All nations have narratives, but not all national narratives are accurate. Some might be exaggerated to express a point, some might breezily gloss over historical facts in making jingoistic claims and some are just downright false.
One of those that belongs in the false category is a past narrative, which is still celebrated by some in Taiwan: It falls on Oct. 25 and is called “Retrocession Day.”
The narrative of Retrocession Day was begun and consistently fostered by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to bolster its image and right to rule. This became important to the KMT after it lost the Chinese Civil War and had to flee from China to Taiwan in 1949.
Because of that, Oct. 25 took on significant importance as a national holiday during the KMT’s one-party state days.
However, the celebration was finally discontinued in 2002 when Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party was president — he had begun to rectify Taiwan’s past narratives.
Many questions followed: Did Japan actually surrender Taiwan to the KMT on Oct. 25, 1945?
The answer is no. The formal Japanese surrender ending World War II hostilities took place on Sept. 2, 1945, on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
What about Oct. 25 then? The KMT, acting as a representative of the Allies, did accept the surrender of Japanese soldiers who were still on the then-Japanese colony of Taiwan. The KMT also happened to then grab all the state assets, but that is another story.
The same year, the civil war between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) restarted in China. The KMT would later put forth its Republic of China (ROC) Constitution in Nanking in 1947.
After the KMT lost the civil war, the CCP drew up its 1949 People’s Republic of China (PRC) Constitution. The PRC now had a new constitution and the KMT fled to Taiwan as defeated diaspora and/or a government in exile.
While WWII hostilities had ended in 1945, it would still be seven years before Japan formally gave up Taiwan in the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty. That treaty stated no recipient of Taiwan and this is what exposes the so-called fake Retrocession Day of 1945.
If Japan had given Taiwan to the KMT in 1945, then why would this not be stated in the San Francisco Peace Treaty? And while 48 nations signed the treaty, neither the ROC nor the PRC was invited to do so.
For Taiwanese, therefore, the celebration of Oct. 25 is something to be shunned. It remains an albatross like the bogus “1992 consensus” — another false narrative that was invented by former Mainland Affairs Council chairman Su Chi (蘇起) in 2000.
All this returns us to Taiwan’s narrative, which remains in anomalous limbo as part of the “unfinished business” of WWII. Today, the official US position on Taiwan still is “undecided” and Taiwan’s true status continues to slip through the fingers of history. Taiwan might be said to be a nation in search of its proper narrative.
That is the situation forced upon democratic Taiwan from the outside, but what about the situation from inside Taiwan? What messages and understanding are conveyed there?
Taiwan needs a strong inner voice to make its case known to its people and the world. It needs its own version of what Ralph Waldo Emerson did when he wrote and delivered “The American Scholar” in 1837.
When Emerson addressed the Cambridge Phi Beta Kappa Society in Massachusetts, it was already 54 years since the 1783 Treaty of Paris and the formal end of the American Revolution. Emerson found Americans lacking and wanted them to not only think for themselves but to formulate their own national direction.
In the opening paragraph, he states: “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands draws to a close.”
He ends the address with similar thoughts: “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice makes the air we breathe thick and fat. The scholar is decent, indolent, compliant.”
Emerson wanted change; he was chiding the scholars at Cambridge that it was time for them to do their own thinking and be more “self-reliant.”
His words could easily be applied to admonish Taiwanese academics of today.
It has been 75 years since the end of WWII and it is time for Taiwanese academics to boldly challenge the anomaly under which they live.
Taiwan does not lack artists who have vividly portrayed certain aspects of its history.
In the powerful medium of film, A City of Sadness (悲情城市) captures the sufferings of the 228 Incident; Kano captures colonial baseball success in the Japanese era; Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (賽德克·巴萊) illustrates a totally different colonial experience ending with the Wushe Incident; Cape No. 7 (海角七號) merges a romantic nostalgic element of Taiwan’s past with the present. One could go on.
The arts always have room for more. Perhaps a director could present a KMT variation of Gone With the Wind as it retreated into exile. Or capture the James Soong (宋楚瑜) experience of The Last Hurrah, in a man running for president one last time as his political life winds down.
Yes, Taiwan has voices in the arts. What it lacks are Emersonian academics, who have the philosophic and political depth to enter the metaphysical realms of national identity, imagined communities and subtle political nuances. They must not only enter such areas, but also emerge from them with a clarion cry that can inspire all Taiwanese.
Emerson was not timid in his own right.
In the following year, he would present his thinking on transcendentalism to the Harvard divinity class. That challenge and his opinions on puritanism and Unitarianism would be strongly resented, so much so that it would be another three decades before he would be invited to speak at Harvard again, but Emerson as “man thinking” was never a man without an audience.
Across the Taiwan Strait, the PRC pundits have no trouble twisting and pushing their national narrative as they attempt to entrap Taiwan in the gambit of their “one China” principle. They are neither secret in their avarice nor shy in pursuing audiences.
Where is Taiwan’s voice? Who will be Taiwan’s spokespeople? The US might still be “undecided,” but that does not mean that Taiwan’s thinkers must be restrained.
Taiwanese academics already have support from the many Taiwanese artists. They can show Taiwanese as free persons thinking regardless of their disenfranchisement in the many slow-moving organizations of the world.
Taiwan has already forged its own path and developed out of diversity. If Hong Kongers can say to China: “Don’t even talk to us until you can tolerate democracy,” what then should an independent Taiwan say?
The time is ripe. Taiwan must take charge of its narrative.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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