On Wednesday last week, the Transitional Justice Commission announced its plan to transform Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall into a park that would reflect Taiwan’s authoritarian past and its transition to democracy. This is a necessary step for the nation.
Statues are powerful symbols of a glorious past and present; they represent an attempt of the past to reach into the future and allow for reflection on the past.
However, as masters of the present, we must consider how future generations will look back to our days and the past that the generations collectively share.
Taiwanese society is divided over the future of the memorial.
Advocates of the preservation of former president Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) statue at the memorial hall fall into two camps: Those who see him as someone to be revered and respected, and those who see history as something sacred and therefore to be preserved.
Those who defend the “sanctity” of history must remember that statues such as Chiang’s were built with the sole intent of cementing his authority and personality cult.
It is not a memorial dedicated to Taiwan or the Republic of China (ROC), neither is it a memorial to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). It is a memorial to him and for him.
For that reason, the KMT will continue to argue for its preservation — because it is Chiang’s legacy and omnipresence in the minds of Taiwanese that brings the party legitimacy.
Taiwanese politics has long outgrown the nation’s authoritarian past, and society must continue to evolve and do away with legacies that cast a dark shadow.
However, the transition deserves to be gradual and respectful. Respectful not just to those who honor Chiang, but to history itself.
The thought of tearing down statues conjures up several images. It could be a triumphant moment where the ills of the past have been rectified, but it could also be a passion-fueled action of a mob abdicating all sense of rationality and destroying anything “old” in their sight.
Recall the Mahatma Gandhi statue that was vandalized during a Black Lives Matter protest in London.
Chiang’s legacy is controversial in China and Taiwan. He has been criticized by the communists just as much as he has been by democratic forces in Taiwan, and for good reason. It was Chiang’s KMT that imposed martial law for 38 years; it was under Chiang that 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned, 4,000 of whom were executed in the name of “anti-communism.”
Chiang saw Taiwan as a base to launch a counterattack against the communists, but not as a country of which he was the leader.
Taiwan, to him, was a mere province of the ROC. Despite this, he nonetheless defended the nation’s territory and tirelessly upheld its place on the international stage — for that we must recognize Chiang’s role in Taiwan’s history.
If the statue were to be removed, it must be done with dignity. The ceremony could be capitalized as a moment to bring Taiwanese together, not divide the nation.
Memorials are powerful symbols that materialize the spirit of history — but they also serve as reminders of the pain and suffering of many.
Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias comes to mind.
The poem describes a ruined statue of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II amid a sprawling desert that once was his great kingdom. The pedestal proclaims: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” However, there is nothing but the boundless and bare desert stretching far away.
While many bow before Chiang’s bronze statue, neither desert nor ruin surrounds the memorial; instead, a city, vibrant and free, bustling in the day and sparkling in the night surrounds him. All this was not his work, but that of Taiwanese.
Taiwan is in the process of forming an identity of its own; its society and politics will only continue to drift farther from China and mature as a democracy.
The memorial, as a symbol of the ROC and Taiwan’s darkest days, will only continue to stifle the nation’s search for its own identity.
Nigel Li is a student at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
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