Shawna Yang Ryan teaches Creative Writing at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is the author of the recently published novel GREEN ISLAND, which is set during Taiwan’s martial law era.
My novel Green Island begins with one of the most significant events in Taiwan’s contemporary history. In Taipei, on February 27, 1947, Monopoly Bureau agents, working for the Kuomintang (KMT), confronted and beat a Taiwanese woman selling black market cigarettes. Already pushed to their limits by months of KMT corruption, angry bystanders gathered around in support of the woman. The scared agents shot into the crowd, killing a man. The next day, people took to the streets in protest. At first, the KMT made gestures toward a collaborative resolution of people’s grievances. However, just a couple weeks later, the KMT countered with extreme violence: they began an island-wide massacre of the Taiwanese. Men were dragged from their homes, then murdered or imprisoned. Some simply disappeared without a trace. By the time the massacre ended, tens of thousands were dead and the KMT had secured their power. Their reign of terror continued until the end of martial law in 1987.
The complexity of all these events has since been abbreviated to one date.
Yet 2-28 is much more than a day of commemoration or a shorthand for tragedy. For nearly forty years, the people of Taiwan could not talk about 2-28 without fear of government punishment. 2-28 has become a nation’s symbol for betrayal, for violence, for silence, for loss, for oppression, then for survival, and for identity creation. After some years of working on my novel, I began to understand 2-28 as a shadow history, lurking beneath what was promoted as the official narrative during the martial law era. The history advocated by the KMT was built around an insistence on an ultimate future triumph in the form of recovering China from the Communists. I imagined that for those who had been kept from this shadow history there hovered an uncanny feeling that the history they gazed upon was just a façade. In the back of the mind lay an unutterable sense of a fracture. A body constrained by a linguistic and cultural fissure that preceded memory.
And for those who remembered: testimony reined in by fear; a silence.
“Not talking had brought me—us—here. Silence, not speech, had been the problem,” the narrator of Green Island says when she finally learns of 2-28 as an adult.
It has been seventy years since the 2-28 Massacre and Taiwan, in a new era, is attempting to illuminate this shadow history. In her inaugural address, President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) said of the reconciliation process: “We will discover the truth, heal wounds, and clarify responsibilities. From here on out, history will no longer divide Taiwan. Instead, it will propel Taiwan forward.”
What follows a healed wound is a scar, and the very definition of a scar is that it is the mark that does not go away. A scar is the shadow history of an injury. It is also the mark of having prevailed. It is a mechanism of repair.
One path to healing is through words. 2-28 exists in the living memory of fewer and fewer people and it is incredibly important for their unmediated stories to be heard, free of analysis or political motives. It is important for the next generation, and the next, to also share how the trauma has been carried down, reflexively, through family history and habits. Telling these stories will mean having a decades-long grief acknowledged. I imagine an embankment of words that can stem the tide that aims to drown Taiwan’s stories under propaganda from other players and countries.
On the 70th anniversary of this terrifying date, let’s embrace words. Let’s honor memory and celebrate resilience. May Taiwan use stories to carry itself into a future so dazzling and free that shadows cannot be cast.