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Chinese history

How a TV drama about a wartime nurse serving the Japanese riled both Taiwan and mainland China

TV series ‘Jiachang’s Heart’, based on the real-life story of a Taiwanese nurse, was pulled after two episodes, raising questions about pressure from Beijing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2018, 12:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2018, 11:37pm

A Taiwanese historical drama has managed to offend both sides of the Taiwan Strait after it was pulled amid an uproar over its glorified portrayal of a local nurse who defied her parents to serve in the Japanese army during the second world war.

And the controversy has continued even after the show’s cancellation, as Taiwanese authorities this week announced an investigation into whether the broadcaster discontinued the series under pressure from Beijing.

Jiachang’s Heart, produced by the local Da Ai TV station, debuted on May 10 and was scheduled to run for 35 episodes during a prime-time slot at 8pm on weekdays.

But the broadcaster halted the series after just two episodes, after its politically sensitive theme touched a raw nerve in both Taiwan and on the mainland.

Da Ai TV denied that pressure from Beijing played a role in the cancellation, saying worries that the show’s theme “might re-traumatise” some viewers led to the decision.

The drama – meant to be the broadcaster’s major blockbuster this year, portraying the protagonist’s Florence Nightingale-like selfless dedication – was based on the real-life story of Taiwanese nurse Lin Chih-hui during the second world war.

Lin was 17 when, over her parents’ objections, she left her well-to-do family on then-colonised Taiwan to serve as a nurse for the Imperial Japanese Army in Hong Kong and later in Guangzhou, China.

Soon after the first episode was released, the series was criticised on mainland social media. Nationalistic internet users posted trailers and screen grabs of the show, lashing out at it for attempting to win favour with Japan while denouncing China.

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“Taiwan has filmed a Japanese-boot-licking drama Jiachang’s Heart, and you will be mad after watching it,” wrote user eva88219 at Tianya Club, one of China’s most popular online forums, in her widely viewed post on May 11, a day after the show first aired.

“These people showed their loyalty to the Japanese imperial emperor,” read the post, which came with nine screen grabs attached, illustrating how the protagonist “kowtowed” to her Japanese overlords.

Lin failed to differentiate between friend and foe to the point of reacting in grief when she learnt that the Japanese had surrendered in the war, the user wrote.

If the drama was allowed to be screened on the mainland, she would spend money to take the case to court, she added.

The post saw about 40,000 views, with many commenters agreeing with her views. The attacks focused on the pro-Japanese theme of the drama, the irrationality of pro-independence sentiment on the island and inappropriateness of the TV station in filming such a subject.

“Their ancestors would have risen from their graves,” user Guilixi said, and called on Beijing to use force to take back Taiwan.

The Chinese tabloid Global Times joined the fray, panning Da Ai for the show.

“It is obvious from the 15-minute trailer that the first half of the series is kissing up to Japan,” it said in an opinion piece published on May 11.

The following day, the series was pulled.

After the sudden suspension, rumour had it that Beijing had sent officials to Hualien, where the TV station is based, demanding that the broadcaster discontinue the show for favouring Japan.

The action prompted angry Taiwanese to cry foul and assail Beijing for stifling artistic freedom, even though Taiwan is not under its jurisdiction, and to accuse Da Ai of giving in to Chinese pressure and helping Beijing suppress democracy in Taiwan.

The Da Ai network is a subsidiary of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, a large NGO based in Taiwan.

“It is extremely regretful for Tzu Chi to bow to pressure from the other side of the Taiwan Strait by pulling Jiachang’s Heart off the air,” said lawyer Yeh Ching-yuan, a former legal affair director of the Taipei city government, on his Facebook post on May 14.

“It is terrible and heinous for [TV stations] to air only the shows favoured by the ruling authorities,” he said.

Wang Ding-yu, a legislator of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, criticised Beijing for using its powerful online troops to heap scorn on a TV drama that was based on actual events.

“It is part of history and no one can deny it,” he said, adding just like the production of the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List, there would be no movie if the producer did without the Nazi element.

Chen Ming-chi, a sociology professor at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, said Tzu Chi should not have given the impression of bowing to pressure from Beijing, which “has suppressed the democratic freedoms and human rights of others by expanding its censorship of speech across the Taiwan Strait.”

In a May 14 press conference in response to the controversy, Da Ai TV development manager Ou Hung-yu apologised for pulling the show, but stressed that Beijing played no role in its cancellation.

“We wanted to produce a show to purify human hearts and encourage social harmony … but stopped short of noticing that this kind of theme might re-traumatise certain viewers,” he said. “We don’t want to create any controversy, and this does not serve the purpose of our TV.”

Wang Kung-yi, a professor of political science at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said the issue was Da Ai’s self-censorship, unlike other incidents in which Taiwanese entertainers or shows were barred on the mainland because of their apparent independence-leaning statements, actions or themes.

There may have be good reasons for Da Ai to pull the show, such as consideration of the vast future market on the mainland or the supposedly non-political status of the network’s owner. Wang said that angry as Beijing might be, it must keep the bigger picture in mind.

“Mishandling would only result in a backlash of Taiwanese people, serving to undermine Beijing’s keen efforts of winning the hearts of the Taiwanese public,” he said.

The National Communications Commission said on Monday that it would investigate the cause of the cancellation and demand that Da Ai submit a report to explain its decision.

Observers, however, said what was worth pondering was not the show’s cancellation, but what lay behind it – a serious divergence in opinion about Japan between people on opposite sides of the strait.

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Fan Shih-ping, a professor of the political institute at National Chengchi University, pointed out that Jiachang’s Heart depicted the reality of the Taiwanese mindset and thinking, but because it was contrary to the way Chinese internet users interpreted the Chinese resistance against Japan or the popular anti-Japan fairy tales, it had created an uproar on the Chinese side.

“This has reflected a long-existing huge gap in the conceptual values between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait,” he said.

Lin was born when Taiwan was colonised by Japan, so she identified as Japanese. Serving in the Japanese army fit her goal of not only being loyal to her country, but also helping provide medical treatment to her wounded compatriots.

Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895 by the Manchu government during the Qing dynasty after the first Sino-Japanese War. It returned to the Chinese fold in 1945, after Japan’s defeat after 50 years of colonisation.

When the island returned to China, Lin experienced an identity change, especially after witnessing the 1947 massacre of Taiwanese by the Chinese Nationalist forces, Fan said. Many of Lin’s peers went through the same experience, and naturally remembered the good things during Japan’s colonisation and the bad things brought by the Nationalists after Taiwan reverted to the Chinese fold. These feelings were typical from generation to generation, Fan noted.

Asked what he thought about the issue, Bruce Chiu, a Taiwanese sporting goods operator, said: “As Chinese people do not understand why Taiwanese are so supportive towards Japan, Taiwanese are also in the mist [about] why Chinese people hate Japan so much.”

“The Taiwanese had not suffered from the Japanese atrocities, during which thousands of innocent Chinese were abused and killed in Japan’s war with China, and thus they don’t understand that kind of hatred passed down generation to generation,” Chiu said.

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Actress Liao Yi-chiao, who played the role of Lin, wrote in her Facebook page that she felt extremely sorry the show ended despite so much effort by so many people. “What I can learn from this incident is to understand others’ thoughts to broaden my empathy for others,” she said.

After the war, Lin returned to her hometown of Tainan from Guangzhou. She then went to Taipei and worked as a nurse for more than three decades before retiring in 1984. She was later hired by Tzu Chi Hospital, where she worked for about 10 more years, and where she serves as a volunteer worker to this day. The hospital is run by the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, which also owns the Da Ai TV network.

Lin, 91, has not commented on the controversy about Jiachang’s Heart, and her hospital says she is declining interview requests.