Indeed, it was confusing. The R.O.C. is typically referred to internationally as Taiwan; it is by and large not recognized as a country and is instead referred to by many media organizations, including this one, as a “self-governing democracy.” But the archipelago, of which Taiwan is the biggest island, has a Constitution, a president and a Legislature. Its citizens have voted for their representatives in free and fair elections since 1992, the year before Nancy was born. They serve in their own armed forces and carry a green Republic of China passport when they travel, though in 2003, after they complained they were being confused with Communist China, the government changed the passport to say both “Republic of China” and “Taiwan.”
This Gordian knot of identity was a product of a contested history. For centuries, Taiwan had been at the whims of colonizers, settlers, warlords and dictators. As far back as 1544, when a Portuguese vessel passed the island and a passenger exclaimed “Ilha Formosa” — beautiful island — outsiders had decided even its name. It was originally populated by Indigenous Austronesians, but Han migration from China increased with the arrival of European traders, including the Dutch East India Company. The Qing empire took control in 1683, but after a humiliating defeat by the Japanese in 1895, it ceded Formosa to the victors. The Japanese made the island their model colony to prove they could rival white European imperial powers, setting up Japanese schools and much of the island’s infrastructure.
The Republic of China, meanwhile, was established far away in Nanjing in 1912 after revolutionaries overthrew the Qing empire, but it was quickly torn apart by Japan’s invasion and internal conflicts between the ruling nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communists. After Japan lost World War II, Formosa was given to the R.O.C. by the decree of the Allied powers. Residents were not consulted, but after 50 years of Japanese control, many held genuine enthusiasm for their Chinese liberators. Their hopes to speak their own language, practice their own culture and elect their own leaders quickly vanished. The KMT governed Taiwan with an iron fist, regarding the locals as Japanese collaborators and pillaging the island’s resources for the ongoing civil war on the mainland.
In 1949, the Communists defeated the nationalists and established the People’s Republic of China. The remnants of the R.O.C., led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan. Each government proclaimed itself the rightful ruler of all of China. The tsunami of around 1.5 million exiles who accompanied Chiang to Taiwan produced two castes: benshengren — people from this province — and waishengren — people from outside this province. Nancy’s paternal grandmother grew up under Japanese rule and watched the newcomers take the best jobs and resources. Later she married one of these new arrivals, but he ran up gambling debts and then ran back to the mainland, leaving her to settle his tab. She sold their house and moved the family to Taipei, supporting Nancy’s father and his three siblings by selling sliced fruit and shaved ice, a traditional dessert, on the street.
The KMT embarked on a campaign of forced Sinicization — Mandarin was made the official government language instead of Hokkien, which Nancy’s grandmother spoke along with a vast majority of the six million locals. Streets in Taipei were renamed after Chinese cities, and schoolbooks taught mainland geography and R.O.C. history. The benshengren were written out of their own existence. Chiang’s secret police ensured no one stepped out of line.
By 1987, under pressure at home and abroad, Chiang’s son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, lifted martial law. It had been in effect for 38 years. In the previous decades, Taiwan’s economy soared, driven by petrochemicals, light manufacturing and a growing focus on technology. After the younger Chiang’s death in 1988, the first benshengren president, Lee Teng-hui, became the head of the government and accelerated Taiwan’s transition to democracy. In 1992, Taiwan held its first direct election for Parliament; the first presidential election was in 1996. Lee touted a new national identity to try to unify the country: People were neither waishengren or benshengren but “New Taiwanese” instead.
By the time Nancy was born, her grandmother had invested in small plots of land that she turned into parking lots. She bought three apartments, including the one Nancy lived in with her parents, her older sister and her younger brother. Her grandmother had sent all her children to school, including, unconventionally for the time, her daughters. Nancy worshiped her as a feminist role model, and her grandmother favored her back. Nancy went to her grandmother’s apartment every day after school.