Taiwan builds memorial to once-forbidden subject: massacre of 20,000 in 1947

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — TAIPEI, Taiwan -- In a city dominated by a huge memorial to dictator Chiang Kai-shek, another symbol of this island's troubled past is nearing completion: a memorial to Chiang's victims, designed by a man who tried to assassinate Chiang's son.

Such a turn of events would have been unimaginable a few years ago. The 1947 massacre of up to 20,000 indigenous Taiwanese here was a taboo subject. Perhaps even more than Taiwan's blooming democracy or its phenomenal economic wealth, the story of the "228" memorial and the failed assassin Cheng Tzu-tsai illustrates the rapid-fire changes taking place on this small island of 21 million off the coast of China.


"It had to come sooner or later. It's been more than 50 years and become a part of history," said Mr. Cheng, 59, a former architect and long one of Taiwan's best-known dissidents.

For a long time, though, it looked as if no one would be able to publicly mention the "228" incident, named after the date of the massacre -- Feb. 28 -- in 1947.


Books or any discussion of local Taiwanese hostility toward Chiang's Nationalist Party was forbidden. Even use of the Portuguese word "Formosa" to describe Taiwan was viewed as a seditious act. Magazines that hinted at the massacre were shut down and hundreds of dissidents locked up.

The massacre became a dark legend. Mr. Cheng remembers growing up under its shadow.

"When the massacre took place, in 1947, we couldn't go outside for days. Finally we could, but we couldn't talk about it. It literally terrified people for years," Mr. Cheng said.

The massacre was planned as an answer to growing hostility to Chiang's heavy-handed occupation of the island.

Chiang's troops had arrived as liberators, after Japan's surrender at the end of World War II ended 50 years of Japanese rule of the island.

At first, a clampdown

But the troops soon established a harsh rule over the hapless locals. As Chiang's troops began to lose the war on the mainland, the local garrison was ordered to wipe out local opposition in case the Kuomintang lost mainland China and had to retreat to the island.

At first, Chiang's secret police rounded up dissidents. But the clampdown on Taiwanese opposition turned into slaughter on Feb. 28, 1947, with civilians randomly lined up and shot in town squares.


Sources vary on the total, but a U.S. diplomat stationed in Taiwan who wrote the first comprehensive account of the massacre estimated 20,000.

Whatever the total, the plan was clear: Terrorize the population into submission.

It worked, at least for a few decades. But intense hatred of the mainlanders persisted among islanders.

That was part of the reason for Mr. Cheng's attempt at assassination. A student in the United States, he saw a golden opportunity to strike a blow against the Chiang family when Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo, visited San Francisco 1972.

The old dictator was sick and his son was being groomed to take over. Although Taiwan's economy was booming, politics was heavily controlled, thousands languished in prisons and hundreds more lived in exile. Kill the son and the Chiang dynasty might be mortally wounded, Mr. Cheng thought.

The attempted assassination failed when Mr. Cheng's partner was grabbed by San Francisco police and wrestled to the ground. Mr. Cheng leapt forward but Mr. Chiang had been hustled away to safety.


Mr. Cheng fled to Sweden but was extradited back to the United States and sentenced to five years in prison. Freed on parole after two years, he moved to Sweden and then Canada.

By the late 1980s, the country had begun to open up under the younger Mr. Chiang, who took over after his father's death in 1975, running Taiwan for 12 years and lifting 40 years of martial law just before his death in 1987.

Mr. Chiang's successor, current president Lee Teng-hui, quickened political reform and lifted censorship restrictions.

Soon, books began appearing about the "228" incident. By 1991, Taiwan's statute of limitations ran out on the attempted murder and Mr. Cheng returned to Taiwan. Still blacklisted, however, he was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison.

At the same time, Mr. Lee announced a competition to design a memorial to the "228" massacre.

From his prison, Mr. Cheng entered the competition. In his cell, he knelt on the floor to work on his entry, drawing on his days in the United States as an architecture student at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute of Technology.


270 entries

The jury, made up of government-appointed architectural experts and massacre survivors, received 270 entries. Mr. Cheng won.

When opened on Feb. 28 next year, the $2.5 million monument located in downtown Taipei's New Park will feature an abstract design of three cubes, representing human order, a dome reflecting natural order and a cone signifying rebirth after the righting of an old wrong.

Mr. Cheng has renounced violence and joined the island's democracy movement. He worked on his wife's unsuccessful campaign for City Council in Taiwan's recent local elections.

Like his wife, Mr. Cheng is a member of the separatist Democratic Progressive Party. He believes that the only way forward for Taiwan is to sever all formal links with mainland China and become a separate country.

He also continues to work for the massacre's survivors. The government has still not settled with the survivors, who want $390,000 in compensation and an apology. The government is offering half that amount and no apology.


"It seems the least they could do is apologize," Mr. Cheng said. "But sometimes things move slower than you want. I think we can wait. I've learned a bit more patience; I think we all have."