Editor’s note: Paul Varian visited Taiwan in November on behalf of Global Atlanta as a guest of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is the first in a series of stories about the trip.
They marched in near-silent unison with rifles twirling and gilded helmets gleaming.
The five Taiwanese soldiers assembled for the changing of the guard at a national monument honoring Chiang Kai-shek, the military leader who ruled Taiwan with dictatorial power for a quarter century after the Communist takeover of mainland China.
His large bronze statue is the centerpiece of the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in the capital city of Taipei, a white, square-shaped building in traditional Chinese style with a blue-tiled octagonal roof.
Outside staircases lead to the main third-floor entrances on opposite sites of the building. Each consist of 89 steps, representing Chiang’s age at the time of his death in 1975.
On the ground level there’s a library and museum documenting Chiang’s life and career, as well as historic exhibits on pre-Communist China and the political development of Taiwan over the last 68 years.
“CKS,” as our enthusiastic tour guide referred to him, left a mixed legacy. He was an autocrat who unified the young Republic of China under the nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) banner during the 1920s, defeating assorted warlords who had controlled areas of the country.
Appearing on the cover of Time Magazine 10 times as the leader of “Free China,” he allied with the West during World War II, helping drive out the Japanese invasion from the Chinese mainland.
But his regime’s legendary corruption and subsequent defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party in a civil war led to his flight to Taiwan, where he set up a new KMT government and declared that the Republic of China was still alive. He imposed martial law throughout his tenure as president in Taiwan; it was lifted by his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo in 1987, 12 years after his death.
The opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which is now in power, removed his name from the memorial and took down statues after it ended decades of KMT rule in 2000. The KMT restored it after winning back the presidency in 2008.
“Some people still consider him as a leader, almost a god,” said Hsu Szu-chien, president of the non-governmental Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.
Reporting for Global Atlanta, I visited the Chiang memorial in November with a group of international journalists invited to Taiwan by the foreign ministry, which is trying to achieve greater diplomatic recognition overseas for the densely populated island nation 110 miles off China’s coast. The trip came just a few months after Panama switched its recognition to China, a painful blow for Taiwan. Only about 20 countries, mostly in Oceania and Latin America, recognized the Republic of China as China’s legitimate government and maintain diplomatic ties with it.
The visit was added to the agenda at my request — and museum guide Elizabeth C. Jen provided me with a rat-a-tat commentary on Chiang’s rise to power in China, his losing fight against Mao Zedong‘s communist insurgents, his life with the young and glamorous Soong Mei-Ling, known as Madame Chiang in the West — his fourth wife — and the 20 secluded homes he maintained in Taiwan.
But of greatest historic importance is his preservation of Chinese culture, especially in light of Mao’s bloody 10-year Cultural Revolution launched in 1966 to purge China of “anti-revolutionary” elements. Chiang was responsible for bringing artifacts now housed at Taiwan’s National Palace Museum across to the KMT government’s new home across the strait.
The memorial opened in 1980, five years after Chiang’s death, on the site of a former military base. It soon became a gathering spot for pro-democracy activists whose rallies in the plaza now known as Liberty Square led to major political reforms in the ensuing decade.
The grounds encompass more than 60 acres and are resplendent with features that suggest a resurgence of traditional Chinese culture, our guide told us.
These include pavilions and canopied corridors decorated with Chinese open-lattice windows, enchanting gardens abloom in lush greenery, seasonal plum and cherry blossoms and manicured bushes that can be viewed from spotlessly scrubbed walkways,
And the entrance gate to Liberty Square is inscribed in a calligraphic style that dates back to the East Jin Dynasty.
But the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP candidate whose 2016 election again deposed Chiang’s KMT, plans to make some changes.
Plans to transform the memorial were announced by the Ministry of Culture this past Feb. 28 — a date of major historic significance to Taiwan known as 228.
On that date 70 years earlier, Chiang’s KMT forces began a vicious crackdown on rioters protesting government corruption, killing thousands over a period of days. Feb. 28, 2017, also was the 30th anniversary of the lifting of martial law after four decades.
Scholars and experts were invited to advise the ministry on how to convert the hall into a national center for “facing history, recognizing agony and respecting human rights” — a theme that came up repeatedly during our tour.
Feb. 28 is now a national holiday, and there is another museum in Taiwan memorializing the massacre, what led up to it and its aftermath. There is also a human rights park on a site of a former detention center for political prisoners during the martial-law era from 1947-87.
Taiwan is demonstrating that “a people or government can accept its dark past while still moving forward for the benefit of its citizens,” Thomas J. Shattuck of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank, wrote in an article posted in conjunction with the anniversary.
“Though often forced to the margins in the international community, the world has much to learn from Taiwan, its trajectory from authoritarianism toward democracy and its acceptance of history.”