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Taiwan Is Debating How To Transform Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall To Cope With The Legacy Of Martial Law

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is one of Taipei's most recognizable landmarks. The giant white structure with the blue roof was built in 1980 to commemorate Chiang Kai-shek, the dictator who had ruled the Republic of China (ROC) from 1927 to 1949 in mainland China, and - after losing the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong's Communists - from 1949 to 1975 on Taiwan. 

Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo, succeeded his father as the leader of the ROC on Taiwan and had the huge memorial hall built in Ming Dynasty palace style, which echoed the architecture of Chinese imperial mausoleums.

Until the late 1980s, when Taiwan was still a dictatorship dominated by the Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party), it was dangerous to even question the official hagiography of Chiang Kai-shek. That began to change with the democratization of Taiwan. People could finally openly discuss the dark side of Chiang's rule.

Chiang Kai-shek was a warlord and he governed like one. Although he paid lip service to the ideals of democracy, throughout his political career he used force to suppress his real or perceived enemies.

In 1947, Chiang ordered the Chinese army to put down popular protests in Taiwan, which resulted in the infamous 228 massacre. Afterwards he imposed martial law and persecuted citizens he deemed potentially dangerous to his regime. This period, known as the White Terror, lasted until 1987, when martial law was lifted.    

Like all dictators of the 20th century, Chiang Kai-shek built a personality cult around himself. The Guomindang's attitude towards Chiang has remained ambivalent. Ma Ying-jeou, former Guomindang leader and Taiwan's President from 2008 to 2016, apologized for the crimes committed by Chiang's regime. Yet in 2008, shortly after assuming office, Ma paid respects to Chiang Kai-shek, bowing in front of his statue to commemorate him. 

The current administration of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), however, has a different view on Chiang Kai-shek's legacy. The DPP was formed out of the anti-Guomindang underground opposition during martial law, and many of its members were victims of the White Terror

In 2017, on the 70th anniversary of the 228 massacre, Culture Minister Cheng Li-chün (鄭麗君) announced plans to transform Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall for transitional justice.

As Apple Daily reported, the Taiwanese government has already carried out measures to put an end the Chiang personality cult. 

For instance, during the opening and closing ceremony of the Memorial Hall, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Song (蔣公紀念歌, see video below) is no longer performed. Various items such as toys, stationary and accessories bearing Chiang's portrait have been withdrawn from the building's shops. The Chiang Kai-shek Gallery (中正藝廊) and the Chiang Kai-shek Hall have been renamed 1st Floor Gallery and First Exhibition Hall. And the Memorial Hall remains closed during the annual commemoration of the 228 massacre. 

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is considered a symbol of autocratic rule. The structure itself shows a profound connection between the Chinese imperial tradition and Guomindang one-party rule. The Memorial Hall was built like a modernized version of imperial mausoleums, and is thus a reminder of the personality cult around Chiang. For example, the 89 steps leading up to the main hall represent the 89 years of Chiang's life. The whole structure and the surrounding park are full of such symbols.

According to Taiwanese media reports, the DPP administration has been considering demolishing the building. However, it appears that for now the government has decided to remove the large statue of Chiang Kai-shek from the main hall, but to preserve the building. Despite its autocratic legacy, the Memorial Hall has become a major tourist attraction and a symbol of Taiwan. 

The Culture Minister stated that Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall has to be transformed on the basis of "facing history, recognizing agony, and respecting human rights.” This includes the establishment of a National Human Rights Museum on the premises of the Memorial Hall. 

The Ministry of Culture has asked experts and scholars to contribute to the dialogue in order to reach a consensus as to the best and most widely accepted way to transform the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall according to Taiwan's democratic values. 


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