What’s in an anthem? Tsai Ing-wen’s difficulty with the national song

As the world heads into 2012, Taiwan moves closer to electing its next president. It is a tradition in Taiwan to hold a flag raising ceremony in front of the presidential hall at the start of every year, and hundreds of people make their way to the Ketagalan Boulevard early in the morning just to attend the event. Besides rejoicing in the pleasant atmosphere of seeing the “blue sky, white sun, red ground” (qingtian bairi mandihong, i.e. the R.O.C. flag) beat in the sky and the Honor Guards marching neatly before the presidential hall, the early birds are rewarded with hats and scarves produced in the colors of the flag. The high point of the event is marked by raising of the flag while the crowd sings the national anthem.

With the election just around the corner, it is usual for the candidates to avoid meeting in public and New Years Day is no exception to the norm. While President Ma attended the flag raising ceremony in the country’s capital, unsurprisingly, DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen and fellow supporters chose to celebrate the beginning of 2012 at their home base in Tainan. Compared to Taipei, Tainan’s fair weather was just right for early morning events, even though in this case, the flag might not beat as hard without strong wind attending to it. Aside from the lovely weather, what is worth noting in the “green” ceremony is that Tsai seems to have some trouble singing the national anthem. In other words, she skipped a few lines.

In order to fulfil the demands of good citizenship in Taiwan, one is expected to know the national anthem by heart and rise to the anthem whenever it is played. As a person who grew up and went through proper education on the island, Tsai can be expected to know the national anthem well, just like any other good citizen should.

So she missed a few lines, big deal right?

Wrong. Tsai’s refusal to speak the words should not be slighted, as it is loaded with political meaning, especially at this critical juncture. What Tsai deliberately skipped over may be said to be the essence of the anthem, Doctor Sun Yat-Sen’s teaching of the Three Principles of minzu, minquan, minsheng (nationalism, democracy and people’s welfare). The opening lines that Tsai “forgot” due to amnesia go as “sanminzhuyi, wudangsuozong, yijianminguo,” which literally means “the Three Principles of the People are the purpose of the party, for the establishment of a republic.”

Once the words of the anthem are put under the spotlight, it is clear why Tsai avoided singing the lines. Referring to the national anthem, the “party” could mean no other than the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party, which happens to be the DPP’s main rival in the coming election, while the “republic” could stand for no else than the Republic of China, something that has haunted Tsai ever since she began campaigning for the election. Party rivalry aside, the major stumbling block for the DPP effort to reclaim office is cross-Strait relations. With Taiwan successfully rebuilding its relationship with China under the KMT administration in the past three years, leading to increased economic exchange across the Strait, the DPP confronts the pressure of doing better or just keeping up with the KMT’s record. The dilemma that Tsai faces in this election is whether to hold firmly to the DPP’s basic purpose of Taiwanese independence in order to consolidate the support of party hardliners, or to ease up on the DPP’s basic position in search of potential opportunities for interactions with Beijing.

So far, the result has been disappointing. Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP has failed to provide the public with a clear platform on cross-Strait relations. With the election just around the corner, tackling the issue of cross-Strait relations may be “too little too late” anyways. If most of the voters in Taiwan are rational enough to focus on the big picture of peace and prosperity across the Strait, other considerations aside, the DPP can look forward to a tough battle ahead. The key variable now lays with James Soong, who succeeded in dividing the election in 2000.

In the end though, leaving politics aside, it is a pity to see Tsai make the effort to skip the first line of the national anthem. After all, “democracy” is one of the key values proposed in the Three Principles (and what the “Democratic” Progressive Party stands for) and “republic” has a much deeper meaning than just the now politicized state title of “Republic of China.”

Tony Tai-Ting Liu is doctoral student at the Graduate Institute of International Politics, National Chung Hsing University, Taiwan. He can be reached at: stanggoftibia1984@yahoo.com.tw

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