Sport as a Marker of National Identity in Taiwan

Written by Gerald R. Gems.

Image credit:  總統出席我國參加「2016第31屆里約奧林匹克運動會代表團授旗典禮」by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Sport has long been used as a political tool, both subtly — as in the use of school sports to assimilate immigrant groups — and more overtly, as in the use of the Olympic Games as an international stage to promote a particular cause. The United States employed the first example in its own public schools, as well as in the schools of the Philippines, during its colonial administration. African American athletes raised a black-gloved salute at the 1968 Olympics to bring greater attention to the racial injustice of the era in the United States.

Given the politics of state-building in Asia over the last half-century, and the continuing contentious debate over Taiwanese sovereignty, sport has played (and continues to play) a significant role in the creation and perpetuation of a national identity. Japan occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945 as compensation after its victory over China in the war of 1895. Baseball, an American sport, had taken hold in Japan by that time, and the Japanese introduced the game to Taiwan. In time, it became the most popular spectator sport in Taiwan. The Taiwanese developed a game of their own, but still retain the regimented cheering section of fans similar to Japanese patrons.

In the wake of the Chinese civil war, and the flight of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang to Taiwan, political ties to the United States became all-important in resistance to the Communist government led by Mao Zedong on the mainland. Baseball became a very visible sign of American influence. However, the Taiwanese adopted other American sports as well, such as basketball, softball and volleyball. Both basketball and volleyball had been invented in the 1890s by American YMCA instructors but were adapted to Taiwanese culture in the latter twentieth century.

Taiwan’s national sovereignty was reflected in its participation in the Olympic Games from 1956 to 1972. The 1960 Games, held in Rome, provided a unique opportunity for global recognition. Yang Chuan-Kwang (C.K.Yang), the son of Taiwanese rice farmers, had travelled to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to study and train with Coach Elvin “Ducky” Drake. Another student-athlete, African American Rafer Johnson, became a training partner and close friend. In Rome, they represented their own countries in perhaps the most amazing decathlon finish in Olympic history. In the last of the ten events, the 1500-metre run, the two friends vied for the championship in a head-to-head competition. Yang had already won five of the events and finished ahead of his friend in the race, but Johnson won the decathlon gold medal due to more overall points. Both finished ahead of the Russian decathlete — a significant accomplishment in the Cold War era — when oppositional political systems embraced sport to promote cultural supremacy. Yang’s silver medal was the first Olympic medal won by any Taiwanese athlete, and his sportsmanship reflected well on his native country. He would go on to set a world record in the decathlon in 1963 and represented Taiwan in three Olympiads, bringing global recognition to the small island nation and its quest for independence.

Chi Cheng followed Yang as an Olympic track star. She, too, studied in California in the United States but won renown as a Taiwanese Olympian. While in the United States she won four national championships and a bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics. In 1970, she set five world records in the sprints and hurdles and was duly recognised as the Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press, which was a distinct honour for her and her country. Returning to Taiwan, she engaged in politics as a governmental adviser, promoting the cause of sovereignty in Taiwan.

That status became jeopardised as the United States and China reached a level of rapprochement in the 1970s. Taiwan lost its seat at the United Nations in 1971, replaced by the communist government in Beijing. China then objected to Taiwan’s participation in the Olympic Games as the Republic of China, forcing a hiatus from 1976 to 1984. The passage of the Taiwan Relations Act by the United States Congress in 1979 further weakened the nationalistic claims of the Taiwanese by denying their independent status. In the following year, Taiwan boycotted the Winter Olympics in protest when it could no longer compete as the Republic of China.

Baseball came to the rescue in the form of a youth baseball team that defeated the reigning Japanese champions. Such international contests maintained recognition of Taiwanese statehood and victories promoted nationalistic pride. Taiwanese youth teams travelled to the United States to compete for the international Little League World Series, a title which they won ten times from 1969 to 1981. Such dominance dispelled any stereotypes about Asian fragility as the Taiwanese defeated their former colonial masters as well as the beating the powerful Americans at their own game. On the adult level, Taiwanese national baseball teams asserted themselves as well, winning the silver medal at the World Cup championship in 1984 and capturing another silver medal at the 1992 Olympic Games.

The prominence of Taiwanese baseball led to the formation of a national professional league in 1990. The abilities of the Taiwanese players gained international notice, resulting in employment with Japanese teams and by 2002 with the American major league teams, the highest level in the world. The media attention directed at such players made them national heroes and brought greater international attention to Taiwanese cultural and political issues.

The Taiwanese adoption of basketball signalled its close ties to the United States’ sporting culture with great interest in the American NBA. Taiwan features professional leagues for both men and women and includes imported American players on men’s teams; however, the team dynamics remain rooted in Taiwanese culture. Both men’s and women’s teams have done well in international competitions, winning numerous medals in regional tournaments against other Asian foes and earning regional respect.

In addition to team sports, the Taiwanese have forced the international sports world to take notice of individual athletes. Golfer Yani Tseng earned Rookie of the Year honours in her debut season of 2008 on the LPGA tour. She followed that premiere by ranking as the #1 player on the women’s pro tour from 2011 to 2013.

While the Taiwanese have thus made a name for themselves and their country on the international sports scene, they have done so by adopting and adapting American sports to fit their own culture. Traditional martial arts still find plenty of practitioners, particularly among the elderly in public parks. Dragon boat racing, too, retains its historical importance in Taiwan. Taiwanese have thus been able to successfully merge sporting aspects of the Japanese and American cultures with their own to produce an amalgamation that retains traditional values while promoting a modern national identity.

Gerald R. Gems is the past president of the North American Society for Sport History, the past vice-president of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sports and a former Fulbright Scholar.

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