Postcolonial Remembering in Taiwan
In a 2017 Facebook post, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen addressed Taiwan’s work in remembering atrocities and contrasted it with China’s efforts to stifle discussion of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In response, the Chinese Communist Party insisted that Taiwan’s 228 Massacre (from February 28, 1947) was not in response to the island’s emerging pro-democracy movement, but a pro-Communist rebellion. In contemporary Asia, such conflicts over memory touch upon issues of contested nationalism, political fortunes, and forms of public communication. In a new article in NCA’s Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Stephen J. Hartnett, Patrick Shaou-Whea Dodge and Lisa B. Keränen dive into these issues by addressing Taiwan’s post-World War II history and how it is remembered through two public sites: the 228 Memorial Museum and the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park.
The History of the 228 Massacre
In 1945, the Kuomintang party (KMT) arrived from mainland China, where it had been fighting with Mao’s Communist forces, to colonize Taiwan. When the KMT soldiers retreated to Taiwan, they stole clothing, food, and anything else they wanted from the Taiwanese people. Once in power in Taiwan, the majority of the KMT government’s budget was devoted to military spending, with the goal of retaking China. Because of economic mismanagement during the post-World War II period, Taiwan struggled with rampant inflation, making it difficult for people to purchase necessities.
On February 27, 1947, KMT police assaulted an individual who was selling black market cigarettes in Taipei. Witnesses to the violence were angered by what they saw and, in the chaos that followed, the police killed a bystander. That night, outrage at the police and the KMT spread across the city, and on the following day, February 28, people organized to take control of a government building. During a march in front of the Executive Office of the Taiwan Provincial Administration, guards machine-gun sprayed the group of protestors, which led to further violent conflict between Taiwanese and Chinese people on the island. Consequently, the KMT government declared martial law and prohibited travel. On March 1, more protestors were massacred during a march on the Railway Bureau.
Inspired by American democracy, Taiwanese leaders attempted to negotiate with the KMT for reforms. However, unbeknownst to the negotiators, the KMT was already planning to bring in more troops from China. On March 8, KMT soldiers arrived and quashed Taiwan’s political leaders. For nearly 40 years following this event, the Taiwanese people could not speak of it without risking punishment or even death. This post-war wave of repression was called “the White Terror” and left the nation stewing in a decades-long malaise. Today, as a part of the nation’s now-thriving democracy, Taiwan is attempting to reckon with its buried past, hence engaging in postcolonial remembering and transitional justice.
The 228 Memorial Museum
The 228 Memorial Museum in Taipei is located in a building that once housed a KMT radio station. According to the article, “the museum was dedicated on February 28, 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of 228, when then KMT Vice-President Lien Chan apologized to more than 1,000 survivors and their families for the ‘historic mistakes’ of the Nationalist Party.”
The museum places the 228 Massacre within Taiwan’s broader struggle for independence and democracy. Visitors follow a set path through the museum that includes a nod to earlier organizations that attempted to liberate Taiwan from colonial forces, such as the New People Association of Taiwan, which was formed in 1920. The museum also addresses Taiwan’s struggle to survive under the influence of outside powers, including China, Japan, and the United States, during World War II and the Cold War.
This context is established on the museum’s first floor. The second floor of the museum addresses the violence and trauma perpetrated by the KMT. The museum highlights the individuals who were killed, exiled, and imprisoned by the KMT. The authors observe that “the victims were members of the 228 Incident Committee, the Three People’s Principles Youth Corps, the Political Construction Association, and other leading groups. Doctors, lawyers, professors, artists, judges, journalists, scholars, and political representatives, the disappeared were among Taiwan’s finest – they were all systematically arrested and imprisoned, and then either exiled or executed, thus stripping the island of its indigenous leaders.” However, the authors also note that most of the victims memorialized in the museum were upper-class men. They argue that this demonstrates the patriarchal and hierarchical nature of Taiwanese society at that time, as well as the role that class plays in historical record-keeping, particularly through the collection of family photographs. The museum’s final display points to the future and Taiwan’s role in the network of international human rights agreements.
Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park
While the 228 Memorial Museum leaves visitors feeling “educated, engaged, energized, and ready to commit to the struggle for human rights abroad and democratic reforms at home,” the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park “capture[s] the agony and absurdity of Taiwan’s Cold War history.” During KMT rule, statues of Chiang Kai-shek were obligatory. Now, as Taiwan reckons with its past, many of those statues are being removed from public places, as part of quJianghua, or “de-Chiang-Kai-shek-ification,” and sent to Cihu, which was created by the Chiang family and friends on a property where the family once vacationed.
Although the park is ostensibly meant to memorialize Chiang and the KMT from a positive perspective, the authors note that the park “projects a sense of surrealism, as the crammed-together statues, lining reflection ponds and manicured lawns, amount to displaced signifiers, blank slates for each visitor to write upon.” They argue that the creation of the park, which was meant to honor Chiang, instead has largely removed Chiang’s representation from the island. The multitude of unwanted statues undermine the positive messages of the Cihu Visitor Center and present opportunities for competing forms of memory making by park visitors.
The 228 Memorial Museum and Cihu Memorial Park are just two aspects of what the authors describe as “postcolonial remembering,” “an anti-authoritarian reclamation project wherein confronting the damage caused by past atrocities fuels Taiwan’s emerging discourse of democracy, multiculturalism, and national autonomy.” As Taiwan reckons with its colonial past and looks toward a more inclusive, democratic future, it will confront more conversations about remembering, blame, justice, and reconciliation.