By Joyce Chen, edited by Leona Chen
Editor’s Note: American-born Taiwanese Joyce Chen is a first-year international student at National Taiwan University. On the 71st anniversary of 228, Taiwan is, she observes, harboring a strange ambivalence.
This is not to ignore the indigenous protests for transitional justice or the demonstrations that did occur this year. In Taoyuan, a group of young pro-independence activists covered the tomb of Chiang Kai-Shek in red paint to symbolize the estimated 24,000 Taiwanese that died at his hands. But the legacy of an authoritarian regime is that such demonstrations are considered irrational acts of vandalism, affronts to patriotism and nationalism. Or a society conditioned to want to forget, to insist on forgetting, for the sake of social harmony.
As students of the Western world, we learn about the Holocaust of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. We read The Diary of Anne Frank to resist the politicized abstraction of human violence. Our teachers remind us that we must learn it, we must remember it, so that it never happens again. The memory of the Shoah, carried within Auschwitz survivors and legitimized in history textbooks, is crucial to those descended from it, and for those who watched and did nothing.
Taiwan, it seems, does not or cannot yet feel this way about its own holocaust, the persecution and slaughter of its own people.
During my senior year of high school, I gave a lunchtime presentation on the 228 Incident for the Taiwanese Student Organization. My ambition for the next fifteen minutes was to teach my second-generation peers the circumstances of our parents’ adolescence and grandparents’ adult lives: those of martial law, of an authoritarian government. Not everybody had parents as vocal as mine, who insisted that I learn about the nuances of Taiwanese culture and history. I found myself stuck, because I wanted to share everything, but at the same time, I didn’t know how to say it. When my fifteen minutes were up, the bell rang, and everyone moved onto their next class.
The pain of 228 wasn’t something I could share. I couldn’t force others into being as motivated as I was to learn the truth.
Growing up in a strong Taiwanese community in the Bay Area, the 228 Incident always felt like a huge deal. I had access to books and articles, and could grasp the complex nature of the event. Every year, my mother took me to the 228 Memorial Concert, where we mourned in the hundreds, all of us reflecting on an era miles and years away. We all cared so vehemently, so passionately, about our homeland. We shared recipes for Taiwanese food. We attended church sermons in Taiwanese. We sang karaoke in Taiwanese. We taught or attended Taiwanese schools. We led Taiwanese cultural festivals and student groups. And every year, at the end of February, we came together in remembrance. It was just something we did, as Taiwanese Americans — to celebrate the good and grieve the painful. To champion for our home country in our host country.
As an American-born Taiwanese, I expected an even greater level of engagement in Taiwan. I anticipated a great, collective mourning, an outpouring of stories and reflections on how far the country has come since the White Terror.
I asked some of my classmates how they felt about 228, hoping to gain some perspective from the younger generation of Taiwanese citizens after having heard my elders’ stories for so long.
I was surprised to hear their responses.
“To me, the 228 incident is just another event that we learn and get tested on. I was born into the era of freedom and equality, so it is difficult for me to understand how they felt during the authoritarian era.”
“It was so long ago, that it doesn’t feel like it affects me now.”
Some had internalized the rhetoric pro-Independence activists warn against:
“The government has taken advantage of the incident, using it as a political tool. So-called victims are using it as an excuse to take money from the government.”
February 28, 1947 seems so long ago when you’re only eighteen. But the shadow of the martial law remains, and I see it in my grandparents and in my parents. For my peers, whose families never left Taiwan, martial law defined their lives and informed their memories. They weren’t allowed to talk about it. The government distorted the facts. And now that cracks are forming in the propaganda, they no longer know how to talk about it. It’s one thing to learn about a politically fractured country. It’s another to live in it, to have a shattered sense of history and identity.
This month, the Taipei Department of Education and the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum teamed up to release a new curriculum for the 228 Incident. Students are able to follow the lives of specific victims, pushing through politicized language to learn about the actual people affected. The hope is that they will continue to take this information as a way to think about their own contributions to society, and what they would do to better Taiwan’s future.
Both the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have contradictory intentions to “let history speak for itself.” But what will it say, after having been silenced for so long?
Guest writer Joyce Chen is from the Bay Area, California. She was a graduate of American High School and Fremont Taiwan School, and is currently a first-year international student at National Taiwan University, studying Foreign Languages & Literature.