a refugee population, you get to a new place, you don’t know the local population. Speak the local dialects and the local Taiwanese, a lot of them just, they just didn’t like you. The thing is that you gotta rely on, if the friends that you know in China, your fellow natives, right? And your former classmates or your former co-workers. You’re gonna find, and native place connections became extremely important in Taiwan in the 1950s to 60s throughout the 70s, untill the moment when Taiwan sort of democratized and they could go home in the late 1980s, and that was another huge shock. That thing turns to the degree, it may be stronger than intial exodus. When you see your hometown, like you’ve spent like decades reminiscing all this cultural works about turning into something that you can hardly recognise. Or it wasn’t really that good anyway. You just have basically sort of turned it into an ideal paradise while you were on exile, and there was this huge social trauma of homecoming that set in. And the last social trauma is when they got back to Taiwan. Because Taiwan democratized and now all of a sudden they’re this sort of minority. They used to be a priviledged and dominating minority. ‘Cause they, you know, naturally, they came with the nationalist regimes. So although they’re refugees. And because they are refugees, they have to find, a lot of them were in the military to begin with. About half the population was in the military, but they’re all in the low ranking. There a lot of foot soldiers and then low ranking, you know, non-commission officers. It’s not like everyone is an elite. But then you also have people that are civil servants and teachers. They have to be in those jobs, because they can’t find job locally. You have to rely on the government. But then, after democratization, you could imagine what the rise of the local native Taiwanese accusing the mainlander of like “Why don’t you go back to China? You don’t belong to Taiwan.” And yet, at that point, they have lived on the island for over forty years. And for the second and third generation, they were actually born in Taiwan. So this is an extraordinary situation, as you can imagine. And that’s the time when, you know, and this comes mainly from the second and third generation. Trying to basically produce a memory. That’s a center on the great exodus for China. And my interpretation and reading of that is that they’re trying to say “We are also Taiwanese. We are just a different type of Taiwanese. I mean, we do have our connections to China, just like you have your connections to China, and we’re sort of on an equal footing. And you said you are victimized and traumatized. Let me tell you, we are also victimized and traumatized.” And so this type of memory, and the other memories they sort of fade out this book is if you’re gonna say it’s the history of the exodus. Yes, there’s a lot of history of the exodus. Some people will say that it’s a history of mainlander population in Taiwan. Yeah, but I think more importantly, if you wanted to find it more precisely is the history of the mainlander memory. There’s a history there and then because of these different social traumas whereas in the end, you get a collective cultural trauma of the center on great exodus and the meaning of that cultural trauma is the formation of this mainlander identity.


I: (-) [19:50] Taiwan’s democratizations, there is also an effort to talk about the collective memory of the local Taiwanese people. Some of them have suffered oppression from Chiang Kai-shek’s authoritarian regime. February 28, now is some kind of day to collectively commemorate an important day, where Chiang Kai-shek’s army brutally suppressed the local Taiwanese people. So there’s a new narration going on. And you are the type of person to feel very sympathetic to these efforts, then you tend to ignore the (-) you just given. That kind of generate really tension in the Taiwanese society. I wonder how you kind of see this kind of polarization, or different streams of collective memory formation in Taiwan nowadays.


R: Yeah. I think that’s an excellent question, as you rightely point out. Since democratization, there is this polarization of society. What most people see are the stuff that’s going on. In the political dimension. The elections, the partisanship. The party supporter, but I think another dimension that you know, people don’t usually talked about is divided memory communities. I mean, of course they will talk about ethnicity and ethnic differences, right? Okay, that’s another way to understand like mainlander is some people will say ethnic group, Taiwanese, or they have two groups (--) [21:20] but sometimes the ethnic group themselves don’t directly correspond to party support. Or memory community, because we also have a part of the Taiwanese community, they accept the nationalist narrative. And I have met people who are too victims of families. But they, or mainlanders, who, their parents, or they themselves, suffer from nationalist (white terror). But after democratization, they became staunch supporters of the nationalist party. So that’s why I said if you want to understand it from the perspective ethnicity, maybe the picture is not that complete. But if you understand it from the perspective of divided memory groups, that’s were you can see the differences and why people react to certain things. And so back to the idea of what are you going to do about it, like how should we understand it or how should we ameliate the situation. I wrote this book in a way that it is, I reveal my own identity at the very end. There’s a writing strategy in it. Because, of course I want everyone to read this book, right? But I want the people that have a relationship with Taiwan or they themselves are from Taiwan. When they read this book, they will be like “Okay, this guy, you know, he might be a third generation mainlander looking at how sympathetic he is towards the mainlanders.” And a lot of people were surprised when they got to the very end and it was like “Oh my god. He came from the Taiwanese side! And not only that, his family was, his grandparent’s generation, they really suffer from the (-) [23:20]. And how could he be so”, like I said, I think the correct word to use is empathetic, now sympathetic. Because there’s a difference. I have this, and it’s not like I pity you, but I have this very in-depth and inborn understanding of your historical experience and why a group of people like that will enter this sort of cycle of displacement and trauma. And why is it, it’s so hard for the mainlander to see their own displacements also displace the Taiwanese. Although this is not what they want, they were forced into this exile, but there then it’s very hard for them to also admit that. And the importance of that nationalist narrative and the nationalist legacy. It is not that they don’t want to see that, ‘cause they knew in their heart that it wasn’t authoritarian regime. And it suppressed people and even they themselves suffer from it, right? But after democratization, it is the nationalist symbol, especially, for example, like you know, Chiang Kai-shek’s statue. Chiang Kai-shek’s memorial hall. That has some kind of symbolic meaning to them, because it represents their history and their existence on the island. It was actually part of that. You can’t just say like you want to remove it without consul- with that memory group, because they will feel offended. And of course the Taiwanese side will feel offended, naturally. I mean, from their perspective is like you know, “We’re decades into democratization. Why are there still so many Chiang Kai-shek statues? And why is that one biggest Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall still stands? Right there in central Taipei?” That itself is an affront to all the victims. And the victims’ families. And it’s a mockery of Taiwanese democracy. Like I said, the reason why I write this book the way in which I write it is to show that sort of cross-communal, cross-cultural understanding of trauma is possible. There’s a step for people to see why certain truamatic memories, narratives are continued. And why that up to certain point is no longer justifiable for memory groups. For the inheritors of these memories. You know, as I said in the book in the very end, like of course there was a period of time when I was extremely angry. Extremely angry at the nationalist regime. The dictatorial, not the party right now. The dictatorial party and regime and dictators of Chiang Kai-shek and (--) [25:48] and also, in general, towards the mainlander. After this entire learning experience, I spent over ten years researching and writing this book and I have this sort of in-depth understanding and real understanding of where that traumatic experience comes from and how, as human beings, we will all (react) to the same situation probably in the same way. I started refletcing on my own, you know, sort of the idea is that we, the generation that’s born later, like we or for mainlander there will be third generation, I’ll be the third generation Taiwanese or even, you know, for the people younger and maybe the fourth generation. We have an ethical responsibility to study this history and then, at the same time, to study in this sort of critical informed way and cross and do the job of crossing that line, that boundary. That memory-community boundary. To understand one another in such profound way. Not just to say “Oh, you suffer and I suffer so we are equal, we’re even, or we’re all equal.” It’s not like that. It’s really not that simple. Because these traumatic experience they produce (-) [27:27] that continue to sort of divide society and destroy. And for me, as a person who comes from Taiwan, I think unity is something that we need. In Taiwan. ‘Cause China now is not too good. It’s with this militant stance. So I mean on a practical level, this is something that we needed. And even not on that level, it’s just for the sake of (deepening) democracy and this proper function of this civil society, we need to reach some sort of reconciliation. I think the most proper way for reconciliation is through this kind of sort of cross-cultural understanding and also like step out of our cocoon to see that at the end of the day, your parents suffer. Your grandparents actually suffered. You do not suffer from those, you are the inheritor of this traumatic memory. You have a different ethical responsibility. The ethical responsibility is to do this history right, and then reach reconciliation with others.


I: Thank you so much, Dominic, for sharing your insights with us. I think it was very therapeutic after reading your book and listening to your sharing. I do think reconciliation is what Taiwan needs very importantly at this moment and to have a healing for all this divided communities. Each of them carry with them their own traumatic memories and experiences. You have been listening to the Nordic Asia podcast with me, Julie Yu-Wen Chen, and Dominic Meng-Hsuan. Professor (Hsuan) [28:41] is associate professor East Asian History at University of Missouri, Columbia, USA. His book, the Great Exodus from China: Trauma, Memory and Identity in Modern Taiwan. He won the Memory Studies Association’s first book award.