Sun, Mar 30, 2008 - Page 18 News List

[BOOK REVIEW] 'Fear not for the future, weep not for the past'

The publishers of 'Representing Atrocity in Taiwan' contend that this is 'the first book to be published in English on the 2/28 Incident and White Terror'

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

REPRESENTING ATROCITY IN TAIWAN: The 2/28 Incident and White Terror

By Sylvia Li-chun Lin
240 pages

The publishers of this new book state in their accompanying promotional material "This is the first book to be published in English on the 2/28 Incident and White Terror." If true, it's an astonishing state of affairs. And Representing Atrocity in Taiwan itself isn't an account of those events either, but rather a consideration of how they were subsequently treated (when they were treated at all) by Taiwan's writers and filmmakers. This means the publishers are tacitly claiming there is still no English-language account at all of those terrible years.

Can this really be the case? There is George H. Kerr's Formosa Betrayed, though it's largely a personal memoir. And a look through Sylvia Li-chun Lin's bibliography here uncovers another title that appears to fit the bill: A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947 by Tse-han Lai (賴澤涵), Raymond H. Meyers and Wei Wou (魏萼) (Stanford University Press, 1991). There's certainly some English material online, including Formosa Betrayed complete, even though the continuing unavailability of crucial documents is frequently lamented.

It's easy to understand why a full account of the years 1947 to 1987 is difficult. With any discussion of the 2/28 massacre forbidden, as it was prior to 1987, and any discussion of the disappearances and executions that followed it very dangerous, there must be a shortage of factual material. On the other hand Taiwan now enjoys what this author calls "unprecedented civil liberties that guarantee the freedoms of speech, press and congregation." And the world - which often in reality means the English-speaking world - surely needs as complete an account as possible of atrocities Lin compares in brutality to the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the regime of Pol Pot.

Much of this book, though, is concerned with the contradictions that accompany the straightforward depiction of any historical event. Lin deals in depth with the widespread criticism of Hou Hsiao-hsien's (侯孝賢) film A City of Sadness (悲情城市) that erupted when it was released in 1989. This focused on the absence of any depiction of the central events of 2/28, as well as on the fact that the film showed local Taiwanese attacking Chinese of mainland extraction without any parallel portrayal of the much more serious assaults by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) military on the local population that prompted such reactions.

Lin argues that individuals remember different things and have separate viewpoints, and so there is no one "true" picture. Artists, too, tend to avoid producing anything that might look like propaganda, as any work showing the evils of 2/28 and the White Terror directly might appear to be. But this hasn't prevented writers and directors elsewhere from creating far more explicit historical depictions than have apparently appeared to date in Taiwan.

Lin argues books and films touching on these years allowed their audiences "to confront the fact that no historical experience can ever be completely recaptured on screen (or in writing)." This seems a rather sophisticated point for people who lost family members through state brutality to take on board. What ordinary people consider as "the truth" is something more basic and simple than this.

It's widely felt, for example, that Solzhenitsyn depicted such simple truth in books like The First Circle and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, that Tolstoy unambiguously showed the callousness of the 19th-century Russians in Chechnya in Hadji Murad, and that Orwell's Animal Farm offered an appropriate fable for what happened in the former Soviet Union under communism. Films such as Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and October displayed the Russian Revolution with little regard for dissenting viewpoints, and The Killing Fields showed the agony of Cambodia in the 1970s very directly.

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