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Monday, June 28, 2010

Cycling Through 228

Chiayi Memorial

During my ride to Chiayi last Sunday I came across two separate memorials to what is known as "The February 28 Incident" or simply, "228"-- an episode of mass violence in which the Chinese nationalist soldiers and police killed and executed tens of thousands of Taiwanese within the course of three weeks in a large scale exercise of state violence. In Taiwan the three simple digits still carry tremendous weight and meaning that would be otherwise lost on a cultural outsider as the event has followed a historical trajectory that pervades Taiwanese society at all levels, from those who remembered and even perpetrated the violence, to those who remember hearing about it in hushed tones behind locked doors as a deafening silence. Younger Taiwanese all recognize the numerological code, but often conflate it into the Formosa Movement and other clashes between citizens and the state.

Nearly every area in Taiwan has some kind of 228 memorial as political and social forces necessitated its reverence. In some cases a memorial stood in defiance in other cases in memoriam. Of the memorials I passed on my ride, each has integrated established narratological forms into the construction to reify the event and secure "the story" of 228 in the public consciousness. The memorial in Yunlin is inscribed with a short narrative to explain 228 to the viewer, and the Chiayi memorial uses a memorial sculpture depicting a history of oppression at the hands of outsiders.

It has been argued that the February 28 Incident and its aftermath made a distinct Taiwanese history knowable through a complex system of iconalization, mythmaking, ritualization and deployment in a process Stanford historian Hayden White describes as “narratological causality”, which asks us to “consider the relationship between what we perceive to be the ‘facts’ of history and their performative and narrative construction.”(White 1987, 194). The events become less of a “true account” of the past, but rather a constructed mythologization of events in an “ irreducible overlap between what has happened and what is said to have happened” as historians and political actors impose their own treatment of history.

The first open commemoration activities for February 28 resulted following the end of martial law in 1987, when the newly formed opposition party, the DPP, sponsored seventeen commemoration events across Taiwan as an extension of the opposition movement (Edmonson 2002, 30). The DPP used the first commemorations to introduce 228 to the public and historicize it in a manner that would link specific 228 related platforms, such as apologies and compensation, to Taiwan Independence and democratization.

Close-up of Sculpture

The initial commemorations were often put down by the authorities, which served to reenact 228 and solidify public support behind the opposition forcing the president to try to discredit the protesters by assailing their motives as political gamesmanship. Despite Lee’s public dismissal, the strategy used by the DPP forced the KMT to finally confront the February 28 Incident. In 1991, president Lee Teng-hui ordered a full investigation into the Incident with inconclusive results. In successive years Taiwan would see the first state commemoration ceremony, a memorial, museum and an apology from the president.

In 1997, the February 28 commemoration involved a parade combining a conglomeration of civic groups and government officials, both oppositional Taiwanese and “New Taiwanese” or "Mainlander". The event followed a route that brought the marchers through the historical sites of 228. The event was explained by Lin Yi Hsiung “as a symbol of social activism’s link to the Incident through a struggle against Tyranny, a battle most civic groups feel embroiled in… and the new Taiwanese discourse of Taiwan’s antagonistic relationship with China…that is why the theme of the march is ‘Remember February 28, Don’t Become Chinese’.”(Wachman 1994, 71).

Reflection Blocks

This paradigm shift of February 28 in Taiwan as a collective national memory of opposition to tyranny has expanded to embrace even the nationalist Chinese on Taiwan who had previously been targeted by the opposition as the perpetrators. China’s growing threat to Taiwan’s defacto Independence and security have become woven into the fabric of the memory of February 28 as the “aggressor”. Peng Min-ming , the DPP presidential candidate during the 1996 elections emphasized the link between foreign aggression and the Incident when he declared, “ The February 28 Incident only proves Taiwan must not unify with China, otherwise an even worse historical disaster would take place.”( Liberty Times 2004). In 2004, Peng’s sentiments were shared by the approximately 2 million people who, on February 28, linked hands, forming a human chain that spanned Taiwan, tip to tip. The event was organized partially as a campaign stunt for the upcoming presidential elections and inspired by a similar exercise in the Ukraine. The symbolism of the event was to create a wall defending the “homeland” against China’s missiles. The event was the high point of the election (Taiwan Ri bao 2/29/2004). It also simultaneously delineated the Taiwanese "us" from the Chinese "them" and repositioned Mainlanders from "outsiders" into a collective Taiwanese "us", or at least offered to provide a bridge to reconciliation.

An excellent example of 228's location in Taiwanese life and culture comes from the 2004 presidential campaign. On March 19, 2004, the incumbent president President Chen Shui Bian and Vice-President Lu were both grazed by bullets while riding in an open motorcade. Before the public had been informed that both injuries were not life threatening, the buzz on the street returned to the February 28 Incident. Many people openly pondered the possibility of another uprising, while others prayed to the ghosts of February 28 for peace and for the welfare of their leaders. The immediate connection between the attack on the president and the violence, retribution and ethnic mistrust of the February 28 Incident demonstrates how the resonant silence of 228 combined with its politicization and reemergence as a mythologized common memory and continues to frame the Taiwanese experience in a mimetic symbol of Taiwaneseness. And in an eerie twist, the injured Chen Shui-bian narrowly won the 2004 presidential election by 0.228 per-cent of the vote; a fact that was not overlooked by his supporters.

The memory of the February 28 Incident has passed through over sixty years from a tragic event that transpired over the course of March 1947, beginning with an attack by KMT officials against an individual on a public street. Since that event, the February 28 incident had been in a state of constant negotiation and relocation in Taiwanese society. The impact of the February 28 incident as event, led the KMT authorities to publicly silence the experience in public, forcing the experiencers of 228 and their progeny to mythologize the experience in a social-political frame of disenfranchised citizens against the forced political marginalization of the Taiwanese majority in Taiwan. Despite the massive shifts in state structure, these memorials continue to play a role in creating a Taiwanese collective memory and they symbolize an imagined collective experience that is uniquely located on Taiwan.

Yunlin Memorial

In more recent years there has been an effort on the part of the central government to ignore 228 and Taiwanese have even been called upon to "forget" and "move on". This begs the question: Is there a place for this entity of 228 in the 'Greater China" narrative that seems to be the goal of Chinese nationalists on both sides of the Taiwan Strait? It seems, now that 228 has been unleashed from its decades of suppression, it is possible to let it fade beyond memory as the forgetting is voluntary and not mandatory. That is the real danger.

*Edmonds, Richard Louis. Goldstein, Steven M, ed. 2001.Taiwan in the Twentieth Century: A Retrospective View. Cambridge University Press.

*Wachman, Alan M. 1994. Taiwan: National Identity and Democratization. New York, M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

*White, Hayden V.1987. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representaion. he Johns Hopkins University Press

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