9 Jan 2023 – An analysis of twenty pairs of Taiwanese and mainland Chinese timelines of cross-Strait relations demonstrates a highly dynamic way in which the two societies’ conflict memories have evolved over two decades. These timelines were developed in the context of twenty weeklong Interactive Conflict Resolution (ICR) dialogues that the author facilitated. A cohort of civil society delegates from both sides of the Strait, each with five persons, participated in each of the dialogues and produced the timelines. A longitudinal content analysis of the timelines reveals that the participants’ experiences of cross-Strait relations have continuously altered their mental frames of the conflict. It also reveals distinct patterns of their recollections. These findings challenge the prevailing practices of conflict mapping and analysis that uncritically presume a static nature of conflict parties’ goals. Broader implications of the study include the usefulness of action research and applied practice for methodological innovations and theory building.
This study is a comparative, longitudinal analysis of twenty pairs of timelines of the historical conflict across the Taiwan Strait. The timelines were produced by young civil society participants in conflict resolution workshops from both sides of the Strait between 2005 and 2021. Drawing upon combined interdisciplinary insights from memory research and peace and conflict research, this study demonstrates how to operationalize memories of social conflict. It also demonstrates how to make use of the knowledge of memories for conflict resolution. In answering these questions, this study makes a distinct contribution to memory research by introducing unique data sets from ongoing conflict resolution dialogues. It also highlights the complementary roles of research and practice by applying the findings to conflict parties, conflict resolution practitioners, policymakers, and researchers.
Two concepts related to memory are introduced and defined at the outset. The first, social memory, refers to a social process of remembering in which both inputs for memory and outputs of memory rely on materials obtained from social interactions and learning (Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy 2011). The rationale for this concept is that the human brain cannot generate memory on its own without stimulating social interactions in which memory is shaped, expressed, and shared. The term “social” highlights a relational, contextual, and dynamic nature of memory. It rejects a mechanical image of the brain as an autonomous device capable of registering, storing, and downloading memory.
The second concept is conflict history, which refers to “an evolving cognitive universe of a conflict-affected society that seeks to develop a coherent explanation as to how the conflict has emerged and evolved into its present form” (Arai 2015: 227). Conflict history is a distinct psychosocial state of individuals and groups who live in a long-standing identity-based conflict. The role of memory in conflict history is not explicitly stated but it is implicit and essential.
This article first provides a brief history of cross-Strait relations and a profile of Strait Talk, a youth-led dialogue initiative from which conflict timelines have been adopted. Second, it presents the research questions. Third, the article discusses the study’s conceptual foundations and significance. Fourth, it explains the distinct characteristics of the data and the research methodology. Fifth, it presents research findings, emphasizing the structures and dynamics of social memory. Lastly, the article discusses the implications of the findings for memory research as well as for peace and conflict research. Throughout the article, the terms “Taiwan” and “(mainland) China” are used to describe the respective geographic locations on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
The Historical and Social Contexts of the Study
A Brief History of the Cross-Strait Conflict
The cross-Strait conflict is a consequence of the Chinese Civil War (1927–1949), which resulted in 7.5 million military and civilian deaths (White 2011). In October 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Chairman Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as it achieved a decisive military victory over the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT). In December 1949, some two million soldiers and followers of the KMT, who lost their territories in the mainland to the CCP, retreated to Taiwan. With the KMT’s retreat, the seat of the Republic of China (ROC) moved to Taiwan. Over the next three decades, the PRC waged strenuous campaigns for international recognition, ultimately securing UN recognition in 1972 and U.S. recognition in 1979. When the United States normalized its ties with the PRC, it severed its official ties with the ROC and instead established close unofficial ties with Taiwan.
Although the Taiwanese and mainland Chinese societies experienced profound social transformations over the next half-century, many of the defining elements of the cross-Strait conflict have remained intact, continuing to influence both societies’ perceptions of the other and their interpretations of the conflict’s historical significance. From the mainland Chinese perspective, at stake in the disputed political status of Taiwan is the Chinese need to ensure the dignity, integrity, and unity of the nation (Wang 2012; Arai 2016), a need rooted in their collective memory of the foreign interferences and internal divisions from which Chinese society has long suffered (Wang 2012). A central theme in this collective memory is the “Century of Humiliation,” a dark period of Chinese history that began with the Qing dynasty’s defeat in the First Opium War with Britain in 1839–1842 and paved the way for foreign invasions, unfair treaties, and colonial rule (Wang 2012). Viewed from this historical perspective, reunification with Taiwan, which the Japanese empire occupied between 1895 and 1945, is an important step that Chinese society must take to close this chapter of the nation’s history. Reunification is also an important step toward national rejuvenation—the CCP’s long-standing vision of a strong and dignified China that is respected on the global stage.
From the Taiwanese perspective, at stake in the cross-Strait conflict is their yearning for the freedom to choose their political future without outside interference (Roy 2003; Arai 2016), including freedom from military threat and economic control. A powerful driver of the Taiwanese quest for freedom and security is the rise of distinct Taiwanese identities (Zuo 2012; Lin 2019), which are grounded in the Taiwanese experiences of nation building that center around a Western-styled market economy, democracy, freedom of speech, security, and economic ties with the United States, and the enduring legacies of the Japanese rule.
Strait Talk and Walk-Through History
Strait Talk is a youth-led nonpartisan initiative for cross-Strait peacemaking. It regularly brings together three cohorts of five civil society delegates aged 18–35 from Taiwan, mainland China, and the United States for weeklong conflict resolution workshops using the Interactive Conflict Resolution (ICR) method. Widely practiced in diverse conflict-affected societies over the past several decades, ICR is a sustained, collaborative process of promoting dialogues and relationship building in which trained intermediaries work side by side with all sides of an international, national, and/or intercommunal conflict (Saunders 1999; Fisher 2016). ICR participants jointly analyze a conflict’s sources, find mutually acceptable means to contribute to its resolution, and apply lessons from the dialogues to social change initiatives within and across the societies to which they belong. While some ICR organizers conduct a series of workshops for the same group of participants, Strait Talk holds an intensive one-time dialogue for each cohort of participants.
Strait Talk was established in 2005 by student volunteers at Brown University in the United States to respond to deepening cross-Strait tensions. The Brown University chapter has held annual workshops for the past seventeen years and has offered a model for Strait Talk chapters at four other universities: the University of California at Berkeley (operating from 2009 to 2019), the University of Hong Kong (operating from 2011 to 2019), the National Taiwan University (ongoing since 2012), and George Washington University (ongoing since 2021). While the U.S.-based chapters recruit English-speaking participants, the other chapters hold dialogues in Chinese. By mid-2022, Strait Talk’s alumni numbered approximately one thousand. They play increasingly influential roles in business, government, diplomacy, think tanks, academia, media, and other fields.
Strait Talk’s ICR workshops include an exercise for conflict analysis called “walk-through history,” which is introduced in the early phase of the weeklong workshops. Developed by Joseph Montville, a former U.S. diplomat with a background in psychology, walk-through history is an experiential method of facilitating conflict parties’ self-reflections, dialogues, and learning about conflict history (Montville 1993). Strait Talk’s adaptation of walk-through history involves asking the three teams of five participants—Chinese, Taiwanese, and American—to meet separately for an hour. Each of the three teams identifies eight historical events that it considers most important in explaining the current state of the cross-Strait conflict and writes each event on a large sheet of paper. The organizers collect the three sets of events and use them to present three parallel timelines on the floor. The fifteen participants form a single line and walk slowly and silently along the timelines. As they walk, they reflect on the three versions of conflict history. This exercise is followed by facilitated discussions on discoveries and lessons learned (Arai 2015).
Since the founding of Strait Talk, the author has facilitated twenty-three ICR workshops—fifteen at Brown (since 2005), seven at Berkeley (2009–2015), and one at George Washington (2021). In twenty of the workshops, the author gave participants the same instructions for the walk-through history; this article analyzes the twenty sets of Chinese and Taiwanese timelines from these workshops. American timelines are outside the scope of this study and excluded. Table One summarizes the years and locations for the workshops from which the timelines were adopted.
Years marked with an (x) in Table One indicate the availability of timelines. There were no workshops in 2020 due to COVID-19. The inaugural 2021 workshop at George Washington was held remotely. Analysis of the data will follow.
Examples of Walk-Through History Timelines
Two sets of sample timelines are introduced for illustration. These examples highlight the promise of a comparative, longitudinal analysis. The first set is adopted from the inaugural 2005 workshop at Brown University that took place six months after the passage of the Chinese Anti-Secession Law, which affirmed Beijing’s preparedness to use force to prevent Taiwan’s independence. Explanations of the events in Table Two, as well as the events in Table Three that follows, are omitted because the tables are merely intended to show what walk-through history timelines look like.
|221 BC The Qin Dynasty unified China.|
|1947 February 28 Incident—The ruling Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), massacred thousands of Taiwanese people.||1945 Japan lost World War II. China regained sovereignty over Taiwan.|
|1949 KMT forces moved to Taiwan.|
|1978 Chinese Community Party (CCP) introduced economic reforms.||1970s The United States officially recognized PRC.|
|1979 The United States officially recognized PRC.|
|1979 US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act.|
|1996 Crisis in the Taiwan Strait||Late 1980’s Deng Xiaoping proposed One China, Two Systems.|
|1995–1996 The Taiwan Strait Crisis|
|2000 President Chen Shui-bian of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) elected||2001 Ruling parties changed in Taiwan.|
|2005 Anti-secession Law||2005 Anti-secession Law|
|2005 Lien and Soong from Taiwan visited mainland China.|
|1971 Beijing took over China’s seat at the United Nations.|
|1979 PRC and USA tied the knot.|
|1987 A limited scope of cross-Strait visits started. Taiwan lifted the martial law.|
|1989 June 4th Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing|
|1990 Wild Lily Student Movement, which called for democratization in Taiwan||1992 One China Consensus across the Strait.|
|1993 Koo-Wang Summit in Singapore (based on One China Consensus in 1992)|
|1996 Cross-Strait missile crisis|
|2003 Breakout of the SARS virus. Taiwan remained excluded from World Health Organization resulting in a growing demand for independence.||2000 Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) beat KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party, in democratic elections.|
|2008 Three Direct Links (air, commerce, mail) expanded across the Strait.|
|2014 Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan||2014 Sunflower Student Movement|
|2015 Xi-Ma summit (first top-level meeting)|
|2016 Tsai In-wen elected|
|2016 Upon election, President Tsai In-wen called Trump.|
In the 2005 workshop, the Chinese participants started their timeline with the unification of the historical territories of China in 221 BC, stressing their understanding of One China as having deep historical roots (Arai 2015).
The second set of timelines comes from the 2018 workshop at Brown and is shorter than the 2005 timelines. These timelines focus on the events of the past half-century and emphasize social movements and protests; this is especially true of the Taiwanese timeline. This shift in emphasis will be examined later.
- How can conflict parties, intermediaries, policymakers, and researchers make sense of social memories of historical conflict?
- How can they use their self-awareness and knowledge of social memories to facilitate negotiation, mediation, and dialogue?
- Are there observable patterns and structures of social memories of historical conflict? If yes, what do they look like?
- How do the social memories of historical conflict change or remain stable over time?
- What are the lessons from this comparative, longitudinal analysis of conflict timelines for the roles of social memory in conflict resolution?
The Study’s Conceptual Foundations and Significance
This article extends the existing literatures on memory research and peace and conflict research. It does so by demonstrating their practical applications to conflict resolution dialogues and negotiations.
[I]t is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories….There is no point in seeking whether [memories] are preserved in my brain or in some nook of my mind to which I alone have access: for they are recalled to me externally, and the groups of which I am a part at any time give me the means to reconstruct them, upon condition, to be sure, that I turn toward them and adopt, at least for the moment, their way of thinking. (Halbwachs 1992: 38)
Here, Halbwachs reminds us that an externalized content of individual memory uses languages, symbols, expressions of social identities, and other cultural foundations of thought development and communication. Furthermore, Halbwachs conceptualized the catalytic roles of commemorative rituals, metaphors, and other forms of collective activities in generating shared social experiences and collective memories (Halbwachs 1992).
The concept of collective memory pioneered by Halbwachs and developed further by contemporary sociologists is important to this study. Collective memory is a dynamic and interactive process in which groups internalize shared memories of their social experiences and express their remembrances together (Olick 1999). Collective memory takes shape through “social and cultural patternings of public and personal memory” (Olick 1999: 333). Institutionalized public processes such as national commemorations and ceremonies promote such patternings because they encourage members of an identity group to think and act together.
Thus, collective memory is a special type of social memory formed by a historical community acting together. Examples of collective memory formation include annual ceremonies in the United States commemorating the events of September 11, 2001 and annual Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day ceremonies in China commemorating the events of December 13, 1937. These large-scale public events create opportunities for historical communities such as states and nations to mobilize their constituents to recall, experience, express, and transmit their collective memories together. These shared, institutionalized processes of remembrance develop social memories by incorporating popular discourses, symbols, and other social constructs of thinking into the way people remember history. These coordinated processes of remembering are distinguished from uncoordinated, individual processes of social memory development in daily life.
Contemporary memory researchers have taken the structuralist perspectives of Durkheim, Halbwachs, and other pioneers further (Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy 2011). Eviatar Zerubavel has examined the structure of social memory—patterns of thinking that societies adopt when they remember the past and develop, sustain, and transmit collective memories from generation to generation. Zerubavel maintains that “the social meaning of past events is essentially a function of the way they are structurally positioned in our minds vis-à-vis other events” (Zerubavel 2003: 7). Based on his extensive survey of national calendars, religious holidays, anniversaries, genealogies, ethnic dresses, and other cultural artifacts, Zerubavel (2003) identified structural patterns of collective memory. These patterns include historical progress, decline, descent, zigzag, and cycles.
To fully appreciate the meaning of individual commemorations, then, it is important to examine them within the framework of the master commemorative narrative. The study of the collective memory of a particular event thus calls for the examination of the history of its commemoration as well as its relation to other significant events in the group’s past…[T]he commemorative narratives of special events often suggest their unique character, while their examination within the context of the master commemorative narrative indicates the recurrence of historical patterns in the group’s experience. (Zerubavel 1995: 7)
The concept of a master commemorative narrative provides a holistic, integrated way of understanding Eviatar Zerubavel’s theory on the structural constructs of collective memory. As demonstrated later, this dual focus on individual commemorative narratives in society, on the one hand, and on the underlying, integrative logic of a master commemorative narrative, on the other, provides a useful analytical framework.
A key concept that memory researchers use to explain the relationship between individual and collective memories is the technologies of memory—instruments of recording and communication employed to transmit social memory from person to person, from society to society, and from generation to generation (Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy 2011). Examples of technologies of memory include textbooks, films, pictures, memorials, museums, religious ceremonies, and national holidays. Jeffery Olick (1999) distinguishes a psychosocial, neurological process of remembering at the individual level from a collective, public process of remembering. He argues that a systematic, institutional use of the technologies of memory can turn individual acts of remembering into a collective experience of remembering (Olick 1999).
This study views conflict timelines as a distinct type of technologies of memory. It conceptualizes them as negotiated outcomes of the mnemonic frameworks produced by the ICR participants. Each mnemonic framework corresponds to a set of historical events that the ICR participants have selected to communicate how they understand the history of the cross-Strait conflict. The use of conflict timelines adopted from ICR dialogues as research data is a methodological innovation in action research—a broad range of methods and approaches to scientific research designed to promote constructive social change through an iterative, cumulative process of planning, action, observation, and reflection (Lewin 1948; Dick 2009). Action research is participatory in nature and promotes a decentralized, inclusive way of knowledge production. Conflict resolution researchers have applied action research widely and some have used it for ICR (Rothman 2018; Allen 2022). What distinguishes this study of timelines from other work on action research and ICR is the unique nature of the data, which operationalizes ICR participants’ internalized memories of conflict—memories that are externalized in ongoing negotiations and dialogues. Each set of national timelines was constructed by ICR participants from the same society as they tried to gain greater clarity about their own understanding of conflict history before presenting it to members of the other society. The technologies of memory, which these timelines illustrate, have come into being under “the pressures of the immediate sociopolitical reality” (Zerubavel 1995: 4). The “pressures” in the context of this study refer to the changing effects of cross-Strait sociopolitical dynamics on the ICR participants. They also refer to the psychosocial effects of ongoing ICR dialogues that set themselves apart from the artificial constructs of simulations and experiments. These timelines should therefore be distinguished from textbooks, calendars, and other artifacts taken from outside the context of ongoing conflict resolution practice. This distinction is important because it is these artifacts that have informed the existing literature on the roles of memory in conflict resolution.
This study, in short, demonstrates how to carry out memory research for conflict resolution within the framework of action research. Its significance lies in the distinct characteristics of the data introduced to operationalize the real-world dynamics of social memory in conflict.
Description of the Research Data
Additional information on participant selection explains the unique characteristics of the walk-through history timelines. As noted earlier, Strait Talk participants are eighteen to thirty-five years old. Eighty percent of the participants are graduate or undergraduate students aged twenty to twenty-five. However, recent years have seen a gradual increase in the proportion of young professionals in their late twenties to early thirties affiliated with business, government, and academic institutions. Men and women are equally represented. Nonbinary participants are included.
Participant selection is based on an open competition among applicants who have responded to the organizers’ public call, which is circulated through academic, professional, and alumni networks. A trained selection committee reviews application essays and conducts virtual Zoom interviews with shortlisted candidates. The selection criteria for U.S.-based workshops are: (1) a demonstrated commitment to working on the cross-Strait issue academically, professionally, and/or otherwise, (2) sufficient knowledge of cross-Strait relations to express informed opinions, (3) demonstrated leadership skills, (4) openness to dialogue, and (5) English proficiency.
The English proficiency requirement likely sets participants in the U.S.-based Strait Talk chapters apart from their peers in Chinese and Taiwanese societies because they either have studied abroad or have taken a significant amount of university coursework in English at their home institutions and have had more exposure to Western thinking than their peers. Moreover, their demonstrated willingness to listen to people from the other side of the Strait on controversial political issues indicates a greater degree of political tolerance than that of many of their peers. Still, observations from the seventeen years of dialogues suggest that the participants’ emotional commitments to their own national identities are deep and heartfelt (Arai 2015, 2016).
While data collection did not follow random sampling, it was highly systematic for two reasons. First, the twenty pairs of timelines were developed in response to the same instructions given by the same facilitator over the seventeen-year period. Second, Strait Talk has consistently followed the same criteria and procedure for recruitment. The consistency of the recruitment process has ensured that each cohort of participants immersed in cross-Strait relations at the point of their recruitment examined cross-Strait history by following the same instructions. In this process, each cohort developed a timeline to communicate a negotiated image of their historical present as if it were the only version of cross-Strait history they could imagine. It is worth stressing that those who came up with their own version of a timeline had no knowledge of different timelines developed by their peers in the same workshop or in any of the previous workshops. Figure One illustrates this distinct quality of walk-through history timelines as reflections of evolving historical viewpoints. At each juncture of cross-Strait history over the past seventeen years, each cohort of participants negotiated and presented a consensus view of their internalized images of cross-Strait history.
Each set of eight events does not necessarily represent a collective memory because each cohort of civil society delegates is neither expected nor able to represent their society, let alone their governing authorities. However, the fact that the participants did not receive any master list of sample events from which to choose but came up with eight or more events on their own and subsequently formed consensus on their eight choices indicates some level of group-based thinking. It is inferred, therefore, that the requirement of consensus-building has turned the timelines into negotiated, organized forms of social memory. It is also inferred that the timelines illustrate how the participants framed their images of cross-Strait history within the bounds of the oldest and latest events of their choice. Walk-through history timelines thus provide conflict resolution researchers and practitioners with a useful way of supporting participants in negotiation, mediation, and facilitated dialogue to deepen their self-awareness of social memory and apply their awareness to peacemaking.
Data Analysis and Validity Issues
As noted, each of the twenty pairs of timelines contains one Chinese timeline and one Taiwanese timeline, and each timeline consists of eight events. (As each pair contained five Chinese and five Taiwanese participants and there were twenty ICR workshops, the total number of participants was 200.) The collected data thus contains at least three units of analysis—twenty pairs, forty national timelines, and 320 events. The data was examined by means of content analysis, which Holsti defined as “any technique for making inferences by objectively and systematically identifying specific characteristics of messages” (Holsti 1969: 14). The research questions set forth above, including the one on the structures and patterns of social memory, guided the content analysis.
In conducting the content analysis, the author first identified general longitudinal trends across the twenty pairs of timelines as well as between the Chinese and Taiwanese societies. Commonalities and differences between Chinese and Taiwanese timelines were then examined. A comparative analysis of commonalities and differences identified the number of times that each cohort selected events. Analytical narratives contextualized and complemented the descriptive statistics on frequency.
One of the challenges to the validity of the data relates to the use of historical events. As memory researchers point out, social memories are products of social experiences, which are in turn shaped by social institutions and structures. Persistent social memories reflect their underlying mnemonic structures and patterns. By asking the participants to identify discrete events, the walk-through history exercise reduces the organic nature of social memory into snapshots of historical moments. While the exercise is useful for experiential learning, it runs the risk of fragmenting social memories. An analysis of events therefore requires a systematic, purposeful effort to identify and reconstruct the underlying structures and patterns of social memories (LeCompte and Schensul 1999). Countermeasures to mitigate this validity threat include explanatory narratives on mnemonic structures and patterns informed by contextual analysis.
Another challenge to validity is the difficulty in determining what counts as an event. Since the participants freely chose all the events on their own, different groups adopted different descriptions of the same events. Some participants identified a series of events (for example, a series of international events that led to the UN and U.S. recognition of the PRC in the 1970s) as one “event”; other participants chose only one specific event (for example, U.S. recognition of the PRC in 1979) to highlight the same historical process. Since the goal of this study is to develop a broad conceptual understanding of the dynamic nature of social memory, variability in the participants’ framings of events is interpreted flexibly within the bounds of the stated methodological requirements. Specifically, when there is reason to believe that different descriptions of the same event or the same series of events refer to the same historical process, they are interpreted and coded as such for data analysis. Such special cases are accounted for with explanations to ensure methodological consistency.
Finally, the limitations of the study’s generalizability are acknowledged. As this study builds on an analysis of conflict timelines produced by two hundred young, English-speaking civil society delegates who willingly participated in cross-Strait ICR workshops, its findings reflect the views of young, university-educated Chinese and Taiwanese willing to learn from each other. This study thus makes no claim of its direct relevance to senior government officials. Nor does it claim to reflect the general public in each society. References to the “Chinese” and “Taiwanese” perspectives in the following sections are not intended to represent the views of the officials or general populations of either society. None of these limitations, however, undermines the study’s methodological and conceptual significance, which lies in its demonstration of how to operationalize conflict timelines as data and how to carry out a comparative, longitudinal analysis of data adopted from a sustained, ongoing practice of conflict resolution dialogue.
This section presents findings from the longitudinal analysis of the timelines. It starts with a broad overview of the lengths of the timelines. It then examines the commonalities and differences between the Chinese and Taiwanese timelines. Lastly, it explores how social memory changes.
Lengths of the Timelines
To establish a bird’s-eye view of the twenty pairs of timelines, the length of each timeline is determined by calculating the number of years between the first and last events. In the tables below, “S” stands for a spring workshop at Berkeley (2009–2015). The rest of the workshops took place at Brown (2005–present) except for the 2021 workshop at George Washington.
An overview of the lengths of the timelines suggests that both sides generally understand either 1894–1895 (the Sino-Japanese War and the Treaty of Shimonoseki; see below) or the 1940s as the beginning of the cross-Strait conflict. The choice of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki (called the Treaty of Maguan by the Chinese)—which required the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) to cede Taiwan to the Japanese empire—is anticipated because of its significance as a watershed event in cross-Strait history. However, four of the twenty national timelines (China 2005, Taiwan 2007, China 2017, and Taiwan 2019, all italicized in Table Four) start with pre-modern events. Psychologically, the participants’ selection of these pre-modern events represents their internalized images of the conflict’s pre-modern origin, which in turn illustrates their perceptions of the historical legitimacy of their respective versions of conflict history.
|Year (2005–2021)||05||06||07||09||10 S||11 S||11||12 S||12||13 S||13||14 S||14||15 S||15||16||17||18||19||21|
Figure Two shows the trends in the lengths of the timelines over the seventeen years of ICR workshops. The 2005 timelines, which include the Chinese reference to 221 BC, are omitted because of their anomalous status. Figure Two does not account for the uneven lengths of the intervening years between the workshops.
The lengths of the timelines expand or contract from year to year. However, they generally stay within a predictable range—the mean length of the seventeen Chinese timelines (omitting the three anomalous years of 2005, 2017, and 2019) is 89 years, while the mean length of the nineteen Taiwanese timelines (omitting the anomalous year of 2007) is 79 years. These findings suggest that the two sides generally view the origin and evolution of the cross-Strait conflict as contemporary in nature but participants sometimes included pre-modern events. These findings also suggest a relatively stable nature of the bounded timeframes that the two sides have internalized about their respective images of conflict history.
Commonalities Between the Two Sides
There are three events that the two sides frequently incorporated into their timelines. The first of these is the Treaty of Shimonoseki (Maguan), which is in nearly half the timelines. The frequency of the treaty’s appearance suggests its enduring significance as a watershed event in cross-Strait history. References to the treaty are shown in Table Five.
|Year||05||06||07||09||10 S||11 S||11||12 S||12||13 S||13||14 S||14||15 S||15||16||17||18||19||21||Total count||%|
- The total Taiwanese and Chinese counts combined: 19 out of 40; 48 percent of all the timelines.
The next event, the founding of the PRC, is more recent and even more persistent from a mnemonic standpoint. References to the founding of the PRC are shown in Table Six.
|Year||05||06||07||09||10 S||11 S||11||12 S||12||13 S||13||14 S||14||15 S||15||16||17||18||19||21||Total count||%|
- The total Taiwanese and Chinese counts combined: 26 out of 40; 65 percent of all the timelines.
The PRC’s founding plays a definitive role in the two sides’ collective memories and both the Chinese and the Taiwanese participants included it in two thirds of their timelines. A close examination of the descriptions of the PRC’s founding, however, reveals that the two sides emphasized different aspects of this event. For example, the Chinese participants characterized it as “1949: the Chinese Civil War ended, the PRC established” (2011, Berkeley) and “1949: PRC founded (One China Principle)” (2014, Brown). In contrast, the Taiwanese participants described it as “1949: KMT, under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership, retreated to Taiwan” (2006, Brown) and “1937–1949: Progression of KMT’s eventual retreat to Taiwan” (2021, George Washington). When performing a ceremonious walk, the participants recognized the conspicuous differences between the two sides’ word choices. These differences presented them with opportunities to exchange personal experiences about why and how they had come to believe in the versions of conflict history they had internalized since childhood (Arai 2015, 2016).
- 1971: Henry Kissinger made a secret visit to Beijing to meet Premier Zhou Enlai.
- 1971: The United Nations General Assembly approved the PRC’s status as the sole representative of China.
- 1972: Richard Nixon visited China for the first time. The United States accepted the principle of One China under the PRC.
- 1979: The U.S.–China Joint Communique normalized bilateral ties. The United States formally shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
- 1979: The U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which authorized Washington to maintain unofficial relations with Taiwan and to sell defensive arms to Taiwan.
Importantly, all forty timelines include at least one action taken by the U.S. in the 1970s. Although the Chinese and the Taiwanese selected different events from this period, the two sides’ consistent references to the influential role of the United States in cross-Strait history are notable.
Differences Between the Two Sides
The different events that the two sides have chosen to develop their timelines illustrate contested views of cross-Strait history. As discussed below, such contested views are deeply connected to what Yael Zerubavel (1995) refers to as master commemorative narratives. To illustrate the contested nature of their views, we first examine the events that the Chinese participants more frequently chose, and then examine the events that the Taiwanese participants more frequently chose.
Table Seven shows the frequency of references to the 1992 Consensus, which is a shared understanding between Beijing and Taipei that the two sides belong to China. It builds upon a tacit acceptance of the unresolved state of the question of whether the PRC represents the whole of China or the two sides of the Strait constitute two distinct parts of a divided China (Bush 2005). While the proponents of the 1992 Consensus maintain that it resulted from a cumulative cross-Strait exchange of official memorandums, Taiwanese opponents categorically reject this perspective (Bush 2005).
|Year||05||06||07||09||10 S||11 S||11||12 S||12||13 S||13||14 S||14||15 S||15||16||17||18||19||21||Total count||%|
- The total Taiwanese and Chinese counts combined: 23 of 40; 58 percent of all the timelines.
Adopted by seventy percent of the Chinese timelines, the 1992 Consensus is arguably the most essential part of the Chinese participants’ collective memory of the cross-Strait conflict. The Taiwanese rejections of its validity often led to heated debates during the workshops (Arai 2016). Its mnemonic significance is even more conspicuous when it is compared to another event, the Anti-Secession Law. The frequency of references to the law is shown in Table Eight.
|Year||05||06||07||09||10 S||11 S||11||12 S||12||13 S||13||14 S||14||15 S||15||16||17||18||19||21||Total number||%|
- The total Taiwanese and Chinese counts combined: 16 out of 40; 40 percent of all the timelines.
In March 2005, the PRC adopted the Anti-Secession Law, which declared Beijing’s resolve to use force if Taiwan takes steps toward a formal separation (Embassy of the PRC 2005). The law signaled Beijing’s strong response to the heightened pro-independent sentiment in Taiwan as demonstrated by the victory of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Chen Shui-bien in the 2004 presidential election, which gave him a second four-year term (Bush 2005). The Chinese participants’ attention to the Anti-Secession Law was anticipated because its passage was well-publicized by the Chinese government.
However, what is less obvious is the Chinese participants’ underlying psychological and mnemonic rationale for consistently placing both the Anti-Secession Law and the 1992 Consensus in their timelines. One way of interpreting their rationale is that they viewed the Anti-Secession Law as a means to prevent Taiwanese independence (which would pose an existential threat to One China), while considering the 1992 Consensus as a basis for cross-Strait reunification. An underlying mnemonic rationale that connects these two events is the Chinese yearning for national unity, territorial integrity, and respect. This observation of the Chinese participants’ mnemonic rationale is consistent with the high frequency of their references to both events over the past seventeen years. It is supported by the fact that they were well-educated English-speaking students and professionals who willingly came to the dialogues to learn about Taiwanese perspectives. More conservative members of Chinese society who may not wish to learn from Taiwanese perspectives are likely to be even more strongly attached to the mnemonic significance of the two events.
We now turn to the events that the Taiwanese participants referenced frequently, including the February 28 incident. Table Nine shows the frequency of references to this event.
|05||06||07||09||10 S||11 S||11||12 S||12||13 S||13||14 S||14||15 S||15||16||17||18||19||21||Total count||%|
- The total Taiwanese and Chinese counts combined: 8 out of 20; 20 percent of all the timelines.
The February 28 incident was a public protest that the Taiwanese people organized in 1947 against the corruption and injustice of the Chinese Nationalist (KMT) authorities from the mainland (Roy 2003). The KMT forces killed thousands of Taiwanese people to suppress the protest. The Taiwanese workshop participants who incorporated February 28 in their timelines noted that this incident deepened Taiwanese distrust in the mainland and increased their desire for independence.
While the seven of the twenty Taiwanese timelines (35 percent) may appear modest in number, it is still high by the Taiwanese standard because the Taiwanese selection of events was generally less convergent than the Chinese. However, a more fundamental reason for highlighting the Taiwanese reference to February 28 is its highly evocative and representative status in relation to the broader universe of Taiwanese experiences in the making of their identity and their memories of the conflict across the Strait. To illustrate this universe further, it is useful to mention the 1994 Qinandao Lake Incident. The Taiwanese participants in the 2006 and 2016 workshops incorporated this incident into their timelines. It involved a Chinese criminal gang hijacking a tourist ship in the Qinandao Lake in Zheijian Province, China. Twenty-four Taiwanese tourists, six Chinese crew, and two Chinese tour guides were on board and all tragically died. According to the Taiwanese dialogue participants, the Taiwanese public was outraged at the Chinese authorities’ inadequate response to the death of the Taiwanese passengers. The participants noted that the incident deepened the Taiwanese resolve to seek independence. Similar sentiments of frustration and resolve were expressed by the 2018 Taiwanese participants, whose timeline included the rise of the Taiwanese public’s demand for attaining observer rights in the World Health Organization to cope with the 2002–2004 outbreak of a severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in China (Zuo 2012). Repeated observations of the participants’ reflections on the walk-through history exercises suggest that the highly emotional events both shape and symbolize the Taiwanese experiences of voicelessness, powerlessness, and victimhood and drive their yearning for freedom from insecurity and control (Arai 2015, 2016).
As Table Nine indicates, the Chinese participants rarely paid attention to the February 28 incident, let alone the other two events of mnemonic significance to Taiwanese society and identity. In fact, most of the Chinese participants had never heard of February 28. The absence of Chinese attention to Taiwanese events mirrors the Taiwanese general inattention to the Anti-Secession Law and other expressions of One China. The participants found candid discussions on the reasons for this gap in knowledge and perception to be both challenging and revealing. Opportunities to acquire a basic knowledge of the historical events and human experiences that matter to the other side have often been transformative (Arai 2015, 2016).
Changes and Continuities
The final question to be explored in this section is how social memory of conflict changes. A useful starting point of inquiry is the two sides’ references to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). Established in 2010 as a de facto cross-Strait free trade agreement, the ECFA was a significant landmark in the long cross-Strait history of enmity and mistrust. Under this agreement, Taiwan decided to lower tariffs on 539 commodities exported to China while China offered to lower tariffs on 267 commodities bound for Taiwan. The two sides also expressed their commitment to negotiate a separate agreement to reduce tariffs on cross-Strait services in such sectors as banking and tourism.
Table Ten shows that the ECFA, which appeared in nine of the eighteen timelines (50 percent) developed between 2010 and 2014, never reappeared between 2015 and 2021. This shift paralleled the broader political shift that Taiwanese society was undergoing during this period. A powerful driver of this shift was the convergence of public mobilization efforts led by the DPP, independent youths, and other opponents of the KMT administration’s cross-Strait economic liberalization policy. Some of these opponents argued that KMT’s trade policy would harm Taiwanese farmers, small-to-medium size companies, and other vulnerable constituents. Others, including independent youths, distrusted the political establishments altogether and rejected their cross-Strait policies (Lin 2019).
|10 S||11 S||11||12 S||12||13 S||13||14 S||14||15 S||15||16||17||18||19||21|
On March 18, 2014, over 300 Taiwanese students dissatisfied with the government’s attempt to ratify a cross-Strait service agreement occupied the Taiwanese parliament and demanded direct talks with President Ma Ying-jeou. Their protest, called the Sunflower Movement, generated significant publicity and political impact both nationally and internationally. The movement successfully convinced the Ma administration to cancel the scheduled ratification of the cross-Strait service agreement. Moreover, it played a significant role in KMT’s decline and the subsequent victory of DDP leader Tsai Ing-wen in the 2016 presidential election (Lin 2019). The participants in the Strait Talk workshops convened during this period shared their own experiences of the shifts in cross-Strait relations. Reflecting these sociopolitical shifts, eleven of the fourteen walk-through timelines (79 percent) produced since 2015 mentioned the Sunflower Movement, as shown in Table Eleven.
|Year||15 S||15||16||17||18||19||21||Total & frequency|
It is significant that all the seven Taiwanese cohorts and over two thirds of the Chinese cohorts have mentioned the Sunflower Movement since 2015. The participants’ consistent emphasis on the Sunflower Movement since 2015 stands in sharp contrast to the disappearance of the ECFA from the timelines since 2015. This is an important mnemonic shift because all the cohorts of Strait Talk participants developed their timelines independently and still, the systemic shift from one way of remembering to another is clear and compelling. The shift illustrates how individuals from different societies can unknowingly act in unison. It also illustrates that people emphasize and de-emphasize—and perhaps even remember and forget—facts and experiences according to the prevailing modes of thinking and interacting.
Moreover, the insight from this mnemonic shift combined with the two sample timelines (Tables Two and Three) presented earlier suggests that since 2014, Strait Talk participants have framed cross-Strait history differently than their predecessors. The participants—especially the Taiwanese—who have attended the workshops since 2014 have generally expressed cross-Strait history as a history of grassroots social movements. As noted in the discussion of Tables Two and Three, the greater emphasis on social movements is evident in the 2018 timelines relative to the 2005 timelines.
In short, the analysis of the timelines has demonstrated that social experience shapes social memory. It has also demonstrated that social memory is inherently subjective and dynamic.
The findings from this study provide a useful foundation for answering the research questions set forth above in the context of cross-Strait civil society dialogues. This final section returns to two of the research questions, those on continuity and change and on the structures and patterns of social memory. Discussion of these two questions highlights this study’s contributions to memory research. The remainder of this section addresses the other questions, which focus on the operationalization of social memory as well as on the implications of the findings for conflict resolution. Questions for future research are also identified.
The prominence of the mnemonic attention to the Sunflower Movement and the decline in the ECFA’s relevance cogently illustrate the emergence, evolution, and transformation of social memory. This finding suggests that social memory stays alive when there are underlying social conditions and experiences that sustain the motivations and consciousness of individuals and groups who keep the memory alive. By implication, it also suggests that social memory becomes dormant once its underlying conditions and experiences cease to exist. This finding reaffirms the enduring relevance of the Durkheimian thesis holding that institutionalized beliefs and modes of behavior, exemplified by the Taiwanese student movement for political mobilization, play a catalytic role in the formation and sustenance of social memory.
The finding on continuity and change offers a partial response to the related question on whether one may identify patterns and structures of social memory because an emergence and decline of social memory is a subtype of mnemonic structure in and of itself (Zerubavel 2003). Complementary to this finding, the preceding analysis has also shown that the two sides’ social memories of both the beginnings and the lengths of their conflict histories follow recognizable patterns. Their images—their “mnemonic universes”—of conflict history are by and large confined to contemporary history; their timelines typically start with the 1890s or the 1940s. (Exceptions to this pattern, such as a timeline that began in 221 BC, are noted.) In addition, the two sides’ shared points of reference, such as the 1992 Consensus and the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, illustrate watershed moments that reflect mnemonic peaks, downturns, and/or other forms of social expression. These findings therefore confirm the applicability of Eviatar Zerubavel’s concept of mnemonic structures and patterns to conflict resolution.
While the findings from this study generally reaffirm the usefulness of the established concepts of memory research, their innovative quality lies in the uniqueness of the research data adopted from the ongoing conflict resolution dialogues. These findings make memory research more applicable and credible from the viewpoint of conflict parties, resolution practitioners, government leaders, and civil society actors.
With respect to the operationalization and application of social memory to negotiation, mediation, and dialogue facilitation, there are at least five lessons from this study. First, social memory of conflict is historically constructed and subjective. While this lesson may be self-evident to researchers, it is far from obvious to conflict parties. Having facilitated a walk-through history exercise over twenty times, the author has repeatedly observed participants’ expressions of surprise, intense curiosity, and even utter disbelief upon exposure to different versions of cross-Strait history. The comparative analysis of the cross-Strait timelines therefore reaffirms not only the subjectivity and relativity of social memory but also the usefulness of deep self-reflection, open-mindedness, and humility in conflict analysis and resolution.
Second, social memory is dynamic. It takes shape, changes its expressions, and declines. Conflict parties, resolution professionals, researchers, and policymakers must maintain awareness of this dynamic nature of social memory. They must continuously reflect on their own mental frames as well as on those of other stakeholders because their mental frames influence how they remember and characterize their conflict histories and experiences. A description of the cross-Strait conflict produced in the early 2010s that highlighted the ECFA, for instance, would be unhelpful to those seeking an updated conflict analysis in the immediate aftermath of the Sunflower Movement. This example illustrates that a simple updating of “facts” in a conflict timeline is insufficient when intermediaries and conflict resolution professionals work with conflict parties. Interpretations of an updated conflict timeline must be contextualized and complemented by ongoing interactions with the conflict parties’ lived experiences as well as with the mental frames they apply to select or deselect relevant “facts.”
Third, the dynamic nature of the mnemonic frameworks of conflict parties has profound implications for conflict analysis because when conflict parties’ mnemonic frameworks shift, their conflict experiences—and indeed their “realities”—shift. Of particular importance is the effects of shifting mnemonic frameworks on the parties’ interpretations of conflict history because their interpretations inform, frame, and even justify their goals in negotiation. Since many conflict researchers and professionals define conflict as goal incompatibility (Mitchell 1981; Galtung 2010), they must recognize that an awareness of conflict parties’ shifting goals is essential to conflict analysis. The literature on peace and conflict research is mostly silent on this point, generally viewing conflict mapping and analysis as exercises that build upon static images of unchanging conflict goals (Fisher et al. 2000; Schrock-Shenk 2000). The findings from this study, however, highlight the imperative of recognizing and naming the shifting mnemonic frames explicitly and building a method of conflict analysis that considers the dynamic evolution of mnemonic frameworks. The image of the shifting vantagepoints (Figure One) presents a useful starting point of inquiry for this purpose. Stated more broadly, the dynamic interplay of social memory and conflict analysis is an understudied theme to which the field of peace and conflict research must devote greater attention (Wang 2018).
Fourth, we need to find practical ways to apply the theoretical knowledge of mnemonic structures and patterns to negotiation, mediation, and dialogue facilitation. This is an important area of inquiry because conflict parties and resolution practitioners rarely attain the high level of self-awareness necessary to recognize their own mnemonic structures and patterns. Metaphorically, this challenge is similar to sea fish trying to imagine what it would be like to live in fresh water. An important first step in making such a cognitive jump is to acknowledge that there exist alternative mnemonic structures and patterns (Galtung 2014; Simmons 2020). This is precisely the step that the Chinese participants took to recognize the Taiwanese mnemonic reasoning for February 28, and that the Taiwanese participants took to recognize the Chinese mnemonic reasoning for the 1992 Consensus.
This study shows the usefulness of the walk-through history exercise in enabling dialogue participants to recognize alternative mnemonic structures and patterns. Previous studies have shown how to use experiential exercises to engage social memories of conflict and identity-based conflicts. Culturally appropriate use of maps, metaphors, ceremonies, theater, and well-designed kinesthetic movements can facilitate deep learning and self-reflection that can lead to discoveries of mnemonic structures and patterns (Lederach 1995; LeBaron 2002; Cohen, Verea, and Walker 2011). While formal settings in which high-level officials interact are not always conducive to such creative acts, they can still incorporate humanizing experiences and narratives of conflict history from which elements of mnemonic structures and patterns can be revealed and inferred. A willingness to ask thoughtful probing questions on concrete human experiences and narratives can go a long way toward infusing mnemonic sensitivity into these settings (Galtung 1988).
Fifth and finally, knowledge of the dynamic nature of social memory must be complemented by a keen awareness of the sustained underlying structures of social memory that resist change. Such underlying structures parallel master commemorative narratives. The Chinese commitment to national unity and integrity and the Taiwanese yearning for freedom and security illustrate such deep mnemonic structures and narratives. It is important to pay attention to the undercurrents of social memory of this depth and magnitude because they can outlive short- to medium-term mnemonic shifts, such as dialogue participants’ shifting references to the ECFA and the Sunflower Movement. However powerful these conspicuous shifts may be to those undergoing them, they are still transient in relation to the underlying mnemonic structures. Keeping this multilayered view of social memory in mind, one must recognize both short-term and long-term dynamics of social memory and work on them simultaneously. To apply this dual focus to cross-Strait dialogues, for example, the facilitators and participants must monitor the shifting nature of social memory of the kind illustrated by the rise of the Sunflower Movement while also staying attentive to the enduring nature of the unresolved “One China vs. Taiwanese independence” dilemma. Ultimately, a dual focus requires finding an effective, sustainable way of turning each of the emerging shifts into a strategic opportunity to engage deep-seated mnemonic structures (Arai 2022). A key to such a long-term process of incremental change is a sustained effort to highlight the humanizing qualities and foundations of master commemorative narratives—for example, concrete human experiences and social memories that illustrate why and how one has come to embrace either Chinese unity or Taiwanese freedom as a cause (Arai 2016). Such human experiences tend to be lost in political debates on One China, Taiwanese independence, and the status quo of strategic ambiguity. The task of peace and conflict researchers, then, is to demonstrate how a dual approach works in both theory and practice and how to humanize the social and political contexts in which contested views of conflict history are expressed.
In conclusion, this article presents findings from a comparative, longitudinal analysis of Chinese and Taiwanese timelines adopted from seventeen years of action research. Drawing upon the combined insights from memory research and peace and conflict research, it has operationalized social memory of historical conflict. It has also proposed practical ways of applying concepts of social memory to conflict resolution. It is hoped that these findings will stimulate a broader discussion on the usefulness of applied practice for methodological and conceptual innovation.
Professors Kevin Avruch and Zheng Wang, Dr. Silvia Glick, Paul Lee, and two anonymous reviewers provided useful feedback on the earlier versions of this article. Ryan Chiu translated the abstract into Chinese. A growing network of Strait Talk organizers, co-facilitators, and participants have supported the author in carrying out the action research that resulted in this article. Their contributions are acknowledged with appreciation.
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Tatsushi Arai is an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kent State University, USA. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development, Environment with extensive practitioner experience. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: https://works.bepress.com/tatsushi_arai/