Having just elected its first female president, an act that perhaps more than any other demonstrates its distance from authoritarian, patriarchal China, Taiwan must now re-evaluate the cross-straits relationship.
It might look to the history of northern Vietnam,* which like Taiwan today, was once a renegade Chinese province located at China’s southern periphery. **
But more important to Taiwan’s own aspirations, Vietnam is the only political unit ever to have been part of China and to have later been recognized by the Chinese themselves as autonomous.
China and “Chineseness,” or what it means to be Chinese, have never been fixed concepts. Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Chinese republic, once dismissed his countrymen as “a dish of loose sand.”1 Ironically, it was China’s foreign invaders, the Manchus and the Mongols, who expanded the boundaries of the Chinese empire well beyond the Yellow River delta, thus stretching the idea of Chineseness to its maximum.
Against this background, the history of Vietnam begins somewhere in the mists of time, when the Yue people were scattered loosely across southern China and northern Vietnam. (Today, the Yue are known in China as the Zhuang minority group.) Through repeated conquests, the Yue were brought together into a small state independent of the Han empire, known as the Nan Yue. Like Chiang Kai-shek, Zhao Tuo, the founder of Nan Yue, came from the centre of power in China.
In 111 B.C., the state of Nan Yue was incorporated into the Han empire, a largely peaceful transition since culturally there was little difference between the two entities. This is not to say that there weren’t occasions for discord over the next thousand years.
Still, the combination of distance from the center and natural geographic barriers, i.e. mountain ranges that separated the fertile Red River Delta in Vietnam from the rest of China, made it easier for residents of this region to see themselves as separate from the motherland. It’s noteworthy that a similar geographic barrier in the form of the sea exists between Taiwan and China.
Localized developments also caused the Vietnamese experience to diverge from the Chinese one. These included growing trade links with Vietnam’s prosperous neighbours to the south in Champa and Cambodia. A similar role was played by Japanese colonialism in Taiwan.
It was during the tenth century, at a moment when the Chinese elites were more focused on consolidating power at the centre than at the margins, that the Vietnamese struck out on their own. Initially, China resisted, but soon realized that retaining Vietnam was more trouble than it was worth. Over the next five hundred years, two more attempts were made at bringing Vietnam back into the fold, each resulting in failure and a return to the status quo.
What was the status quo?
The key to Vietnam’s existence as an autonomous state was its willingness to accept China as its superior. This relationship between two unequal empires was markedly different from Westphalian sovereignty, where sovereign states are accorded equal standing in theory, if not always in practice. Arguably, such a relationship could not exist today.2 (Although, as a less-than-sovereign state, perhaps this is what Taiwan’s de facto relationship is with China.)
The Vietnamese were always deferential to the Chinese, even in victory, never failing to send tribute to the Emperor of China. It wasn’t simply politically expedient; they truly did consider Chinese culture to be the epitome of human civilization and worthy of emulation. (It’s unlikely that Taiwan feels the same about China today, however it might feel about the China of the classical past.) As the military threat from China receded, the Vietnamese were less concerned with marking their difference from the Chinese and embraced Sinification wholeheartedly. In exchange for this deference, they expected Chinese recognition of their autonomy.
Most importantly for Taiwan, however, the arrangement between China and Vietnam showed it was possible to be part of a Sinitic realm while rejecting China itself.
*Hereafter referred to just as Vietnam.
**In a forgotten footnote of history, following the end of World War Two, president Roosevelt made an offer to Chiang Kai Shek to “return” both Indochina and Hong Kong to China. Had Chiang accepted this fantastic proposal, Vietnam could have been part of Taiwan today.