Politics & Law

Does Taiwan have Greek roots?

09 August, 2023

By Jerome F Keating


The concept of an empire is not foreign to Western minds. The Greeks will easily point back to the empire, which Alexander the Great forged (333-323 BCE); it stretched from the Aegean to India and ironically even included their age-old foe Persia.


Similarly, the later Roman Empire at its fullest extent went from as far north as Hadrian’s Wall in England down to Africa. And it so enveloped the shores of the Mediterranean that Rome would call it Mare Nostrum.


Yet while other later nations would also come to periodic influence, whenever Europeans speak of governmental heritage, they look back to the Greeks. They gave Europe its sense of democracy (rule by the people) as opposed to the desire for empire. Even Rome with its “Senatus Populusque Romanum” (SPQR, senate of the people of Rome) would provide a faint sense that the people should somehow be involved in the empire.


Admittedly, not everyone in Greek city states had the right to vote and select their ruling representatives. However, the key point is that those who ruled had the sense that they were selected by and therefore responsible to the people of the city state.


This idea carried down through the centuries in Europe; it even lingered when regents claimed the “divine right” of kings.


Thus, democracy’s basic roots can be traced back to these Greek city states and in particular to that specific time when those states banded together to oppose two separate invasions by the Persian empire.


This Greek resistance to the Persian invasions created a lasting symbolic message and narrative along with many mythic stories.


The first Persian invasion (492-490 BCE) ended with the Greek victory at Marathon; it was a tactical victory on the battlefield but also one from which the sports world would later gain the measurements for Marathon runs, since a runner allegedly died in bringing the news of the victory from Marathon to Athens.


The second Persian invasion came a decade later; It included the battle of Thermopylae with the legendary 300 Spartans. In that invasion Athens would eventually be sacked but a final naval victory at Salamis thwarted the Persians.


Diverse years followed. There would be the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 BCE) and the period that established Greek philosophy: Socrates (470-399 BCE), Plato (428-348 BCE), and Aristotle (384-322 BCE). All this in turn would give way to the victorious empire building conquests of the Macedonian Alexander who in his early years had ironically been tutored by Aristotle.


What specifically stands out in this ranging narrative is that though the Greek city states did later fight with each other, nonetheless they had earlier united to fend off a larger foe, one which threatened the democratic governments of all.


The basic geopolitical message of their resistance to the Persian invasion is: “Because we Greeks so treasure our separate democratic independence, we will band together to resist any foe, however large, that threatens to destroy it.”


Thus even though the Greeks would later become part of the Roman Empire, Europeans still say: “We are all Greeks.”


Proceeding through the ages, the sense of democracy would come out in the “Magna Carta” where the knights of England refused to give the King carte blanche in rule. Their charter limited the power of the king. He could not, for example, impose new taxes unless they were agreed upon. Similarly, all free men had the right to a fair trial before a jury etc.


The same sense of democracy would develop over the centuries. The words, “We are all Greeks,” so came to represent the desire of all for democratic rule. No one nation could dominate. All, even the minute, non-threatening Baltic states would make their own claim for self-rule and independence.


In contrast, in Asia and in particular in China, a different narrative and mentality developed, namely that of the empire and with all subjects having duties and obligations within it.

The cyclical nature of China’s ongoing sense of empire is captured in the classic opening lines of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms: “The empire long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.”


That epic, written during the early 14 century Ming Dynasty recounts the last years of the much earlier Han Dynasty (168 BCE-220 AD).


The sense of democracy never arose here; instead philosophically Confucius (551-479 BCE) had presented the idea that the responsibilities between emperor and subjects were one of the basic five major relationships in life. This thought carried on through the centuries regardless of who became emperor.


What then about Sun Yat-sen and the 1911 revolution? Some would say that Sun used the sense of democracy to justify the overthrow of the Manchu Qing rule but how far that went beyond his dreams is open to question.


Was Sun primarily interested in developing democracy or did he simply need a modern-day reason to justify replacing Manchu rule with Han rule? What followed in China promoted the Han over the other races that had been conquered and were under Manchu rule.


Regardless, military leader, Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) quickly forced Sun to resign and go into exile as Yuan desired to not just be president but be emperor. Yuan would die shortly afterwards, opening the way to China’s warlord period, which in turn, gave way to the Civil War between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).


In this, Sun’s own periodic courting of Russia from exile and before his own death in 1925 left many unanswered questions. Was he a Leninist at heart?


Now, nearly a century later, China under the CCP rule clearly lacks any sense of democracy. With one party state rule the CCP stresses a return to its sense of empire with the mantra: “We are all Chinese.”


Using this mantra, the CCP hopes to unite the many diverse groups that the Manchus conquered. However, Tibetans, Mongols, and Uighurs do not wish to identify with such an empire nor with the mantra: “We are all Chinese.”


Tibetans have found that their culture is being destroyed and millions of Uighurs have been put in concentration camps. The Mongols lost Inner Mongolia but nonetheless they fared better since the former USSR supported the creation of Mongolia as a buffer state between it and China.


China’s history throughout this period is complex. However, as the CCP’s historic revisions continue, an empire thought prevails. There is no sense of Sun’s democracy or otherwise within their rewrite.


This brings us to Taiwan, a nation which ironically has achieved a democracy and a story we wrote about in a previous Euroview article “Taiwan, China, and the San Francisco Peace Treaty”.


The CCP continues to push its claim to Taiwan and include it under their narrative of “We are all Chinese.” But Taiwanese have developed their own narrative, namely: “We are Taiwanese. We won our democracy through sacrifice and struggle. We wish to keep it.”


Thus the ultimate ironic endgame for Taiwanese has become how they manage to identify with the message of the Greek city states. They recognize that their own hard-won democracy came with over forty years resistance to the KMT’s one-party state rule, White Terror and Martial Law.


Former president Chiang Ching-kuo’s lifting of Martial Law and the opening to a multi-party state in 1987 was a game changer. Free elections for the legislature subsequently came in 1992 and four years later in 1996 Taiwan’s president was elected by the people.


This presents the immediate difference between Taiwan and China. Taiwan echoes its version of the Greek message. “We are Taiwanese, and we declare the right to rule ourselves and to choose our own leaders. We will not submit to foreign aggressors.”


Taiwanese do not need to identify with an empire to feel important. Their identity is found in their democracy. It is their message to China and to the world.


Jerome F Keating is a consultant, educator, and writer who lives in Taiwan. He is the author of “The Paradigms that Guide Our Lives and Drive Our Souls”.

Go Top