In troubled times, it is always useful to turn our heads toward the past for guidance. Not only does it teach us many lessons, but it can also serve as a reminder that while the present often looks bleak, hopeless even, other generations went through similar trials and prevailed. The past can therefore be a reflection of hope. It can also serve as a source of inspiration, especially the heroes who fought the darkness and helped improve our lot.
Taiwan’s history has many such heroes: leaders, survivors and those who gave their lives so that others could lead better, freer lives. One person in particular comes to mind for the present times, and that man is Deng Nylon (鄭南榕), or Deng Nan-jung, the editor-in-chief of Freedom Era Weekly (自由時代週刊), who on April 7, 1989, self-immolated at his office near my home for the cause of liberty.
What made Deng an extraordinarily powerful symbol was not simply that he fought for his ideals, or that he made the ultimate sacrifice as a spear to gut state repression. Heroic though such acts may have been, the true power of Deng as a man was his ability to transcend politics and ethnicity.
As he famously said: “I am a Chinese descendent. And I support Taiwan independence.”
His words, which he often repeated at rallies, sent a powerful — perhaps even undefeatable — message to those who would seek to enslave people in Taiwan and China that being Taiwanese had nothing to do with DNA, ethnicity or even place of birth. For Deng, being Taiwanese was far greater than that, and went well beyond the cynical use that politicians have made of Taiwanese independence in recent times: It was an inclusive force, pitting those who believe in liberty against those who would deny it to others for the sake of power and fortune.
As I type this, I am listening to a wonderful hip-hop album by the Taiwanese band Kou Chou Ching, some of whose members I have had the honor of meeting in recent weeks at various protests in Taipei. The reason I mention them is because their art epitomizes the essence of Taiwan; it blends modern sounds with traditional instruments, and mixes Mandarin, Hakka, Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese), Aborginal languages and English.
All those voices and the many guest artists who lent their talent to the project are united in telling Taiwan’s story to the world, and in the process they are helping define what it means to be Taiwanese in the 21st century. Other musical genres, and many movies, also successfully depict the rich amalgam of cultures and languages that makes Taiwan unique and precious.
Such inclusiveness is also what is most threatening to the forces across the Taiwan Strait — and here in Taiwan — that indefatigably endeavor to destroy Taiwan’s democracy and existence as a distinct society.
For years, the Chinese Communist Party and those within the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) who seek “reunification” against the wishes of the majority of people in Taiwan, have benefited from the ethnic divide that has kept Taiwan disunited and fighting against itself. The only way Taiwan will succeed in defeating such predations is if its people manage to erase that artificial divide and unite as a force for freedom against that of repression.
Sadly, Deng is often forgotten, except on every April 7, when commemorative ceremonies are held (I strongly encourage readers to visit the museum that was created in his name, which is located in his former office on Freedom Lane; the charred remains are a moving sight).
However, his powerful spirit carries on, and I have seen it time and again in the young Taiwanese activists and those who support them against the orchestrated assault on their freedoms, liberties and the country they call home.
Increasingly, protesters are multi-ethnic, polyglot and are sacrificing their own welfare for the sake of others who, in the old days, would have been considered “the enemy” or “the occupation.”
I see it in “ethnic Taiwanese” who fight and risk arrest to defend the rights of an elderly “Mainlander.” I see it in Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), one of the student leaders and a Hakka, speaking Taiwanese by the roadside with an old female supporter. I see it in Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆), another leader, paying his respects to Deng on April 7, and the many, many others whose identity as a Taiwanese, in the purest and noblest sense of the word, is unassailable and indivisible.
The times call for an end to the fissiparous nature of Taiwanese politics, to the artificial divides created by politicians and the media that keep Taiwan on its knees.
The times call for unity, for everybody who calls Taiwan his or her home to shine a bright light into the gathering darkness that threatens to swallow their country.
J. Michael Cole is a deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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