Two Great Anomalies of Taiwan's Identity

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Sunday August 10, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The nation of Taiwan is again preparing for a big democratic election. This one will be held on November 29 and whether one calls it seven in one or nine in one, a lot is involved and at stake. Many feel that this election could be seen as a bell-weather for the coming presidential elections in 2016 as well as an indication of the direction in which Taiwan's identity continues to be shaped. But regardless of whether the pan-green or the pan-blue alliance wins out, there are other factors that continue to surface on Taiwan and point to its ever-present problem with identity. Wrapped up in this identity issue are two great anomalies that Taiwan must eventually solve. What are those two great anomalies?

Both are part and parcel of the residue of Taiwan's one-party state days and the past dreams of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) diaspora that fled to Taiwan from 1945 - 1949. The first is the problem of what to do with the "Monument to the Dead Dictator," Chiang Kai-shek (CKS), in Taipei, and the second is what to do with the National Palace Museum?

The first problem, along with statues to the dead dictator resurfaced again recently when Taiwanese high school students began a campaign to remove all statues of Chiang from campuses across Taiwan. Taipei Chenggong High School led the way in this and was quickly followed by numerous other schools across the nation.

This was not the first time that statues of Chiang had started "to disappear." The main exodus dated back to 2007 when numerous statues of Chiang under direction of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had been removed from public places and sent to the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park, Daxi, Taoyuan County. The largest contribution from that time was the 8-meter high statue from the Kaohsiung Cultural Center. In that period, over 150 statues quickly found their way to Cihu.

Today's student movement has once again brought to light the past ironic complexity of Chiang, a man who despite his alleged profession of being pro-democracy was anything but that. He had come to Taiwan defeated and on the run. While his forces subsequently lost Hainan Island (1950) Taiwan escaped only because of the People's Republic of China's (PRC) intervention in Korea and the subsequent placing of the United States 7th Fleet in the Taiwan Strait. To solidify his hold on Taiwan, Chiang had in that period imposed Martial Law with its White Terror on Taiwan and even had his main competitor for leadership, General Sun Li-Jen, falsely accused of a coup (1955). All these "achievements" remained intact in Taiwan for more than a decade after Chiang's death in 1975.

The above is certainly not much of a legacy for the thirty years of a man supposedly dedicated to democracy. Moreover, the contrast is all the more poignant when one realizes that the Taiwanese had already been moving toward self-government during the Japanese colonial era and that they had achieved the right of electing their own officials to the Japanese Diet. The Taiwanese were ready to practice democracy, but Chiang Kai-shek was not.

So, what to do with this monument to a dead dictator? In 2007, the area around the Memorial had finally been renamed Liberty Square and the hall was given a new name, National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall. This seemed all well and good. But then Taipei Mayor, Hau Lung-bin and the KMT had the memorial name changed back to CKS Memorial Hall to preserve the KMT's memories of the dead dictator. In this flux, one can only wonder if members of the KMT still are concerned over Chiang's deathbed wish. That wish was that he be buried not in Taiwan but in Fenghua County of Zhejiang Province, China. That was supposed to happen when the KMT finally "retook" the China that it was kicked out of. That remains a pipe dream well worth examination and documentation.

The second great anomaly that Taiwan must deal with is ironically one of its current great tourist attractions, the National Palace Museum. The location of this museum on Taiwan is again closely associated with the dead dictator. Though driven out of China, Chiang did not leave empty-handed. He may have lost China but he managed to bring with him most of the treasures of the National Palace Museum. A new museum was then built in Taiwan in the 1960s.

This is of course not the first time that any country's museum has housed looted treasures. The British Museum is famous for the treasures its armies brought home from the numerous places where they had fought. But with nearly 700,000 artifacts, this is the first time that someone basically looted the whole museum. So this remains a problem for Taiwanese. While it is nice to have this tourist attraction, it is awkward because these treasures date back thousands of years in China's history and are not part of Taiwan's history. And even the PRC faces a problem on how to handle this. For if they are too vocal in demanding the treasures be returned, they will be admitting to the reality that Taiwan is a separate nation from China. These two great anomalies will certainly not be solved in a day, a month or a year and the upcoming November 29 elections are a more pressing matter for both political parties. But sooner or later, these anomalies will need to be faced and solved.

In the meantime, Taiwan also needs to consider a different question. Who are its real heroes; whose statues should mark the countryside? Taiwan certainly has memorials and monuments to the many that died during the White Terror and Martial Law era when the nation struggled for democracy. One can visit Jiang-Mei Prison, Green Island, and 2-28 park etc., but nowhere does one find statues to individual heroes of Taiwan's democracy. That could be because it was a joint effort and as such the recognition belongs to all the people. The statue of one particular person could be confusing. Instead, perhaps the Taiwanese should reclaim the name National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall and place in the vestibule a statue dedicated to the common Taiwanese man and woman. They are the ones who created Taiwan's democracy and will be responsible to protect it in the future.