How the KMT constructs history

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Last week I visited the KMT headquarters in Bade Road with some students from the Taiwan Studies program at NCCU. The ground floor is adorned with some large photos of Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth. On the ground floor there is also a small museum of the history of the KMT. As one would expect Sun Yat-sen (孫中山), Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo all feature prominently. The narrative extends to Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) who is featured in many photographs depicting his presidential election campaign and subsequently as president.

But for those who know their Taiwanese history something is missing. Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who served as the President of Taiwan and Chairman of the KMT from 1988-2000, can only be found in a handful of photos. Lien Chan (連戰), who succeeded Lee as KMT Chairman, features in more photos than Lee.

A 2008 pamphlet detailing the KMT’s history (scanned and uploaded to flickr:  side 1 & side 2) also similarly neglects Lee’s role. It only has a single mention of him in a list of party leaders. The pamphlet doesn’t record that he was the first KMT leader ever elected as president through a popular vote. Nor does it mention the key role he played in leading Taiwan from the period of martial law to being a free and democratic country with its first democratic transition of power in 2000.

It is not just in the insular world of KMT headquarters that the party seeks to promote such a blinkered view of history though. A far more public struggle is currently going on over the naming and status of the former Jingmei Detention Centre in Taipei County. Many leading figures in the Tangwai movement, who later founded the DPP, were held there after the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident (美麗島事件). It was reopened as a Human Rights Memorial in December 2007.

I visited the Human Rights Museum several times after it opened. It was a profoundly moving experience that brought history to life. Prisons are places hidden behind barbed wire and walls and rarely looked into. To walk through the halls and look into the rooms is confronting and unsettling.

Now the KMT government has changed the name of this place from a human rights museum to the “Jingmei Cultural Park”. It wants it to be a place for artistic groups to practice and perform while removing things which are a reminder of the site’s dark past.

I wrote the Council of Cultural Affairs back in January about the museum’s closure but I never received a reply. The issue has been in the news in the last couple of weeks though. Yesterday human rights groups and associations of former political prisoners held a press conference to express their opposition to the government’s plan. The Taipei Times reported they had collected 400 signatures opposing the plan from DPP and KMT lawmakers, former political prisoners and 26 civic groups.

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I visited the centre again today. A security guard initially told me that I could not enter because work was still going on, but after I challenged him he agreed that he had no right to stop me. Once inside I could access all parts of the site without any problems. The exhibition halls, which once had displays of the history of the White Terror period, have been cleared out. There was a small exhibition of art by students from NTNU on display in two of the halls.

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A poster of Cheng Nan-jung (鄭南榕) still stands in one part of the prison, left over from an exhibition last year. It is as if Cheng’s defiant spirit lives on, unable to be silenced. Walking through the halls of the prison I read the names on the doors of the cells, luminaries in the history of Taiwan’s democratic movement: Shih Ming-teh (施明德), Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), Chen Chu (陳菊) and Wang Sing-nan (王幸男).

The Jingmei Detention Centre represents a profound and important part of Taiwan’s disturbing history. It must be preserved as a reminder of what happened during the period of White Terror. The KMT cannot simply erase the parts of history that don’t fit its grand narrative. Only by providing an honest and complete representation of Taiwanese history can it claim to genuinely represent the people of Taiwan.

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12 thoughts on “How the KMT constructs history

  1. Interesting post David. I never knew about the Museum in Jing Mei. Certainly would have visited. Too bad it has been cleared out.

    I remember the whole debacle with Lee Tung Hui. It was my second year in Taipei (I think) and he was allegedly promoting the Chen Shui Bian ticket, effectively torpedoeing the KMT’s chance at winning by splitting the vote between Soong and Chan. I remember how pissed they were at him and the huge protests outside the KMT HQ. Some friends of mine went to watch and discovered we were surrounded my riot police so decided to get out. A lot of my students were also (predicatably) angry.

    I was Kind of hoping the same thing would happen in South Africa with the recent election. I was hoping the Congress party (which split from the ANC) could at least take away some of the ANC’s dominance. Didn’t happen.

    Once again, thanks for the interesting post. I enjoyed.

    durbanbay

  2. durbanbay, there is still a chance to visit. If you are interested I suggest you do it as soon as possible before they begin to change things too much. And ignore the security guard who might tell you not to enter.

  3. Nice post David. It’s quite disturbing that the memorial of darker chapters in Taiwan’s history simply come and go with election cycles. I don’t think this site would be treated this way if it were a prison from the Japanese Colonial period.

  4. I’m not surprised that Lee Tung-hui was excised from the exhibit at the KMT headquarters. I’m sure you’ve noticed in the newspapers that he’s often quoted as holding a lot of beliefs that go against the KMT party line. Things like “How can we have an economic agreement with China? They can’t even control their own economy. That’s preposterous!” If you didn’t know your history, you’d think he was a DPP politician by listening to him. I get the distinct impression that the KMT wants him to be seen as a crotchety old man of little importance, rather than a former President who belongs to their party making the difficult statements that somebody needs to make.

    If I had known about the museum I, too, would have gone. Is (was) it in the Jingmei area of Taipei, where I live, or is it just called “Jingmei” but is actually elsewhere? Because I’ve never come across it living in Jingmei.

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  6. About Jinmei, I highly recommend watching the fascinating film made by Chang Chieh-Jen, “Military Court and Prison” realized in 2007-2008 in these buildings. I hope he won’t be the only artist working in this “cultural park” who have a historical and social conscience…

  7. I don’t think this site would be treated this way if it were a prison from the Japanese Colonial period.

    Maybe, maybe not. The only remaining Japanese colonial prison is the one in Jiayi. The local historical society had to fight for a few years both the local and central govt (both green and blue) and developers for the site to be preserved. Approval for preservation was finally granted by the govt in 2002 after 4 years of lobbying.

    On Jingmei, if they are determined to change it from a memorial into something else, then an artistic centre is probably the best option. It could even throw more attention onto human rights, as it’ll attract more people and artists generally aren’t known as being conformist.

  8. Hey, great post. There’s so much to be learned by observing how Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT use history as a tool rather than trying to study history itself (which obviously is also useful). There should be a Wikipedia article for this kind of thing; I just don’t know what it’d be called. “Informative gaps in the KMT history of Taiwan”, haha. Something like that.

  9. This is terrible. I was talking to Linda at Jerome’s meet-up. She contributed some things – I wonder if she got them back. My wife and I visited a while back. We photographed everything in the place, so I guess at least we’ll have them, or be able to give them to our daughter when she’s a bit older.

    I told my wife about them closing it down. She got pretty pissed. I asked her “what’s next, 2-28 Park”? But she says the demonstrations for something as well-known as that will make it unlikely, which brings us back to this place. Hardly anyone knows about it – thanks for spreading the word.

    BTW, I’d signed up for this tour, but could only make it on weekends. Are you going on the one to DPP HQ too?

  10. Patrick, glad you had the chance to visit. Like you said not many people know about it.

    DPP visit may be next week, but not yet confirmed.

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