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Taipei Diary No. 4. The Statu(e)s Quo. Chiang Kai-Shek and the Politics of Memory in Taiwan

Veröffentlicht am 19.05.2018

Chiang Kai-shek statue in NantouChiang Kai-shek statue in Nantou When I traveled in rural Ukraine in 2017, the statues of Marx and Lenin that used to stand in towns and villages were gone. An older inhabitant of Tarutino complained: "I am not a communist but this is part of our history! Why should we erase it?"

He touched a crucial aspect of the politics of memory that are at stake in Taiwan as well. Currently there is a debate whether the statues of authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) should be removed or remain where they are. Chiang ruled the country from 1949 until his death with an iron hand (the so called period of "white terror"). In 2017, the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) passed the "transitional justice bill", demanding that "symbols and signs [related to authoritarian rule] should … be removed, renamed, or otherwise disposed of." The formulation "otherwise disposed of" leaves room for interpretation and speculation, but the main thrust is clear: authoritarian times are over, therefore their representations should vanish as well.

The people I met and discussed with in Taiwan, from artists to system administrators to tea traders to metal musicians, now ask themselves: will this actually help to create a better future? Or will it deepen the social division between progressives and conservatives? Is the DPP provoking backlashes? How will we, how shall we deal with our recent past if less and less testimonia can be found in the public space? In short, is removal the right strategy, notwithstanding the undeniably good intentions of the DPP?

Maybe the answer to the question whether the monuments should be removed or not is not the problem. Maybe the problem is the question itself. It presupposes that there are only two options: either continue the glorification of the "Generalissimo" (statues remain) or make space for a bright, democratic future (statues vanish).

First of all, I am convinced that history repeats itself whenever we think it is over. History is never historical. Progress is never linear. The specters of the past will always haunt us – precisely when we believe they are gone. It is therefore advisable to preserve, to a certain extent, even dubious, painful monuments of the (recent) past in public space – not as idols, but as sparring partners, as it were.

To understand the present, we need to remind ourselves, not only abstractly in history books that hardly anyone reads, of where we come from, what shaped our time, how it was shaped, and by whom it was shaped. Under specific circumstances, cultural remnants from authoritarian times can help to keep critical contestation alive. The German pavilion at the Venice Biennale, for instance, was built during the Nazi period. And that's clearly visible. Instead of demolishing it, as has often been proposed, the authorities decided to keep it, thus prompting artists to continuously grapple with Germany's totalitarian aberration. European cities are full of statues of cruel kings, dukes, and counts. One can in fact look at them adoringly. But one can also view them as mementos: this is how it used to be – now look how it is today!

In Taiwan, it is striking that on the one hand side, the Chiang Kai-shek monuments were not razed after the White Terror had ended. On the other hand, contemporary Taiwan is arguably the most liberal and open democracy in Asia. Accordingly, it is obviously possible to retain monuments of the despised past and still move on.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, TaipeiChiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taipei

However, in order to open up a third space beyond condemnation or adoration, it is of course not enough to stay with the status quo. After all, a sparring partner must be identifiable as a sparring partner. What most of the Chiang Kai-Shek monuments lack, is in fact a context that marks them as sites of criticism and contestation rather than adoration. Hence they could e.g. be combined with artefacts that allow the viewers to compare past and present and thus to understand the trajectories of history. Controversial monuments can be extended and turned into museums in a contemporary sense, i.e. into sites of discourse rather than – alleged – evidence. Musealization, not moralization is the key. Steps in this direction have already been taken. This year, the exhibition "Family Memo. Island of Memory and Migration" was held in the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall in Taipei. Such temporary or permanent encounters of past, present, future and different value systems are more promising and probably more sustainable than the bipolar schemes of "either – or", "yes – no", "good – bad", "now – then". Complex constellations invite to reflect and to engage instead of making professions or delivering declarations of faith.

Statue of Chiang Kai-shek in the memorial hallStatue of Chiang Kai-shek in the memorial hallIn short: leave Chiang where he is, at least in some places. But why not put a statue of political activist Shih Ming-teh right next to him? Why not extend the pompously depressing memorial hall with representations of e.g. Mona Rudao, Freddy Lim, Tsai Ing-wen? Why not build an annex for critical art shows like in Bucharest where Ceasusescu's monstrous Palace of the Parliament now also houses the National Museum of Contemporary Art? Why not invite the visitors to draw their own consequences? One should neither erase the traces of controversial periods from public spaces, thus bringing forward a self-sufficient posthistoire, nor be indifferent or even apologetic towards them. One should rather conceive of them as active quarries for the future. Currently the Taiwanese Ministry of Culture is planning to transform the memorial hall into a site for "facing history, recognizing agony, and respecting human rights." If history is actually to be faced, its remnants should not be totally removed or "otherwise disposed of".