The Roman Pantheon, rebuilt by Roman emperor Hadrian between 117 and 138, was given to pope Boniface IV by emperor Phocas of the Eastern Roman Empire in 609. Boniface converted it to a church, the Basilica of St Mary and the Martyrs, which is now the name of the building. Since the Renaissance, it has been the site of several important burials, including those of the painters Raphael and Annibale Carracci.
The Parisian Pantheon, built by Louis XV of France and intended as a church dedicated to Saint Genevieve, Paris’ patron saint, was completed in 1790, in the early days of the French revolution. The revolutionary leadership transformed the building from a church into a pantheon to serve as the burial place of the famous dead of the nation. It has gone through many changes over the years, and it is now the burial grounds of France’s most respected historical figures, such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and Alexandre Dumas.
The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall was completed and opened in 1980. In traditional Chinese architecture, the stone carving that runs through the center of the steps leading up to the memorial hall only appears in imperial palaces or temples. The main gate has five openings, six pillars and 11 roofs, the same style of design that was used at old imperial burial grounds, and the highest honor in traditional Chinese architecture.
The octagonal cupola with glazed roof tiles, which emulates the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, is yet another piece of evidence of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) fawning personality cult during the period of strongman rule. It is flabbergasting that Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) would place this overly flattering, somewhat imperial, personality-cult-inducing design pandering to 5,000 years of imperial history adjacent to the Boai Special Zone, with all of its government office buildings, rather than somewhere on the outskirts of the city, in order to praise and pay respect to his father, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石).
The Transitional Justice Commission recently announced plans to transform the memorial hall into something along the lines of a park reflecting on the history of the authoritarian period. The two main directives are to transform the authoritarian space and reconstruct the memorial narrative, and to implement three major disposal measures: removing the statue, transforming the functions of the buildings and the buildings’ exterior, and removing the overall theme of worship from the park.
Removing the bronze statue in the main hall should not pose any major problems, as it is not a nationally designated monument. The overall layout, with the National Theater and the National Concert Hall symmetrically placed to the right and the left of the square, and the foundation of the main building, which is elevated to imply an altar, are part of this theme of worship that cannot be removed by simply changing their exterior.
Regardless, the matter caused the Transitional Justice Commission to tread water for three years, before finally making a brave push for “reflection on authoritarianism” — a slogan that has been familiar to the previous generation.
The best way to build national cohesion and identity is to convert the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall into a pantheon for famous and respected Taiwanese, and turn the park’s overall theme of worship into an inspiration for generations to come.
Hsu Cheng-wang is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Architecture and Interior Design at Shu-Te University.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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