The Sunflower Movement and Shifting Taiwanese Identity

The Sunflower Movement and Shifting Taiwanese Identity

Taiwanese identity played a major role in the Sunflower Movement, but the movement also represented something new in terms of Taiwanese identity

There is no denying the major role that a shifting sense of Taiwanese identity played in the Sunflower Movement, particularly among Taiwanese young people.

Taiwan is a diverse, multiethnic society. Individuals of Han ethnic descent are the majority, inclusive of “benshengren” (本省人), “waishengren” (外省人), and Hakka (客家人), constituting 98% of the population. The remaining 2% of the population are indigenous.

Indigenous are, of course, Taiwan’s earliest residents, and Taiwanese indigenous today are descended from individuals who have been in Taiwan for thousands of years.  Taiwanese indigenous, then, have endured multiple waves of settler colonialism, whether at the hands of early Han settlers, Japanese colonization after Taiwanese was ceded to Japan by the Qing dynasty following China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, or the KMT.

“Benshengren”, which are close to 88% of the population, are people of Han descent whose ancestors have been in Taiwan for hundreds of years and whose ancestors primarily hail from southern provinces of China. During the Japanese colonial period, the Japanese made attempts to “Japan-ize” benshengren and indigenous alike, resulting in a generation that grew up speaking Japanese and Taiwanese. Hakka residents of Taiwan, however, too have been in Taiwan for hundreds of years, but their language and culture was different from other Han, at times leading to conflict.

“Waishengren” are those individuals of Han descent who fled to Taiwan with the KMT following the the KMT’s loss in the Chinese Civil War, whose descendents comprise some 10% of the population. Waishengren were refugees, but in Taiwan under KMT rule, they came to constitute a privileged ruling class in society. Though also Han, unlike benshengren, waishengren did not speak Taiwanese, but spoke the dialect of whatever province they hailed from and possibly Mandarin, the northern Chinese dialect adopted as the official language of the Republic of China by the KMT.

It should be noted, however, that “waishengren” eventually became an ethnic group that only exists in Taiwan and not China, since the earliest waishengren refugees were from many different Chinese provinces. But ethnic homogenization had to occur for “waishengren: to emerge as a distinct ethnic category. For example, waishengren speak Mandarin with a distinctive accent and differing vocabulary than Chinese.

Likewise, in the decades since the end of one party rule in Taiwan, many of the ethnic differences which were much more pronounced in Taiwanese have faded over time, with increased intermixing of ethnicities and the fading of ethnic tensions which were more pronounced at an earlier point in time. Second-generation and third-generation waishengren may speak Taiwanese in addition to Mandarin, as well. In addition, the newest ethnic group which is growing in Taiwanese society is “new immigrants,” consisting of immigrants to Taiwan from southeast Asian countries and other places.


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Photo credit: Brian Hioe