The cultural landscape of Taiwan has been recently enhanced by another monument. The Anti-Japanese War Memorial, inaugurated on Oct. 25 in Taipei, aims at shaping the historical consciousness of the Taiwanese regarding the Japanese occupation. Indeed, monuments always fulfill a function. To the public eye they give a meaning to the past. In this case, the monument celebrates two historical events: the (Chinese) victory in the anti-Japanese war and the liberation of Taiwan.
From the start, the construction of this monument caused controversy. Former DPP mayor Chen Shui-bian (
Socio-historical context puts another perspective on the issue. One of the problems is that not everyone in Taiwan shares the belief that the two events are related to each other. For many local Taiwanese, the monument merely legitimizes the KMT's nationalist interpretation of Taiwan's past and thus offers a biased historical message.
These arguments cannot be understood without knowing about early postwar KMT ideology and cultural policies. Between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan was a Japanese colony. Japanese language, customs and manners had penetrated Taiwan society. Following retrocession, the KMT assumed that the Taiwanese population was no longer in touch with its Chinese cultural heritage. In order to nationalize and nurture a Chinese traditional culture on Taiwan, the transition from the Japanese colonial "motherland" to the Chinese "fatherland" had to be drastic and efficient. A complete re-education took place tantamount to an institutionalization forgetting of the past.
The local languages such as Taiwanese (Minnanyu) and Hakka, along with Japanese, were banned from the public sphere. In the school curriculum, the orthodox version of Chinese history was taught while Taiwan's past was suppressed. References to Taiwan's past could result in being mistaken for a pro-independence stand or sympathizing with the "communist bandits." Historical research on Taiwan served the national interests: its interpretation was encapsulated in the broader context of Greater China.
As a result of the political developments in the past two decades, claims to represent the whole of China are slowly giving way to a regard for Taiwan as a separate cultural entity. Accordingly, the study of Taiwan's past has become a new de facto academic discipline. Academia Sinica and universities around the island encourage students to research the rich past of Taiwan. In the field of Taiwan historical studies, the Japanese colonial period has become one of the more popular research topics.
This academic development has been further supported by social developments. The cultural discourse on "being Taiwanese" has come to dominate the public sphere. Secondary schools provide instruction in the basics of Taiwan (local) history and the population has the opportunity to visit exhibitions on Taiwan's culture and society over the past 100 years. The Taiwanization of society is present everywhere.
Against this background, the Anti-Japanese War Memorial poses a problem. It assumes that the shared memory of the Taiwanese is identical to the shared memory of the Chinese. Assuming that the anti-Japanese war on the mainland was also Taiwan's war cuts right across Taiwan's colonial past. It completely ignores Taiwan's colonial experience. As such, if we accept that both fought the same war, it leaves no room for arguing against the notion that the KMT "liberated" Taiwan from the Japanese. From this point of view, the resentment it has created should not be dismissed lightly.
A true reappraisal of Taiwan's past is indeed the missing link. The Anti-Japanese War Memorial should be an invitation to re-examine Taiwan's colonial past in a different light. It is a gesture to one segment of Taiwan's society, the soldiers who fought against the Japanese in China, commemorating their sacrifice and appeasing their children and grandchildren. Maybe, another monument is needed to honor the local Taiwanese who lived through the colonial period in Taiwan. This would be a gesture to ease the anger and frustration of those who feel they have been deprived of their recent past for four decades.
In that respect, what should be stressed is that during the colonial period, Taiwan's elite engaged in social, political and economic campaigns to enhance Taiwan's own culture in the struggle against the forces of Japanese cultural domination and assimilation. There is a need to show public and collective respect to these heroes. Among them, not all were fortunate enough to leave behind a legacy of written manuscripts and diaries, a legacy that can earn an author a bust, a memorial hall or the publication of one's collected works. A collective homage to the anonymous heroes of Taiwan's colonial past might exert a strong healing influence on society. In the future, efforts to erect a monument taking into account the diverse memories of Taiwan's colonial past should be given serious thought. The issue remains a burning one, and much remains to be done in order to build up a common consciousness of Taiwan's colonial past.
Ann Heylen is associate researcher at the Taipei Ricci Institute, a Jesuit research center focusing on Taiwanese and Chinese culture, past and present.
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