Alternative history | South China Morning Post
  • Thu
  • Jan 29, 2015
  • Updated: 3:01am

Alternative history

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 September, 2005, 12:00am
 

Ilike to take visitors to Taipei on a walking tour of the capital district, beginning at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and ending at the 228 Peace Park. The Japanese built the district as a showcase of their colonial rule. Beside the buildings that housed the colonial administration are schools and Taiwan's first modern hospital, museum and park.


For me, though, the highlights of the walk are the two museums at the beginning and the end - the lower level of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and the 228 Peace Museum, tucked away in a shady corner of the 228 Peace Park. Both museums tell alternative versions of modern Taiwan's history, but how they tell that story reveals much about the very different governments that built them.


The memorial hall was built by Chiang's son, Chiang Ching-kuo, in the late 1970s and for many years was one of Taipei's most popular tourist attractions. The hall's lower level is built in the palace style: high ceilings with intricate carvings supported on massive columns. The intention is to impress and awe the visitor with a vision of power grounded in the glories of high Chinese civilisation. Inside are the personal effects of the elder Chiang, along with massive oil paintings depicting his great victories over the enemies of the republic and the Japanese.


The central concern of the exhibitions, though, is legitimacy. Chiang Ching-kuo's succession to power after his father was a throwback to imperial China - doubly illegitimate in that it was not only undemocratic, but also dynastic. The younger Chiang built the memorial to his father to legitimise his own rule, connecting it to the great traditions of Chinese culture. He also sought to enshrine the myth of his father's role - as the 'saviour of the race' - in a quasi-state religion: the contents of the lower level are sacred relics.


The 228 Peace Museum at the other end of my walk represents a nation-building effort by the current government of the Democratic Progressive Party. It sets out the tragic history of the '228 incident' of 1947, in which Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang killed thousands of Taiwanese dissidents. At the exit, there is a sign saying: 'The only true memorial is the establishment of a just and peaceful nation.'


This museum's style is a sharp contrast from the memorial hall. Its intimate, documentary approach has small exhibition rooms filled with items from everyday life, oral histories and minutely detailed accounts of mass graves complete with maps and photographs. The two museums, just a few steps apart, are perhaps the best introduction I know to the complexities of modern Taiwanese history.


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