The Fulbright Taiwan program is generously sponsoring my year of sabbatical research here in Taipei, where I am investigating the relationships between public spaces and the emergence of democracy.  I am interested in how Nationalist era symbols and rituals have been used on Taiwan from 1945 to the early 2000’s. Over this period, the Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or KMT) at first tried to use symbols and ceremonies developed on the mainland to turn former Japanese colonial subjects into dutiful Chinese citizens loyal to the party’s “revolutionary” leadership. From the outset there was tension and violence between local Taiwanese people and the hundreds of thousands of mainlanders that came over to Taiwan with the KMT, particular during the retreat from the mainland in 1949. As a result, for many residents “national” symbols were full of unintended ironies and variegated meanings. During my year here, I am exploring the uses of public spaces as these symbols were contested and transformed as Taiwan moved from a one-party dictatorship to a liberal democracy. Over time, popular public spaces come to acquire a “superabundance of meanings” (Jones 2000), and this was particularly true in the public spaces of Taipei as new forms of Taiwanese identity emerged during the long term process of symbolic change.

The project is rather large in conception. Thus I have begun my research here with something more manageable: the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was the preeminent leader of the KMT and National Government on Taiwan until his death in 1975. The KMT, which had been promoting a cult of Chiang as the infallible leader on Taiwan (Taylor 2006), built a monument to his greatness in the heart of Taipei. The party wanted a large open space where ceremonies of state could be conducted in a manner which would constantly remind participants of the late Generalissimo’s unfinished legacy. In the official discourse of the day, Chiang and the KMT successfully modernized Taiwan using the national ideology of Sun Yat-sen. Furthermore, this ideology would inevitably be used to rejuvenate all of China after communism’s inevitable collapse (which on the heels of the Cultural Revolution did not seem far-fetched to many in the party). Until the final vision was fulfilled, and Taiwan and mainland China were reunited under Nationalist rule, the people of Taiwan would have to remain ever-vigilant against communist infiltration, under the watchful eye of martial law. In building the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, the KMT seemingly wanted its own version of Tiananmen Square: a large open space for gathering hundreds of thousands of people to celebrate the greatness of single-party rule. It was meant to be a place to reinforce the ideals of KMT-led unity and loyalty.

At the same time, though, there was also clearly a desire to differentiate Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square from the communist center in Beijing. The Nationalists on Taiwan pointed to the widespread destruction of “traditional” Chinese culture on the mainland during the Cultural Revolution as evidence that the KMT alone represented China’s future because it alone protected the past. In short, the KMT argued that it was the only party that could preserve the “Real China.” The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall was designed to reflect this ideal. Not only is there a massive monumental building featuring a combination of modern structural elements and classical Chinese aesthetics, but party planners and designers also specifically added conspicuous elements that emphasized culture in ways that marked this site as the “anti-Tiananmen.” For example, the square in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall features a large Concert Hall and the National Theater, which are made to look “quintessentially Chinese” (though in reality they adopted what the KMT interpreted as such—which meant Northern Palace style, as opposed to some other “regional” style). But it is not just the appearance of the Concert Hall and National Theater that is significant. At the time, Beijing lacked similar “palaces of culture.” Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had considered building such structures in the 1950s, ultimately they were rejected in favor of other “big projects” (Hung 2011). By choosing these structures to accompany the Chiang Kai-shek monument, the KMT could once again claim to be the true preserver of culture.

The larger grounds of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall also contain several large ponds and many trees that create the atmosphere of a quiet Chinese garden right next to the other ostentatious structures. The intent may have been to recreate a respectful “palace” environment, but it also created a space for countless, more intimate uses than does the large treeless plain of Tiananmen Square, as modified by the Chinese Communist Party.

I am interested in how the design of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall was conducive to uses that were contrary to the blatant political purposes of KMT designers. Of course, the KMT used the site to hold large rallies, particularly on days that were essential to the maintenance of the cult of Chiang (such as on his birthday and death day anniversaries). It also served as a showpiece for foreign visitors, and dignitaries would inevitably be brought to the monument to pay their respects. Being a showpiece, however, it also became a place for people to express their discontent. Chiang and the KMT had always claimed to put the best interests of the people first. They claimed that the Republic of China on Taiwan represented “Free China”—a bastion of democracy against the communist tyranny of “Red China.” When people felt that reality did not match up to the ideals presented by the party, they felt justified in appropriating party symbols to argue for greater consistency between rhetoric and reality.

The most famous example of appropriation of CKS Memorial Hall is the Wild Lilly Movement of March 1990, a student movement that was similar in many ways to the occupation of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Like the protestors in “Red China,” the students of “Free China” called for more democratic practice in government. Students occupied Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square to insist that the president of the Republic of China be elected by a truly popular vote. Martial law had already been lifted on the island and opposition political parties legalized in 1987, but archaic elements of the system still gave the KMT tremendous advantages. In March 1990, students insisted that more far-reaching reforms be carried out, including direct election of the president (instead of election by the National Assembly, which was filled with aging members from mainland districts who had de-facto lifelong terms). This protest had a different outcome from one in Tiananmen a year earlier. Newly inaugurated president Lee Teng-hui went out to the square and promised the students that a nation-wide commission would be established to create a more democratic system; and indeed significant reforms followed soon afterwards. As the newly formed opposition parties, such as the Democratic Progressive Party, gained influence, many looked back on the Wild Lilly Movement as a crucial step towards the establishment of true freedom and democracy in Taiwan. When the DPP gained the presidency in 2000, it changed the name of the space to “Freedom Square,” which is the name that it still bears on the main arch at its western entrance. Now, on any given weekend, the square continues to be a space where people air their grievances against the government. Regular protests against the construction of a new nuclear power plant occur every weekend, for example.

In the academic paper I am working on, I argue that it is through this kind of contestation over sites and symbols that transcendent identities are actually formed. We tend to assume that symbols must have uniform meaning for them to have “national” significance. To some extent that is true. There are underlying assumptions behind symbols that serve a unifying function. But those assumptions are vaguely conceived and only truly gain power when they can be utilized to legitimate particular power arrangements. In fact, the particular meanings of symbols serve as a constant battle ground. Ironically, it is the fighting over public symbols that actually makes them powerful and meaningful to the people who care about them.

Beyond these political battles, though, a space that is built as a “national symbol” also comes to hold significance when people have a chance to use that space for more mundane activities, especially when personal memory is able to seamlessly blend with “national narratives” in the appreciation of a given space. A family who visits the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for example, may very well enjoy feeding a flock of ducks on the reflecting pool as much or more than seeing the stately statue of Honest Abe. Exhibits in the attached museum may remind visitors of the significant protest marches and gatherings that took place at the site, but they may just as fondly remember sitting themselves on the marble platform at the back enjoying a picnic lunch while looking over the Potomac. In the end, the politically significant and the mundane blend together to create a more meaningful experience that makes that site more important to individuals as a result.

Thus, I am just as interested in the quotidian uses of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall grounds. Newspapers from the 1980s tout the grounds as a favorite place for Taipei residents to go and enjoy the full moon during the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival. Some years, the grounds served as a site for displaying giant-sized lanterns during the New Year’s Lantern Festival. The gardens are, in fact, popular places for local residents to hang out, playing chess, singing old opera tunes, practicing various musical instruments, or even dancing on the large platforms of the Music Hall and National Theater buildings. Weekends are especially lively, with marching bands, political protests, crafts fairs, and more. As a historian, who is more used to finding sources in the archives or on old rolls of microfilm, it has been refreshing for me to go out and simply observe how people make use of the site, to pause myself and soak in the sounds, smells, and textures in addition to the “sights.”

Contemporary philosopher Yi-Fu Tuan distinguishes between “space” and “place” (1977). For him space is more of an abstraction—it is more open and often undifferentiated. Place, on the other hand, is more intimate and laden with value. Space is something measured and delineated by abstract, scientific means. Place is felt. Space is observed and measured. Place is lived in. My year in Taipei so far has given me a chance to perceive the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall as a place, not just a space—whether political or otherwise. I do not yet know how my reflections on CKS Memorial Hall as a “place” will end up or what conclusions I will be able draw from them about “Taiwanese identity;” but I am beginning to get a palpable sense of the “superabundance of meaning” that exists there. And it seems likely that the ability for people to derive such superabundance out of ostensibly political sites is a key aspect of “democratization.”

As I conclude these reflections, let me invite current and future Fulbrighters to take advantage of your own opportunities to give play to the other senses while you are in Taiwan. Don’t just look with the eyes. Don’t just analyze. Let the superabundance of sensory experiences overwhelm you. Experience the Lushan Temple when it is packed with a thousand worshippers singing hymns in unison at 4:30 in the afternoon. Get caught up in the steady yet unpredictable flow of people on Nanjing East Road. Breathe in the aroma of “stinky tofu” and then take a big bite. My advice is that whatever you come here to do, appreciate Taiwan as a place, not just space.

Charles Musgrove is an Associate Professor of History at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He specializes in Modern Chinese History, Modern Japan, Pre-Modern China, and Urban Studies.

Works Cited

Hung Chang-tai. 2011. Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Jones, Lindsay. 2000. The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture. 2 volumes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, Jeremy E. 2006. “The Production of the Chiang Kai-shek Personality Cult, 1929-1975.” China Quarterly 185 (March): 96-110.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1977. Space and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.