“In world history we are only concerned with those peoples that have formed states.”  —G.W.F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History


“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”  —Stephen Dedalus, in James Joyce, Ulysses



In the age of imperialism, the way out of their predicament for the oppressed and colonized weak and small peoples was national self-determination. The two waves of national self-determination that emerged right after the end of WWI and WWII respectively helped create the present system of sovereign states, and yet this is a self-contradictory, hypocritical and conservative system. It declared national independence, but did it within the boundaries drawn by imperial powers. It advocates universalistic principles, but practices those principles only selectively. It was born out of the ruins of empires, and yet it defends pre-existing state boundaries. Thus the sovereign state system that arose after the WWII signifies not the realization of the principle of nationalism but the spread of the idea of statism. The so-called United Nations is therefore not a spontaneous confederation of nations that seeks to defend the perpetual peace of the whole humanity, but a cartel of sovereign states dedicated to maintaining the balance of power by monopolizing the right to form states.

The power within the contemporary sovereign state system is distributed in an extremely uneven way, but since all the member states do enjoy formal equality, small states are able to engage in coalition building among states according to the rules so as to escape from or alleviate the pressure of powerful states. This is the legacy of the first wave anti-colonial nationalist movement: it did not realize the goal of national liberation, but it endowed some weak and small peoples with the political form of sovereign state, thereby enabling them to employ the protective shell of sovereign state to continue their struggle of national liberation. In contrast, most of those who were unable to build their own states during the wave of anti-colonial nationalism ended up being permanently excluded from the contemporary system of sovereign states, with no way out whatsoever. When new empires have arisen in the guise of nation-states and are beginning to make claims, in the name of nation, on the homelands of those weak and small peoples not blessed with a recognized sovereign state, as if these self-governing peoples were mere chattels and these lands terra nullius, these peoples, so heavily besieged, can only struggle in vain, waiting for their ultimate perish, or waiting blindly for the coming of some historical contingency—such as the sudden collapse of empires. 

Caught between empires, the weak have tried to resist: those with a state ally with each other to find their way out, and those without one, or without one recognized by the sovereign state system, are left isolated and humiliated. Caught between empires, the nationalism of different types of the weak is growing and prospering. The slaves are still rebelling, and the Reason is yet to complete itself, but the rulers of empires are busy declaring the end of history—this is the world-historical origin of contemporary Taiwanese tragedy.  



Just like Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, contemporary Northeast Asia is a dangerous zone of confrontation between nation-states and potential nationalistic conflicts. Three structural factors determined the nationalistic condition of contemporary Northeast Asia: unfinished projects of national liberation in the region, a multipolar geopolitical structure of which the balance of power is increasingly undermined, and the uneven globalization of the Capital.



First of all, the historical movement of nation-state formation in Northeast Asia has not come to the end. An outcome of longstanding tug of war between imperialism and nationalism, the contemporary Northeast Asian nation-state system was formed during the one and half centuries between mid-nineteenth century and late twentieth century. Under the pressure of invading western imperialism, Japan was able to transform itself into a modern nation-state in 1870s by way of a successful project of official nationalism, i.e., a revolution from above. In the meanwhile, the new Japanese nation-state in the making did not hesitate to begin imperialistic expansion into the neighboring area, with a view to replacing the faltering Chinese empire. With the defeat in 1945 and the disintegration of empire, Japan became an occupied territory of the Allied Powers. Under the American rule, Japan was handed a peace constitution, thereby deprived of its right to armament. Diplomatically, it was incorporated into the system of the Treaty of San Francisco, thereby becoming a de facto dependency of the United States. China did not begin its transformation from empire to nation-state until it was defeated by Japan in 1895, but it had to undergo half a century of anti-imperialistic popular nationalism and war mobilization before it could finally establish a unified nation-state on the mainland of China. Long contained by the USA within the East Asian continent throughout the Cold War era, however, China had been unable to project its power overseas as a superpower until recently, and its goal of annexing Taiwan is still unfulfilled as of now. In Korea, signs of transformation from feudal kingdom to nation-state appeared in late nineteenth century, but a modern Korean national consciousness was forged during the process of anti-colonial nationalist mobilization under the Japanese rule. Nevertheless, a unified national consciousness did not create a unified nation-state: after the Japanese defeat in 1945, the Korean peninsular was divided and occupied by Russia and the USA respectively, which eventually led to the founding in 1948 of two Korean states under the respective tutelage of the two contending hegemons. In Taiwan, Japanese colonial rule triggered the formation of Taiwanese nationalism in the 1920s, but the coercive postwar territorial transfer in 1945 and the founding of KMT émigré regime in 1949 constrained the further development of Taiwanese nationalism. Ironically, however, after half century of KMT’s colonial rule without metropole and the democratization since the 1980s, the émigré Republic of China was gradually indigenized. As a result, an eclectic form of territorial state, i.e., the so-called “Republic of China on Taiwan” has come into being to be the current political form of Taiwan.

From nationalism’s point of view, the region of Northeast Asia during the past one and half centuries has been in a frustrated and unfinished condition. Chinese nationalism has been craving to repair the hurt national pride, to regain the glory of imperial times, and to finish the final task of national liberation—i.e., to “recover” Taiwan. Japanese nationalism has been longing to shake off the status of American dependency, to wipe the disgrace of having been an aggressor and clear its name, and to become a “normal country” with independent national defense force and an international status suitable for its economic strength. Korean nationalism has been eager to realize the long-cherished wish for the eventual unity of the two Koreas so as to become a regional power. Driven by the increasingly maturing consciousness of a nation-state, Taiwan has been making every effort to become a “normal country” recognized by the sovereign nation-state system. Just like the age of integral nationalism in Europe of the late nineteenth century, nationalists in Northeast Asia are still hot-blooded, for frustrated dreams must be realized and suppressed passions need outlets. These frustrated passions point to a common theme—the normalization of the country, and yet there are full of latent or patent, direct and indirect tension and conflicts among the goals of normalization of these countries. Nationalists in Northeast Asia distrust and impede each other. We are still walking at the high noon of History, fearing for the outbreak of violence. 





Second of all, the geopolitical structure of Northeast Asia is gradually inducing conflicts among empires. The fast growing strength of China’s economy and military force is turning the relatively balanced multi-polar system of the 1990s into a more unstable and unbalanced one. In other words, the increasingly strong China has been seeking the status as regional hegemon, and the rise of China as a potential hegemon has in turn triggered a new wave of re-alignment in the region. To prevent China from becoming the next superpower, the USA and Japan are strengthening their military coalition while re-harnessing and re-co-opting Taiwan. Faced with the inevitable rise of China, Taiwan has been wavering and divided between the two evils of either joining the USA-Japan alliance and becoming its junior partner, or plunging into the greater Chinese economic circle with the risk of losing its long-held de facto sovereignty and becoming China’s de facto dependency.  To resist the USA intervention into Northeast Asia and Korea peninsular, South Korea has chosen to ally with the rising China. According to the offensive realism of political scientist and strategist John Mearsheimer, the anarchic structure of international politics forces strong states without offensive intent to choose attack as way of defense. The unstable multi-polar system of contemporary Northeast Asia is not only inducing the two powers, USA and China, to prepare for pre-emptive strikes against each other but also involving the neighboring states into the emergent structural conflict.



Third of all, the uneven global expansion of capital has brought about a global unequal distribution of resources, wealth, and power as well as the developmental predicament of peripheral new states, thereby stimulating the reaction of the peripheries against the center. A main form of peripheral reaction against the center is nationalism. The post-colonial nationalism of the peripheries is manifested on two levels. On the one hand, political elite of the peripheries must employ official nationalism and nation-state to constrain foreign capital so as to embark upon domestic capital accumulation and social integration. On the other hand, masses of the peripheries often mobilize nationalism and native cultural symbols from bottom up to demand the state for political participation, economic redistribution and social justice. Despite the risk of elite manipulation and populism, nationalism is still the most legitimate and popularly-based ideology in the post-colonial peripheries. The developmental states in East Asia such as Korea, Singapore, and lately China and Thailand are a special type of post-colonial nationalism. Faced with the widening and deepening globalization of the Capital, developmental post-colonial nationalism has been undaunted: one of its typical strategies is to appropriate the discourse of globalization as an instrument of developing national economic interest.



Contemporary Northeast Asia is in the age of nationalism, nation-states, and empires: the long-suppressed energy of nationalisms in this region are waiting to be released, the expansion of the new empire has brought about the intervention from the old empire, and the hubris of invading global Capital has set off official and popular nationalisms of the natives. Under the nationalistic condition of Northeast Asia, the rule of game of international politics is still the classical realist principle of the balance of power. Suspecting each other, imperial powers are build their own coalitions and oftentimes coercing and harassing the weak and small, as if they were mere pieces in the imperial game of struggle for supremacy. The small states are left with two choices: either they manage to dexterously navigate through the dire straits between empires and artfully build cross-coalitions, or they are forced to accept coercion, annexation, and domination. Under the nationalistic condition of Northeast Asia, small states do not have the choice to escape from the empires.

This is the structural logic of international political economy and historical development. It does not change because of subjective human will or idealistic theorization. For instance, Takeuchi Yoshimi, the renowned Japanese cultural critic of the 1950s, idealized China and Asia with a view to reconstructing Japanese nationalism—the so-called “normal” or “healthy” Japanese nationalism. By the same token, the discourses of new Asianism or “East Asia” are largely aimed at reconstructing the ideological bases of nationalism in each country in order to pave way for a certain relatively progressive regionalism or coalition of nation-states, such as the proposal to build a “community of East Asia” cleansed of historical hatred with China, Japan, and Korea at its center. Both Takeuchi’s original proposal and contemporary new Asianism that was actually derived from Takeuchi are variations of progressive nationalism. These ideas of postwar Asianism have been meaning to domesticate, rather than abandon, nationalism. They have neither challenged the monopoly of the sovereign state system of the right to form states nor gone beyond the realistic principle of the balance of power. This is why we have never found any place for Taiwan in all these theories of Asianism, for Taiwan has yet to obtain the qualification for entering this progressive game—i.e., the status of recognized sovereign statehood. But as long as China would not throw away its irredentist claim over Taiwan, it is impossible for Taiwan to acquire the status, let alone to become a member of any form of East Asian community. In the end the high-minded inclusive ideals of Asianism cannot help but adapt itself to the reality of realpolitik, thereby becoming another ideology that excludes the small and the weak, or even one that rationalizes future imperial expansion. In this respect, the contemporary Asianism is far inferior to the greater Asianism propounded by Dr. Sun Yet-sen eighty some years ago, for Sun’s idea of “helping the small and aiding the weak” challenged at the same time the principles of imperialism, power politics, and sovereign state. At any rate, intellectualism cannot solve complicated historical and political problems. After all, one has to search for answers to political problems in the realm of politics. Such was the insight suggested by the famous Chinese American intellectual historian, Dr. Lin Yu-shen as early as thirty years ago, and it is still freshly penetrating now as ever.



There is no intellectualist solution to political problems left by history. Under the nationalistic condition of Northeast Asia, the new empire is emerging, the old empire refuses to leave, and the small states are either making coalitions opportunistically in between empires, waiting to seize the chance of becoming another power, or have no way out but to remain forever besieged. Both the struggle for supremacy between empires and the survival efforts of the small states are reinforcing each other’s nationalism. This is the political conundrum left by history. A structural predicament over-determined by the convergence of multiple factors, it has no intellectualistic solution. Had there been one, Immanuel Kant would have had solved the problem two hundred and fourteen years ago in his Eternal Peace: A Philosophical Investigation (1795).  





The weak caught between empires do not have the choice of escaping from empires. Shrewd like serpents and tame like doves, those blessed with a recognized sovereign state form dance deftly around empires, making cross-coalitions and at times serving as thugs and gatekeepers for the empires to prevent those even weaker from breaking free. Those without a sovereign state form, or those with one that is not recognized by the sovereign state system, cannot even afford to ally and bargain with empires. Weak and defenseless, as if waiting to be devoured, they are nothing but pieces of the imperial game of struggle for supremacy. The life histories of their nations are heteronomous, determined from without. Their nationalism was the contingent outcome of previous imperial struggles and successive colonization, and their democracy expresses a humble wish to break free from the destiny of heteronomy and to be self-determining. And yet the projects of nationalism of the contemporary weak and small peoples are unfinished and cannot be finished, and the democracies that they built through “daily plebiscites” are incomplete and must remain incomplete, for a finished project of nationalism entails the establishment of its own sovereign state and a complete system of democracy signifies the birth of a self-determining sovereign people, but both results would mean trouble—big trouble, for they would destroy the regional balance of power and disrupt the plans of imperial struggle for supremacy. For such plight of being caught in a state of permanent unfinished-ness of the weak and small peoples, contemporary imperialists have come up with an unimaginative, rather bureaucratic name: status quo. It should be noted, however, that contemporary imperialists are not necessarily born thugs—they are structurally induced expansionists. As Otto von Bismarck said, Prussia must “smash those Poles till, losing all hope, they lie down and die; I have every sympathy for their situation, but if we wish to survive we have no choice but to wipe them out”. Yes, the weak and small caught between empires either become pieces of the game imperial struggle or wait to be devoured by the victorious of a process of imperial struggle that is totally irrelevant to them. This is a structural existential tragedy: a tragedy beyond good and evil, a Sartrean tragedy of “huis clos” that is played not by the good and the bad but the strong and the weak.                       

Formosissima Formosa (the most beautiful Formosa)!—Alas, was Taiwan, since the moment when she appeared on the stage of world history, doomed to play the part of a trapped, beautiful soul struggling in vain, the part of the perpetual pariah?



What does the tragedy of Taiwan signify morally? For one thing, as a member of the pariah class of the sovereign nation-state system, our existence, together with that of the other fellow pariahs, testify to the rock-hard, immovable truth of realism in international politics as well as the hypocrisy of all the high-minded idealistic claims and moral doctrines that have been disregarding the situation of these pariahs. As Taiwanese, we cannot help being structural skeptics. We cannot help re-evaluating or transvaluating, like Nietzsche did in the moral realm, all the high-minded noble values.



The second point concerning the moral significance of the Taiwanese tragedy is that, instead of leading to nihilism, the structural skepticism leads to an acutely painful yet sobering desire to live on—not hope, but a desire to live and live on. Not only so. The kind of desire to live is not intoxicating but painful and sober, is not transcendental but secular. The constant humiliation borne by the pariah pains and hurts him, and yet the pain and hurt keep him sober. The shadow of destruction forever faced by the pariah makes him hunger for life, for existence, makes him hunger to exist in this cruel, meaningless, absurd, and nevertheless beautiful world. Such acutely painful but sobering desire is a desire that demands meaning and recognition from the meaninglessly cruel world. That is the form of pariah’s quest for freedom.

“It is exactly because the way is blocked that we are determined to continue on this way.” (Cahiers, Albert Camus). Yes, for we do not have any other choice. The world exiled us, but we are even more persistent than ever on facing it, for it is also our world. Our only world.



The predicament of pariah forced the formation of a moral people, but moralism neither ends the predicament nor liberates the pariah. In the eyes of the imperial powers, there is no practical meaning to the pariah’s predicament. Instead, it belongs to the category of the aesthetics of tragedy: “Looking on the destiny of necessary destruction, we sighed gracefully, our sophisticated souls thus cleansed. Alas! The tragedy of pariah redeemed the fall of empires…”

But then, what are the ways out, what are the redemptions for the pariah?



Tragic destiny needs revelations of redemption of a tragic kind. For instance, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. The human in ancient times predicted their own deaths, and this made them painful and desperate. To cure the human of the painful illness of foreseeing death, Prometheus brought them two gifts, blind hope and fire. While blind hope prevented the human from foreseeing death, fire brought crafts, which took them away from the dark caves, endowing them with reason and turning them to be the master of themselves. Nonetheless, the reason endowed was incomplete and the redemption imperfect. Aeschylus wrote, in the words of Prometheus, that craft is weaker than necessity—complete reason illuminates the truth like sunshine, but human beings out of the cave could only recognize fuzzy lights and shapes, without seeing the truth of life. Io, representing the human, said that now she suffered more but did not know the origin of her sufferings, and she asked Prometheus for the second redemption. Bound to the cliff, Prometheus predicted that the second and real redemption would come from the tribe of kings, i.e., the offspring of the thirteenth generations after Io. By remembering Prometheus’ prophecy they would awake and learn virtues and laws and come to comprehend the order of city. And then they would overthrow Zeus’s tyranny that was based on coercion and violence, and establish the first political community we call city-state.



The moral of Prometheus’ prophecy is that, it takes two redemptions and hence two times of craft-learning to escape from the tragic destiny: the first is the craft of making things, and the second is the craft of the city, the so-called statecraft. In the past we have learned the craft of making things, and that is why we have been so good at manufacturing and business, but now we have to further learn the craft of governing, the statecraft. We have to learn, to practice and to perfect the craft of governing. We have to make a just polis in this unjust world. But can a just polis lead the pariah out of the containment of empires? No one knows the answer. But what we do know is this: a just polis is a torch that highlights the moral ruins and hypocrisy of empires. We are neither born good citizens nor noble tribe of the kings; it is predicament that forces us to learn virtues and crafts, and it is containment that turns us toward the world. Forced to be good—this is the moral genealogy of the pariah, and another form of slave vengeance.

Therefore the liberation that the pariah can hope to expect is not a structural one but a self-strengthening of spirit and a self-repair of dignity. And there is preparation, preparation for the unknowable future history, when empires collapse suddenly, or when the empire begins marching eastward…

Preparing for freedom, or preparing for a dignified death.



“The heart soars as the wind blows”—these are the final words of the last emperor of the Ming empire who fled to Taiwan, written in 1683 when Taiwan was about to fall into the hands of Qing empire. Please allow me to dedicate these words to all the strong and proud fellow pariahs who are trapped in this immoral world and thus forced to be good.


This article was originally from: Shyu-tu Lee and Jack F. Williams eds., Taiwan’s Struggle: Voices of the Taiwanese, pp. 129-138. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.


Select Bibliography

  • Aeschylus  Aeschylus II   trans. By Seth Bernadette and David Greene. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1956.
  • Barry, Brian. “Statism and Nationalism: A Cosmopolitan Critique,” in Ian Shapiro
  • and Lea Brilmayer ed., Global Justice. New York and London: New York University Press, 1999, pp12-66.
  • Cheah, Pheng.  Inhuman Conditions. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Hegel, G.W.F. Introduction to The Philosophy of History, trans. by Leo Rauch. Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Political Writings. edited by Hans Reiss and trans. by H.B. Nisbet.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991[1970].
  • Lin, Yu-sheng. 1979. The Crisis of Chinese Consciousness: radical Antitraditionalism in the May Fourth China. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
  • Maier. Charles S. Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors.  Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York & London: W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Shin, Gi-wook. Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy.
  • Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006.
  • 浅羽通明. ナショナリズム—名著でたどる日本思想入門. 東京:筑摩書房、2004。
  • 小熊英二.〈民主〉と〈愛国〉:戦後日本のナショナリズムと公共性.東京:新曜社、2003[2002]。
Pariah Menifesto, or The Moral Significance of the Taiwanese Tragedy
Tagged on:                 

One thought on “Pariah Menifesto, or The Moral Significance of the Taiwanese Tragedy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *