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Taipei and the politics of memory

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Ringed by seven lanes of traffic, the East Gate of Taipei stands alone, a small, ceremonial structure under the watchful gaze of a pink monolith dotted with tinted green windows, the former headquarters of the Kuomintang. A band of red columns support palace eaves seemingly too large for the humble stone base, giving the gate a non-defensive, almost gaudy appearance. Mounted on the crenellations, a decorative plaque proclaims its name as Jingfumen, ‘Gate of the view of good fortune’.

A careful reading of the structure reveals that the upper half is not an original construction; like three of its counterparts, the East Gate was remodelled in 1966 as part of a “beautification effort” by the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT). Older generations of Taiwanese natives maintain that the original squat, thick-walled Fujian style was deemed inappropriate for the tastes of the authoritarian government, then composed entirely of mainland arrivals following the disastrous outcome of the Chinese Civil War.

To walk the streets of central Taipei, in and around the confines of the former walled settlement, was to delve into its layers of turbulent history. Bama and I had booked a room in Ximending, now a blaze of neon and oversized billboards, with teenage crowds perusing stalls of steaming street food. The shopping area had started out as a residential district built for immigrants during the island’s fifty-year Japanese occupation; its pattern of narrow streets and alleyways were reminiscent of those I had found in Japan.

Ximending is a literal translation of Seimon-chō, named for a western gate that was demolished alongside the rest of Taipei’s Qing dynasty city wall. In its place the colonial authorities laid out wide tree-lined avenues, relegating the four remaining gates to the middle of traffic circles.

Within sight of the Presidential Office, a handsome imperial structure built for the Japanese Governor-General, an empty tract of land was set aside as Taiwan’s first European-style urban park. In 1996 the city government rededicated the grounds, casting the spotlight on a subject that was, for many years, an unspeakable taboo.

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Ximending’s Red House Theater, originally a market under Japanese rule

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Looking down Zhongxiao West Road

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Inside 228 Peace Memorial Park

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The National Taiwan Museum, on the park’s northern edge

228 Peace Memorial Park commemorates a painful event that is buried deep within the Taiwanese consciousness. It began on February 27, 1947 with the physical beating of a vendor at the hands of Nationalist authorities, followed by the death of an innocent bystander in the ensuing protests. When protestors’ demands were ignored, the anti-government sentiment erupted into an island-wide insurrection the following day. 2/28’s violent crackdown by KMT troops eventually took the lives of 10,000-30,000 Taiwanese civilians, ushering in a period of government intimidation and martial law.

The repression continued following the Nationalist retreat to the island, with a second period of martial law lasting from May 19, 1949 to July 15, 1987, one of the longest ever imposed in modern history. Despite its democratic constitution, Taiwan would experience a reign of terror with the imprisonment of around 140,000 Taiwanese, mostly from the island’s intellectual elite, for their perceived opposition to the KMT.

Today the nation has come to terms with its ugly past, with official apologies, compensation for the families of victims, monuments and remembrance ceremonies. But reminders of that time are still reflected in the names of Taipei’s major arteries, their heavy-handed titles straight out of an Orwellian novel. On arriving by bus from Taoyuan International Airport, we were dropped off at Zhongxiao Fuxing metro station, named for its position at the intersection of Zhongxiao Lu, Road of Loyalty and filial piety; and Fuxing Lu, Rebirth Road. ‘Filial piety’ is one of those clumsy English expressions that cannot capture the true depth of xiàoshùn, a phrase which effortlessly rolls off the tongue in Mandarin. It was a concept I knew well from school, one of the highest qualities of Confucian teachings, which meant honouring your parents at the cost of the self. In this context however, it may have been chosen to encourage loyalty and piety for the state.

Along the northern edge of Aiguo Lu, Patriotism Road, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park occupies the site of a former military encampment. Inside, the fortress-like memorial hall is preceded by the National Theatre and National Concert Hall, whose glazed tile roofs and painted eaves recall those of the Forbidden City. The inscription over the main archway looked strangely new, and I realised that the vast space beyond was now ‘Liberty Square’, renamed for its role as the main venue of public protest in Taiwan’s transition to democracy.

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Ketagalan Boulevard and the Presidential Office

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Taipei Guest House, former residence of the Japanese Governor-General

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Scooters lined up by the East Gate

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The National Palace Museum, on the outskirts of Taipei

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Roofscapes from Liberty Square

Standing in the rain as it fell in needle-like drops before the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, I remembered the first time I came here as a 10-year-old, blissfully unaware of the immense weight of its history. This was an architectural icon plastered on guidebooks, tourism posters, and featured in countless clips of news footage: one that had come to symbolise the Taiwanese nation in the same way that the White House represents the United States. But now I felt a genuine discomfort in knowing what it stood for, as a shrine to a dictator who ruled over much of China, and eventually Taiwan, with a cruelty that spoke of his admiration for fascism.

When the Republic of China was established in 1911, founding father Sun Yat-sen envisioned a nation that would be founded on three principles: nationalism, democracy, and social welfare. His untimely death in 1925 meant that the reins were passed to Chiang Kai-shek, a close ally and protégé. As commandant of the Kuomintang’s Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou, Chiang had near-complete control of the armed forces, and the following year he led a grand campaign to drive the ruling warlords from the fractured north. Socially conservative and anti-democratic, Chiang took a personal interest in Sun’s idea of “political tutelage”, using the concept to suit his own ends. In time the self-titled ‘Generalissimo’ became China’s paramount leader, with a growing cult of personality that mirrored those of Fascist Europe. Before the Mao era it was his oversized portrait, not Sun Yat-sen’s, that hung over the gate at Tiananmen.

High school history had taught me about Chiang’s delusions of grandeur, but the more I learned about this man the more I became convinced that he was a monster. It was Chiang who masterminded the Shanghai Massacre of April 1927, killing more than 12,000 suspected Communists and dissidents in that city alone, a campaign which spread across the nation in a year-long bloodbath known as the ‘White Terror’. Conservative estimates place the death toll at 300,000, and others believe it may have been far higher. But while these measures came close to wiping out their political opponents, the KMT’s widespread corruption and the fascist repression of Chiang’s regime only served to bolster the Communist cause.

The rain continued unabated as Bama and I ascended the 89 steps, one for each year of Chiang’s life, towards the gaping entrance of the memorial hall. Rising high above the scene, the caisson ceiling peeled back to reveal a 12-pointed sun on a deep blue background: the emblem of the Kuomintang. At the back of the room sat the leader’s bronze likeness, dressed in traditional Chinese clothing and wearing a tight-lipped smile. On either side two guards stood sentinel, frozen in a rigid posture with helmets and bayonets shimmering in the daylight. I glanced at the fluid black characters inscribed on the wall, but the inherent irony of those words did not strike me until much later: Science, Ethics, and right above Chiang’s head, Democracy.

Hidden in a corner of the structure, an oversized lift took us down into the innards of the building. Its four-storey podium was not, as I had imagined, a solid mound of earth. Instead it concealed a network of hallways and exhibition rooms, doubling as a cultural centre of sorts. But as we walked the polished concrete floor, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that the propaganda-filled displays all shared the same sinister purpose.

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Liberty Square, Taipei’s version of Tiananmen

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Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

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Emblem of the Kuomintang

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Chiang Kai-shek in bronze

In Primary Six, the same year that I embarked on my first visit to Taipei, I was placed in the class of Zhāng Lǎoshī, Ms. Chang. Born and raised in Taiwan, and later educated in the United States, she was well-loved for her lighthearted ways. Perhaps most distinctive was her parody of corporal punishment, a light tap of a plastic yellow baseball bat that would have shocked parents, but we all knew it was meant purely in jest. Still, there were moments when Ms. Chang was serious, especially when she taught us Chinese culture and history. She would sit wistfully on her desk, perching herself by the whiteboard. “Mao had his Little Red Book, but in Taiwan, we had to memorise quotes from Chiang’s Little Blue Book.”

In hindsight, this parallel was one that I finally understood in Taipei: despite their beliefs from opposite ends of the political spectrum, the two figures were more alike than either side would care to admit. Aside from being anti-American dictators, both were children of the 1911 Revolution, staunch proponents of a one-party state, and reflective of an age in China’s history when there was no middle ground.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love your comprehensive narrative on one of the most important chapters of Taiwanese history. The thing is, despotism keeps repeating elsewhere in the world despite the perennial failure. The red book and the blue book remind me of Ruhnama, the book written by the late president of the Turkmens, Saparmurat Niyazov, who took despotism to the extreme extent. Anyhow, I’m glad we only spent two nights in Taipei and decided to spend more days in Lanyu. 🙂

    May 17, 2013
    • Thank you Bama, it was quite difficult to write this entry but I knew it had to be done. When we were there I found the CKS Memorial Hall quite chilling and disturbing at times. Knowing about the blood on Chiang’s hands, and the fact that he deliberately built up a cult of personality – I didn’t see how that was any different from the overt propaganda on the Chinese mainland.

      May 17, 2013
  2. It is absolutely wonderful to read your posts about Taiwan. I lived there for two years, and yet I learned more in this post than I did while I was there. Thank you for your blog!

    May 17, 2013
    • You’re welcome Mandy, I’m glad they resonated with your own experience! 🙂

      May 17, 2013
  3. I know very little Chinese history, but the bit you’ve shared here sure is scary! It makes me appreciate my American heritage, democracy, and freedom a little more!

    May 18, 2013
    • The fact that it all happened so recently – in many cases within the memory of our grandparents – is pretty shocking! The 20th century was a very difficult time for both China and Taiwan… hearing firsthand accounts from those who went through the chaos really puts things in perspective.

      May 18, 2013
  4. JoV #

    This is a great and wonderful introductory post to Taiwan. Although I am chinese educated but we were the Chinese of the South East Asia and far removed from what had happened in Taiwan. It was not until I read a book called The Third Son by Julie Wu that I began to understand a little bit more about Taiwan. Fascinating history and I do not blame Taiwanese to want to set themselves apart from the mainland. I feel it is like a case of an adult children saying to his or her parents, filial or not, that “we can be friends,bound by blood, but you don’t own me”.

    May 18, 2013
    • To this day there are still tensions between the native Taiwanese and what they call “waishengren” – those who were born on the Mainland and came during the Nationalist retreat. Under Japanese rule there was limited autonomy and cultural expression, but with the arrival of Chiang and the KMT they were quick to suppress both of these.

      May 19, 2013
  5. Interesting, I didn’t realize that the martial lasted that very long. But it’s good to learn that they’re coming to terms with its painful history.
    I enjoyed the photos of the city, especially the architectural details.

    May 19, 2013
    • Thanks Marisol, parts of Taipei were built to a surprisingly grand scale. As for the period of martial law, it’s not a very widely known fact outside Taiwan… but those 38 years have since been surpassed in Syria and the West Bank.

      May 20, 2013
  6. Hey James, I can’t wait to visit Taiwan!
    And by putting everything into context, historical and cultural, you give me a chance to find out more about the place and the people, so thank you!! 🙂

    May 20, 2013
    • You’re welcome Sophie! It’d be interesting to see what you think of Taiwan when you get there… the island feels quite different from Hong Kong, more traditional and laid-back. 🙂

      May 20, 2013

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