By Martin Boyle.

Few readers of this blog can have failed to notice how ‘Linsanity’ has broken out in the US and on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, so much so that it has almost become the soundtrack to US-China-Taiwan relations.

Although Jeremy Lin was born in California, speaks English as his mother tongue and struggles with Mandarin, his paternal uncle is in no doubt that his family is Taiwanese; his parents were born in Taiwan, hold dual Republic of China(ROC)-US citizenship and his father’s ancestors migrated to Taiwan from Fujian Province in 1707. However, the local Communist Party in Zhejiang Province claims that, since his maternal grandmother migrated from Zhejiang to Taiwan in the 1940s, Lin is Chinese. Lin’s uncle rejects this, saying ‘we are a male-dominated society, so while I know there are relatives on the mother’s side on the mainland, you should go by the father’s side, and that is Taiwanese.’ Lin himself, though, reveals a further crucial identity, saying humbly ‘I’m really proud of being Chinese. I’m really proud of my parents being from Taiwan. I just thank God for the opportunity.’

The comments above raise some deeper questions about contested sovereignty, state legitimacy and the discursive construction of national identity across the Taiwan Straits. Firstly, while the uncle’s reasoning concedes that there is no dispute over his nephew’s Chinese ethnicity and culture, he cleverly appeals to perceived norms of Chinese cultural paternalism to counter the mainland’s appeal to Lin’s maternal line and to justify the historical location of imagined national identity within Taiwan, suggesting that the negotiation of culture is not a purely elite endeavour and making the claim to Taiwanese-ness a national one. However, in the absence of a de jure Republic of Taiwan, this claim to citizenship relies on a putatively Chinese-nationalist-administered ROC.

Secondly, the mainland side’s line of argument on the source of Lin’s Chinese-ness merits further investigation. Although it might be dismissed as a stunt,  an offer  to Lin from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) may well end up being one that he can’t refuse and the propaganda value of having Lin on-side should not be underestimated. The point is, though, that it actually buys into a Taiwanese discourse of Taiwanese-ness versus Chinese-ness that has developed since the 1990s and runs counter to the One-China Principle. If the Taiwanese are Chinese, there should be no need to appeal to the fact that Lin’s maternal grandmother comes from Zhejiang. Why not cite the Chinese-ness of all of Lin’s ancestors and leave it at that? By choosing to ascribe Chinese-ness to Lin on the basis of his maternal ancestry, the local Zhejiang Party seems to be accepting that there is a nationality (in the Western sense) called ‘Taiwanese’ and arguing that Lin most definitely is not in that category because of his grandmother. More importantly, though, this argument seems to say that post-Civil-War mainlander identity on Taiwan has a more authentic claim on Chinese-ness than local Taiwanese identity.

Thirdly, Lin’s Evangelical Christian identity has been ignored by the official PRC media and played up by US and Taiwanese media in an attempt either to locate him in opposition to an imagined ‘Communist’ Chinese Other or to turn him into an icon for ‘persecuted’ Chinese Christians. Having said that, this identity comes through his mainlander grandmother and Christianity appears to be vibrant in her hometown.

That the Self and the Other are co-constituted is a mainstay of the constructivist approach, but the process of identity construction is highly selective. Jeremy Lin’s multiple identities are well documented, but in the very real discursive war of national identity most of these are excluded.

Martin Boyle is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Comments

  1. This is a thoughtful post. The point that the more the PRC government sees Taiwan as an issue or a problem to be resolved, the more it is acknowledging and encouraging Taiwan to assert its distinctive and separate identity is one that should be taken seriously. The best way for China to achieve cross-Strait unification is to make the PRC so attractive that Taiwanese want to be part of it. Intimidation and heavy-handedness are counter-productive.

  2. I like this too. We all have multiple identities, father, husband, son (if you are male), a member of some work or other fraternity-cum-social set of relationships, a citizen of some place/nation (most of us – some perhaps more than one) and so on. Identities are discursive constructions – at the end of the day we identify in various ways with others. I find the whole notion of Chinese-ness, like Britishness, or Australian-ness, or American-ness, if I may butcher the language, all a bit of a nonsense. In the end a State’s assertion of such – or that of its agents – is usually nothing more than crass patriotism often bordering on jingoism. We have affiliations that we construct in our own way that are often multi-dimensional and personally rich.

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