The world we live in influences the way that we look at the past. Before the second-wave feminist movement in the US in the 1960s, the field of women’s history did not exist. Once women became more empowered, then people “discovered” that there had been women in the past too. . . and started to write about them.


The process of globalization that has become so visible since the end of the Cold War has likewise led historians to look at the past differently. Just as “border crossing” is common today in multiple forms, so have historians now discovered many ways in which people and goods in the past crossed various kinds of borders.

One way that historians have done this is by looking at diasporas. There are many cases throughout history in which we find certain populations of peoples being scattered away from their homelands, and in the past twenty years many such historical diasporas have been studied and theorized extensively.

That said, there is one type of diaspora that I think is special and yet I haven’t seen it theorized as such, and that is what I call the “Cold War Confucian diaspora.”

In the twentieth century, during the Cold War, there were three “Confucian” nations in Asia that became divided, leading to the creation of diasporas: Vietnam, Korea and China.


In 1949, China became divided when the Nationalists fled to Taiwan. This created an interesting situation in that the Nationalists originally came from all over China, and then after 1949 these people from many different local “homelands” became stranded together on an island and could not return.


A few years after that, the Korean War left the Korean Peninsula divided, and people who originally came from the other side of the divide when the war ended, were forced to remain where they were.


Finally, with the fall of Saigon in 1975, many Vietnamese fled overseas and ended up in various countries. This dispersal of peoples led to the formation of what I think many people see as a more typical form of diaspora (i.e., people scattered from a homeland).

While the dispersal of peoples therefore took different forms in these three cases, there were two elements that united them all. The first was that these diasporas formed as part of the ideological confrontation of the Cold War. What this meant was that these dispersals were irreversible.

If you were a Nationalist who fled to Taiwan, you could not go back to the mainland. . . ever. The same held true for Koreans who found themselves on the side of the border that was not where there home was, and for Vietnamese who went overseas. There was no going home for any of these peoples.

KMT soldiers

The other common element between these three places was that they were all part of what we could call the “greater Confucian cultural world.” I don’t like the word “Confucianism” because it is so vague. However, what I think everyone who uses that term can agree upon is that filial piety is central to whatever we want to call Confucianism.

The fact that the peoples in these three diasporas were part of a cultural world that valued filial piety so highly and made it so central to their cultures, combined with the fact that the Cold War created a boundary that could never be crossed, made (I would argue) the disasporic experience for these peoples particularly traumatic (because they could not perform basic filial duties, like cleaning the graves of their ancestors, etc.).

Being forced by war to leave one’s home is of course traumatic for anyone. And of course it is very difficult (and probably erroneous) to argue that some forms of trauma are more severe or serious than others.

Nonetheless, I do think that this “Cold War-Confucian” combination was unique, and I hope that someone will examine this more deeply someday by making a comparative study of these three “Cold War Confucian diasporas.”