Sun, Dec 01, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: Remembering the ‘Big Beard’

Taiwan expert J. Bruce Jacobs, who got his nickname when the press tied him to the 1980 Lin family murders, died last Sunday

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

J. Bruce Jacobs attends a public event during his final visit to Taiwan in November of last year.

Photo: CNA

Dec. 2 to Dec 8

In March 1980, almost everyone in Taiwan knew about the foreign “big beard” (大鬍子) whom the major newspapers just couldn’t stop talking about. He was allegedly involved somehow with a brutal incident that rocked society — the murders of former politician and activist Lin I-hsiung’s (林義雄) mother and twin daughters on Feb. 28, 1980.

This “big beard” was J. Bruce Jacobs, an American-born Australian academic who first came to Taiwan in 1965 as a postgraduate student, going on to become a renowned expert in Taiwan studies. After the murders, Jacobs was placed under police protection and barred from leaving the country for three months in an absurd debacle that he details in his his 2016 book, The Kaohsiung Incident in Taiwan and Memoirs of a Foreign Big Beard. The book is dedicated to the victims, with whom Jacobs was friendly with.

Jacobs was put on a government blacklist and couldn’t return to Taiwan until 1992; he made his final visit in November last year when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs awarded him with the Order of Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon for his contributions to democratization and human rights in Taiwan.

Jacobs died in Melbourne last Sunday at the age of 76. The Lin family murders remain unsolved.


According to his book, Jacobs was interested in totalitarian regimes during college and planned to become a Soviet specialist. He signed up for an Oriental Civilizations class thinking, “I should know something about Asia and be done with it,” but soon became fascinated with China.

When he graduated in 1965, the Cultural Revolution had just begun and traveling to China was impossible. So like most academics interested in that country, Jacobs headed to Taiwan. He studied Chinese for a year in Taipei, and later returned to conduct a field study of local politics in rural Taiwan, where he grew used to “swearing rather automatically” in Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) like the best of them.

As Jacobs rose up in the academic ladder, he kept returning to Taiwan. In 1979, he was hoping to meet with the newly appointed Government Information Office director-general James Soong (宋楚瑜). Soong was busy, and meanwhile he became friends with many dangwai (黨外, “outside the party”) politicians opposing the authoritarian Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), including Lin.

The dangwai politicians were angry at the government. While they were allowed to run in elections since 1969, the KMT suspended all electoral activities in 1978 in response to the US cutting relations with Taiwan. Lin was one of the core members of the dangwai magazine Formosa (美麗島), and the magazine’s headquarters were located above his home.

When Jacobs returned a year later, many of these friends, including Lin, were in jail over the Kaohsiung Incident, during which the military police clashed with democracy protesters during a rally organized by Formosa. He spent time with the families of the imprisoned, often visiting Lin’s house with other Dangwai members and playing with his daughters.


Jacobs found out about the murders that evening at the hospital where Lin’s wife and surviving daughter were staying. The next day, the United Daily News became the first outlet to call him “big beard” in the page 3 headline, “Secret witness gives police clue, full-scale search for big-bearded foreign male.” Jacobs writes that he had visited the Lin house the previous day around 6pm and nobody answered the door. The article claimed that he visited around noon, shortly before the murders happened.

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