Image Credit: Pedro Alves: CC BY 2.0
By Hao Po-Wei
Taiwan has experienced colonialism many times over. Its history includes periods of varying degrees of control by the Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and others. The traces left behind by these constant regime changes are found in Taiwan’s complex intersections of culture, language, race, politics, and the economy.
More recently, the Kuomintang party took over Taiwan in 1949 after fleeing China during the Chinese Civil War and began ruling over the Taiwanese people, who had already become accustomed to colonial rule. From 1949 to 1987, Taiwan experienced thirty-eight martial years, the second longest martial law period in history. According to the data in a report submitted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice to the country’s Legislative Yuan, during the period of martial law, Taiwan’s court martial handled 29407 political cases. And according to the most conservative estimates by officials, there were at least 140,000 innocent political victims. This period’s consequences have been felt widely and deeply across Taiwan. Whether the victims came from Taiwan’s Benshengren population, who came to Taiwan before 1945, the Waishengren that came to Taiwan with the Kuomintang government, or Taiwan’s Indigenous communities, their suffering has continued to permeate through Taiwanese society, leaving behind something difficult to put into words. What was left behind is similar to what Fromm–developing from Freud—described as a “Social Character,” which extended into everyday life: emotional, untrusting, impulsive, hostile, fateful, and apathetic avoidance of reaction formation.
The authoritarian system also permeated Taiwan’s schooling system and tutoring relationships. The China Youth Corps, set up by the Kuomintang at the time, also served as a way to monitor and change the outlook of young people. During this period, in school, Taiwanese people were required to share their contact books and write down their thoughts and reflections in a diary report every day, which had to be signed and stamped by their parents. Students also had to raise the flag and sing the national anthem. Military officers (known as military instructors) were stationed in Taiwan daily to carry out a strict control system, including everything from students’ appearance to their inner thoughts. However, although free thoughts ran through the minds of many young people, they were not allowed to think, let alone say anything aloud. This disconnect has had the largest impact on people’s identities. In Freudian Psychoanalysis, questions of “identity” belong to the defensive emotions of the oral stage. We engage in them only in encountering a challenge we cannot overcome; as such, Freudian theory is suspicious of questions of identity because it is bound up with narcissism.
As soon as identity starts taking control of our thinking, logic completely dissipates. Thus, since Taiwanese people were not allowed to think but rather followed the thought of the authoritarian period, many types of anti-thinking emerged. This had broadly affected many schools of thought during the post-authoritarian period, for example, in the student movements of the 1990s. This was a special type of “enlightenment period” when all sorts of ideologies were developing in Taiwan. This trend also led many to get interested in psychoanalysis at the time, resulting in many being interested in psychoanalysis, in the style of Freud or Lacan, to try to force others to “liberate” themselves by exploring their underlying unconscious structure of what they were saying while also claiming others were using “defensive mechanisms.” Moreover, those deemed not truly listening to authority were “resisting.” All this resulted from a type of recovery of the radicalness of psychoanalysis: psychoanalysis had hitherto become a system to critique perceived abnormalities and a method of adaptation. However, there was no listening to the subject taking place. At best, it was simply ideology from the authoritarian period wrapped in the language of psychoanalysis; in other words, the authoritarian period never truly left.
From identity to Taiwan’s situation, the Waishengren left their home in the 1940s and could never return; the Benshengren stayed quiet and fought with each other, and the deracinated and oppressed indigenous peoples were the inhabitants of this “ghost island.” From the perspective of personal trauma, if those who live with unresolved trauma and mourning cannot accept the reality of loss and refuse to let what has been lost go, they will enter into a state of pathological mourning and depression. When an object is lost, if libido remains in the ego, then either narcissism or depression will develop. Suppose manufactured forces interfere with us attaching our libido to new objects. In that case, Taiwan will be stuck in this never-ending state of affairs: unable to accept what has been lost. If our hearts cannot mourn what has passed, we will be unable to face the future and freeze in a timeless present.
This social arrangement is due to historical content that cannot be overlooked. Thus, even after Taiwan has been in a democratic era of direct presidential elections for over 20 years, there are a lot of subtle points of conflict and tension that mean we are still unable to have a clear and unanimous view of our country regarding ethnicity and polity. This is what makes the “Taiwanese ghost” so special. Ironically, that part of the white terror is now one of the main aspects that make up democracy in Taiwan. Moreover, as Taiwanese people grow up and continue the legacy of Taiwan, there is a part of their inner psyche bearing this weight. In combination with the waves of neoliberalism and globalisation that have swept over the world, although we might seem to have become more modern (Western), in this time when all of our systems, from economic to development, ideology, or worldview all are oriented toward the West, the trauma of our political history still rears its head. In those moments, we return to that place, diffused with loss and darkness that has never been overcome.
If we see this national political system from an analyst’s perspective, this is undoubtedly a huge mental project. Nevertheless, the legacy left behind by the white terror period, following multiple transfers of political power — from the unjust period of political control to a period of restoration — seems to be slowly moving towards recovery. The fourth subgroup of the Transitional Justice Commission set up in 2018, the re-constructing social trust group, was in charge of helping to heal the trauma of the families of victims of political violence. The hope was that instead of simply copying the methods used in certain trauma healing centres set up in Europe set up to deal with political violence, they could also develop a local set of techniques, focusing on psychotherapy and trauma recovery as a way to respond to the collective trauma brewing for over 60 years.
We did not start early enough but restoring effective discursive relations and re-establishing social bonds is not too late. We need to lend our ears to listen to this long-lasting suffering and allow these long-suffering souls the chance to speak. In doing so, we can build new connections between the various ethnic groups who inhabit this land. Psychological counselling in Taiwan underwent a period of being used as a form of thought monitoring. Counselling aimed to find those whose thinking was not in line with the government’s line of thought and “cure” them of these thoughts, removing anti-government discourse. We did not realise that depoliticising therapy was the most political move we could make. As a practitioner of clinical psychoanalysis in Taiwan, I hope not to fall into the same mistakes we made.
None of this comes easy. I think of the Polish writer Witold Szabłowski, who in 2014 wrote Dancing Bears, a piece of reportage which recorded how a bear from a circus troupe that had trained in Bulgaria after being released into the wild by an animal protection group would still do the same dance it was forced to do as part of its enslavement at a certain time every day. It would use a hoarse roar to beg its old masters to look after it again. As discourses of the master and capitalism conflict with each other in our paradigm, we have to ask whether we are being hysterical and creating the context for new pathologies. Lacan once told a group of students protesting, ‘What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one.’ As Tommy Lynch says, ‘Lacan’s critique […] is an acknowledgment of how difficult it is to challenge fundamental discourses that shape society. Yet for Lacan, it is only by creatively subverting those discourses that revolutionary change becomes possible.’
How can Taiwanese people overcome the Taiwanese ghost that has been colonised for so long, and without direct copying or appropriation, learn from the experience of South Africa, France, Germany, Poland and Ukraine and find their path to subjectivity?
The Chinese Version of this article can be found here.
Hao Po-Wei is a counselling psychologist and the director of the Lacanian Practice and Promotion Society in Taiwan. Hao has worked in the mental health field for the past ten years and has constantly debated and reflected on what counts as normal and abnormal, reading and learning across different academic areas to understand how people suffer and leave suffering as a kind of existence. Hao also works with people with mental and physical disabilities, people with multiple sexual orientations, sexual trauma, political violence trauma, NGO workers, human rights lawyers, etc.