The Taipei sun was already scorching at ten in the morning, and the tall palm trees lining the street teased us with their shade. We were waiting for the start of the “228” parade, an annual event that commemorates the February 28, 1947 massacre in Taiwan. The crowd was mostly composed of young Taiwanese NGO workers in their twenties and thirties, all dressed in black. We lined up in two columns divided by a long white banner. Then our leader, a petite young woman wearing an oversized black t-shirt and baggy cargo pants, solemnly lifted a green wooden pole. Atop it was a circle emblazoned with an image of the island of Taiwan, the numbers “228” and “和平日” (“Peace Day”) written across it. Silence enveloped us until a recorded dirge began to play. The moment was solemn, like a funeral procession.
For many in the United States, Taiwan means just one thing. The independent island, formally a part of China during the Qing Dynasty, is held up as a counterpoint to the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian dictatorship. But to conceive of Taiwan as nothing more than China’s opposite risks obscuring the island’s most distinctive features, including its dynamic civil society, stellar human rights record, and stable democratic institutions. It also prevents the Taiwanese people from claiming and celebrating their independent identity.
Central to that identity is the history of the “228 Incident,” when the Chinese Kuomindang (“KMT”) government massacred its own people. For fifty years, Taiwan had been a colony of Japan, but after Japan’s defeat in World War II, the island reverted to China. The Taiwanese—mostly the descendants of Chinese migrants who had settled on the island prior to Japanese rule—welcomed the end of their colonial status, envisioning greater self-determination and democratic government. But as Taiwan journalist Chris Horton recently explained in his excellent history of the 228 Incident, the KMT merely replaced the Japanese, running Taiwan’s key industries, abusing their power, and impoverishing the Taiwanese. Under the KMT, Mandarin became Taiwan’s official language, even though most Taiwanese—whose local dialect was forbidden—didn’t speak it.