A cherry orchard by the house.
Above the cherries beetles hum.
The plowmen plow the fertile ground
And girls sing songs as they pass by.
It’s evening—mother calls them home.
A family sups by the house.
A star shines in the evening chill.
A daughter serves the evening meal.
Time to give lessons—mother tries,
But can’t. She blames the nightingale.
It’s getting dark, and by the house,
A mother lays her young to sleep;
Beside them she too fell asleep.
All now went still, and just the girls
And nightingale their vigil keep.
– “A cherry orchard by the house” from In the Casemate by Taras Shevchenko
There is a version of Taiwan that I know and love, and then there is the version of Taiwan in the news. In the former, there are juicy mangos, brilliant royal poinciana blossoms, and majestic mountain ranges. In the latter, there are military exercises, air defense identification zone violations, and Chinese territorial ambitions. In a way, it is like the Shevchenko poem, where life goes on despite a vague but real prospect of war.
Over the years, Taiwan and China have moved away from being mysterious, faraway lands to frequent and notable topics in the collective consciousness of the world. Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait have become subjects of intense scrutiny as Chinese expansionism becomes ever more threatening to Taiwan’s sovereignty and democratic institutions. Taiwan is a sovereign state that China ahistorically claims as one of its provinces. China has also endorsed genocidal rhetoric such as “keep the island, not the people” and a “final solution” to the “Taiwan Question.” A rapidly modernizing People’s Liberation Army, the elimination of rival factions within the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, and growing ethnic nationalism have all furthered Chinese aggression.
We must stand up to authoritarian aggression by seeking out and celebrating stories of joy. While this sounds paradoxical, fighting against dehumanization and authoritarianism must involve highlighting humanity and the qualities that make people human, namely joy.
The weapon of authoritarianism is fear, deriving its power from coercion rather than public will. Thus, to a tyrant, there are no bigger obstacles than joy and hope. Joy is a direct affront to ambitions for a regime of terror and control. To them, joy is an act of rebellion, and to us, it is resilience against the steepest odds because it reminds us we are human. It makes our humanity undeniable to people who wish to deny it.
The sterile, bureaucratic, and robotic tone of the news often fails to acknowledge the joy and the humanity of the Taiwanese people. Taiwan is not just a pawn existing in a geopolitical game. It is home to more than 23 million people and over 1250 species of endemic plants and animals. It is home to diverse cultures from all parts of the world, a reminder of Taiwan’s place in the Age of Discovery and subsequent colonialism. Limiting our understanding of geopolitics to lines on maps and war footage overlooks this history, this identity. People in Taiwan are still people, and they do not spend their days worrying about Chinese military aggression. People raise their families. People go to work on the weekdays and markets and parks on the weekends. People pray at temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues. We choose to mark our special moments. We choose to fall in love. We choose to live in joy because living in fear is no way to live at all. To have hope and joy is to be defiant against authoritarianism and against all odds.
This is not to say people in Taiwan are oblivious to the danger. We know what is at stake. Our parents’ generation lived under a brutal military dictatorship from China on the same land that is now a democracy. And during our grandparents’ generation, it was a colony of Japan. An undemocratic future orchestrated by foreign leaders is not a mere hypothetical, but a part of lived history that is very real. And should China succeed in its annexation of Taiwan, the specter of authoritarianism will likely return. But the truth is, the threats will continue from China regardless of whether we pursue joy. That makes it even more important to live with joy and with dignity. To live with joy is not to live with our heads in the sand, but to live so our faces can be kissed by the sun.
Joy allows Taiwan to stand up for itself and write its own story. China has portrayed Taiwan as an unstable society to the world. Partly, this is to attack the merits of Taiwan’s fledgling liberal democracy in an attempt to delegitimize Taiwan’s political institutions. Partly, this is to dissuade outside interactions with Taiwan, which would bolster Taiwan’s standing in the international sphere. And neglecting stories of joy endorses the narrative that Taiwan is an island of desolation. Celebrating joy is fighting against the untruths that justify the actions of the Chinese war machine.
Taiwan does not need to be liberated. Quite the contrary, Taiwan is already free and showing the world its splendor. We are home to a multitude of cultures dating back hundreds and even thousands of years. We are the only state in all of Asia that enshrines marriage equality in law. We have peaceful transfers of power with free and fair elections. People watching Taiwan from afar: Please listen more to those on the ground, which, thanks to social media, is easier to do than ever. Listen to the news and the pundits, but also keep in mind Taiwan is a society, where everyday people do everyday things and create joy despite the animosity from across the Strait. Listen to the independent journalists, artists, scholars, and musicians that call this place home. The stories they tell are ones of their lives and their humanity, something no external threat or attack can extinguish.