The Grandmaster and Taiwan's Young Ambassadors: Restoring Lost Honor

Avenging her father's murder is the fate of Gong Er in The Grandmaster, which opened this month in the U.S. The character, played by Zhang Ziyi, vows before a statue of the Buddha not to have children, get married or ever practice kung fu again before she goes and demolishes the man who killed her father. "Let's be clear," she says, after she has beaten her opponent, "it's not that you gave me our family legacy back. It's that I have taken it back."

In a similar way, a group of equally confident young Chinese women are leaving the confines of their home this week to restore -- if not their father's -- then their culture's reputation.

The government of Taiwan, in a move of consummate ingenuity, has sent a group of its top six students, all young women, all from Taiwan University (Taiwan's top school), on a bold journey to restore its place in the world.

The United States cut off diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979, after President Jimmy Carter chose to recognize the government in Beijing instead. Taiwan lost its seat in the U.N., and has been losing allies around the globe since.

This was so damaging to the Taiwanese sense of justice because they felt they had successfully carried on the legacy of traditional Chinese civilization, had fought on the side of the U.S. and its allies in World War II, and then remained a security outpost for the U.S. for decades.

Now, however, the Taiwanese are fighting back. President Ma Ying-jeou has recognized the inevitable: that Taiwan and China are bound, as the saying goes, like a lotus to its roots, through a multi-billion dollar network of economic ties. And he has liberalized contact with the mainland. This in turn has created an atmosphere in which tensions have decreased and Taiwan can make a few bold moves, if not kung-fu moves, then educational and political overtures.

The six "young ambassadors" from Taiwan are on a mission to visit the top companies and politicians on the West Coast of the United States in a two-week blitzkrieg rout of the political embargo put up against official representatives of Taiwan's government visiting the U.S. Taiwan's officials cannot visit the U.S. They, the Taiwanese representatives here, must hide behind hollow names, such as "director general of North American Affairs." They are not allowed to have their own embassies for fear of angering Beijing. Instead, they open commercial and cultural offices, where they handle visa transactions. These officials often cling fast to their beliefs in the culture of Taiwan and its now democratic transformation.

But the "young ambassadors" are not barred in such ways. As students, they are free to meet with executives at Boeing, Microsoft and with high-level U.S. government officials.

And they are doing so.

This week, they arrive in Seattle, for the last leg of their tour. The final stop: a visit to a leading local liberal arts university with a tradition for educational excellence, Pacific Lutheran University, where the young ambassadors will be taking part in highly experimental curriculum with their American counterparts (While the school is not religious, per se, it seeks to align itself with the best elements of Lutheran education, the same tradition that gave rise to highly inventive composers like Bach). In small classes, with their American peers, they will be seeking to find further solutions to the ongoing regional disputes in the seas around Taiwan. (Disclaimer: I also happen to teach at the school, which is why I know so much about the trip.)

And, just like real ambassadors, their suggestions and ideas will be listened to and mulled over by their government.

Some of them even practice martial arts.