The Legacy of 228: Historical Memory, Taiwanese Identity, and Cross-Strait Relations

The Legacy of 228: Historical Memory, Taiwanese Identity, and Cross-Strait Relations

The Legacy of 228: Historical Memory, Taiwanese Identity, and Cross-Strait Relations

February 28 is remembered in Taiwan for the 228 Massacre in 1947 (also known as the 228 Incident, 二二八事件), when thousands of civilians were killed by the Chinese Nationalist government following widespread protests that erupted on the island. In 2022, the somber marches in Taipei, former President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) appearance at 228 Peace Memorial Park (二二八和平紀念公園), and President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) speech in Keelung on the incident’s 75th anniversary all highlight the event’s continued relevance in contemporary Taiwanese politics and for the nation’s future. Since the end of martial law in 1987, once-censored historical memories have manifested themselves in the political consciousness of the people, solidifying 228 as a central part of the nation’s historical memory and transforming its identity. This phenomenon is not just important for understanding Taiwan’s internal politics but also has significant implications for the evolution of cross-Strait relations. 

Questions Regarding Taiwanese Identity

In exploring the role of Taiwan’s historical memory in the steady growth of a distinct Taiwanese identity—as opposed to a Chinese identity or a blend of Taiwanese and Chinese identities—it is important to dissect the causes for this shift. Points of emphasis have included the formative influence of Taiwan’s democratization; the solidification of a distinct Taiwanese culture; the social distinctions between benshengren (本省人, those with ancestors who lived in Taiwan before the start of Japanese rule in 1895) and waishengren (外省人, those with ancestors who moved from China to Taiwan between 1945-1950); and distrust of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) political system

Although the issue of identity is complex, there is a consensus among scholars that the Taiwanese identification captured by the polls is, broadly speaking, a reflection of Taiwan’s national “civic identity.” This civic identity comprises Taiwan’s acquired appreciation for its democratic institutions and approach to historical memory. For Taiwan, its collective memory of 228 has played this unifying role. As University of Miami Professor and GTI Advisor June Teufel Dreyer summarizes: “This traumatic event left searing memories in the consciousness of Taiwan residents, and what came to be known as the ‘February 28 incident’ was perhaps the first marker in the development of a Taiwanese identity in the twentieth century.” 

228 as an Experience of “Shared Suffering”

Part of why 228 has become such a significant part of Taiwanese national identity may be attributed to its role as a “shared suffering.” French Orientalist Ernest Renan’s 1882 speech, “What is a Nation?” includes a helpful description of how shared sufferings affect national identity:

Having suffered, rejoiced, and hoped together is worth more than common taxes or frontiers that conform to strategic ideas and is independent of racial or linguistic considerations. ‘Suffered together,’ I said, for shared suffering unites more than does joy. In fact, periods of mourning are worth more to national memory than triumphs because they impose duties and require a common effort.

For the people of Taiwan, the “imposed duties” and “common effort” required by the shared sufferings from 228 and the subsequent “White Terror” (白色恐怖) (1947-1987) are particularly present in activists’ efforts to communicate the truth about the injustices of the authoritarian era to the next generation. This “duty” is especially important for Taiwanese national identity because it communicates the wrongs done by the previous authoritarian government while emphasizing the distinguishing characteristics of the new Taiwan. For decades, this memory was maintained through oral history due to government censorship. Yet, the end of martial law offered the opening to formally communicate the historical memory of 228 in Taiwan’s schools.

The Emergence of Taiwanese Historical Memory in Textbooks

Before democratization, one of the defining attributes of the authoritarian government was its efforts to “Sinicize” Taiwan following Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945) through the education system. This was most evident on the covers of Ministry of Education workbooks issued during the period, which encouraged students “to be an active student, to be a righteous Chinese” (做個活活潑潑的好學生/做個堂堂正正中國人). [1] In that vein, the 5,000-year legacy of Chinese culture was emphasized, with the Republic of China—Taiwan’s official name—acting as the inheritor of Chinese civilization’s long history in contrast to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The inherently Chinese attributes of Taiwan were discussed alongside the “excellence and exquisiteness of Chinese culture.” [2] 

Yet, as the democratization of Taiwan began to change the political environment, popular demand for curriculum guidelines that more accurately communicated Taiwan’s historical memory led to alterations to the textbooks. Some of the key changes included 228 being mentioned for the first time in 1989, and the introduction of the “Getting to Know Taiwan” (認識台灣) textbook in 1997. [3] “Getting to Know Taiwan” was a significant departure from the previous textbooks. Instead of focusing on Chinese national history, it focused on telling the story of Taiwan first, then China, and then the rest of the world. Its introduction was the fulfillment of public demand for textbooks that communicated historical memory in a Taiwan-centric way. [4]

The changes did not come without dissension, as some in the pan-Blue camp saw these efforts as whitewashing the abuses from the Japanese colonial period and diminishing the special status of the Republic of China. This division became, in essence, a clash between Taiwan’s “Chinese nationalism and Taiwanese nationalism.” When it came to telling the story of 228, the debate was whether it was an ethnic conflict between the Chinese authorities and the local Taiwanese, or just another example of the broader turmoil that engulfed postwar China.

Historical Memory in China and the Impact on Cross-Strait Relations

Just as Taiwan has recognized the importance of historical memory, so too has the People’s Republic of China (PRC), where a multitude of museums, landmarks, novels, and textbooks are devoted to communicating the history of China’s “Century of Humiliation” (百年國恥). Chinese propaganda seeks to shape each generation to venerate the CCP and its role as the vanguard of the Chinese people. For decades, this propaganda has helped solidify the CCP’s grip on power, with Wang Zheng, a professor at Seton Hall University, identifying the PRC’s greater emphasis on the ‘Century of Humiliation’ narrative in 1991 as a pivotal event in reversing the liberalization trends that contributed to the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations.

The CCP’s emphasis in education as a means of controlling public attitudes helps explain why it attempted to implement “Patriotic Education” (愛國主義教育) reforms in Hong Kong during 2012 and successfully revisited the issue in 2019-2020. The growth of a distinct Hongkonger identity, protests against the proposed education reforms in 2012, the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, prominent Tiananmen vigils, and the 2019 anti-extradition protests all became pivotal moments in Hong Kong’s post-handover relationship with China. Along with cracking down on these forms of dissent through the landmark National Security Law (香港國家安全法), the CCP has implemented education reforms to prevent similar protest movements from materializing in the next generation. In support of the education reforms, the state-run China Daily wrote: “The wish for Western-style liberal democracy is a malignant virus that infects places with weakened ideological immune systems […] Without addressing this weakness, Hong Kong will face similar, perhaps even worse, problems in the future.” 

Clearly, the freedom provided for by Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which allowed for its approach to historical memory, was seen as an obstacle to the CCP’s goal of a harmonious unity between Hong Kong and China that needed to be overcome, regardless of the costs to the PRC’s global image. Therefore, the CCP is displeased with Taiwan’s sovereignty over its historical memory, due to its potential to strengthen Taiwan’s opposition to unification.  

What Does this Mean for Taiwan? 

The PRC would still prefer peaceful unification with Taiwan, but, for that to happen, Taiwanese people’s attitudes towards China would need to soften significantly. Unlike in Hong Kong, where the CCP was able to institute both coercive measures and education reforms to combat a burgeoning civic identity, Taiwan maintains sovereignty over its historical memory. This memory’s existence stands in marked contrast to the CCP’s own historical narratives. 

Taiwan’s historical memory of the 228 Massacre shares some parallels with the May Fourth Movement (五四運動), which became a watershed moment in China’s 20th-century intellectual and political history, and a key event in the development of a modern Chinese identity. However, while democratic Taiwan continues to debate the legacy of 228, in China the CCP has sought to co-opt the legacy of May 4th to buttress its own authoritarian rule.

By contrast, the Taiwanese national identity that grew out of 228 and the subsequent martial law period emphasizes democracy and freedom as necessary protections against such abuses from happening again. Barring any unforeseen changes to the PRC’s system of government, Taiwan’s historical memory–and related sense of identity–will limit the effectiveness of the PRC’s efforts to sway Taiwanese public opinion towards its objectives.

For Taiwan, the people’s memory of 228 as a shared suffering eventually manifested itself in the form of embracing democracy as a bulwark against authoritarian abuses of power from happening again. As Cheng Chu-mei (鄭竹梅), the daughter of the late freedom of speech activist Cheng Nan-jung (鄭南榕) who self-immolated in protest of KMT authoritarian rule, stated: “We remember the past, not to pass on hatred, but to look toward the future.” Indeed, Taiwan has grown its appreciation for democracy by exercising sovereignty over its historical memory. With the CCP upholding an authoritarian regime in China, unification under the current conditions directly contradicts a core aspect of Taiwan’s 228-influenced national identity. So long as this contradiction endures in tandem with Taiwan’s sovereignty over its historical memory, the CCP’s plans for unification will continue to be frustrated.

The main point: Taiwan’s historical memory has played a large role in shaping its national identity. 228’s prominent place in that memory has contributed to Taiwan’s deep appreciation for democracy, which is seen as a means to prevent the authoritarian era’s abuses of power from ever happening again. With Taiwan in control of its historical memory, the PRC’s authoritarian system will struggle to meaningfully diminish Taiwanese contentment with the status quo, thereby complicating its pursuit of peaceful unification.

[1] Yu-Chih Li, “Negotiating Imagined Community in National Curriculum: The Taiwanese Case,” The International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives 46, no. 1 (2019): 84, https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/IEJ/article/view/13358.

[2] Ibid. 85.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.