I arrived in Taiwan in the fall of 1984 in a state of profound ignorance. I ended up there because a Mandarin-language school had accepted me, but what little I knew about Chinese history was focused on the mainland. Sure, I knew that Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang had fled to the island after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949, but that was about it.
It wasn't until I'd been in the country for about six months that I realized, while idly listening in taxi to a radio program I could not make head or tail of, that the language I was hearing wasn't even Mandarin -- it was Minnanyu, the dialect spoken by the majority of Taiwanese whose ancestors had emigrated from the neighboring province of Fujian across the Taiwan Strait. And it wasn't until I'd been there a year that I heard, and began to understand the significance of, the phrase "er er ba" -- or 2-28 -- a reference to Feb. 28, 1947, the date when a sequence of events began that led to a brutal crackdown by the corrupt KMT against the native Taiwanese.
In the mid-'80s, while martial law still was in place, even if you were an expatriate generally insulated from KMT political oppression, just saying the words "er er ba" still carried with it a whiff of subversion. Those days are long gone. Among many critical turning points, one can seize upon the reprinting, in 1992, of "Formosa Betrayed" by the Taiwan Publishing Co., a foundational source of information about modern Taiwanese history written by George Kerr, a former American vice-consul in Taiwan who personally witnessed the events surrounding 2-28.
In the mid-'80s, obtaining copies of Kerr's book in Taiwan was impossible. Nowadays, PDF files of the entire book are easily available online. But in yet another display of the ongoing creation of the universal Internet library, on May 17 the collaborative Chinese history blog Frog in a Well outdid itself by posting a scanned version of Kerr's original report about the disturbances, the "Memorandum for the Ambassador on the Situation in Taiwan."
This is an astonishing document: 23 pages of typewritten manuscript marked up with notations in the margins and handwritten corrections. It positively reeks of history. "Formosa Betrayed" is an angry book, but its publication came nearly 20 years after the events that make up its heart. Kerr's memo is dated April 21, 1947 -- just a month and a half after Kerr personally witnessed machine-gun fire mowing down unarmed protesters. I have talked to people whose relatives died in that crackdown, and I have watched moving films made about the massacre decades later, but nothing I've ever experienced packs the emotional wallop of Kerr's memo.
After some initial rioting sparked by discontent at the policies put into place by the KMT, and the pistol-whipping of a black-market-cigarette vendor, Chen Yi, the governor general appointed by Chiang Kai-shek, met with a Settlement Committee representing the aggrieved population. But his conciliatory gestures were just a play for time as he waited for thousands of troops from the mainland to arrive. As soon as they disembarked, mass slaughter began.
Beginning March 9, there was widespread and indiscriminate killing. Soldiers were seen bayonetting coolies without apparent provocation in front of a Consulate staff residence. Soldiers were seen to rob passersby. An old man protesting the removal of a woman from his house was cut down by two soldiers. The Canadian nurse in charge of an adjacent Mission Hospital was observed bravely to make seven trips under fire into the crowded area across the avenue to treat persons shot down or bayonetted, and once as she supervised the movement of a wounded man into the hospital the bearers with her were fired upon. Some of the patients brought in had been shot and hacked to pieces. Young Formosan men were observed tied together, being prodded at bayonet point toward the city limits. A Formosan woman primary school teacher attempting to reach her home was shot in the back and robbed near the Mission compound. A British business man attempting to rescue an American woman whose house was being riddled with machine gun fire from a nearby emplacement was fired upon and narrowly escaped, one bullet cutting through his clothing and another being deflected from the steering gear of his jeep. Another foreigner saw a youth forced to dismount from his cycle before a military policeman, who thereupon lacerated the man's hands so badly with his bayonet that the man could not pick up his machine ...
By March 17 the order of seizure or execution seemed to have become, successively, all established critics of the government, Settlement Committee members and their aides, men who had taken part in the interim policing of Taipei, middle school students and teachers, lawyers, economic leaders and members of influential families, and finally, persons who in the past had caused members of the Government or their appointees serious loss of face. On March 16 it was rumored that anyone who spoke English well or who had close foreign connections was being seized "for examination," and that many Japanese technicians in the employ of the Government were being taken.
The accounts of gore are bad enough. But equally disturbing is the recapitulation of the demands that the Settlement Committee presented to the governor general. They constituted a list of the basic freedoms any democratic society deserves -- freedom of assembly, freedom to elect their own political representatives, freedom of the press. But in return for their impudence the cream of Taiwanese society was systematically annihilated.
And yet today, citizens of Taiwan enjoy all those freedoms. And the crimes of history so long suppressed by Taiwan's rulers are available to all, in ever increasing detail. Looking across the Taiwan Strait, at the mainland, this trajectory inspires.