Taiwanese artist Chen Cheng-po’s (陳澄波) Chiayi Street Scene, painted in 1934, depicts a tranquil scene in Japanese colonial era Taiwan, several years prior to the outbreak of World War II. Less than two years after Japan’s surrender in 1945, on March 25, 1947, Chen was dragged into the streets of Chiayi by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government troops and summarily executed.
Like thousands of other Taiwanese and Chinese, Chen had fallen victim to the violent suppression of civilians by the KMT on the orders of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), in an atrocity that is now known as the 228 Massacre.
Taiwanese have yet to find closure over the memory of the massacre or the Martial Law period and White Terror era that swiftly followed it.
On Friday last week, a group of university students vandalized a statue of Chiang on the National Chengchi University campus. On Sunday, more than 60 civic groups marched in Taipei to commemorate the anniversary of the 228 Incident. On Tuesday, Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) rejected calls to demolish the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei.
Today is the 72nd anniversary of the Incident. It is a public holiday, officially known as 228 Peace Memorial Day. That name is not a reference to commemorating peace; it reflects the hope that peace can emerge from the memory of the massacre.
Peace and closure will only come from historical honesty, transparency and a rigorous and objective search for the facts of the nation’s shared past. In addition to remembrance of the victims, this day should be about all of these things, as well as the promotion of a sincere resolve to work toward transitional justice. Hopefully, these will enable understanding, and perhaps even forgiveness, for the perpetrators where it is sincerely sought.
Former KMT presidents have sought to atone for the Incident and the White Terror: Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) apologized for the Incident in 1995 and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) offered condolences on behalf of the then-KMT government to White Terror victims in 2013.
Those gestures did not go far enough. While the KMT does not consist of the same individuals directly responsible for overseeing the massacre or the White Terror, it does represent the state that perpetrated them. It still has to show its full sincerity in cooperating with the government’s transitional justice drive, including questions over its continued ownership of assets illicitly gained during the party-state era.
Chen’s art, through the tragedy of his death, could act as a powerful symbol of the pointless loss of life and of wasted potential as the result of the cruel actions of the ruthless KMT regime decades ago. In the same way, transparency and objective scrutiny of historical facts could transform former symbols of authoritarianism into lessons for the present so that the nation can move forward.
It could be argued that the anger of the students who vandalized Chiang’s statute is legitimate, but their actions were nevertheless still born of anger and of resorting to violence. That cannot be the right approach if the nation is to achieve peace and closure.
Statues of Chiang were originally erected nationwide to glorify the man. Times change and the social context in which they stand is now different. In that sense, keeping the statues in place has its own value.
The same is true for the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. As English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias so eloquently reminds its readers, the message of an edifice constructed to glorify a ruler does not necessarily survive a changed context.
The hall is a stately, somber building. It is perhaps perfect as a place to be repurposed into an educational space, in which Taiwan’s troubled history can be taught — objectively and in a nonpartisan way — to Taiwanese and those visiting the nation.
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