Journalism & Scholarship Force Us to Bear Witness to Taiwan’s Darkest Era
By Dr. Chung-Chih Li, edited by Leona Chen
Editor’s Note: In 1981, Professor Chen Wen-Cheng (陳文成), assistant professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University, was taken for interrogation by Taiwan’s secret police under allegations of sedition. Despite official reports of a friendly and cordial interview, he was found dead the next day at National Taiwan University.
Thirteen broken ribs. Three fractured vertebrae. A one-year old son. The government ruled it a suicide and blacklisted anyone who hinted otherwise.
A year prior, the North America Taiwanese Professors’ Association (NATPA) had been formed in response to the violence of Taiwan’s militarized government – specifically, the Meilidao Incident (Kaohsiung Incident, 美麗島事件) in 1979 and the murders of former DPP chairperson Lin I-Hsiung’s elderly mother and twin daughters (林宅血案 ) in 1980. Many of its founding members were scholars exiled for their beliefs in a democratic future. American citizenship would not protect them. The Kuomintang (KMT) routinely employed diasporic gang members to execute those who dared testify to crimes committed in their home country.
Over three decades later, the current president of NATPA, Dr. Chung-Chih Li, reminds us as Taiwanese Americans that to remember these forbidden truths, carried over through great sacrifice, is the most radical and important act of all.
In 1544, Portuguese sailors named Taiwan “Ilha Formosa,” meaning “Beautiful Island.”
For the next 400 years, Taiwan’s modern history would continue to be defined by outsiders who wanted to control its beauty and its people.
In the early spring of 1947, as the world grappled with the aftermath of World War II, a series of reports inserted a new name into global consciousness: Taiwan. A former Japanese colony with 6 million unarmed inhabitants, the island had quietly escaped the attention of a generation then obsessed with communists and separatists. And yet, just 18 months after V-J Day, journalists revealed the bloody realities of a Taiwan under Chinese rule.
On March 4, the New York Times published a slightly misleading headline: “Formosan Rebellion is Quieted by the Chinese Governor’s Promises.” The article pieced together scattered reports of a civil conflict that had resulted in the deaths of nearly 4,000 unarmed civilians. That this level of bloodshed could occur in a non-battled region should have mattered more. The Allies should have been outraged.
But the reports had been delayed and distorted by a news blackout ordered by the Chinese authorities. No one outside of Taiwan understood what was happening on the island.
It was too easy, too comforting, to believe that the rampage was over, and that tensions between the Formosans and the ruling Chinese could be settled upon the word of the Chinese governor, General Chen Yi. And so, while the rest of the world settled into post-war bliss, an undefended Taiwan slipped into her darkest era.
With few sources and China’s influence over global censorship, the New York Times revised the number of Taiwanese deaths to a diminutive 500 and commended Governor Chen for his promises of a reformed participatory government. But this was all smoke and mirrors. On the one hand, Government Chen encouraged the Taiwanese to form autonomous assemblies for government reform; on the other, he was radioing Nanking for troops to subdue them.
By the time Americans opened their morning newspapers on March 8, 1947, the purge had begun.
Even the Chinese government could no longer stifle the atrocity of its own crimes. On March 11, the word “massacre” appeared in headlines, finally affirming the unspoken suffering of the Taiwanese people. On March 12, the New York Times ran the headline “New Troops Increase Attacks against Rebellion in Formosa,” noting that 12,000 Chinese troops from Shanghai had been ordered to impose martial law and dissolve illegal organizations – the very same organizations that Governor Chen had encouraged to form only days ago.
The violence only escalated. New York Times correspondent Tillman Durdin was one of very few journalists to publish eyewitness accounts of the chaos in Taiwan:
“With the arrival of a division of troops from the mainland on March 8 Governor Chen launched a rigorous suppression drive.
Troops indulged in three days of terroristic indiscriminate shooting in Keelung, during which anyone seen on the street was made a target of rifle or machine-gun fire. There was at no time any organized armed resistance.
A systematic purge of Formosan leaders was then carried out. Teachers, students and commercial leaders were arrested, and many were summarily shot. Of those whom Governor Chen had invited to negotiate with him in early March some were executed, including the chairman of the Taiwan Teas Association.”
On March 29, American journalist John W. Powell published the first comprehensive coverage of the massacred island. He titled it “Taiwan’s Blood Bath.”
“The city experienced a blood bath reminiscent of the days of warlords, with troops shooting Taiwanese on sight. Truckloads of soldiers armed with machine guns and automatic rifles sped through the streets firing at any person found on the street and into shops and houses. During this period, some of the most unimaginable atrocities were perpetrated by the troops. Looting became the order of the day and innumerable people were killed or wounded in nightly searches. Stories of looting, torture, and killing were not confined to Taipei.
Among the eyewitness accounts, one of the most horrible was that of the killing of 20 youths in a village between Taipei and Keelung… their bodies were thrown in a creek where they remained for several days. Almost every day, more bodies are found; some are washed up by the tide, some float up in the river – while others are discovered in rubbish heaps and shallow graves.”
If Formosa becomes a focus of Communist influence, American interests will be involved. Formosa is one of the strategic chain of islands between Japan and the Philippines.”
Powell, Durdin, and other Western journalists provided a crucial outsider’s perspective: even with the political and personal elements sterilized, Taiwan had still suffered a tremendous and violent injustice.
Journalism and scholarship counter the propaganda that would have you believe this incident was an imagined one.
For four decades, martial law forbade discussion of this massacre, known as the 228 Incident. Today, historians, citizens, and activists alike agree that this era should be remembered as the defining moment, the unbearable price paid by Taiwanese in their long and winding search for identity.
How one feels about the 228 incident becomes the guiding factor in the formation of their political position. This holds true for an entire generation, and the generations to come.
The Taiwanese have been ruled for much of their modern history, made pawns by their occupiers. They were forcibly Japanese, then mistaken for Chinese. In the conclusion of his article, “Taiwan Needs Good Government,” Powell writes:
“Another racket the mainland authorities are still working … is squeezing money and property out of wealthy Taiwanese by threatening them with charges of collaboration with the Japanese during the war. This, of course, is one of the most ridiculous excuses used so far, since after 51 years of occupation how could any Taiwanese be called a collaborator? China’s government gave away Taiwan in a treaty signed with Japan and since then the Taiwanese have been Japanese subjects. In fact, they technically are still legal Japanese subjects and will remain such until the peace treaty with Japan is signed.”
But no history can be simplified in this way. The pretext of the 228 incident and all that followed began long before corrupt Chinese governance. It had been a moment five hundred years in the making. From the first European expedition to the coast of the island, every person who set foot on Taiwanese soil has had their own agenda for her resources, her people. Those who decided to stay for good became Taiwanese. From European explorers and colonizers to missionaries and traders, from Japanese settlers to Chinese refugees after their defeat in the civil war, the Taiwanese have opened their arms for these ostracized and displaced to make a home. But the Taiwanese themselves have never had a chance to their own country.
In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Walter Benjamin writes:
“Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments, and each moment it has lived becomes a citation in the final judgement.”
The only redemption from this dark history, it seems to me, is to have an independent country, the final judgement for a nation. Not until then can the citations of the massacre connect the past to our present, can they become more than cold indices to the news archive, disconnected from our beating hearts.
Dr. Chung-Chih Li, PhD
Professor, Illinois State University
President of North America Taiwanese Professors’ Association (NATPA)
Dr. Chung-Chih Li is from Taipei, Taiwan, and received his degree in Computer Science from Tamkang University in Taiwan. He later earned his PhD from Syracuse University in Computer Science. Dr. Li is a well-known commentator and has been featured in Taiwan’s major newspapers for his views on politics, education, and culture.