Openish Thread: Why Aren't Taiwanese Americans Ethnically "Chinese"?

April 19, 2010

Okay, first the rules: there will be no name-calling, insults, cursing, ad hominem attacks, or suchlike on this thread. Also, if I feel that anyone is getting too ... er, passionate, I will delete their comment in the hopes that they will calm down and come back in a more practical frame of mind. Capiche?

Secondly, watch the video above.

The video is from Taiwanese, an online magazine dedicated to "those who identify with the Taiwanese identity, heritage, or culture." They put this together with the sponsorship of a coalition of Taiwanese American groups, and the apparent sponsorship of the US Census 2010.

On their "About" page they write:

For Asian ethnicities such as Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese, one is able to fill in a bubble to declare their ethnicity in the Census. However, for someone of Taiwanese descent to declare their ethnicity on the Census they need to fill in the bubble for "OTHER ASIAN" and then write in "TAIWANESE." Many Taiwanese Americans and Taiwanese are unaware of this when filling out Census questionnaires. Census information is also protected by federal law to be kept safe and private.

By educating and encouraging families, young professionals, and college students alike to properly fill out the Census, we can achieve a larger and more accurate count. Thus, the voice of Taiwanese America will be more strongly considered by the political, financial, and social consciousness of the United States of America.

...And maybe next time, "Taiwanese" won't be listed as an "Other Asian".

So ... is this video telling its audience the whole story? When they say that Taiwanese Americans are under-counted, do they mean that they weren't counted at all, or that they were counted as "Chinese"? And what are the actual benefits to Taiwanese Americans in being counted "Taiwanese" vs. being counted "Chinese"?

Given that about 98 percent of Taiwanese are of Han Chinese ethnicity, what difference does it make if Taiwanese Americans write in "Taiwanese" or check "Chinese"? Is this about getting more money to Taiwanese American organizations, and away from Chinese American organizations that may or may not be dominated by immigrants from the PRC? Is this part of a broader political bid to get Taiwan recognized by the U.S. government? If "Taiwanese" is recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau as a different ethnicity than "Chinese," doesn't that give Taiwanese nationalism much greater moral, as well as political, weight?

Isn't this a confusion of the terms "ethnicity" and "nationality"?

Or, have the centuries of Chinese (and Dutch) colonization of Taiwan resulted in a truly multiethnic community -- one that is much more mixed than Chinese-dominated family trees reflect? Is there a distinct, identifiable "Taiwanese" identity, and if so, how long has it existed as such? Did the Chinese nationalists who fled to Taiwan after the Communist takeover in 1949 actually impose a stronger "Chinese" identity on Taiwan than the country actually had? Are the culture, language, usages, mores, and other markers of identity in Taiwan distinct enough from that of the mainstream "Chinese" understanding of itself (such as it is) that "Taiwanese" represents a distinct ethnicity?

Is forcing Taiwanese Americans to identify as either "Chinese" or "Other" an injustice?

Is it a combination of political shenanigans and real identity issues? Is something else going on here?

Discuss. Politely.




Are the culture, language, usages, mores, and other markers of identity in Taiwan distinct enough from that of the mainstream "Chinese" understanding of itself (such as it is) that "Taiwanese" represents a distinct ethnicity? Is forcing Taiwanese Americans to identify as either "Chinese" or "Other" an injustice?

Well, China and Taiwan are far closer linguistically than, say, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu (whose languages share no common ancestor) --- yet both of the latter are also forced to identify as "Asian Indian" or "Other".

Obligatory Wikipedia link:

I work with high school students from mainland China who want to study in the U.S. for high school and college. Maybe because I "look Chinese" but I'm still somehow different, my ethnicity often becomes a topic of conversation among the students. When asked about it, I tell them I'm Taiwanese American, with the following explanation:

I was born and raised in the U.S. Outside of my immediate family, all of my relatives live in Taiwan. Both of my parents' families go back at least 4 generations and lived through the Japanese occupation. Prior to my study abroad experience in college, I had never been to mainland China. My parents had never been to mainland China. As far as my family knows, we have no relatives in mainland China. I've been to Taiwan several times since I was very young, and Taiwanese and American culture are what I experienced growing up. This is why I say I'm Taiwanese American.

This explanation seems to resonate with some of my students, but I know there are people out there without my family's extensive history in Taiwan who also identify with being Taiwanese American, and I think that's okay. Who are we to judge or assign what someone else's experience and identity is? Or is ethnicity being mistaken for race (a social construction that's often a label others impose on you)? Anyone who's been to both China and Taiwan can see that there are distinct differences in language and culture. It might over lap a lot for some people, in similar ways that Korean culture and Chinese culture over lap, but it's not the same.

Just as its important NOT to homogenize people of Indian, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Cambodian, or Hmong descent under the blanket label "Asian," it's important to recognize the difference between people who find themselves ethnically Chinese or Taiwanese. There IS a group of people out there who have this common national or cultural tradition (definition of "ethnicity") and we're not about to let anyone else take that away from us.

Chinese-american means Americans have Americans who has ethically Chinese blood.  Ethically in America means race (i.e. Taiwanese is 98% Han = 98% Chinese ethically), not nationality.  So I think that people like Eric C misunderstood the difference.  Otherwise, why don't we have North Korean American and South Korean American since they are techically different countries? 

A disclaimer: I was very peripherally involved in the "Write in Taiwanese" 2010 US Census PSA (meaning I brought coffee and Asian takeout on set, somehow earning my name in the credits as a Set Production Assistant). Though I am good friends with many leaders in the TA community, I don't claim to speak for anyone but myself - and nor should anyone else claim to speak for me, which is my whole point.

Claire and Jim are confusing scientific classifications of ethNicity and nationality with what the US Census asks us to do: self-identify racially.

Section 9 of the US Census asks, "What is Person 1's Race?" Well what does that mean?

According to answers 18-19 of the 2010 Census Consituent FAQ , "The Census Bureau collects race data...based on self-identification. The racial categories included in the census form generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country, and are not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically. In addition, it is recognized that the categories of the race item include racial and national origin or socio-cultural groups."

In other words, an ethnic Punjabi has the option to fill in the "Asian Indian" bubble, or something else such as "Pakistani" under "Other Asian" (as the Census explicitly suggests). Similarly, an ethnic Han Chinese might choose to identify as Malaysian, or Vietnamese, take a guess. :P

Anyone could go to Wikipedia and search for "List of Ethnic Groups in China" or "Demographics of Taiwan" or "China: Ethnolinguistic Groups" or any other article that might purport to classify me. But the US Census doesn't care. It cares about how I classify myself. I am Taiwanese American.

I love Eric C's response because she contextualizes her identity in a description of her personal life experiences and relationships. Her response is beautiful to me, because I share a similar story - a story I've largely shared through the Taiwanese American Foundation, ( and ) among many other groups. And together, we form a strong and vibrant community all self-identifying as Taiwanese American.

Thanks for the thought-provoking article!


Vinceh, I just have to disagree with your understanding and misunderstanding.  In fact, the debate is meaningless  anyway.  In America, most Americans viewed Japanese, Koreanese, Chinese as Asian American because they can not distinguish between different subgroups.   Also, there is a study where suggested that there is a lot of intermarriage amongs different East Asians group. In a couple of generations, it is all going to be just be Asian Americans.

The whole Taiwanese Americans are based on political in Taiwan, fortunately and unfortunately, nobody in America cares about that.


The concept of "Chinese" is a recent invention on Han nationalists. Concepts of "Chinese" culture are constructed and imbued with meaning from the Chinese nation. Prior to Chinese nationalism there had been no real sense of a shared "Chinese". Taiwan and China are and have been shaped by different governing structures that have given different meanings and symbols to people's lives in Taiwan and China. Taiwanese simply reflects the reality of Taiwan as a center and not a periphery of social and cultural life. It has nothing to do with genes. "Taiwanese" acknowledges the difference in experience, culture, meanings, symbols and life structures. 

The true beauty of freedom includes self-identification. I was born and raised in Taiwan. I never spoke a sentence of Mandarin, the official language of China, before I started my elementary school where we were "trained" not to speak our own mother tongue. When I was growing up, we were "educated" to identify ourselves as "Chinese' and disparage Japanese culture when in the meantime, my parents always praised the beauty of it. I sometimes even argued with my parents because their view is so different from that of my teachers' in school. Now I'm order and wiser and my parents have passed away, I realize that how different Taiwanese and Chinese can be. The "Write in Taiwanese" campaign asks you to do something that you have a choice to ignore and that's the beauty of freedom, Self-identification. If you don't want to identify youself as "Taiwanese", you are free to check any box you want. For me, I wrote in "Taiwanese" and was proud of it.

I'm working on the history of Taiwanese Americans in Idaho. The city historian for Boise told me that she just checked the US census for 2000 and that it does not distinguish between Chinese and Taiwanese. There were just 2,224 Chinese people residing in Idaho at the time of the last census, that is all.  

I find the first picture super ironic.  It's a picture of Bunun children, who are a Taiwanese aborigine tribe.  Taiwanese are ethnically and racially distinct from Chinese because of intermarriage with Taiwanese aborigine, many tribes who have assimilated into mainstream Han Taiwanese culture.  I know that I am at least one-eighth Taiwanese aborigines.  78% of Taiwanese have aborigines blood in them as well.  This includes many of those who migrated after WWII because many of them intermarried as well.  The difference between Taiwan and China is like the difference between Latin America and Spain.  Just that Taiwan is geographically closer, and China has attempted to maintain control.  If Taiwan were located just a little further away, Taiwan today would be like Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia.  They are island nations with significant Han populations but don't have to try as hard to separate itself from China.

I would also argue that many of the similarities between China and Taiwan today are a result of the 2nd Chinese diaspora into Taiwan, after WWII.  Other similiarities can be attributed to the Han culture, which doesn't equal Chinese.

I am of the opinion that this census exercise is doing more harm than good. While I recognize that knowing the ethnic influences on the people in your country can be useful, limiting respondents to any set of answers will naturally result in a degree of misidentification.

A fairer census would not single out any particular countries. What is wrong with offering categories based on wider geographical areas, such as "South Asian", while offering the respondent a blank to fill in more information? This approach would require much more effort on the part of census officials to decipher, but it would not guide the responses of respondents.

As for the categories that they have chosen for Asians, most are problematic. However, the most problematic is "Chinese" due to the huge ethnic diversity inside of modern China. Simply put, while the Chinese government has expended an enormous effort to ascribe racial status to what is essentially a "nationality" (note that I did not say a "nation"), and many citizens of China have bought into this approach, there is no one "Chinese" ethnicity. Beijing would be happy if the Uighurs all chose "Chinese". But Uighur culture is, without a doubt, distinct from that of the peoples who originally came from the Yellow River Valley in what is now China. Yet unsuspecting Uighurs may be influenced by the Census to pick Chinese when they might choose something else if they thought they had the option. If a Uighur sees himself or herself as Chinese, that is fine. Let them decide in a write-in.

In fact, there would be some logic in such a choice if we see identity as the sum of our collective experiences. In a country where different ethnicities group together, it is entirely possible that, based on their shared experiences, over time, they would believe they have a collective identity. So "Chinese" may be a valid option for ethnicity. However, the choice of this ethnicity should be up to the respondent.

Now we come to the example of the "Taiwanese". As this thread notes, Taiwan is a diverse place. A case can be made that Hakkas and Hoklos and aboriginal groups and waishengren are ethnically distinct groups. However, all of these groups have been profoundly influenced by their mutual interactions and their collective experiences over the past one hundred years, and all, with the exception of the waishengren, have lived that hundred years in an environment distinct from that across the strait.

Therefore, it would make sense to let them decide what their own ethnicity is. "Chinese" might be an option for some if they identify more strongly with the modern Chinese state. "Han" might be an option for a few, if they are thinking in terms of distant origins, although I personally don't know any Taiwanese (aside from some waishengren) who go around proudly proclaiming their identity based on where ancestors may have originated in China in the distant past. The distant past is just that... distant. There are Hoklo and Hakka of course. Then there are the aborigine groups.

But, perhaps because Taiwan is so small, and so many groups have mixed together in close quarters for so long, it is logical that many many more would see themselves as having a collective identity based on experience. Therefore Taiwanese should be perfectly acceptable, which is one reason why identity surveys in Taiwan show an increase of Taiwanese who identify their ethnicity as "Taiwanese" in Taiwan every year.

I wouldn't expect the US Census people to give themselves headaches over such questions. However, I don't think it should be too difficult for them to guide respondents less. Let them pick a geographical area to narrow them down, then let them ALL write in their own identity. Most households in the country will have already been counted under White, Hispanic and African American anyways.


Wow, I'm surprised by this blog post. I would hope that those who produce thought and culture for the Asian American community would also embrace and encourage acknowledging the diversity within it. I realize the questions are asked to incite discussion, but the questions themselves do represent certain ideas that surprise me.

Let's talk about not Taiwanese but Taiwane Americans first. Taiwanse American history is quite different from Chinese American history. Taiwanese American history begain when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allowed Taiwanese for the FIRST TIME to migrate to the U.S. Their experience and needs as Americans or a community will differ for not only this reason, but many more.

Such as language. A large population (though not all, of course) of Chinese Americans speak Cantonese, hailing from the Southeastern region of China. People whose ancestors have lived on the island of Taiwan for more than a few generations grow up speaking what is known as Taiwanese (a derivative of the dialect from Fujian--since many of our ancesters came from there generations ago) or Hakka. Only after the Communist revolution in China, when the Kuomingtang Nationalist Party relocated their troops and authorities to our ambiguosly identified island, did mandarin Chinese become part of that generation's vocabulary. This caused language gaps between elders and youth, many elders not understanding Chinese...they indoctrinated the native islanders with a China-based instead of island-based education and essentially changed politics, relations, language, media, etc. on that island drastically.

Sooooo...yes, many Taiwanese Americans do not speak Cantonese. Secondly, to deny that the political and cultural history and changes of an island whose nationality was at the time of the KMT occupation unclaimed, does not result in a unique culture and ethnicity is extremely simple and reductionist...Soooo, Taiwanese Americans bear a different history, struggle and interests. Some Taiwanese Americans have parents who were blacklisted or oppressed by the KMT party back in the day, before the government became a two party system.

I mean, even the cuisine has alterations. If migration centuries ago and intermingling with the aborigines at this different location with a different form of governance and the results of this and more aren't valid enough reason to be recognized as having a different ethnicity...then, all us Asian Americans might as well as be grouped as Asians (no American at the end of the *hyphen*). 

In my opinion, we shouldn't classify nationality at all.  America is a homogenous society.  It's a place where the beauty of all races come together and become one.  I am not talking eradicating or blending the genes so we are all the same.  I am saying that when you come to the US & become a citizen or are from the US – That you’re an American.  It’s all or none - We don’t’ recognize dual citizenships.

I think we should make every effort for people to keep their cultural identities and traditions to pass on to their children but that’s it.  By incrementing every government or educational form to include every descendent type – I feel that it keeps us separate and divided.  It does not encourage a melting pot or true integration into American Society.

If we continue down the path of segmenting what kind of American type we are, we will lose the strength of self recognition as an American & with that dissolve a united allegiance to this land.  America will be no more than an extension or substitute for where everyone descended from.  If that ever happens, every life ever given and lost for this nation will truly have been in vain.

Considering the purpose of the exercise, I can't find fault with this campaign, or those who self-describe as Taiwanese-American (or Kaohsiung-American, for that matter).

Just realize that there are many, many with strong roots in Taiwan who continue to self-identify as Chinese-American.  They may be less vocal, but they're undoubtedly present.

The concept of '"Chinese' is a recent invention on Han nationalists.

All forms of national identity are imagined and socially constructed. See Benedict Anderson's classic work Imagined Communities for more on the basis of ALL nationalisms. In fact, "Taiwan" and "Taiwanese" are much more of a (recent) invention than Chinese is. Taiwan is a concoction of Taiwanese nationalists--and not some Essentialist Taiwan identity that has always existed. Indeed, America national identity itself is also much more of a recent invention than Chinese, given that the USA is only 230 years ago. So-called "America" is an invention of Anglo-American nationalists, you could say.

This idea of claiming Taiwanese American identity is mostly driven by a larger political agenda than mere self-identification: Taiwanese Nationalism. This is one issue that this Hyphen blog post carefully avoids: the influence of the Taiwanese nationalist agenda in Taiwan on "Taiwanese Americans" in the USA. For instance, Taiwanese nationalists have begun a process of rewriting school textbooks in Taiwan (ala George Orwell) to effectively erase the historical presence and legacy of Han Chinese in Taiwan--as part of the process of manufacturing Taiwanese identity.

Moreover, what ultimately is going on here is about GEOPOLITICS. America and its client state of Taiwan increasingly are hostile to China and its challenge to American global hegemony. It is in the interest of America to promote Taiwanese nationalism as a kind of political weapon against China. The idea is to play Taiwan against China. This predictable strategy that America and its proxies use is that classic imperial strategy: Divide and Conquer. Like the British Empire before it, the American Empire specializes in playing one country or one ethnic group against another.

This is highly ironic and hypocritical in that America itself it the ultimate COLONIZER nation, given that it is based upon the theft and occupation of Hawaiian, Native Indian, and Mexican lands. Indeed, many Americans living in California are in deep denial that the land you occupy is actually Mexican land, stolen by the USA as the result of the Mexican-American war in the 1800s. It is called AZTLAN. Perhaps, the US Census should provide a category of AZTLAN as a form of ethnic self-identification in the future. But somehow, I think many American nationalists would be hostile to this. :-)

Imagine an American of part German part Russian part Italian ancestry who has been living in Japan (and even a bit of Taiwan) for much of his life: hardly a day passes without someone talking to me about race, ethnicity, culture, place of origin, or identity. (Usually this starts with a question related to my [R or E or C or PO or I].) ;-) In any case, unlike in the US, where we have the right to declare our ethnicity, in Japan it is something that is decided by "the community".   But what is "ethnicity"? Is it political? genetic? geographic? cultural? linguistic? Is it not, as the situation calls for "any or all of the above, depending on the situation"? (Like, "Chinese" is an ethnicity that is predominantly politically defined, while "Japanese" is one that is predominantly defined in terms of genetics - or the much fuzzier but related concept of "blood".) How about "Taiwanese"? To me it seems predominantly defined culturally.   Some people are better off than others: in the US we can declare (define/ choose) our ethnicity. And since many governments and organizations in the world - including the government in Taiwan itself - have already defined Taiwan out of existence for economic-political reasons (like, look at "Chinese Taipei" - you can dream about "Zhongua Taibei" as long as you like, when money talks that means "Zhonguo Taibei" - unless you reclaim "Taiwan").   What I want to say is this: it is most important to exercise your right to declare your ethnicity so that it will not be defined away one day, too.
Although I've 1/8 Maori blood, New Zealand allows be to claim myself as a full Maori because it's not what you look like or how much of what blood you have, but what culture you identify with that counts. Techically, they should be able to lable themselves as whatever they want. From a non American point of view, many "Taiwanese" seem more intent on calling themselves so because they don't want to be associated with being "commie". At school I frequently witnessed Taiwanese kids bully and look down upon Mainland Chinese because of the sterotyped persepective that mainlanders were somehow lesser than themselves. 
I guess you can identify with whatever you want. If you're ethnically Chinese, but culturally Taiwanese, and born or raised in America, you can techically say Chinese Taiwanese American. The problem with this is that too many people put an emphasis on politics and find the need to separate them. Many other ethnic Chinese (ancestry in China) that live overseas in other Asian countries (Malay, Singaopore, Vietnam) have no problem saying if they are chinese. Why? Because it's not political like Taiwan and China right now.  
First of all the confusion arises from a shortcoming of the English language itself which uses the same word for Chinese nationality and Chinese ethnicity. If the word "Han" is used for "ethnic Chinese" and "Chinese" exclusively denotes the citizens of the PRC, there would be much less confusion. Other than that I'd like to address some of the points brought by Jen L and Stephanie. Jen L said: "People whose ancestors have lived on the island of Taiwan for more than a few generations grow up speaking what is known as Taiwanese (a derivative of the dialect from Fujian--" Taiwanese isn't a derivative of Fujianese (aka Hokkien). It is Hokkien with only a few differences. Penang Hokkien deviates from Mainland Hokkien even more and yet is still regarded as Hokkien. For my two cents, I think it's silly for the Taiwanese to call their language "Taiwanese". If not for political reasons, this idea wouldn't get off the ground at all. "This caused language gaps between elders and youth, many elders not understanding Chinese..." She means they don't understand Mandarin. It's wrong to equate Mandarin with Chinese. There's no such thing as the Chinese language. Han Chinese is a group of languages with Mandarin being one of them and Hokkien being another. Other Han Chinese languages are Cantonese, Hoisanese, Hakka etc. "Secondly, to deny that the political and cultural history and changes of an island whose nationality was at the time of the KMT occupation unclaimed, " Taiwan was already part of the Republic of China when the KMT moved their headquarters there. The island was handed over to the ROC after WW2. "I mean, even the cuisine has alterations." So do Chinese American cuisine, Chinese Malaysian cuisine and the cuisine of other overseas Han Chinese communities. It doesn't make them less Han, it only adds to the diversity of Han cuisine. ....... Stephanie said: "Taiwanese are ethnically and racially distinct from Chinese because of intermarriage with Taiwanese aborigine, many tribes who have assimilated into mainstream Han Taiwanese culture. " Chinese ethnic identity doesn't hinge on genetic purity. For example Chinese Thais and Filipinos are still considered Chinese despite having predominantly Thai/native Filipino blood. This doesn't mean the Taiwanese can't claim a separate identity but it doesn't automatically make them not Chinese. "I know that I am at least one-eighth Taiwanese aborigines." I'm 1/4 Thai and can still easily be accepted as Han.
First of all, to hell with America's support for Taiwan. America is so far up China's a** right know that anyone who thinks that the US is somehow going to turn around and recognize Taiwan is dreaming. I think everyone has the right to be called what they want to be called. If Taiwanese-citizens of the US want to refer to themselves as "Taiwanese Americans" then the census people are obliged to recognize that distinction. That "centuries of Dutch colonization" bit at the end is misleading. The Dutch colonists were just a drop in the bucket as far as Taiwan's overall population goes. They were also (quickly) sent packing by Koxinga. Your point about ethnicity vs. nationality is well-taken. It is often the duty of Taiwanese people themselves to clear away the obscurity surrounding what it means to be "Taiwanese." Until they (and their government) do this, why wouldn't they expect everyone to be confused? Thanks for what is a very well-balanced article. Keep up the good work!
This is like calling an American, "British", just because you speak English. You may speak a similar language, your ancestors might have immigrated from Europe, you might share similar facial features, or eat similar cuisine. But does this mean you're British? No. Same goes with calling a Taiwanese American, "Chinese" or "Chinese American". Above all, it is up to the Taiwanese American to decide how he/she want to identify themselves on the census. It is not your job to label other people's nationality or ethnicity.
Stephanie said: "Taiwanese are ethnically and racially distinct from Chinese because of intermarriage with Taiwanese aborigine, many tribes who have assimilated into mainstream Han Taiwanese culture...78% of Taiwanese have aborigines blood in them as well...The difference between Taiwan and China is like the difference between Latin America and Spain." This seems exaggerated. Where does this "78%" figure come from? It's generally agreed that 98% of Taiwan's citizens are Han Chinese. I'd conjecture that the percentage of Taiwanese citizens with mixed aboriginal/Han-Chinese blood is roughly commensurate with that of U.S. citizens with mixed European/Native-American blood; very low indeed. The fact is, whether a Taiwanese citizen came from the Fujian province during the Qing Dynasty or from the nascent PRC immediately following the civil war, whether they speak Minnan, Mandarin, or Hakka, all of these attributes are inalienably Han-Chinese. Unless someone plans to re-write history, nothing anyone can say will ever change that fact. Certainly Taiwan has a distinct culture, just as Hong Kong and Shanghai do, but all of these unique cultures are under the umbrella of a pan-Han-Chinese culture. Using the small aboriginal population as a political tool to desinicize Taiwan is like the U.S. using the Native Americans to justify their independence from Great Britain. If a Chinese-Canadian is granted U.S. citizenship, is he a Canadian-American or a Chinese-American? Or maybe even a Chinese-Canadian-American? If Taiwanese culture means a lot to someone, then I see no problem with him Identifying as Taiwanese, but he cannot reasonably deny that this Taiwanese identity is descended from a greater pan-Han-Chinese identity. People from Hong Kong and Macau generally seem to understand and accept this phenomenon, even prior to reunification.
I have not understood, what you mean?