At last year’s Berlin World Cup, Chinese Taipei took a major Korean tournament scalp when their men’s team beat the guys in white with a spectacular final ten from anchor Wei Chun Heng – a match-up repeated, with the same result, for far higher stakes at last year’s Asian Games in Jakarta.
This year once again, in Shanghai, the boys in blue triumphed again over the boys in white – this time in a World Cup semifinal. The jewel in the Taipei crown used to be their recurve women’s team. Now, it’s looking like the men, singing aside.
After following this sport for many years I can now hum the national anthem of the Republic of Korea on cue, but I had never heard the Chinese Taipei national anthem. It turned out to be serviceable, generic, and forgettable. Which is not that surprising, because ultimately it is a placeholder, or perhaps a kind of musical fig leaf. The anthem, the flag and the name ‘Chinese Taipei’ are all deliberately and carefully chosen to not quite mean anything at all.
The island of Taiwan as an independent entity became so after a civil war in China that raged in the late 1940s, and the mainland People’s Republic of China has never recognised the island, 110 miles off the coast, as a legitimate state.
The history of relations could fill several books, but the PRC has maintained its ‘One China’ stance for many decades, and refuses to have diplomatic relations with any country that recognises the Republic Of China, aka Taiwan, as an independent state. You say Taiwan exists, its bye bye trade, travel and everything else from mainland China. Because of this very real (and frequently carried out) threat, Taiwan today is still not officially recognised as an independent nation by most countries in the world, apart from a handful of developing countries and the Vatican, for reasons you can delve into yourself.
In practice, most developed nations maintain some kind of de facto diplomatic mission in Taiwan under the guise of a ‘trade federation’ or similar. An occasionally tense state of geopolitical equilibrium has developed, which appears to suit everyone in one way or another.
Cross-strait relations even spilled into archery. The former FITA president Francesco Gnecchi-Ruscone recounts a cunning bit of politicking he had to do involving Taiwan and mainland China in the 1970s, which you can find on the World Archery website. But in 1979, a cultural breakthrough happened when the International Olympic Committee passed what is known as the Nagoya Resolution, which allowed Taiwan to participate in Olympic sport.
To do so under the name ‘Taiwan’ would invite political disaster. The name Chinese Taipei was carefully chosen and negotiated to be deliberately ambiguous, implying it could be part of mainland China, yet separate – but perhaps not subordinate. (Taipei City is the Taiwanese capital). The name only exists in English; helpfully, the word ‘Chinese’ can refer to nations or just culture. A similarly ambiguous flag was developed with the Olympic rings, and a forgotten tune – not the official national anthem of Taiwan – was recycled as a ‘flag anthem‘, with new words stridently praising Olympism.
In Taiwan itself, out of direct edict or national pride, you will never see the words ‘Chinese Taipei’. The archery team’s international achievements are well-publicised, and their newspapers loudly trump: ‘Taiwanese archers won a medal…’ ‘Taiwan triumphs at World Cup….’.
The subterfuge may be accepted, but it is rarely mentioned, at least not in their English-language press. Issues of nationalism and independence continue to bubble away on both sides of the strait, and may not be resolved for many decades yet, despite the occasional recent bit of sabre-rattling.
I once asked a well-known member of the squad, via a translator, a roundabout question about what it was like to represent ‘Chinese Taipei’ and got a polite smile and a shake of the head ; unsurprisingly, there was absolutely zero chance of them talking about it.
For recurve archers, and many athletes, representing your country in the Olympics or another major tournament is the pinnacle of the sport. I don’t know what it feels like, when the current world number two team win and have to stand up in front of a flag and an anthem which represents a series of complicated, delicate political compromises, rather than themselves and whatever their sense of nationhood is. But I’d be interested to find out.
A version of this article originally appeared in Bow International magazine.