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1949 to 2009

Taiwan's Tumultuous Road


Six decades – a full epoch by traditional Chinese reckoning – have passed since the KMT lost control of China and took refuge on Taiwan, creating the political system and ethnic mix that now define the island. What does the future hold?



Taiwan's Tumultuous Road

By Sherry Lee, Yu-Jung Peng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 427 )

The year 1949 was the start of a convergence of destinies. All who were there were unwittingly caught up in the turbulent convulsions of the period.

Two years earlier in 1947, 25 year-old Chi Pang-yuan left China's Liaoning Province with her father Chi Shih-ying, a well-known leader in the war against the Japanese, and traveled southwest along China's northeast coast to reach Taiwan, where she took a teaching job with National Taiwan University's Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. The tumultuous changes that took place in China just two years later left her and more than two million other "mainlanders" like her little choice but to settle in Taiwan.

Like the hands of a clock that can't be turned back, the march of history was destined to utterly rewrite the life stories of so many people.

Like those arriving from the mainland, those Taiwanese already living on the island were about to see radical changes in their lives as well.

Born the same year as Chi Pang-yuan, T.S. Wang is an 85 year-old native studies researcher and marine biologist from Hualian whose father was a member of the Taiwan Cultural Association, a group dedicated to securing greater autonomy for Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period.

In 1945 during the waning days of World War II, Wang was sent to the Imperial Japanese Naval School at Zuoying in northern Kaohsiung and subsequently sent to fight on the front lines in the Philippines. He was the only member of his unit to return to Taiwan alive.

During the chaos that erupted in the wake of the February 28 Incident of 1947 (an anti-government uprising followed by violent suppression), Wang, then working for Taiwan Power Company, volunteered to lead a security detail to maintain local order in his area. For his efforts, the Chinese Nationalist authorities brought him up on charges after he was falsely accused, and he wound up in prison.

1949: The Magic Number

For the rest of the world, there was nothing particularly special about the year 1949, but for Chi Pang-yuan and T.S. Wang it turned out to be the magic number that would irrevocably alter their destinies.

What's exceptional about their stories is their persistence in pursuing their own unique values and destinies here on Taiwan, far from "the mainland."

After arriving in Taiwan, Chi's father Chi Shih-ying joined forces with Lei Chen to found Free China magazine. Although he came under surveillance for his advocacy of civil liberties and was stripped of his membership in the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT), he continued to be an outspoken advocate for a multi-party political system.

What's more, sixty years after arriving in Taiwan the "mainlander" Chi Pang-yuan has morphed into one of the most ardent promoters and defenders of Taiwan's "native literature" to the next generation and the world. During her tenure as director of the National Institute for Compilation and Translation's Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, she oversaw major revisions to Taiwan's high school textbooks to include works of contemporary Taiwanese literature. Her English-language translations of works by Taiwanese writers such as Wu Cho-liu, Huang Chun-ming and others have further introduced Taiwanese literature to a global audience.

T.S. Wang, who has devoted his life to researching Taiwan's indigenous tribes and field studies of local shellfish, insects, geology, hot springs and cold springs, has over the past several decades volunteered his services to the Hualian County government in helping to establish "teaching material centers for native studies" showcasing artifacts and specimens of marine biology, archeology and indigenous culture at more than a dozen county primary schools. He donated his entire collection of marine biological specimens and archeological artifacts amassed through years of research and field studies.

Wang's marine biology research has gotten the seal of approval from Japan's Osaka Museum of Natural History, which specially named three species of fish and one species of shellfish after him.

Creation and Loss, Light and Shadow

Traditionally, Chinese society reckons cycles of years by multiples of twelve, and sixty years signify a full epoch.

In 1949, with the arrival of the Kuomintang government-in-exile, Taiwan's contemporary history truly began. In 2009, it is fitting to look back on Taiwan's 60-year lifecycle as a fledgling republic – not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as an effort to make a fresh start, and look boldly toward the future.

Poring over the annals of the period, it is possible to discover numerous critical moments of which few of us are aware.

In 1949 the Kuomintang lost its grip on China for good and retreated to Taiwan in disgrace. Under the shadow of anti-communist paranoia, the regime embarked on a 38-year reign of martial law rule, visiting long-term anxiety and repression upon the Taiwanese people.

But where there are shadows, there is also light.

Aside from the shadows the KMT government cast, it also brought with it Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People and its attendant constitutional law; the cultural legacy of the National Palace Museum, rescued from Chinese communist clutches; a nine-year compulsory education system; and military conscription (thus avoiding problems with warlordism previously experienced in China).

As National Tsing Hua University Department of Chinese Language and Literature professor Yang Ru-bin noted in a work titled In Praise of 1949, that year saw the biggest wave of immigration in Taiwan's history following Zheng Cheng-gong's (Koxinga's) expulsion of the Dutch in 1661 and the Japanese colonization of Taiwan in 1895.

It was from this year that Taiwan began to acknowledge and embrace numerous elements of imperial China's historical consciousness, classical institutions and cultural resources as the island emerged from its dreary past as a lackluster backwater.

Outside influences mixed with native traditions, an ethnic Chinese heritage blended with things Japanese, and the flavor of Taiwan was spiced up with a dash of America, Southeast Asia and indigenous aboriginal culture. It is all these elements, simmered in the stewpot of Taiwan, which have cooked up the people and achievements that have left the world dazzled and set standards and records that left the world breathless.

An example is the multitude of entrepreneurs who have founded their own small or medium-sized enterprises, briefcases in hand, hustling all over the world.

Masahiro Wakabayashi, a professor at Tokyo University in Japan, has been studying Taiwan since the martial law era. His findings indicate that "Land to the Tiller" land reforms instituted beginning in 1963 were instrumental in promoting the rise of Taiwan's small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector.

From 160,000 landholding households (accounting for 59.3 percent of all such landed families), Taiwan's government purchased plots of land that were being renting to third parties, then turned around and sold those plots to 190,000 of those third parties that had initially been renters (accounting for 64.1 percent of these tenant farmers). A large number of Taiwan's major landholders were thus transformed into SME owners virtually overnight, thereby providing an influx of managerial talent for private Taiwanese businesses from the 1960s onward.

With scant access to financing, Taiwanese SMEs were forced to scour the globe in search of business to earn foreign exchange before they could obtain the prized letters of credit that could be used as collateral in securing bank loans, in the process making the briefcase-toting men in black a familiar sight throughout the world.

The First Democrats

This brash, self-confident group of businesspeople, who had international experience and cash in their pockets, not only took their places in the global supply chain and accomplished a number of "firsts" in that arena, but also used their economic clout to support Taiwanese opposition forces and promote civic consciousness, launching University magazine and planting the seeds for the consumer protection and women's rights movements in Taiwan.

As Ramon Myers, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, has noted, Taiwan's burgeoning middle class consequent to the rise of the island's private business sector helped create the world's first Chinese democracy in Taiwan.

Despite lamentations among some that Taiwanese democracy has turned out to be "fast food democracy that has not had time to settle," it does reap the benefits of being first across the finish line.

Its rich, vibrant creative culture is but one example.

From chanteuse Theresa Teng to pop star Jay Chou, from choreographer Lin Hwai-min to designer Jason Wu, from the gourmet cuisine of Din Tai Fung to the fast coffee of 85°C, from bubble tea to instant noodles, from TV dramas to political chat shows, from art house filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien to director Ang Lee, Taiwan's take on pop music, movies, dining and other areas of leisure life have soothed the hearts and the tummies of Chinese people around the world.

Little wonder then that Jin Guantao, a visiting professor from China at National Chengchi University, was taken aback by the reality of Taiwan after his initial impressions from across the Taiwan Strait had been that "Taiwan is chaos."

But after living on the island for a period, he and his wife said they found the Taiwanese people to be friendly, free and tolerant.

"If I had to choose anywhere in the Chinese-speaking world to live, my first choice would be Taipei, because the democracy here allows the culture to be free," Jin says.

Putting the people in charge of setting policy has also allowed Taiwan to avoid the fate of being another tropical Asian "malaria zone."

In 1965 the World Health Organization's first "malaria eradication certification" was awarded to Taiwan. The key to Taiwan's ability to break free of the cycle of post-war backwardness, poverty and disease was its establishment of a strict public health system at the grassroots level.

"Taiwan's is a capitalist-socialist health care system," says Academia Sinica research fellow Chen Jian-ren. "There has to be equality and relative income parity. From the start, Taiwan has pursued health care for the ordinary people, not health care for the elite," he adds.

Finding the Forgotten Keys

CommonWealth Magazine has endeavored to uncover the seminal moments in Taiwan's development these past 60 years. And by doing an inventory of the key individuals, events, organizations and forces of the past 60 years, determine the key elements as we enter the next 60 years.

At the end of the day, the purpose of existence is to transcend.

According to management guru Peter Senge, if an organization or nation is to exist in perpetuity, it must bring into play its potential for collective wisdom and a mutually shared vision, transcending the self to learn as a group.

Looking forward to Taiwan's next 60 years, what sort of transcendence could there be that we have yet to imagine?

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy