228, another day that lives in infamy

228.jpg
A murdered citizen on 228

Maybe it’s fitting that today, my first February 28th in Taiwan, the island is soaked in a cold, gloomy rainstorm. Er-er-ba, as the day is called here, is perhaps to the Taiwanese what the Holocaust is to the Jews. Like 9-11, the numbers 228 speak for themselves; there’s no reason to give it a more informative name. Everyone knows it’s the day Chinag Kai Shek began a massacre of Taiwanese citizens resulting in some 30,000 butchered. You can read all about it here if you’re not up on the details. Here is a brief description from a correspondent in Taiwan at the time:

On February 27 a policeman of the Taiwan (Formosa) Monopoly Bureau saw a woman selling smuggled cigarettes on the streets of the capital, Taipei. When he tried to seize her tray and money, she pulled away, and he struck her a crashing blow on the head with his revolver butt. She died at his feet. An angry mob gathered, and the police shot into the crowd, killing one person and wounding others. Forthwith a year and a half of gathering hatred for an inefficient, autocratic, corrupt administration exploded into unarmed demonstrations against the mainland Chinese.

China put down the revolt with brutal repression, terror, and massacre. Mainland soldiers and police fired first killing thousands indiscriminately; then, more selectively, hunted down and jailed or slaughtered students, intellectuals, prominent business men, and civic leaders.

It’s a national holiday today in Taiwan, and most businesses are closed. It is to Taiwan’s credit that it acknowledges its own act of barbarism, and that it invites the public to examine it for themselves. (Still, some contend the government hasn’t gone far enough in weeding out the instigators of 228 and that many of the worst offenders have gone unpunished to this day.) I wonder if we’ll ever see a similar national holiday in China commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre or the Great Leap Forward or other treats that the CCP bestowed on its citizens.

My first week in Taiwan, Jerome Keating was kind enough to take me to the 228 Museum here. It’s hard to put into words just how upsetting it is to walk through this simple but unforgettable place, where you see hundreds of photos of innocent civilians who were murdered, and all you can do is ask “Why?” It reminded me of walking through the Jewish sector in Prague, where the names of the murdered Jews have been inscribed into the walls. They’re just names, lines of ink, but they say so much. These pictures say so much, and I can never forget them. Some of the victims were so young, and many were killed simply because they were seen in old photographs standing alongside “enemies of the state.”

The fact that Taiwan has grown from a savage place where its Chinese leaders could launch acts of terror that would have made Stalin proud into the prosperous, peaceful nation it is today should hold lessons for each of us, and perhaps give us hope that China, too, might one day shed its mantle of tyranny and become a country of laws and of openness. I see no sign of that happening now, but I probably wouldn’t have seen such signs in Taiwan back in the 1940s or 50s. What will it take? If Taiwan could do it, could the PRC do it as well? What was the turning point, and is China anywhere near such a pivotal moment?

[Note: I promised myself I wouldn't post anything until later in the week, but the emotions of 228 were too strong to ignore. This had to be written today or never.]

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 19 Comments

Great post, Richard.

It’s also important to note that 30,000 deaths in a small country like Taiwan is a staggering number, in terms of the percentage of the population. You have to figure just about everyone in Taiwan knew someone who died in this massacre.

February 28, 2006 @ 12:41 am | Comment

Think Taiwan had 7 million at the time, when the 2 million from CKS went. Assuming that the 2M weren’t touched, that’s 4 out of every 1000 people who got popped.

February 28, 2006 @ 12:54 am | Comment

Somewhere I read that percentage-wise, 228 equaled one of Mao’s worst disasters/massacres. Wish I could remember which one.

February 28, 2006 @ 1:06 am | Comment

Nice post Richard. However: “Still, some contend the government hasn’t gone far enough in weeding out the instigators of 228 and that many of the worst offenders have gone unpunished to this day.”

Make that: the government hasn’t weeded out any of the instigators and all of the offenders have gone unpunished. Chen Yi, the provincial governer was (under US pressure) promoted out of Taiwan – and that’s about the sum total of repurcussions in the government. However, the government has (about 10 years ago) officially apologised and paid some reparation.

February 28, 2006 @ 1:42 am | Comment

I don’t think that comparing this to the holocaust is very helpful, especially as a lot of those who died were killed for political reasons (they feared that they might be pro communist).

February 28, 2006 @ 2:03 am | Comment

Thanks Richard.Glad you posted this.We need to remember !

February 28, 2006 @ 6:17 am | Comment

ACB, I never compared the event to the Holocaust, only the way it is remembered here. Read carefully. I know you can do it if you really try.

February 28, 2006 @ 6:19 am | Comment

Come on Richard, I live in China. It’s only 2006 still so Wikipedia has to be blocked here.

February 28, 2006 @ 6:43 am | Comment

Keir, just do a search for 228 + Taiwan – there’s plenty of information out there.

February 28, 2006 @ 6:52 am | Comment

Thanks for the post. It would make more sense if you stated the year this happened in btw.

February 28, 2006 @ 9:27 am | Comment

China complains when Japan doesn’t “apologise” and refuses to meet Koizumi. But it glad-hands the KMT leadership and doesn’t raise a single word of complaint over Ma’s lack of apology.

So does this mean that when foreigners kill Chinese it’s wrong, but Chinese leaders are justified to do what they like?

February 28, 2006 @ 9:27 am | Comment

Good point Raj. Personally, I was upset by the protests against Japan in Mainland China. Not that they don’t have any legit grievances, but because it was obviously orchestrated for political purposes and at the same time they would never admit any wrongdoing on their own part……..

February 28, 2006 @ 9:39 am | Comment

Thank you for the great post.

The massacre carried out by KMT-Led troops occurred in 1947, two years before the 2M nationalists retreated to Taiwan.

Population of Taiwan was around 6M at that time. The bloody crackdown caused an estimated of 30,000 to a high number of 60,000 death. The figure converted to an at least 5% of civilians were murdered within months.

Like the killing field in Cambodia, the atrocity was purposely targeting the elites. The massacre of 228 almost wiped out Taiwan’s intellectual class in a very short period of time.

The holocaust of 228 then followed by KMT’s 38 years of martial law (started in 1949 and lifted in 1987). That was another heart-broken page in Taiawn’s modern history.

From time to time, it’s hard for me to justify why there are still so many Taiwanese joining a political party that slaughtered and oppressed your own people for half a century? Amnesia? ignorance? or just susceptible to years of brainwashing and lying?

February 28, 2006 @ 1:32 pm | Comment

Two cents:
1. Richard said: “It is to Taiwan’s credit that it acknowledges its own act of barbarism”. I don’t think the Taiwan pro-independence government (DPP) who made 228 a national holiday possible really thinks it’s Taiwan’s own act of barbarism. They think it’s KMT’s barbarism (KMT escaped from China to Taiwan after being defeated in a civial war with CCP). The DPP government wants to memorize 228 in a big way so that they can keep reinforcing the negative image of China.

2. Richard visited the Jewish sector in Prague and the 228 musuem in Taipei. I strongly suggested him visit the Nanking Rape museum in Nanjing to have a more compelete view of history. All taiwanese, who were officially Japanese in WWII, should also visit that museum just as all Germans should visit Auschwitz.

February 28, 2006 @ 2:14 pm | Comment

Are they still whining about something that happened in last century. How “uncivilized,” as I read here. They whine as much as the Chinese. Oh wait, they are Chinese. Never mind. LOL.

February 28, 2006 @ 3:04 pm | Comment

“All taiwanese, who were officially Japanese in WWII, should also visit that museum just as all Germans should visit Auschwitz.”

So, should all the peoples of occupied Europe visit Auschwitz,because they were under the Nazis? Send the French to visit Auschwitz,because of the Vichy French?
How many ethnic Taiwanese soldiers were at Nanjing?

February 28, 2006 @ 8:27 pm | Comment

Those in Vichy French who deported their Jews should certainly visit the place where they sent them to.
But I agree with your point, mark.

February 28, 2006 @ 8:47 pm | Comment

People of occupied Europe have a different mindset with Taiwanese in WWII. They were under Nazis for about 5 years and don’t think they were really with Germans. Taiwan was occupied/colonized by Japan for 50 years and they were really with Japan Imeprial government and military force in WWII.

There’re enough ethic Taiwanese solider’s ashes in Yakusuni shrine who fought to death for Japan Empire though I don’t know how many of them had been in Nanjing (it would be interesting to find out).

BTW, people who never have anything to do with either side of WWII should visit those museums to have a taste of how terrible things man can do to each other.

February 28, 2006 @ 11:11 pm | Comment

RICHARD,

Kudos to the work done. You looked to humanity to review the historic event.

With 228, many irresponsible press and media in recent years resorted to a mere discussion (and hence manipulation) of the clash of “ethnic groups”. No, it was not; “ethnic tension” came later; ererba was another premeditated cruelty carried out by the occupying force upon the disenchanted occupied.

March 1, 2006 @ 12:59 am | Comment

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