Conceptions of Taiwanese identity : Lee Teng-hui and the understanding Taiwan textbooks
Authoritarian governments have long wielded education as political tools by which to transmit their conceptions of nationalistic identity, but does the same hold true of democratic governments? Transitioning from martial law to full democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwan serves as an ideal case study. As authoritarian rulers, Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) imposed education curriculum that legitimized their claims to be the rulers of all China. After martial law was lifted in 1987, dissenters could freely vocalize a Taiwanese identity that advocated for a sovereign Taiwan separate from the Chinese nation. Contemporaneously, Lee Teng-hui rose to power as a loyal KMT member, but as president he shifted away from Chinese identity to promote a sense of Taiwanese identity. Preceded by nationalistically Chinese KMT stalwarts and succeeded by one who pushed Taiwan even closer to independence, Lee was a transitional leader whose own ideological evolution reflected Taiwan’s shift from a staunchly Chinese political entity to a possibly independent state separate from the mainland.
During Lee’s presidency, controversy erupted over the content of textbooks for a junior high course entitled Understanding Taiwan [renshi taiwan] that focused for the first time on Taiwan in its own right instead of as only one small part of China. The textbooks instigated a debate on identity, for how one regarded the accuracy or appropriateness of the textbooks reflected one’s views of Taiwan in relation to China. The debates and the textbooks’ contents revealed clearly that despite the considerable democratization occurring in Taiwan over the decade, curriculum content continued to mirror the convictions espoused by the central government—led by the democratically elected president Lee Teng-hui (1988-2000)—in much the same way that it had done so under the authoritarian rule of Chiang Kai-shek (1949-1975).