Challenge to find national identity

By Jerome Keating  / 

Tue, Jul 15, 2014 - Page 8

History is a challenging subject; it is facts and happenings, but it is a lot more. The selection, emphasis and presumed cause of its events, as well as their interpretation and meaning, are where the complexity and challenge lie.

For Taiwanese, two recent and concurrent events illustrated the gigantic divide that the nation must still overcome to establish its place in history and its identity. Once again, the events that raised these issues actually happened outside Taiwan.

July 7 was the 77th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which by most accounts began the Second Sino-Japanese War. The day was marked by ceremonies in Taipei and Beijing.

In Taipei, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), used the occasion to repeat what he believes is the Republic of China’s (ROC) claim to the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台). Ma’s words came at the opening of an exhibition commemorating the ROC victory in the “War of Resistance against Japan.”

Beijing has a slightly different historical outlook. It held a ceremony at the Museum of Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression.

In attendance at this ceremony, surprisingly, was former premier Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村), a retired four-star general in the ROC Army that fought and lost China to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Hau used the occasion to protest what he felt was a historical omission — that not mentioned in the museum is the fact that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not exist in 1937 and that it was the Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) who led the way in the struggle against and the victory over Japan.

Also going unmentioned was the fact that two weeks after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the CCP signed a declaration that its forces would assist Chiang in driving Japan out of China.

In another twist, Hau, once an avowed enemy of the PRC, sang a PRC anthem, March of the Volunteers, on a Chinese TV program, much to the shock and dismay of many in Taiwan. Hau defended his actions, despite the fact that the PRC threatens to attack democratic Taiwan if it declares the independence that it already ha, by saying that he was simply reminiscing about the days when the Nationalists and Communists had joined forces against the Japanese and sang the same songs.

Now consider Taiwan’s version of this history. For Taiwanese, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident has little or no meaning, just as the 1911 overthrow of the Manchu’s Qing Dynasty in China has little meaning.

Taiwan became a colony of Japan in 1895 after the Japanese defeated the Manchus in the First Sino-Japanese War. If anything, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident just meant that Taiwanese would eventually fight for Japan in the war with China.

What Taiwan remembers more is how after World War II, the KMT was defeated by the CCP and fled to Taiwan. When the CCP established the PRC, Taiwan was already two years into the White Terror era and under martial law under a one-party state. Suffering through this, the nation eventually achieved a multiparty system and won its struggle for democracy.

Taiwan’s history and relationship with Japan has been and remains totally different from that of China. Taiwanese watched the island grow and prosper under Japan, so much so that when they were celebrating the 40th anniversary of Japanese rule, Chiang Kai-shek sent the later infamous Chen Yi (陳儀), then-chief executive, to represent the ROC at the event.

Chen praised the advancements in Taiwan and contrasted them with China, which had been devastated by the warlord period and the struggles between the KMT and the CCP. That was in 1935, two years before the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.

The Taiwanese films Kano and Cape No. 7 capture some nostalgic moments of the Taiwanese experience during Japanese colonial rule, but a more revealing story is found in the award-winning 2008 documentary Shonenko (“child laborers””) by Kuo Liang-yin (郭亮吟). This documentary recounts the experience of 8,419 young Taiwanese (aged from about 12 to 14) who from 1943 to 1945 went to Japan to help the war effort by making airplanes.

The 7,000 who were repatriated after Feb. 28, 1947, had to live a life of silence about what they had done during the war. Nonetheless, the bonds they generated through their experience were so strong that in 1987, after martial law had been lifted, about 5,000 of the survivors found each other and celebrated their shared history with reunions and trips to Japan. They even remembered and made a point of singing the Japanese war songs that they had learned from that period.

This is Taiwan’s history.

With these contrasting histories, it is not surprising to listen to the words of various speakers on the anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) said that “history is history and facts are facts.”

He wanted of course to make sure that Chinese and the world did not forget about Japanese aggression. However, the PRC has never been honest with the facts and history of its Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Beijing’s leaders have never acknowledged the fact that many more millions Chinese died during those periods than during the period of Japanese aggression.

Hau, who echoed Xi in saying that “no one should deny the history” of Japanese aggression, still complained about the KMT’s contributions being omitted and denied in China. He also has never acknowledged the full history of KMT aggression in Taiwan.

In Taipei, Ma also emphasized that “the truth cannot be forgotten” regarding Japanese aggression, but glossed over much of what happened in Taiwan after World War II.

Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌), Hau Pei-tsun’s son, attending the same Taipei ceremony and had a similar KMT interpretation of history vis-a-vis Japan. An expected candidate for presidency in 2016, Hau said that “history must be remembered and cannot be forgotten or tampered with.”

Yet the ironic upshot of all this is that just within the past year, the KMT in Taiwan and the CCP in Hong Kong have consistently tried to tamper with and change history texts regarding the two places. So what should be remembered?

For Taiwanese, and especially the younger generation, this is what makes the development of any sense of national history and identity difficult. Things like the Marco Polo Bridge Incident mean little to them. They have more connection to the 228 Incident, and the deaths, imprisonments and suffering during the White Terror and Martial Law era, as well as the Kaohsiung Incident.

In China, the CCP likewise will never allow the ROC version of history. Yet while the complexity of this problem expands, Ma still tries to push Taiwan back into a dependent relationship with China. Taiwanese can only wonder what interpretations of history China will want to impose if Ma succeeds.

Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.