Su Beng: Taiwan's Man for All Seasons

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Thursday November 9, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

It is a rare privilege to know a centenarian. It is even more rare and a greater privilege to know a dedicated and politically active one. So, it is with great pleasure that I have written the introductory remarks for the Anniversary Edition of Su Beng's 400 Years of Taiwan History.

I had read much about Su Beng when I began writing on Taiwan's history and politics in the year 2000, but it was March 2005 before I actually met him in person.

The occasion was the National Taiwan University student protests against the People's Republic of China's (PRC) Anti-Secession decree. The PRC made that decree in an attempt to formalize its claim to Taiwan. Though the PRC flag had never flown over Taiwan, it was still declaring its right to use non-peaceful means (i.e. war) to bring Taiwan into its fold. Su was already 88 years old at the time, and yet there he was spending 12 hours a day protesting with the students in all kinds of weather.

This convinced me to add this chapter on him "Su Beng: A Man Still Unafraid to Speak for Democracy" in my 2nd book, Taiwan, the Struggles of a Democracy (2006),

Through the years I would see him again and again at gatherings and protests, answering the cry whenever Taiwan needed someone to step up into the breach and defend its rights. Most recently in his nineties, he joined the students in the successful 2014 Sunflower Movement protesting the Ma Ying-jeou government's attempt to ram its black box Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with the PRC through the Legislative Yuan.

So, what concluding remarks are appropriate for this man? What makes his work and writings, especially his 400 Years of Taiwan History, so valuable?

Other commentators have placed it in the context of immigrant nationalism, imagined communities and Su's thought process. I will add to those ideas by declaring in a simplified way that this work's value is best understood from three perspectives: 1) the Man, 2) the Message and 3) the Times.

If one can relate to and understand how these three interrelate, then one can grasp both Taiwan's current identity and the spirit behind the nation.

I The Man

Born in the Shilin District of Taipei on November 9, 1918, Su grew up in a well-established colonial atmosphere. He qualified to attend Waseda University in Japan, a goal that not too many colonials achieved. After he graduated with a degree in Political Science and Economics in 1942, he immediately went to Shanghai to work against the Japanese Colonial Empire. From that point on, he became a man who never looked back. Su was totally dedicated to Taiwan and its independent democracy.

What words and phrases best describe his dedication?

First, one must say he is a man who has stayed the course from beginning to end. He has never been a sunshine patriot or soldier. He has not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk. He also never sought office.

To stay the course, he has had to possess "true grit," the ability to persevere despite the pressures and challenges of his goal. Facing numerous challenges and obstacles he has pursued his goal relentlessly from China to Taiwan to Japan.

Su is not a headliner or grandstander, yet his persevering presence is inescapable and this is how he reaches the common man. As his life of total dedication played out, he would then become the Oedipus that Jules Michelet references, the one who more than any other has come to tell the Taiwanese their enigma.

The times of Taiwan's enigma were definitely epic. They involved the rise and fall of the Japanese Empire, World War II, the Chinese Civil War and communist takeover in China and the eventual downfall of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) one-party state in Taiwan. Throughout, Su has been a man in the trenches.

Others who shared these times have their own biographies. Contrast Su with Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Ching-kuo, Mao Tse-tung. They were all leaders in their own right and they spent time in the trenches but in the end they all gravitated to personal gain and the trappings and rewards of power. Su never did.

I have never seen him in a suit; I do not even know if he has one. Such garb is inconsequential to him. Like Fidel Castro he is known more for his simple taste and traditionally wears blue denim. Others may have more consciously worked to foster a personal image; Su had a vision and commitment that far exceeded theirs.

The qualities of Su are those that inspired and formed the soul of many of the overseas Taiwanese in the US and elsewhere. Like a guiding patriarch he still resides and will still answer the call. Students gravitate to him and respect him not because he can get them a job in the system or even a place in the revolution, but because they relate to his spirit.

That is the man; however, to do this he had to have a message. This book envisions that message.

II The Message

The message is simple, clear and direct. It focuses on Taiwan from the start. True, it would be fine-tuned over time and it would contain Marxist elements with terms like bourgeois, class struggle and feudalism etc. Nonetheless it consistently returns to Taiwan, the development of its freedom and identity.

Su could spot the fake democracy of the Chiangs; he knew the struggle for true democracy was not yet done. It had to emerge and be built from the ashes of countless rebellions and even from the spoils of war. By putting this message in three languages Su would reach his widest audience. So what about the times in which the man and the message are found?

III The Times

The times as we said above were epic; wars were fought; empires rose and fell. The changing context and perspective of those times became crucial in their impact on the life and courage of any dedicated individual. Su's life spans the totality of that tumultuous century, one that finally ended with Taiwan's democracy.

To understand Su's message and life, there was constant danger from many sides in such times. He fought the Japanese; he fought along side the Communists but did not join them; he left them and then fought the one-party state of the KMT. On it went.

At any point his life was at risk. During those times, people like Bo Yang were being sent to Green Island for the slightest reason; Bo got ten years because of a political cartoon. The family of Lin Yi-siung was slaughtered because he dared protest the Human Rights abuses of the KMT one-party state in the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979. Henry Liu was assassinated in the US for writing about the Chiangs. These were not easy times.

What makes the message of this book remarkable is that it began early; it was first written in 1962 before Peng Ming-min would write his Manifesto in 1964 and later make his classic escape in 1970.

As a man of action with his noodle shop in Tokyo Su kept the fires of democracy alive while he trained many to resistance. He also interacted constantly with Taiwanese in the US and abroad throughout these decades.

However, it was when the message was put in the final language of English that the prescient quality of it emerged. When the abbreviated English version came out in July 1986, few could anticipate what would follow.

Who would have guessed that in September of 1986 the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would be formed in the Grand Hotel in Taiwan? Then on July 15, 1987, the following year, Martial Law would be lifted.

Chiang Ching-kuo would die in January 1988, and Lee Teng-hui would succeed him to be the first Taiwanese born president of the nation. Democratic elections of the Legislative Yuan (1992) and the President (1996) followed. Like a snowball rolling down hill and gathering momentum, Taiwan's democracy proceeded.

This is the epic context that makes this an interesting read; Su lived through the times leading up to this; in the period of 2/28 he names names, he knows the players. He was on the island from 1949 to 1952 when he had to escape. He would return from some 40 years later in 1993, when the Garrison Command was disbanded.

This work and its context present an understanding of the Taiwanese identity along with its history. In giving a Taiwanese perspective, Su did not mince words. One clearly senses that in the idioms that he uses "Dogs (the Japanese) replaced Pigs (the Chinese Qing) and then the Pigs (KMT Chinese) replaced the Dogs."

To those who try to claim that Taiwanese always loved China as a motherland he lists the rebellions that took place throughout the Qing period. He constantly shows a sense of developing Taiwanese identity.

Through these times no one has loved Taiwan more, no one has dedicated himself and sacrificed more for Taiwan; no one has stayed the course more. If you understand Su, you understand the heart of the average Taiwanese, the taxi-driver, the shopkeeper etc.; Su echoes all that is in their heart of hearts.

Once you understand that along with the message and the times, you then sense why Taiwanese are different. They know they have a different history; they know they have a different identity. The PRC may bluster on the other side of the Strait, and the KMT and the CCP may try to push the 1992 Consensus, but Taiwan remains Taiwan.

The Taiwanese and their ancestors have always wanted the freedom of their land and their lives. This is the wisdom of the Owl of Minerva; it came at dusk, yet it brought realization. This book is the annals of Taiwan written by a centenarian who lived them.