Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Chiang-ing of the Guard in Taipei

On Sunday we went to Taipei to see the Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen Memorial Halls, by cab to the high-speed rail station, and then again from the Taipei Main Station to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

In Chinese culture (and I've seen it in Korea, too), important people have memorial halls built in order to preserve their memory.  It's where their name is displayed in exquisite calligraphy and where their portrait is hung or a statue is placed.  These memorial halls seem to be more significant to the memory of the celebrated person than their actual graves, even.

Sun Yat-sen was a leader (and quickly the leader) of the early Chinese revolutionary period, starting on January 1st, 1912 when the last Qing Emperor was deposed.  Before he died of cancer in 1925, he founded the Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang or KMT--authentically pronounced Gwoh-min-dahng) and set the stage for his protege Chiang Kai-shek to make the "Northern Expedition" to bring the warlords into line with the new Republic.  Sun Yat-sen is revered on both sides of the Taiwan Straits.

Despised on the other side of the Straits, however is Chiang Kai-shek.  A consequence of the Northern Expedition, he fought the Communist Party during the civil war period (1927-1937, 1946-1950) and the Japanese during World War II (1937-1945).  He eventually lost the mainland and retreated to Taiwan, which, with U.S. military help, he was able to hold.  For the next 25 years he held power in Taiwan as president of the Republic of China, and frustrated Chairman Mao and the People's Republic of China's desire to be recognized as the "real" China.  He was a U.S. ally in WWII and a signatory power at the founding of the United Nations.  The U.N. seat was only given to the PRC in 1971, and U.S. recognition was switched only in 1979.  And while the Red Guards were pulling a Taliban and smashing antiquities on the mainland, Chiang made fostering traditional Chinese culture and arts a state policy.

Nowadays, though, Chiang Kai-shek is not universally admired here in Taiwan, either.

When Taiwan was surrendered by the Japanese, the KMT behaved rather badly towards towards the local population (primarily Min-speaking people who migrated to Taiwan in the 300 years before the Japanese took Taiwan in 1895, and had never been under Republican Chinese rule), and when they revolted, the KMT brutally put down the revolt and established martial law that lasted (with the further excuse of hostilities with the Communist mainland) until 1988.  The island was flooded with more than a million Mandarin-speaking Chinese from the mainland who weren't interested in Taiwan's unique pluralistic history and culture so much being part of China and taking back the mainland.

So, in the post-martial law era, the KMT has lost the presidency twice to the opposition Democratic Progress Party (DPP), the first time 2000-08, and then again in 2016.  They represent the view that Chiang Kai-shek was a nasty brute and that Taiwan should be independent and part of neither Communist or Nationalist China.  In 2007 they proposed to de-consecrate the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and turn it into a museum for martial law brutality, as they see it.  But then the KMT was back in power, and they put the Kai-bosh on the plan (so many pun opportunities here, you can't possibly know).  Now that the DPP is in office, last month they reintroduced their plans for De-Chiang-ification.  So now was the time to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall while it was still the same.

Whew!  I'm sorry for all the history, but it's necessary to understand why we were visiting the place.  The Chiang Kai-shek (CKS for short) Memorial Hall was completed in 1981 and differs from most memorial halls in that it is more a pagoda shape than a rectangular building.  The first thing we went to see, since it was nearly the top of the hour, was the changing of the guard.

When you get to the top of several flights of steps, the Memorial Hall opens with an arch.  Inside, under a rotunda canopy of the KMT sun emblem, is a giant bronze statue of CKS, flanked by ROC flags, and calligraphy of his political principles carved on the walls.  In front is a large red carpet, and on two short platforms, two army guards in ceremonial uniform, with white gloves and webbing, chrome helmets and nickle-plated rifles with bayonets attached.  At the top of the hour, two relief guards with rifles led by an NCO with a pistol, enter from a side vestibule and slowly march to the center of the carpet.  The guards on the platform descend and there's quite a bit of smart drilling, which includes a fair amount of saluting, brandishing bayonets, and twirling rifles.  And despite all the "crash and stamp" of boots and rifles, almost all of it is done wordlessly.  It was all quite impressive and is worth a view on YouTube, if you can find a video of it.

Once we'd seen that, we descended downstairs to see the museum in the undercroft.  There you can see CKS' writings, calligraphy, uniforms, flags, medals (he was probably only second to Marshal Tito in foreign orders and awards), sedan chairs, Cadillacs, and a full replica of his office, complete with a wax likeness of the Generalissimo himself.

After this, we had a bite and hopped in a cab for the Sun Yat-sen (SYS) Memorial Hall.  This was built in 1966 in a more traditional shape, but still has some mid-century modern elements to it.  For those of us of a certain age, it's homey in its datedness.  Had the red carpets been replaced with orange shag, I would have been completely at home.  Here there's a bronze statue of SYS even bigger than CKS's, surrounded by flags and a mezzanine with bronze bas-relief plaques depicting SYS's career.  We again saw the changing of the guard ceremony, and with a few alterations for the differences in architecture, it was essentially the same as the one at the CKS Memorial Hall.

Sun Yat-sen's personal legacy is much safer than CKS's, and throngs of people relax and play in the square in front of the Memorial Hall and adjacent gardens.  Being revered in mainland China as well, there are quite a few mainlanders in attendance.  It's hard to put a finger on exactly how, but mainlanders dress a little differently than the Taiwanese, in a sort of plainer, slightly dated way.  They are also, compared to the polite and quiet Taiwanese, loud and pushy.  We had a look at a gallery with colorized photos from SYS's life and career, and I had elderly Chinese practically pushing me to get a closer look, yammering away at a half-shout the entire time.  I was starting to see the DPP's point on reunification.

Admittedly we didn't explore the entire building, but there didn't seem to be quite the same museum setup as at the CKS Memorial Hall, with very few artifacts on display.  But there was a delightful retrospective exhibit of the mainland-born Taiwanese ink painter Luo Feng (b. 1937, presumably still alive and well).  She works in a style that bridges classical ink painting with more modern forms, sometimes painting more her mood or an impression than an actual representation of a real landscape.  She works equally well in the classical mode, and one painting that absolutely knocked my Gudetama socks off was a traditional ink painting of Yosemite.  I don't know if I can lay hold of a print, but I seriously want one.

And with all that accomplished, we returned to the train station by cab, took the train back to Taichung, and then another cab home.  The transit system here is widespread and very easy to navigate, but can tire you out, too.  Our little jaunt north involved five taxis and two one-hour train rides, and we were flat-out bushed.

Post-script: Laura and I have debated whether it's worth the extra $10 to upgrade from standard high-speed rail tickets to business class, so we rode up to Taipei in standard class.  Laura may still feel differently, but I was definitely confirmed in my preference for business class.  The seats are wider and softer, the floor is carpeted, there are foot rests, no middle seats, and they bring you a drink and snack, and even a newspaper if you want.  We had bought two very tasty boxed lunches at the Taipei station for an insanely cheap $3 each, making the trip homeward very sumptuous, satisfying, and peaceful.

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