Nowhere are the effects of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) postwar Sinification campaign more visible than in the toponymic revisions that the regime undertook after assuming power.
Taipei’s streets were renamed after Chinese cities or quintessentially Chinese values, and with the kind of self-aggrandizing flourish to which the party was partial, the process even referenced itself, Guangfu (光復) — which translates as “retrocession” — becoming a mainstay of urban nomenclature. Above all, the KMT’s top brass was memorialized: the given names of Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) and Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) — Zhongshan (中山) and Zhongzheng (中正) — were conferred on locations islandwide.
Name changes extended beyond the cityscape: if the KMT was unable to literally bend nature to its will, then it sought at least to exert nominal mastery by replacing age-old designations with signifiers designed to invoke a glorious, supposedly shared, past.
Photo: James Baron
Rechristened to commemorate Master Yangming, the soubriquet of Chiang’s favorite Ming Dynasty scholar Wang Shou-ren (王守仁), Taiwan’s northernmost national park is one example. Yangmingshan (陽明山) was known as Grass Mountain (草山) during the Qing Dynasty in reference to the silvergrass on its higher reaches. Toward the end of the Japanese era, it attained national park status as Daitonshan, a Nipponizaton of Datun (大屯), a volcanic mountain range within the reserve. Adding his name to one of the park’s peak’s (Zhongzhengshan, 中正山) for good measure, Chiang also left his mark in more tangible ways: Yangmingshan is dotted with monuments to the KMT’s efforts to transpose its muddled history to Taiwan.
Repetition is among the most basic but effective propaganda techniques. Having transformed the Taihoku City Public Auditorium into Zhongshan Hall in Zhongzheng District (中正), Chiang commissioned a building of the same name (which maintains the old Wade-Giles romanization Chungshan) at Yangmingshan in 1965 for the centenary of Sun Yat-sen's birth. It is touted as unique for its location atop a sulfurous fumarole. Part of the structure comprised scrap metal from rust-resistant warships.
LEGITIMIZING THE REGIME
Photo: James Baron
When she caught Chiang’s attention in the early 1960s, architect Hsiu Tse-lan (修澤蘭) already had 150 (mainly school) buildings to her name. Prominent examples include Xindian’s dilapidated New Garden City and Sun Moon Lake Teacher’s Hostel, but it was Hsiu’s melding of classical Chinese motifs with Western modernism that impressed.
There is scant evidence of the latter in the Zhongshan Hall’s palatial style. In fine weather, the glazed green tiles of the multi-tiered tower shimmer, the crowning layer resembling the varnished sedge hat of a paddy farmer toiling in the afternoon sun. With their upturned corners, the elongated eaves evoke an eagle’s outstretched wings. Inside, intricately chiseled palace lanterns dangle between ornate ceiling beams, marble balustrades topped with peach-shaped finials — symbolizing immortality — line the stairways.
Amid this ostentation, lurks staid utility. In interviews, Hsiu professed herself an adherent of Frank Lloyd-Wright’s principle that “form and function are one,” and this is evident in the building’s most important space, the Chinese Culture Hall. Bunched into tightly packed blocks, row-upon-row of plain brown seating extends the length of this capacious room. The lines, which taper with the incline of the mountain against which the building stands, provided an identical view of the stage at the front for their occupants — members of a singularly strange legislature.
Photo: James Baron
Under the new Constitution of the Republic of China, elections for the first National Assembly had taken place in 1947, the body meeting in Nanjing the following year. Unable to abandon a vestige of its rule seen as legitimizing the claim to represent China, the KMT reconvened the assembly from 1954. Declaring that new elections could not be held until the “Mainland” was recaptured, the party handed lifelong positions to the 1,000-odd delegates who had made it to Taiwan. They drew handsome annual salaries (US$43,000 by the time of their disbandment), despite meeting only once every six years, and per diem bonuses while the assembly was sitting.
As they essentially propped up the system that enabled their existence, it took protests over their “re-election” to a second “term” in 1991 to force these relics into retirement. By 2000, the assembly had been stripped of functions, before being officially scrapped in 2005. The Zhongshan Hall was opened to the public that year. Visitors from across the Strait are intrigued to learn of the parallel government in absentia that once held forth at the venue; despite the building’s familiar appearance — thanks to its prominence on the reverse of the NT$100-bill — younger Taiwanese generally know neither its name nor the details of the political absurdity it once hosted.
HEROES AND CRONIES
Fifteen minutes’ walk west, Grass Mountain Chateau (蔣公草山行館) is one of two retreats that Chiang maintained at Yangmingshan. Built by the Japanese as a guest house for employees of the Taiwan Sugar Company in 1920, it was restored after a fire in 2007. Contrasting with the rough-hewn granite of its portico and facades, the delicate wooden interior comprises a series of rooms divided by a Zen-type courtyard garden.
Chiang’s wife Soong Mei-ling (宋美齡) was a dilettante watercolorist who took classes from legendary painter Chang Dai-chien (張大千), and it’s easy to see why she was taken with this location: the front yard and restaurant balcony afford a magnificent panoramic of the Guandu Plains, Shezi Island and beyond. Copies of Madam Chiang’s efforts can be seen in a studio toward the rear of the building.
The main rooms all have allegorical names. Chiang’s bedroom is Cuiying Tang (萃英堂), literally the “hall of gathered heroes,” though the English translation “cronies” found on one placard is unwittingly perhaps more appropriate. This sign is outside Jieshou (介壽) Hall, a living room at the far end of the residence. The name of this room combines the first character from Chiang’s given name with the logogram for longevity — an auspicious motif in Chinese art and architecture, found throughout the Yangmingshan buildings.
Among the items displayed here is Chiang’s wedding suit, provided by Tom Tailor, a century-old outfitter that started in Shanghai and still maintains a store on Taipei’s Boai Street. A photo of a doddery-looking dictator playing Chinese chess (象棋) with his grandsons appears alongside another of him jovially glass-clinking with US Ambassador Alan G. Kirk. This conviviality was contrived: the relationship was icy, and Chiang snubbed Kirk for much of his 7-month tenure.
PIETY AND ARROGANCE
A nameless compartment next to Jieshou is perhaps most revealing. Here, on a rickety lectern under a window, a Bible is open at Psalm 94. A vengeful God is beseeched to punish arrogant evildoers and “repay the proud what they deserve.” Inches from the left-hand corner of the good book is a postcard of Chiang’s June 1942 appearance on the cover of Time, one of 10 he made (two with different wives) courtesy of a decades-long hagiographic campaign by his most dedicated champion and benefactor, the magazine’s owner Henry Luce. In this portrait, a half-smile parts Chiang’s lips, as he angles his bright-eyed gaze into the unknown with an exemplary faraway look.
It is all a sham. This room was originally Mei-ling’s bathroom; its current state is little more than a contradictory attempt to cast Chiang as an austere man of God.
Similar efforts to literally paint a different picture are evident at Yangming Shuwu (陽明書屋), formerly known as Zhongxing Guesthouse (中興賓館). The current name refers to the building’s conversion after Chiang’s death to a repository for the KMT’s archives. While Chiang’s personal correspondence from the Northern Expedition period (1926-1928) was moved to Academia Sinica, and is available online, other material was of the type that Taiwan’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is still struggling to make public.
As for Zhongxing, which means “restoration” and alludes to the legendary Xia (夏) Dynasty — this again referred to “reunification” with Taiwan. It is also the name of the village in Nantou County that, until 2018, was the official seat of government of Taiwan Province — another KMT device to maintain the illusion of representing China. (One of Hsiu Tse-lan’s most aesthetically compelling designs can be found there — the former Shing Sheng News building, which is now a cafe, located at the children’s park.) Despite these grand pretensions, the atmosphere at this, the largest of the presidential residences in Taiwan, is anything but triumphal.
With its stark central watchtower, hidey-hole pillboxes and network of tunnels, the complex resembles a fortress. A pack of German shepherds once prowled the perimeter, occasionally slipping out to swipe chickens from nearby smallholdings. Tour guides say the farmers weren’t fussed, supposedly making a mark-up on the ill-fated poultry. It’s more likely they just cut their losses.
Even the garden seems peculiarly symbolic: a cluster of five azalea bushes planted to symbolize the Generalissimo’s five stars has long since wilted away, and an endemic species of myrtle tree, known locally as “monkey can’t climb (猴不爬),” because of its slippery bark adds to the air of impregnability.
Meanwhile, the location of the guesthouse at the bend of a steep stretch of road reinforces the notion that this was as much a last-ditch redoubt as the “resort” described in the information pamphlet. Architect Huang Bao-yu (黃寶瑜), who realized the project between 1969 and 1970, also designed the National Palace Museum. Poles apart in appearance, the landmarks served comparable functions: protecting Chinese antiques.
Most rooms are fitted with multiple exits and, as at Zhongshan, the desks in the studies and reception rooms are positioned kitty-corner from the entrance, providing the optimal view of visitors or potential intruders. In the case of the former, a subordinate’s comportment on entrance could make or break his career. As for would-be assassins: the great leader had been paranoid since the Xian Incident of 1937, when he had been kidnapped by one of his generals, Chang Hsueh-liang (張學良), the ruler of Manchuria. (The villa where Chang was held under house arrest for decades is a 20-minute ride back down the mountain in the foothills of Yangmingshan.)
By the time he occupied Yangming Shuwu, Chiang was frail, incontinent and afflicted with dementia. He bore scant resemblance to the steel-willed Generalissimo who had ruthlessly cut down all opposition. Following a heart attack months before his death, a helipad near the plum garden became redundant when Chiang was no longer able to fly.
Yet, a series of oil paintings attempts to recapture the image of an omniscient ruler. Greeting visitors in the main hall is a huge portrait of Chiang dressed in black, wraparound cape. There is a whiff of the Gothic here, Chiang’s eyes following the viewer around the room.
In the East Parlor, where foreign dignitaries were received, is a painting of Chiang flanking Sun Yat-sen on the deck of the SS Yongfeng (永豐) gunboat. This scene depicts a famous incident from June 1922 when Chiang rushed to his mentor’s side, following a rebellion by Sun’s one-time ally Chen Chiung-ming (陳炯明).
Here, Chiang is portrayed as China’s savior — a player in the pivotal moments of the country’s early revolutionary period. (In another example of twisted history, Chen, a federalist who criticized the KMT’s one-party rule, was branded a traitor in textbooks in Taiwan.) Finally, in an adjoining study, a softer side is displayed, as Chiang stands behind his seated mother, a model of filial piety.
On a cabinet, in the corner of this room, Chiang’s genealogical record resides in a small wooden chest. It bears the name Zhoutai (周泰), his officially registered given name — one of five he used during his life.
Like so much about him, these were facades: Kai-shek, the Cantonese version of his pen name Chieh-shih (介石), and the aforementioned Zhongcheng, chosen for its similarity to Sun’s (also acquired) name Zhongshan were the best known. With its suggestion of “upstanding” virtue, this latter remains ubiquitous in Taiwan.
It is a reminder of the hypocrisy of a man who was determined to project a legacy of moral rectitude on a people who were never allowed to question it. In keeping with the views of Confucius, who Chiang revered, it also emphasizes how names can be wielded as tools for distorting reality.
What: Zhongshan Hall at Yangmingshan (陽明山中山樓)
When: Guided tours daily, except for national holidays, at 9am, 10:30am, 1:30pm and 3pm.
Where: 15, Yangming Rd Sec 2, Beitou District, Taipei City (台北市北投區陽明路二段15號), tel: (02) 2861-6391.
Admission: NT$80; NT$60 for groups of 10 or more, students, soldiers and police officers
What: Grass Mountain Chateau (草山和行管)
When: Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 5pm; free guided tours available for groups of more than 10.
Where: 89 Hudi Rd, Beitou District, Taipei City (台北市北投區湖底路89號), tel: (02) 2862-2404.
Admission: NT$30; NT$25 for groups of 20 or more; free admission for Taiwan nationals over the age of 65, people with disabilities (with one guest accompanying) and various other groups
What: Yangmingshuwu / Zhongxing Guesthouse (陽明書屋 / 中興賓館)
When: Guided tours daily, except for Lunar New Year's Eve and the last Monday of each month. (If national holidays falls on a Monday, the premises will be closed on the following Tuesday.) Non-reserved guided tours for individuals at 9:10am and 1:30pm and for group reservations at 10am, 11am, 2pm and 3pm.
Where: 12 Zhongxing Rd, Beitou District, Taipei City (台北市北投區中興路12號), tel: (02) 2861-9816
Admission: NT$50; NT$30 discount for groups of more than 20, students and various other groups; free admission for people over the age of 65 (with ID), people with disabilities (with one guest accompanying) and various other groups.
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