The White Terror
All who seek to pay homage to the graves of the White Terror victims must stumble across an uneven hill and trek down scattered steps to the small hillside village of Liuzhangli. The makeshift, haphazard plotting of the gravesite is set against the background of the looming city, covered in a haze of fog due to the town’s elevation. As your feet crack stray snail shells and attempt to find stable footing in the precarious landscape, the melancholic beauty of the gravesite grows. Wherever your gaze falls, a dozen or so graves sit amongst the lifeless grass which has turned a wilting brown. Nature has not retreated: there are lush green trees and stretches of grass in full health. But the beauty of nature cannot hide a distinct sense of negligence, despite the efforts of those who have taken over management of the graves.
The Kuomintang (KMT) dumped bodies in unmarked or poorly-designated graves during the thirty-eight year reign known as the White Terror. Martial law began in Taiwan in 1949 and was lifted in 1987. The end of martial law was the climax of a waking nightmare. There was no discrimination in those terrorized --- young and old, without distinction of political party, native Taiwanese and mainlanders. The fear of death strangled each aspect of life. Education was marred by the disappearance of classmates and the censorship of materials. The circles people moved within became selective, out of anxiety they would be marred by association with an enemy of the state. A bright summer day was eclipsed by the watchful eyes of the government, claiming repression as a necessary evil. Your own family was transformed, from a community of love to a liability. The horror of the White Terror has not dissipated over time --- distance has only allowed the magnitude of its impact to be fully appreciated. How many were maimed by tragedy, left mourning as Taiwan sought to disguise itself in the trappings of democracy?
Over sixty percent of the dead are unclaimed. There are no visitors to be found atop the lonely hill. As I walked across crumbling steps, the gravesite was eerily quiet, filled only by the sounds of a smattering of stray dogs.
The graves came to the forefront of public consciousness in 1993, when they were discovered. Taipei’s government designated the Liuzhangli graves as a memorial site in 2002, but has otherwise made no efforts to foster visitation for the victims beneath the hill. Its informal nature is due to the site being an unofficial dumping ground during the height of militant rule; even with formal government recognition, the graveyard has not been renovated. Only those who are lucky enough to have familial support are given fitting resting places. There are graves beneath the trunks of trees, the black slabs marking the deceased disappearing beneath curling roots.
Even now, as Taiwan makes strides towards recognition as a democratic nation, it has yet to truly reconcile with the violent years of martial law. Stalin’s Great Terror lasted only two years, albeit more bloody and devastating ones. The KMT’s attempts to corral the nation into submission led to the mass imprisonment and execution of those charged with a myriad of crimes. Like most governments seeking to oppress, President Chiang Kai-shek’s regime targeted intellectuals and the social elite. The government feared they would be inclined them to support Communism, and inspire pro-Chinese Communist Party sentiments in Taiwan. Citizens were convicted on charges of owning contraband, speaking ill of the regime, and associating with mainlanders or political enemies. Whether or not the party was guilty was irrelevant.
Public outrage and efforts by the families of the deceased prompted the Taiwanese government to enact the Martial Law Era Improper Ruling Compensation Bill in 1998. The bill allows compensation for families who can prove the wrongful conviction and death of their loved ones. The KMT coerced their victims into confession, under torture or threat of harm to their families, and the government did whatever necessary to obtain guilty verdicts in order to justify their martial law. The targets of the KMT varied, and many families have been left without a single explanation as to why their loved one was chosen. The discovery of the gravesite offers those who are identified a sense of peace: until the 1993 excavations, many were ‘disappeared’ and their whereabouts left unknown. The Compensation Bill created the Compensatory Association, tasked with allocating payouts after a rigorous evaluation process.
But there are those who were indeed guilty of alleged crimes: conspiring against the government, engaging with contraband, or forming anti-KMT political groups. There are those who admitted to anti-KMT actions or pro-democratic sentiments. In the eyes of the KMT, anyone who defied Martial Law was justly marked an enemy. The government prohibits these families from receiving compensation. Martial law has ended, but the KMT refuses to legitimize those who worked against their oppressive rule. The biased nature of the Compensatory Association’s reparations to the victims led to its dissolution in 2014. The Association was operated by the KMT government, and had more interest in protecting the party’s legacy then atoning for it. The stipulation that victims must be innocent (according to the government’s standard) was coupled with a demand that innocence had to be proven unequivocally. This was an impossible task for families, who lacked access to official documentation and reports. Families often lack full knowledge of the charges their loved one faced or what they admitted to under duress. The Association has crafted a system to avoid awarding reparations or pardons to White Terror victims. The government has prevented any disclosure of the amount of families who received payout, the course of action the investigations took, or the names of the victims submitted for consideration. This lack of transparency is a key source of frustration for the public.
In 1995, Taiwan’s government began the arduous task of addressing its thirty-eight years of terrorizing and oppressing its people. Former President Lee Tung-hui apologized for the government's actions during the White Terror and asked for citizens to engage in conversation to advocate for reparations and national healing. The Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (ATR) worked on the behalf of victims’ families, securing letters the government had sealed in their archives. The ATR’s task is to facilitate conversations surrounding compensation and reconciliation, as well as to advocate for victims. Lost documents and relics of White Terror victims remained a point of contention for surviving loved ones and family members; the Association took these concerns directly to the government. With government blessing, Taiwan’s National Archives department (founded in 2001) worked to make the letters accessible and public.
DPP President Tsai Ing-wen’s election in 2016 has seen the enactment of the “Act on Promoting Transitional Justice,” a radical move to legally address the White Terror. The Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation press release on the act reads:
“Covering the period from Aug. 15, 1945 to Nov. 6, 1992, when Martial Law was lifted on the offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu (five years later than on Taiwan proper), the Act will see the setup of an independent, nine-people Transitional Justice Promotion Committee overseen by the Executive Yuan.”
Yet it is hard for Taiwan to move forward when so much remains unclear and unaddressed. Some estimate that 28,000 died during the White Terror; others estimate 17,000. The KMT government worked hard to destroy the evidence of its crimes, leaving little official documentation to pinpoint exact numbers, dates, or victims. Funds and attention have been allocated in recognizing the 228 Incident, but far less has gone into investigating the victims deaths that span decades.
Huang Wen-kung, a victim of the White Terror, faded out of memory, his final days seeped in despair, scribbling dozens of letters to a family who fled from all thought of him. His slow years of suffering, stagnant in grief, were filled only by thoughts of his wife and three children. Huang's executioners ignored his last wish, that his body be donated to an institution in research. No --- Huang Wen-kung was thrown into cold earth, upon the lonely Liauzhangli Hill.
The brief suffering of life was left to his family, all whom were marked by shame and despair over his death. What pain was brought to them by Huang Wen-kung fate was furthered by a lack of concrete information on his ordeal. Chang Yi-jung was raised with a ghost for a grandparent --- his name evoked hushed whispers and muted pain, in lieu of fond memories. She discovered his identity by chance during her teen years, and vowed to avenge his memory through investigation. Her efforts would reach fruition during the National Archives’ slow unveiling of White Terror letters: on visiting the archive in person, she was given a three-hundred page folder’s worth of letters and documents. Huang’s language is not embellished; his demise was not that of a hero slain for a cause. His was the death of a dentist, a husband, a father of three, and it needs no sparkling verbiage. The grace of his hand is marked by the tragedy of his fate.
“Dear Chun-lan, I was arrested when you were still in your mother’s womb. What a pity that we, father and daughter, can never meet! What could be more tragic than that? Although I have never seen you, held you or kissed you, I love and care for you just the same. I am so sorry that I cannot do my duty as a father.”
Chang Yi-jung will never have her grandfather, yet she at last has a relic of his life. His file contained an outlying piece of information: the order which reversed fifteen years of prison time to a death sentence. The document was crafted by Chiang Kai Shek, and authorized by his hand.
Taiwanese leadership is eager to promote reconciliation with the past, but ‘transitional justice’ is hard to achieve with the legacy of the White Terror’s orchestrator firmly intact. Chiang Kai-shek’s figure looms over the nation: on the backs of coins, on statues littered across its largest city and in a giant memorial hall, where his goliath figure hangs over visitors. Few topics inspire as much discourse as the former president. It is what makes dismantling his legacy, and assigning credit for the enactment of martial law, a difficult task. Some continue to revere him as an indomitable figure, a hero who safeguarded Taiwan. Pro-KMT citizens argue that the destruction of his legacy would erase all the ‘good’ he did for Taiwan. These voices cannot be ignored; the KMT party lost control of the presidential seat, but it remains the majority party on the island.
As for the families of victims, and for many, many Taiwanese, Chiang Kai-shek enacted terror upon Taiwan, and his image cannot be reconciled as that of a divise hero. He was a dictator, and whatever good he accomplished was at the expense of far more wrongdoings. On the global stage, Chiang Kai-shek is equally controversial. Some mark him as a Stalinesque figure, while others adhere to his rebel leader legacy. The thirty-eight years of martial law were under his strict regime, making it impossible to reconcile the White Terror without a confrontation of Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy.
The modest gravestones are often marked with sunflowers. The local guide who navigated our way could not say if they were an homage to the sunflower movement, or simply an effort to create a bright spot of warmth. Certain graves stand out. The victims with family victims are blessed with impressive headstones, or buried in mausoleums. Others have been graced by the charitable Taiwanese, whose only avenue of victim support is to donate money. There are divisions within the gravesite, between those in a sweeping collection of tombs inlaid with gold text which give the feeling of a miniature city, and those marked by a crumbling slab, their names poorly written. There is a great number of columbarium, which house the remains of unidentified victims. Their bones and ash are placed into urns and set upon large mantle pieces. Though it is a site of great tragedy, there is a strong sense of peace.
Visitors do not arrive in large groups, but their presence is still felt in small tokens of affection. Liuzhangli is the summation of the desires of private citizens to offer respect and dignity when the government will not. When I reflect on my trip to Taiwan, I often go back to the gravesite of the White Terror victims. It is easy to read statistics and reconcile with tragedy on a page. Being present at the site provides a level of confrontation that cannot be avoided. “Peaceful” is the word I cannot help returning to once more; as sad as I felt, the graves bloomed with tranquility.
President Tsai Ing-wen has pledged to advocate on the behalf of transitional justice. Her resolve is powerful, but it cannot erase the harsh reality that many will not receive the formal justice they deserve. The gravesite is an acknowledgment of this fact, and settles the casual cruelty of the notion by offering the deceased a peaceful place beneath the hill. In twenty years, the gravesite may be completely transformed. Perhaps for the better, by the efforts of good samaritans, victims’ organizations, and families, or perhaps it will be eradicated entirely by officials who claim that the gravesite occupies government land. Liuzhangli’s Hill has always been indicative of the times: a nameless dumping site during the White Terror, and an emerging site of victim recognition, once Taiwan began taking strides towards democracy.
Much has been written on the future of Taiwan, though most focus on its fraught relationship with China. The consensus is that a national identity, once burgeoning, is now coming to fruition. As Taiwan evolves and seeks full independence, there must be a reconciliation with the past, for the sake of the future. The gravesite endures as a memorial of resistance to past authoritarian rule; its simplicity is due to neglect, but manifests as an organic tribute to the lives lost.
Huang’s final line in a letter to his unborn child pleads for forgiveness. It is time for the KMT to ask for the same.
“ Chun-lan! Can you forgive your poor old dad?