As China’s Mao Zedong was burning books and destroying landmark reminders of the country’s ancient past 40 years ago, a tiny rebel island off its coast was developing its own Chinese society.
Today, Taiwan is ready to compete with its giant neighbour’s practice of spreading Chinese culture and philosophy to the world. This October, Taiwan will launch a homegrown adaptation of China’s Confucius Institutes in the United States to share its own vision of Chinese culture with the West. The first three, in Los Angeles, Houston and New York, will teach Chinese art, philosophy and Mandarin language. The nonprofit, Taiwanese government-funded programmes will be taught in community centres and will cater to everyone from senior citizens to elementary school children. Taiwanese argue Taiwan is actually better suited than the mainland to export Chinese culture.
“Taiwan is probably the most traditional Chinese-culture society in Asia,” says Chuan Sheng Liu, who teaches at China’s Confucius Institute in the University of Maryland. He was born in China but moved to Taiwan when his family fled alongside rebels fighting Communist China in 1949 at the end of China’s civil war.
Liu says the rebels saved more than their lives when they escaped to Taiwan – they also took a heap of ancient Chinese artifacts that survived China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Although Taiwan lived through one of the world’s longest periods of martial law, which began in 1949 and ended in the late 1980s, Taiwanese officials say the country’s cultural and social roots have largely remained intact. Today it’s the world’s only Mandarin-speaking democracy.
The academies’ goal is to raise Taiwan’s international profile in a China-focused world. Much of the globe doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation and chooses instead to honour ties with Beijing, which is set on annexing Taiwan – by force if necessary. Cross-strait analysts warn Taiwan’s academies should walk a fine line amid such delicate tensions.
“The approach must be carefully designed to avoid confrontation,” says Chong-Pin Lin, a professor of international affairs at Taipei’s Tamkang University and a former head of Taiwan’s national defense ministry.
While the island can’t out-muscle China’s propaganda machine, Lin says Taiwan can play up its strengths: a vibrant culture and deep talent pool. “Our hope is in society,” he says. “Culture can play a bigger role than people give it credit for.”