Taiwan will always face new challenges within and without as its democracy develops. Yet while new issues appear and must be resolved, one of the most pressing problems from its past remains, namely: What to do with the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, or as it is sarcastically called “The Tomb of the Dead Dictator.”
A start on this problem had been made during the presidency of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). In 2007, the hall was renamed National Taiwan Democracy Hall and the surrounding area named Liberty Square.
Controversy naturally followed, especially from Taiwan’s resident diaspora, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). KMT members had fled to Taiwan after they lost the civil war in China in 1949, and they still had not wanted to face up to that fact. For convenience, they therefore ignore how they imposed more than 40 years of martial law, White Terror and one-party rule on Taiwanese, and focus on the present issue of the hall.
In 2009, with a democratic change of the presidency, the KMT stalwart Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) changed the name back to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Liberty Square ironically did keep its name.
In 2017, after Ma’s presidency, a commission was again formed to reconsider a name change more in line with the purpose of the hall, but after four years, no clear results have emerged. It is therefore time for more concrete suggestions and action.
The first step should be to once again rename the hall National Taiwan Democracy Hall. The statue of former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) must also be permanently removed. Once that is done, all future actions can flow. What to do with the statue is no problem. It can easily be placed in the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park, where it can reside with all the other statues and relics from that past totalitarian era.
However, once that is done, the more challenging issue arises: What should replace the statue in a renamed Democracy Hall?
I suggest a statue or monumental piece that symbolizes Taiwan’s democracy. This specific sculpture or work can be developed by a commission and voted on by the people as to what symbolically and aesthetically best represents the nation’s democracy.
While such an aesthetic work should dominate the hall, space along the walls should also be made for statues of each of Taiwan’s four democratically elected presidents, as well as future ones.
The statue of each can be placed with a brief history of the major accomplishments and developments (good and bad) from each one’s tenure in office. This is not meant to foster any cult of personality, but rather to point out to the people that “you get what you elect,” so you best be careful in your selections. In this way, voters can easily learn how their choices do have consequences, and that elected officials do have weaknesses as well as strengths.
Taiwan has been fortunate in that its four elected presidents already provide a clear and ready history of the many changes that have come about since 1996, when Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) became the first president to be elected by the people.
The developments in the hall do not stop there. In the rooms in the lower reaches of the hall, one room could be dedicated to exhibiting a brief history of Taiwan from its Aborigines who made a significant contribution to the vast Austronesian empire that once spread across the oceans. Included also would be Taiwan’s different colonial eras along with the flags that have flown over the island. They would be the Dutch, the Spanish, the fleeing Ming loyalists, the pursuing Manchu Qing, the brief French military foray and the Japanese colonial era. Taiwanese need to be conscious of the fullness of the island’s past history.
Another room could indicate how democracy came about from the KMT occupation with its martial law and White Terror. What citizens need to grasp is how its democracy came at a price.
A third room could feature the various political parties that have risen and fallen. It is important to realize how, in a democracy, political entities such as the New Party can not only rise, but understand why they fell. Such lessons would provide a better understanding of democracy. No one party should be relied upon and not all parties contribute equally.
Information could also be provided about other museums and historical sites. A reference to the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines, Green Island Prison, the 228 Peace Memorial Park and Museum, the Martyrs’ Shrine, the Jing-Mei Prison and others can be highlighted. All these are part and parcel of Taiwan’s formative past.
Coordination with such museums and sites can easily be done. A brochure could indicate where each of these is located in the city or nation. In this way, citizens who want to expand their knowledge would know where to go and learn how each demonstrates the development of Taiwan’s democracy.
A special room or exhibit should also be made for the citizen movements that contributed to democracy. These movements served an important purpose. Included here would be the roles of the Wild Lily Movement, the Wild Strawberry Movement and the most recent Sunflower movement. Each has made its own contribution at a crucial stage in the development of Taiwan’s democracy.
A different and more controversial issue that must be confronted is the role of the National Palace Museum. Entrusted in that museum are treasures from that country on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. They do not belong to Taiwan, but even this fact can become a good teaching tool.
The treasures of the museum were brought by the KMT as it fled its homeland. In truth, these treasures of the past ultimately belong to China and not to Taiwan, but China has not yet demonstrated that it can show them proper respect. Many would have been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.
While a long-range plan could be made for returning the artifacts, a special irony also exists. China would need to renounce its bellicose, hegemonic desire to control and destroy Taiwan and its democracy. One can easily guess that it would rather sacrifice those treasures than admit to its hegemony and the reality that it has no legal claim to Taiwan.
This same matter would even pose a problem for many in the KMT; they would need to make the telling choice as to whether they really support Taiwan’s democracy, or like quislings prefer to return to a China, where they would still hope to have rank and privilege even though they lost the civil war.
That issue is beyond the scope of this article and dredges up the many reasons why a recipient was never named in the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, when Japan surrendered its sovereignty over Taiwan.
Taiwan’s treasured democracy is one that has been born in controversy from the end of World War II up to the present. Our focus here is on restoring National Taiwan Democracy Hall, and the first immediate step in that effort is the removal of the Chiang statue within it.
It is time for Taiwan to be Taiwan and to have a National Hall dedicated to its democracy.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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