Taiwan balances complex identity tensions at presidential inauguration

Taiwan's presidential inauguration ceremony in Taipei. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission

May 20th marked the inauguration of the eighth President of the Republic of China in Taiwan, Lai Ching-te ( 賴清德 ), or William Lai, as he is also known in English. A ceremony took place in central Taipei showcasing how Taiwan has reshaped its national narrative to reflect its own history, but also a global reshuffling of international relations.

The ceremony took place in front of Taipei’s Presidential office building where thousands of Taiwanese as well as over 600 foreign guests gathered in the early hours of May 20 to take their seats before a well-orchestrated show kicked off at 9 AM local time. 

The show started with dances featuring two different heritages of Taiwan: the Indigenous groups and the ethnic Chinese. The island is home to sixteen officially recognized tribes that account for less than three percent of the population today. Called 原住民 or yuanzhumin in Mandarin Chinese — literally “the nations who live here originally” — the Indigenous people belong to the large Astronesian family. Long victims of both Chinese and Japanese colonization (Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945), they are now given full legal and cultural rights — including, most recently, the right to have their names written exclusively in their own language on state IDs. Previously they had to use Chinese names. A group of Indigenous people is also now applying to be recognized as a 17th official tribe, highlighting how Indigenous identities and claims are evolving in Taiwan.  

Taiwan's presidential inauguration ceremony in Taipei. An Indigenous dance group rushes to their performance. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission

The other main identity on display was ethnic Chinese culture, a term that encompasses different languages and traditions originating from mainland China. The first ethnic Chinese colonizers arrived in Taiwan mostly starting in the 17th century. Symbols of that culture — such as Chinese opera and dragons were well on display during the ceremony. 

Dance performance inspired by Chinese traditional opera traditions. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

But this plural identity is also one of the most sensitive political issues in Taiwan, and that tension was evident in the language used to describe the country. Officially, the Taiwanese government regards itself as the legal and political custodian of the Republic of China, a political entity born in mainland China in Nanjing in 1911 as the last Qing dynasty ended. To this day, it maintains a distinct calendar used in all official documents, and often in business practice, starting in 1912 — which means the year 2024 corresponds to the year 113.  

President Lai alluded to this when he said in his speech that:

So long as we identify with Taiwan, Taiwan belongs to us all — all of the peoples of Taiwan, regardless of ethnicity, irrespective of when we arrived. Some call this land the Republic of China, some call it the Republic of China Taiwan, and some, Taiwan; but whichever of these names we ourselves or our international friends choose to call our nation, we will resonate and shine all the same. So let us overcome our differences and stride forward, with our shared aspirations, to meet the world.

In Mandarin Chinese, the official language of Taiwan — and of China — there is a distinction in terms. The Republic of China is called Zhonghua Minguo (中華民國), where Zhonghua stands for the term China in English; whereas China as in the People’s Republic of China is called Zhongguo (中國). In his 30-minute speech, President Lai used mostly the term Taiwan to describe his country and concluded that he hopes for a peaceful relationship with China. 

Giant blue horse celebrating Taiwan's diversity at the Presidential inauguration. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Issues of gender were also widely present in the ceremony. The outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen was the first elected woman president in Asia. As Lai remarked, it was also under her that Taiwan became the first country to legalize same-sex unions in 2019. The new Vice-President, Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), is also a woman, born to a Taiwanese father and an American mother.

Sensitivity to language diversity is also part of the new discourse — which was further highlighted on that day by inviting two rappers to sing at the ceremony in Hakka and Taiwanese — two languages belonging to the Sinitic family that are widely spoken across the island. 

The artist Vuize (王鍾惟) sang in Hakka — a feature of his profile as this YouTube video shows:

And singer ED (柯蕭) sang in Taiwanese. Here is a video from this YouTube channel:

Finally, Lai emphasized Taiwan's connection to the world in his speech. Today, only 12 countries recognized the island diplomatically, after the People's Republic of China came to replace Taiwan at the UN in 1971. These are mostly states in the South Pacific and the Caribbean, but also the Vatican and Guatemala, as well as Eswatini and Paraguay, both countries that sent their heads of state to the ceremony.

The ceremony ended with helicopters and fighter planes flying over the large square as a testimony of Taiwan's readiness for military deterrence as tension with Beijing escalates.

Helicopters carrying Taiwan's flag over the square at the Presidential inauguration. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

But despite this, the atmosphere was largely festive, and the message of Taiwan as a welcoming place, a fun country to visit and its confidence in its future dominated the ceremony, as the following images show:

Taiwan's oldest flag featured a tiger. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Youth music band. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Baseball performance. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission

Traditional dance performance. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission

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