My first walking tour of Taipei by Tour Me Away ended at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and I went with another British girl from my tour group to see the changing of the guard inside. The Memorial Hall was also where I began to get a true understanding of Taiwan’s painful modern history.
The changing of the guard reminded me of the one at London’s Buckingham Palace, although the obvious difference being the guards at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall are ‘guarding’ a large statue of Chiang rather than a living monarch. Every hour on the hour (from 10am-4pm) the guards are changed during a flawlessly elaborate ceremony of marching and rifle twirling. The grand ceiling and the marble floor add to the stately atmosphere.
Someone remarked that the Chiang statue reminded him of the Lincoln one in Washington. The irony being Lincoln won his war and Chiang lost his war, yet they both ended up immortalised as statues in grand halls in their respective national capitals.
I have to admit, I knew very little about Ching Kai-shek himself aside from knowing he fled from Mao’s communists in mainland China during the Chinese Civil War. I was naively under the impression that because Chiang so staunchly opposed to Mao’s communist ideals that Chiang must be the antithesis of Mao and, therefore, a liberator of sorts.
However, as I learnt on my next walking tour, this was not the case. (Here comes a very brief history lesson). During the Chinese civil war of the 1950s, once Chiang and his Nationalist forces (the Kuomintang) saw defeat against the Communists was imminent, Chiang fled to Taiwan with his government and army. He then imposed martial law and persecuted those who criticised his rule in a period known as the ‘White Terror’. Chiang was certainly no saint, let alone a liberator. He ruled Taiwan as it’s President until his death in 1975.
In 1975, Chiang’s son took over the presidency and gradually loosened government controls on speech and the media. In 1987, martial law was lifted and the modern Taiwan we know today slowly evolved. Aside from a period of 8 years, Taiwan continued to be ruled by a Kuomintang president until last year, which saw the election of Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai is Taiwan’s first female president and a progressive leader from the Democratic Progressive Party.
As the year 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of ending martial law, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, and the statue of Chiang himself, will play a poignant and divisive role. For many Taiwanese, Chiang is a tyrant who should not be continued to be revered. Some are even campaigning for his statue to be removed from the Memorial Hall. For others, Chiang is the founder of what differentiates Taiwan from modern-day communist China and so his commanding role in cementing an independent Taiwan should continue to be recognised.
At the beginning of this month, Taiwan’s culture ministry announced that the Memorial Hall will be repurposed this year. Exactly what this entails is yet to be confirmed but speculation about the removal of Chiang’s status is abound. What is confirmed is that the Hall will stop selling Chiang-themed merchandise.
Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s president from 2008-2016, last year cautiously summed up modern Taiwan’s feelings of Chiang Kai-shek: “As the head of state at the time, Chiang was undoubtedly liable for the White Terror era. As for exactly what kind of responsibility he had, I am afraid that is a matter for future generations to deliberate to reach a more accurate conclusion.”
In turn, for Taiwanese people to acknowledge their past history and to talk openly about it will only widen the political chasm between them and China, something which has already upset the Chinese. (And it’s no secret that Taiwan’s current President, Tsai Ing-wen is pro-independence, and the Chinese will see any official move towards this as an act of war). In contrast to Taiwan’s confrontation with their past, the thought of China acknowledging the Tiananmen Square massacre, or removing statues and portraits of revered war-criminal Mao, is unthinkable.
But as Tsai recently said: “Reconciliation must be built on truth. Without the truth, the past will not stay in the past.” Keep your ears and eyes peeled. 2017 is certain to be an eventful and poignant year for Taiwan.