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.
By 1947, the Taiwanese had had enough. On February 27, after two KMT customs officials violently confiscated a Taiwanese peddler’s cigarettes outside of the Tianma Teahouse in downtown Taipei, an angry Taiwanese crowd surrounded them. One of the officials fired into the crowd, killing a bystander. The following day, Taipei’s Taiwanese took to the streets, demanding that the officers be arrested and tried for murder. As the raucous crowd (about two thousand strong) approached Governor-General Cheng Yi’s office, police again shot into the crowd, killing many. Others fled to the offices of a nearby radio station, hijacking the national broadcast and informing the country—in Taiwanese, not Mandarin— of what was happening in Taipei.
Violent protests broke out across the island, with Taiwanese demonstrators killing KMT officials and holding significant portions of Taiwan for more than a week. Publicly, Governor-General Cheng Yi sought a détente with the Taiwanese protest leaders that would allow for autonomy and free elections. But secretly, Cheng Yi was in talks with Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek to bring in the Chinese military to suppress the protest leaders. After the arrival of troops on March 8, a brutal crackdown ensued. Over the next two months between 18,000 and 28,000 Taiwanese were killed, some indiscriminately. Thousands more were arrested, tortured and convicted. Death sentences were common.
For the next four decades, a period known as Taiwan’s White Terror, the KMT violently suppressed any opposition to its authoritarian rule. In 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek lost mainland China to the Chinese Communist Party, the KMT—along with 1 to 2.5 million mainland Chinese—fled to Taiwan and instituted martial law, which remained in place until July 14, 1987. Any mention or public remembrance of the 228 Incident was forbidden. The KMT wanted the Taiwanese to forget the bravery of these earlier pro-democracy activists.
Our march through the streets of Taipei traced the course of this history. We paused at the site where the street peddler had been attacked, and as the sun grew hotter, the leaders read a poem in Taiwanese. It was about mothers losing their sons, wives never seeing their husbands again, and children growing up without fathers. Onlookers began to coalesce around us, listening as the leaders of the march recited the history of the 228 Incident.
As the normally bustling street grew quiet, a lone trumpeter stepped forward and slowly played the notes of Amazing Grace. I was surprised to hear such a familiar song played in Taiwan, and I could not help but begin singing the words. As I stood there listening, my mind flashed back to the funeral for the victims of the Charleston church massacre, when President Obama began singing the same song in the middle of his eulogy. Just as Obama had in South Carolina, the leaders of our parade began reciting the names of each victim as we continued our march past the former radio station (now the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum). By the time the march ended, in front of Cheng Yi’s offices (today the Executive Yuan), my fellow marchers and I felt a deep sense of peace and consolation.
It was only in 1990—three years after the end of martial law in Taiwan—that the 228 Incident was allowed to be taught in Taiwan’s schools. Most of the people I marched with were young people who had benefited from that education. I was surprised, though, at the relative absence of older generations, Taiwanese who had perhaps known direct participants of the 228 Incident, or who may have themselves been victims of the White Terror. I asked one of the NGO workers marching next to me whether she was disappointed that there were few older people marching. She paused, wrinkling her nose in thought, and then replied: “I think it is good that there are so many young people who want to remember this day.”
There are certainly still some Taiwanese who would prefer to dim the memories of 228. One legislator recently moved to abolish official remembrance ceremonies after protestors attempted to storm a podium occupied by Taipei mayor (and great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek) Chiang Wan-an. But Taiwanese young people are telling their parents’ generation—and the world—that the memory of 228, so central to their identity as Taiwanese, should never be forgotten. It’s a unique historical wound, but also a point of pride.
Meanwhile, on the evening of February 28 in the United States, the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on China held its first hearing. With bellicose terms several members mentioned Taiwan as an important counterbalance to China. They talked about the need for greater security in the region. They talked about providing weapons. But not a single one mentioned the painful anniversary that the island had commemorated just hours earlier.
You can learn more about the 228 Incident at the Memorial Foundation of 228 website here.