Mon, Aug 06, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Co-opting Chiang Wei-shui

It seems that Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水), the Taiwanese political pioneer of the Japanese colonial era, is turning into a symbol worth competing for. Given the stakes of this contest, it has to be said that Chiang is a safe -- and therefore anemic -- selection for this new battle of ideologies because ordinary people could not care less about him.

The pan-green and pan-blue camps yesterday marked the 76th anniversary of Chiang's death, each boasting the presence of Chiang's descendants and each laying some kind of claim to Chiang's memory.

All of which is more of the same, it would seem, until one realizes that Chiang's sudden popularity among politicians of any stripe seems to have come out of nowhere.

Chiang championed greater involvement of Taiwanese in the prewar political process at a time when the Japanese had firm control over many aspects of life.

He therefore meets the requirements of both political camps today. For the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), he advocated principles consistent with Sunist doctrine, and perhaps more importantly, he was not intimidated by Japanese imperialism. For the Democratic Progressive Party, Chiang was an ethnic Taiwanese who advocated change that would empower local people.

Both camps can claim what they like, but neither can be taken too seriously. In the context of everything that has happened since, Chiang's history is too distant. It is no accident that until recently he was all but forgotten except by historians, ideologues of various hues and maybe a proportion of the population in the Ilan area, which was his home.

Chiang is fortunate to have avoided the biggest obstacle to furthering his canonization by dying prematurely. All too many individuals boasting Chiang's vision and ability and their families were persecuted and/or murdered by the KMT regime after the war before they could become household names.

It is logical for people today to turn back to the historical haven of the Japanese era, a time that both pro-independence and pro-unification camps can analyze and discover "facts" that accord more or less with the agendas they wish to pursue.

One thing is fairly certain: If Chiang had not died in 1931 and by some miracle avoided the KMT's violence and continued to live to this day with his faculties intact, he would reject all of the co-opting of his memory based on his actions in the early 20th century and present his own take on matters.

In doing so, he might have offended the sensibilities of both major parties.

The parlous state of Taiwanese nationalism can be inferred from this contest over a long dead patriot for what at the time was a polity in a state of suspension (some will argue that nothing has changed).

If the level playing field that accommodates debate on Chiang has anything good to show for it, it is an acceptance that there are some things that unify Taiwanese on a symbolic level.

They may not agree entirely on what Chiang would have wanted for Taiwan's future in terms of national identity and forms of governance, but the pan-green and pan-blue camps certainly agreed that his name could adorn a major piece of infrastructure.

Having a freeway that includes one of the longest tunnels in the world named after you may reflect the esteem in which you are held by bureaucrats and politicians, but it does not capture your relevance to the everyday lives of ordinary people, regardless of your contributions in another era.

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