After losing to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in the Chinese civil war, Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters retreated to Taiwan in 1949. That year, martial law was declared on the island, under the premise that Taiwan was still technically at war with China.
Emergency powers were placed in the hands of the president and the formation of new political parties was banned. Constitutional rights relating to freedom of speech, press and assembly were denied. Education and propaganda were used to stifle local culture and also erase 50 years of Japanese colonial rule on the island.
These years became known as Taiwan’s White Terror era. Thousands were arrested, imprisoned, “disappeared” or executed for their real or perceived opposition to the government.
Here, three Taiwanese citizens recount their memories of those days.
Lin Siou-yu, 86
I was born during the Japanese colonial rule. Back then we spoke Taiwanese and Japanese, but when Chiang Kai-shek came, Japanese and local dialects were forbidden in school and in the media. Everyone had to speak Chinese – the ‘national language’.
I was out of school back then, but kids in elementary and secondary schools who spoke Taiwanese would be punished by hanging a cardboard that read “I will not speak Taiwanese” on their neck. Many people were afraid of the humiliation and decided to abandon Taiwanese.
Before movies, concerts or gatherings, everyone had to stand to attention and sing along to the national anthem. The anthem’s words are Sun Yat-sen’s speech about the ‘Three Principles of the People’ (sanmin zhuyi), and that people have to be loyal to the party. When you heard the national anthem, you had to stop whatever you were doing, you shouldn’t be talking, laughing or eating. You had to focus and stand up.
Huang Chun-lan, 65
My father was put in jail in the Summer of 1952 because he was suspected of having anti-government thoughts. He was first convicted to 15 years in prison, but the 15 years then became a death sentence. I was only five months old when he was executed.
Growing up, my father’s death has always been a taboo topic among my family members. I always thought he passed away because of illness; my grandfather only told me that he lost his life because of ‘charges’ when I turned 18.
My mother was frightened, always in the fear that we might be under supervision. She always told us not to talk about politics or criticize the government. Police officers always came to my house to check our household registry – to make sure everyone was there and hadn’t fled.
In my last year in college, I received a full scholarship for a masters program at the Western Michigan University. I applied to go abroad at travel agencies according to general procedures, but the government never issued my passport. I was forced to give up the chance.
My daughter found five letters that my father wrote to us before he was executed from government archives a couple of years ago. It was the first time having a real connection with my father. He wrote to me: “My most beloved Chun-lan, there’s nothing more tragic in the world than not being able to meet your child.” The letter was delivered to me almost 60 years after his death.
Liu Tao-shan, 56
I was born in 1961. I remember in elementary school, every morning we have to take off our hats and salute to the bronze statue of President Chiang Kai-shek in front of our school gate.
In music class, we always started by singing the national anthem, as well as the Sun Yat-sen memorial song and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Song. It went like this:
“President General Chiang, you are the savior of mankind, you are the greatest person in the whole world. President General Chiang, you are the lighthouse of freedom, you are the Great Wall of democracy. General Chiang, General Chiang, your everlasting spirit will forever guide us. We shall win against communism, we shall build the nation, we shall win against communism, we shall build the nation!”