I just returned from an evening discussion, with a group of students here at Williams, about China and Taiwan. The idea was to have people from these different places talk about their understanding and experience of the other. It sort of worked. But what was most interesting to me was a brief exchange I had with a student from Taiwan about Confucianism.
I mentioned my interest in the Confucian revival in the mainland and suggested that I would not find quite the same thing when I visit Taiwan in January (I am scheduled to be there during the upcoming legislative elections). Pressing a bit further, I said that if I questioned people about the role of Confucianism in current Taiwanese identity I might meet with some uncomfortable responses: I am assuming that those in Taiwan who claim a distinct non-Chinese Taiwanese-ness would not want to explicitly recognize the effects of ancient Chinese thought in modern Taiwanese life.
My student, a thoughtful person, said that Confucianism was very much a part of her Taiwan upbringing. If asked about family obligations, her answers would draw from Confucian stories and ideas. Indeed, as the conversation expanded to include another teacher from the PRC, it was decided that eduction in Taiwan has consistently maintained links to the Confucian past and that the classics - the Analects, Mencius, etc. - are more widely read and respected there than on the mainland.
But my student also rejects the simplistic formulation that "Taiwan is a part of China." Obviously, Taiwan is politically, and to some degree culturally, distinct from the PRC. But not only do these two places share a common language, they also participate in cultural expressions and re-imaginings of Confucianism.
At one level this is obvious. I have been to the Confucian Temple in Taibei.
But on another level it is notable: Confucianism is not enough to unite China and Taiwan, just as it is not sufficient to unite China and Japan or China and Korea. Although Taiwanese nationalists might want to deny or avoid the historical and contemporary presence of Confucianism on the island, it is certainly an element of Taiwanese culture, mixed together with the country's particular past and democratic present.
It reminds me of something that came up at the conference on Confucianism I attended in Beijing last year: Confucianism is no longer simply "Chinese," it is a cultural orientation that cannot be limited to a particular territory or sovereignty.