In last week’s blog I mentioned an outer suburb of Taipei called Taoyuan. When I lived in Taiwan during the early 1990s, Taoyuan was home to the Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. Today the same airport is called the Taoyuan International Airport. Chiang Kai-sheks’s legacy has suffered over the intervening years, and his name has come off a number of landmarks, one of them being the terminal where nearly all foreigners enter the country.
When Chiang’s political party, the Kuomintang (KMT), governed Taiwan, he was a national hero. His face was on the money. A statue or bust of him was in every public school. His memorial was the most grandiose in Taipei, dwarfing the more humble sites commemorating Sun Yat-sen and Confucius.
The KMT no longer dominates politics in Taiwan. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) now holds the presidency and the majority of seats in the legislature. Many of the DPP’s most active members are children or grandchildren of the people who were already living in Taiwan when Chiang and the Nationalists fled Mainland China and relocated to Taiwan. The year was 1949. These people had just endured fifty years of Japanese occupation and were not looking for a new outsider to show up and declare himself in charge. The Democratic Progressive Party is an odd alliance of over-educated progressives and almost-Trumpian populists. These two divisions within the party don’t agree on much, but they share a low opinion of Chiang Kai-shek.
With the rise of the DPP, Chiang’s presence has gone the way of Christopher Columbus’s in the United States. His birthday is no longer a national holiday. His face remains on the money, but the future of his memorial is a subject of debate. The busts and statues once featured at the entrances of schools are gone. Most of the statuary has simply disappeared, but a few hundred pieces have been relocated to a park twenty-five miles outside of Taipei. Officially the site is called the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Garden. Unofficially it is known as the Garden of the Generalissimos. Regardless of the name, it is a large sculpture garden where all of the statues look pretty much the same. I have been there, and it is as weird as you might think.
When I returned to Taiwan in 2008 to teach at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), I was surprised to see that its Chiang statue was still in place. When I asked a friend why it hadn’t been removed, she said, “That’s controversial. The statue is an original piece done by a professor on campus, so it’s considered a work of art. Do you remove a work of art because people find the subject of the piece distasteful? Come back around Christmas and have a look.”
I revisited Chiang’s statue in mid-December. Even though Christmas is not a holiday celebrated in Taiwan, the statue had been decorated to look like Santa Claus. Apparently the compromise was that Chiang could stay, but a couple times a year he would be made to look silly.
The Chiang Kai-shek statue at NTNU was eventually taken down. Depending on whom you ask, the reason was because 1) the statue was a symbol of past authoritarian rule, 2) the DPP overextends its authority into places it doesn’t belong, or 3) removal of the statue was part of a practical strategy designed to attract college students from Mainland China. Personally, I don’t much care how Chiang Kai-shek is remembered, but I liked him as Santa Claus.