October 24, 2014, by Tony Hong
Family across the Taiwan Strait: One Country? Certainly Two Stories
By Flair Shi,
Studying Comparative Literature (MA) at University College London,
Graduate of the School of English University of Nottingham Ningbo,
BA in English Language and Literature.
Every year at the beginning of October mainland China sees the sudden proliferation of nationalistic TV shows across the country, featuring grand ceremonies often involving flowers, flapping pigeons and patriotic superstars smiling their wrinkles out. Few ever know that just after this week of golden national celebration and personal spending, the other China, whose own Chinese are struggling to even decide whether to call their “country” the ROC (Republic of China) or just Taiwan, is going to celebrate their own “national holiday” on 10.10.
Of course with the recent turbulence in Hong Kong, the PRC has to make sure its people do not pay too much attention to how the Taiwanese “president” Ma Ying-jeou theorized about “democracy for a few first” in his appropriation of the CCP’s spiritual pillar “Deng Xiaoping Thought”. However, no matter how precarious Deng’s “One Country, Two Systems” framework proves to be at the moment for Hong Kong, and by implication for Taiwan, it has to be acknowledged that since the “1992 Consensus”, and especially after Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) came to power on the island, tremendous progress has been made in terms of people’s contact and communication with each other at the grassroots level across the narrow Taiwan Strait.
For families affected by those great turmoils of the times, the long-awaited progress has actually come really slow. It was not until as late as the December of 2008 that direct flights between Taipei and Shanghai were organized (instead of always flying through the ambivalent postcolonial SAR of Hong Kong). Therefore, against such bizarre but fascinating historical background, I was very excited to finally be able to meet some of my distant relatives from Taiwan.
For this grand family gathering that was going to consist of more than 300 people stretching across six generations, my grandmother, my father and I traveled back to Tangxian county in Yongkang city for the second time. The gathering was going to be held in the name of celebrating the 90th birthday of one of my Taiwanese great-grandfathers. The only person in my mainland family who has seen him before is my grandma, when she lived together with him, his uncle, more than 65 years ago.
My grandma has already been telling us her uncle’s extraordinary life story through the years. Shi Shiqiao, my grandma’s grandfather, was a wealthy landlord and his own grandfather used to work in the Qing provincial court, and thus it is not difficult to imagine the anxiety and sense of insecurity the whole family was going through when the news transpired concerning the coming victories of the Communists. His family tried to utilize every connection they had to maximize their chances of survival and the preservation of their wealth. My grandma herself was arranged to marry my grandfather who was conscripted in the Red Army at the time. However, for her uncle, who was too young and too poor, escaping to Taiwan with his hooligan friends in the village seemed to be a more sensible, though risky, path.
So he paid all his savings to arrange a boat and sent himself to the coast of Taiwan, leaving his girlfriend behind whose pregnancy he was not aware of at that time. His girlfriend died of mental disease soon after she gave birth to their son, who then was raised by my great-great-grandfather’s much impoverished family and became a poor farmer. The years passed more slowly on the other side of the strait though. This great-grandfather of mine, now as proud to be a Taiwanese as a Taiwanese can ever be, was much despised by the Taiwanese residents of that time as a suspicious mainlander (wai sheng ren) who could not understand or speak the local dialect of Tai-yu. He begged on the streets of Taipei for a period and came close to the verge of starvation, until he was kindly picked up by the family of his current wife, a local Taiwanese, who then helped him to find a job. They had three children and in the Taiwanese economic boom in the late 1970s and 1980s they managed to become an affluent family again. Having lived through Taiwan’s economic rise and democratization, he never thought about going back to the communist mainland ever again till he learned about the existence of his elder son in Tangxian in the 1990s.
This birthday dinner was going to be the first time all of his children and their families could see and talk to one another face to face. However, as I sat through the long and chaotic dinner, what I witnessed was how the cultural construction of the Chinese family, with the Confucian emphasis on the blood relations or whatever, was slapped in the face by history. As his Taiwanese sons and daughters were making speeches about family reunion, few of the Tangxian farmers were listening. They were busy exclaiming at the abundance of the food and at one another upon the surprising discovery that they were more than neighbors but related by blood, and of course the Taiwanese grandmas and grandpas had a difficult time understanding their own ancestry dialect spoken by their own elder brother.
I sighed in agreement and resignation when my grandma commented at the end of the grand dinner: “maybe the family is united physically now, but who can give all those years lost to history and politics back to them? They are just too different from each other right now”. Of course, how much of a national/political allegory one can read into stories such as this is a tricky business. But one would want to stop and pose a much empathetic question: “if separate histories and the senses of identities they generated have made the sincere re-unification of a family so hard, how much patchwork will an effective national re-unification require even with its needlework of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’”? But for sure we can send our sincere blessings for the well-being of the peoples, so, Happy Birthday great-grandpa, and Happy Birth month, China(s).