From Taiwan to the World and Back

Fu-chen Lo and Jou-chin Chen

Illustration by Leif Engström

The Scar of the 228 Incident: A Chiayi Perspective

One year after our return from Japan, the infamous 228 Incident erupted on February 28, 1947. Under the Kuomintang's rule, frustrations had accumulated; it took only one incident of abuse by an inspector (who beat up a woman found selling contraband cigarettes) to trigger this explosive counter-reaction, which reverberated around Taiwan and provided an opportunity for all to vent. Everywhere, protests rose up against the government.

At the beginning of March, some students from Changhua and Taichung gathered on Main Street between Chiayi Station and the central fountain to give a speech calling for further rebellion against the ruling party. Their emotions fanned; a group of mobsters took over City Hall, forcing the mayor (sent from the mainland to govern us) and his troops to withdraw to Shuishang's airport in the south and to Shanziding and Hongmaopi in the east. Clashes ensued, resulting in a death toll of over three hundred people from both sides; others died in the surrounding chaos. The standoff lasted seven or eight days with many respected elders from either side going to the other camp to negotiate a truce—but to no avail. Finally, the military, after receiving additional backup, forced their way into Chiayi city and acted with hardened vengeance. People were arrested left, right, and center; those who resisted were killed.

From the first day that gunshots were heard ringing continuously in Chiayi, Mother acted quickly to remove twelve-year-old me and my sister from the bloodshed. We headed south for Shuishang where First Aunt would give us refuge in her home. But who would have guessed that we were not alone in retreating there? Gun-toting civilians surrounded the airport; I saw with my own eyes defeated soldiers walking in threes and fives through the town. Muddied, using their rifles as crutches, they seemed to have walked right out of an American Civil-War movie.

Mother fretted that Shuishang would prove unsafe, so she decided to bring us to the east with her, up into the secluded Meishan hills where we would hide with another aunt's family. But, as the saying goes, 'man proposes, God disposes'—gunshots soon started in the night. The next day, Mother immediately took us out of the hills and back to Chiayi via Zhuqi.

Dark clouds seemed to follow us wherever we went. With no place deemed safe enough to hide, we despaired.

Second Aunt's brother, Zhu Ronggui (my first uncle), had once been a speaker on Chiayi's City Council. At the time of the 228 Incident, though he had already retired from the post, he was nonetheless an important figure in the city's politics. After the 228 Incident, First Uncle was arrested—but why? Nobody knew. Everyone in the Zhu family was worried to bits. In order to save First Uncle, Second Aunt, knowing that an important commander was in town, threw caution to the wind, and left the house in a formal cheongsam to seek redress. In front of the Municipal Hall, she knelt holding a placard demanding that the wrong be righted and stayed in that position for hours—a small and weak woman pleading with the mighty military to release her brother.

Second Aunt did in fact save her brother: a week later, he was released. First Uncle's good friend, Doctor Pan Muzhi, however, was not so lucky.

In the period just after the war, the opinion leaders in Taiwan were doctors, lawyers, and respected scholars. A city council would be comprised of irreproachable men with nary a blemish on their records, unlike how it is today. To stem the rebellion, the Kuomintang government decided to punish these opinion leaders to set an example for the rest. But these punishments were lawless to the point of being barbaric. In the morning, soldiers would make their arrests, tie their victims' hands; then, with wooden boards—on which their names were written—attached to their backs, they would be paraded on a truck driven through the city's main streets until it finally stopped in front of Chiayi Station. These poor souls would then be made to jump down from the truck, legs wobbly from the ordeal, their bodies bent out of shape. Without ceremony they would be shot at close range and their bodies left exposed on the street long after their execution. (It was forbidden to claim these bodies until the sun had set.)

In the second half of the month—the eight days from March 18 to 25—three public executions took place in Chiayi. Each time, the same ritual was observed: from tying the victims' hands to their backs, to parading them through the streets, to leaving their bodies on the ground for all to see. The first time it happened, I was not around to see the parading and the executing, but I did go to see the dead body lying in front of Chiayi Station. At that time, I did not know who he was, but I later learnt that the body belonged to the Chair of the 228 Cleanup Committee, Chen Fuzhi. He had been spearheading the efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution, but was then suddenly charged with "masterminding" the revolts. It was most tragic, to say the least. The second time it happened, I didn't know about it. The third time, the senior artist Chen Chenpo and Doctor Pan Muzhi were among the four senators who were executed.

That day—I still remember it clearly—I was standing on the second floor balcony of our Renai Road home with First Uncle. Because of its proximity (only two hundred meters) to the station, we witnessed the shootings with our own eyes. When the truck had passed in front of our home earlier, I still remember First Uncle, seeing Doctor Pan Muzhi tied up on the car, turning to me sorrowfully, "Muzhi sen-na?"

In Chiayi, First Uncle was certainly not the only one to call Doctor Pan Muzhi, Muzhi sen-na—a term reserved for respected elders. He was much admired for his medical skill. Before the 228 Incident, he had even been elected to the position of speaker on the City Council. In the year 2012, an exhibition was held to commemorate Doctor Pan. His fourth son, Pan Yingren, had been my high school classmate, and he asked me to give a speech at the opening. The former Vice President Xiao Wanchang, who was also in attendance that day, said it was Doctor Pan who had cured him of his poor health when he was young; the day Doctor Pan died, his mother had sent him—an eight-year-old—to light an incense stick before Doctor Pan's body.

The eight-year-old Xiao Wanchang hadn't been the only one to pay respects to Doctor Pan this way. In fact, immediately after the execution, someone laid a thurible and packets of incense by the side of his body, so that others could come forward and pay their respects to their Muzhi sen-na. When Doctor Pan was finally borne back home by his family, on a stretcher, thurible after thurible could be seen on the ground, en route, with many lit sticks planted in them—this was everyone's way of sending off our beloved doctor.

That year, I was twelve and I still did not understand politics, but from the way the elders talked about his death that day, I got the impression that all of Chiayi had been dealt a severe blow. To think that such a good man, respected and loved by one and all, could have been butchered so senselessly. It was a day of great heaviness.

Passing the Night on a Ping Pong Table in a Police Station

When the tragic and senseless 228 Incident occurred, I was still very much a child. Trauma was in the air; I knew that something had happened, but I didn't understand what exactly. But an episode about two years later awakened me to it fully. I was fourteen years old, in my second year of junior high, when I had a gun pointed at me by a military officer who then escorted me to a police station, where I was detained overnight...

Our teacher had organized an excursion to Taichung. On the day of the outing, something or other happened; he didn't show up. Back then, we had no way of reaching our teacher—cell phones did not exist yet, nor were public telephones common. Young people in a group often get up to things that they otherwise wouldn't think of doing alone. We decided on the spur of the moment to take the trip to Taichung.

At Taichung, we got off the train and checked into a hotel, even though my good friend Cai Shunli and I had not brought our IDs with us. It was 1949, and the Kuomintang was wary of public places like hotels that might act as hotbeds for Communists or resistance groups. As such, it was not unheard of for military police to show up at a hotel and do spot-checks on guests; you had to produce an ID if you didn't want to get into trouble.

By a stroke of bad luck, we got spot-checked by a military police officer with a foreign accent. When Cai Shunli and I couldn't produce our documents, he immediately pointed his gun at us and then escorted us out. I was so frightened that I just did as I was told, barely registering the roads or buildings that passed us by. At the police station, an officer at first gave us a look of pity, saying, "Because the two of you are just students, I'll let you sleep on the ping pong table"; yet, the next moment, he growled, "If no one comes to bail you out within 24 hours, I'll send you to Fire Island." I was then only fourteen years old, what did I know of Fire Island? That night, dazed and scared witless, I drifted to sleep on a ping pong table. The next day, Mother and Second Aunt rushed over, shocked, to take me home.

In comparison, high school students today are a protected lot since teachers know to toe the line. It's frowned upon for a teacher to air his political opinions or even reveal his political leanings. But, in the 1960s, or at least at my high school in the 1960s, politics still extended its monstrous tentacles past the school gate; it was unstoppable. Once, the military police drove their red jeep into our school; the entire third-year cohort was made to assemble in front of them. A student was yanked out and taken away in the jeep—apparently because he had distributed some pamphlets in Puzi.

This arrest would never have been permitted in a true democracy. Although we were all indignant about it, none of us organized a revolt. But, even so, something stirred in each of us—the beginning of a political consciousness, perhaps. When Xie Dong Ming came to Chiayi High School to give a talk on the magnificence of Chinese culture, I had an inkling that I was listening to propaganda. The night I spent in a police facility, coupled with my experience of the 228 Incident, had left a deep impression in my heart; I had seen for myself the superciliousness of the Kuomintang ruling party and I knew that those in power surely did not treat us as equals. In their eyes, we were beneath them.

translated from the Chinese by Lee Yew Leong