When a long holiday weekend rolls around, one’s first impulse is not often to question why or how, but to breathe a sigh of relief and make plans for those long-awaited adventures, finally. As a foreigner it can be too easy to miss the meaning behind local holidays, especially ones as quietly kept as February 28. It is only in recent decades that the 228 Incident, or 228 Massacre, has been spoken of publicly. Prior to that it was a strictly taboo subject, carefully left unmentioned so as not to incur the wrath of an unforgiving government in an era of martial law.
Yet the 228 Incident is an integral part of modern Taiwanese history. We cannot seek to understand Taiwan’s path to democracy without first understanding this chapter. This year I decided to dig in to the event’s history. I planned a day trip to Taipei to visit some of the famous sites, most notably the National 228 Memorial Museum and the 228 Peace Memorial Park. Taking myself by surprise, I also ended up spending a significant amount of time at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. More on that later.
I began at the National 228 Memorial Museum knowing only the story of the triggering event. Government inspectors brutalized a widow illegally hawking cigarettes. A public outcry and protests resulted which the Nationalist Party (also known as the Kuomintang, or KMT) answered with an iron fist, leaving dead civilians in its wake. How many I did not know. This is truly the bare minimum of understanding. What I learned would leave me stunned. Where before I only superficially grasped the incident as a tragedy at the hands of the KMT; now I can begin to see its greater contextual and historic significance.
When the Japanese surrendered at the end of WWII, Taiwan was in high spirits. Having been a Japanese colony for the last 50 years, they were eager to be free from colonial rule and reunited with the motherland. The Taiwanese people celebrated the arrival of KMT officials, the ruthless Chen Yi among them. At the time Taiwan was doing very well economically and socially, thanks in large part to Japanese-led development in infrastructure and education. The disparity between Taiwan and mainland China was great, given China’s embroilment in civil war for the previous two decades and WWII for the last decade. While the Taiwanese people hoped the KMT would uphold their society, they immediately began to undermine it.
The soldiers continued their damaging wartime habits, stealing, raping and plundering across the island. The politicians, far from representing their new people, made it impossible for local Taiwanese people to occupy office. They further monopolized the country’s resources and sought to make personal profit in corrupt trade practices . Despite their eager welcoming of the KMT, the Taiwanese, having adopted Japanese culture, were seen as Japanese-sympathizers. Seeking to eradicate any remaining Japanese influence, the Government changed the language of the newspapers from Japanese to Chinese, leaving a large portion of the population (having never learned to read/write Chinese characters) unable to access information. As corruption ran rampant, rice shortages became an increasingly serious problem, and inflation grew rapidly. The Taiwanese people were fed up with the new regime and social tensions increased.
The mistreatment of the woman selling cigarettes, and what happened next, was the last straw. After an inspector knocked her out with the butt of his gun, an angry crowd formed and chased down the inspectors. They fired into the crowd to escape and killed one civilian before getting away. The crowd was so incensed that they went to the local newspaper and forced them to run a report about the incident. The next day they went to the Monopoly Administration Building, seeking the guilty officer and demanding justice. Denied, they ransacked the building and set its inventory on fire. Next they marched to office of the Chief Administrator, Chen Yi, where they were met with machine gun fire. More civilians were killed. Taipei erupted in enraged pandemonium. That afternoon the protestors overtook the local radio station and broadcasted the day’s events all across Taiwan, urging the Taiwanese to stand up against the KMT.
In the week that followed, uprisings took place at police stations and monopoly bureaus all over the island. Elected Taiwanese representatives and local leaders trusted by the people came together to form the 228 Settlement Committee, with the aim of facilitating negotiations between the people and the government, solving the food crisis and preventing further violence from the military. (The offices of this Settlement Committee were once in the very building now occupied by the museum.) At the committee’s request, many young students played a significant role in communities in a time of complete anarchy, helping to maintain social order in the absence of local police and officials. Groups around the country rose up to demand the right to elect their officials, and the Committee drafted a list of 32 demands regarding the handling of the 228 incident, which was published in local papers.
While Chen Yi took actions appearing to appease the people, he was secretly plotting the violent end to the uprising. In the museum, there are several intriguing documents on display testifying to this fact. For example, newspaper articles announcing that Chen Yi agrees to hold city and county elections, alongside official documents of his requests for the central government to deploy more troops to Taiwan. You can see the official order issued by Chiang Kai-shek for more troops to be sent, alongside that day’s paper discussing the development of committees around Taiwan ready to address the issues of reform.
On March 6, while Chen Yi was announcing city and county elections to be held in July, soldiers went on a killing spree in Kaohsiung city. On March 7th, Chen Yi sent a telegraph to every city and state about their voting options, as well as a telegram to Chiang Kai-shek, asking for a whole brigade to beat down the insurgents. The next day the military opened fire in Keelung and all over the Taipei area, beginning the crackdown. The extra divisions landed ashore in Keelung on March 9th and immediately began shooting as they made their way to Taipei. Chen Yi declared martial law, which wouldn’t be revoked until 1987, 38 years later.
A mass slaughter followed. While people tried to fight back, as did the heroic student army known as the “27 Army”, their swords and limited supplies were ultimately no match for the gun power of the military. The KMT’s immediate targets were those calling for reform – many of the island’s intellectuals and elite. They were arrested and killed, along with many other innocent people. The ghastly and unnecessary violence used by the KMT is shocking. People were strung together with wire, their hands and feet pierced through, before being shot and thrown into the ocean. Some were put into bags and thrown in. Some were forced to dig their own graves. Corpses floated in rivers and harbors as scenes like this took place all over the island. Many were taken away from their families never to be seen again. By the 15th, most of the “eradication” had been complete. It is estimated that as many as 18,000 – 28,000 people lost their lives. Many bodies have never been found, and the victims’ families still mourn their loss.
As I left the museum and headed towards the Peace Memorial Park, I found myself walking through the gardens of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which, it turns out, is right between the two. I thought it an interesting opportunity to reflect on the holiday, and ventured further in. Liberty Square (the name of which seemed a little less than apt after my museum visit) is so vast it’s impossible not to feel a sense of awe. The alluring gardens around it are sprawling and impressive. This same square is home to the National Performing Arts Theater and to the National Concert Hall, in themselves beautifully imposing structures. It seems to take a long time to approach the Memorial Hall from across the plaza, and the closer I get the more I can’t help but admire it. I have always found the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial to be incredibly beautiful, the striking white and blue, symbolic of the sun and the sky, respectively.
Inside a larger-than-life exhibit details (almost) everything about Chiang Kai-shek, down to the cars he was driven in, rickshaws he was pulled in, a replica of his office. I felt odd being there, as if I had jumped from one world into another yet was unable to identify the bridge I had crossed. As I watched the changing of the guard I marveled at the devotion, the veneration, the grandeur of the ceremony.
While by the middle of March 1947 the 228 Incident was over, it had merely opened the door to the next ruthless chapter: White Terror, the period of continued martial law in which the KMT mercilessly slaughtered its opponents. Chen Yi himself was moved to a post in China, only to be charged with treason a year later and executed in Taiwan in 1950 (Han Cheung). When the KMT party withdrew from China and the civil war ended (although the KMT maintained that they were still technically at war with China, allowing the premise for the continuation of martial law), Taiwan became their center of power.
In a fantastic article recounting one man’s survival of the White Terror period, Julia Wu gives us one of the KMT’s most famous slogans of the era: “It is better to capture one hundred innocent people than to let one guilty person go free.” She writes that there were over a hundred thousand incarcerations, and thousands of executions. Those who spoke up could be assured of swift backlash, anticipating arrest, torture or imprisonment on the notorious Green Island. At the National 228 Memorial Museum, there is a replica of a tiny brick room (in life hidden by a fake wall) named the Wall of Shih Ju-chen. It is in this space in which one man, having been blacklisted by the KMT, hid for seventeen years to avoid arrest. When he got jaundice in 1970, he was unable to see a doctor. When he died, he was buried in the family’s backyard without a funeral.
I slowly crossed the deserted plaza to exit through the archway, arrested for a moment by the intricacies of the carvings and the structure’s sheer magnitude. I hovered minutely in its shadow.
Arriving at 228 Peace Memorial Park, I found an altogether more alive place full of people passing an enjoyable afternoon. The park features several sculptures, most notably the 228 Peace Monument, pictured below, resplendent with lilies to commemorate the Incident’s 74th anniversary.
There are also two (two!) museums in the park. One is the National Taiwan Museum, which I did decide on the spur-of-the-moment to explore. (It is very well laid-out, and fascinating especially if you are interested in Taiwan’s endemic species, which is its main focus.) Having slowly enjoyed my day of pondering, I failed to make it to the other museum before closing (I arrived at 4:45! Alas, too late for entry), which had been on my list. I did manage to grab a pamphlet, however. It is the Taipei 228 Memorial Hall. The building itself is a piece of history – having once been home to the very Radio Station used by the people to broadcast news of the 228 Incident around Taiwan, and later to spread the list of 32 demands.
The 228 Incident went largely unacknowledged by the government, until 1995, when Lee Teng-hui became the first to publicly apologize. This was followed by the the 228 Incident Disposition and Compensation Act, the creation of the Memorial Foundation of 228 and establishment of the 228 Peace Memorial holiday. In 1996 the park was re-named and dedicated to the Incident, with the Memorial Hall opening in 1997. There are now monuments all over Taiwan to remember the tragedy.
An annual ceremony is held at the park, where officials give certificates of innocence to the families of victims. This year, for the first time, President Tsai Ing-wen travelled to Kaohsiung to hold the ceremony, acknowledging it as the first place where real bloodshed occurred during the incident. She called on Taiwan to “face its past with honesty”. In that vein, a representative of the family members called for an end to idolization of Chiang Kai-shek, a murderer.
In recent years, increasing controversy surrounding the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, and other symbols of the authoritarian regime, has led to debate about how such symbols should be treated. How is progress to be made, and how are wounds to be allowed to heal? There are now ongoing efforts to include the perspectives of Taiwan’s aboriginal people to the story of the past, a welcome progression. As I sauntered leisurely around the park, I noticed that there were parts needing renovation, neglected areas roped off. Sites like this one tend to lack the government funding needed for upkeep and development. It is clear that there is still work to be done.
Walking around this distinct part of the Zhongzheng District, it is striking to see the mingling of the old symbols with the new. It reads like a roadmap of Taiwan’s journey toward its hard-won democracy, punctuated by tragedy and triumph. In 1947, thousands of Taiwanese people sacrificed their lives for their democratic values. It is in no small part thanks to them that Taiwan has emerged to enjoy the democratic freedoms it does today. Encapsulated within the landmarks of this neighborhood is the timeless and universal human struggle of recording, discovering the truth in, and re-writing history. Through continual effort to understand and integrate deep layers of historic and social complexity, we can begin to embody the nuance and wisdom needed in our work towards reconciliation and healing.
Today as I post, it is March 6th. On this day in 1947 Chen Yi had been announcing the supposed forthcoming elections, KMT soldiers in Kaohsiung had been shooting innocent people, and the worst was yet to come.