It was Wen C. Ko, one of Taiwan’s leading venture capitalists, who outlined the most likely and practicable scenario. Sitting in his company’s boardroom in Neihu, an upscale business district, he said the inexorable forces of globalization would bring about a gradual and peaceful unification. Taiwanese companies, many of which had offshored much of their work to the mainland over the past decade, are now physically relocating to the Chinese coast, he explained. The close intermeshing of business interests is likely to improve political relations. There are already signs of a thaw: chartered flights between Shanghai and Taipei have been allowed. Taiwan is letting more tourists from the mainland visit.
Looking at it from a business perspective, Taiwan’s absorption into China could make sense. Still, as Ko’s son Patrick pointed out, Taiwan’s youth (almost one-fourth of Taiwan’s electorate is under 30) is far from embracing China’s imitation-modern culture. One afternoon I went to a performance of traditional Taiwanese opera at the Red House Theater, in the Ximending area. Built by the Japanese in 1908, the red-brick octagonal building was recently renovated, like many old structures in Taipei. Stylishly dressed young people filled the café on the first floor and the theater on the second, sitting impressively still during the ancient and—to my ears at least—somewhat long-winded two-hour performance.
It is as though democratization has allowed the Taiwanese to rediscover all the many aspects of their identity. The proof that Taiwan’s cosmopolitanism was imprinted not only by China and the United States but also by Japan shone vividly in the narrow pedestrianized streets of Ximending, Taipei’s Times Square. Here, stalls selling manga comics, Japanese video games, and American baseball caps alternate with food carts peddling oyster noodles and “stinky tofu,” a fermented bean curd with a smell that makes it strictly an acquired taste.
Youth also dominate the crowd of worshippers at Longshan temple, the city’s most revered site. It’s in Taipei’s oldest district, near Snake Alley, one of the more famous night markets, where snakes are sold as food. An incongruous sight in their jeans and high heels and name-brand handbags among the temple’s fantastically gilded and lacquered pillars and walls, men and women in their late teens and twenties kneeled, bowed, and held up smoldering incense sticks with a touching devotion.
Patrick Ko, who like many upper-class Taiwanese was educated in the United States, told me that Buddhism has experienced a big revival in Taiwan, which now has the largest number of nuns in the world. Indeed, Buddhists from Taiwan are now transmitting their teachings to the mainland—a reversal of the historical process that had originally brought the religion to Taiwan. And Buddhism in Taiwan has an even more special aspect: it is less introspective and more oriented toward social welfare than Buddhism in the United States. Buddhist organizations run nurseries, orphanages, hospitals, retirement homes, and clinics; they are an important presence in Taiwan’s civil society.
Patrick himself seemed part of a strong current of idealism running through contemporary Taiwan. While in his twenties, he could have joined his father’s company, easing himself into an Asian elite. Instead, he had chosen to teach in a small school in Nepal. “I know many people my age,” he said, “who don’t want to join the rat race and make money, who want to do something more meaningful with their lives.”
It is as though Taiwan, having already known a degree of material prosperity, is now experiencing a countercultural moment. Certainly, Taiwanese like Patrick who have never lost their Chinese traditions seem to be embracing an ennobled sense of their identity and their role in the world. In that way, they are ahead of many Chinese, who, while savoring their newfound wealth, seem to be stuck in a version of the American 1950’s, with all the familiar traits of conspicuous consumption and conformity.
The world is still likely to prefer China over Taiwan. The island is fated to be always thought of in relation to its powerful neighbor. But the Taiwanese themselves seem undeterred from their pursuit of a separate identity. And when after leaving the island I thought of it, the image that came most readily to mind was of Taipei 101. Despite its beauty, the building had initially seemed pointlessly tall in an otherwise flat and sprawling city. But I now realized that it not only reflected Taiwan’s wealth and modernity; it also proclaimed the dignity of an isolated people, and their determination not to be forgotten.
Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond.