History was Reconfigured at the Time of Discovery: The Life and Afterlife of Chiang Wei-Shui

Written by Fang-Long Shih.

Image credit: 蔣渭水紀念公園 by Wei-Te Wong/ Flickr, license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

The life and afterlife of Chiang Wei-Shui (蔣渭水 1891–1931) have echoed what the film Rashomon has denoted: “History was not found at the time of its occurrence, but was reconfigured at the time of discovery” (dir. Akira Kurosawa 1950). In 1921, Chiang Wei-Shui founded Taiwan Cultural Association (TCA, 台灣文化協會), the first culture-based organisation in Taiwan’s history. The TCA was established “to promote Taiwan to a position of freedom, equality and civilisation”. The TCA also had a political aim to “adopt a stance of national self-determination, enacting the enlightenment of the Islanders, and seeking legal extension of civil rights”.

In his “Clinical Notes: Diagnosis of the Patient Named Taiwan”, Chiang diagnosed Taiwan Island as “suffering from cultural illness… Age: 27-year-old … a resident of … Taiwan, Japanese Empire … Ancestral home: Taiwan, Fujian Province, ROC … Occupation: guardian at the forefront of world peace. Bloodline: from the Yellow Emperor, Zhougong, Confucius and Mencius”. Chiang advocated his mission, saying: “We must generate zijue (自覺)/self-consciousness – being ethnic Han and Japan guomin/nationals, Taiwan people shall mediate between China and Japan … This self-consciousness must be realised”.

Since then, the issue of ‘a sense of self’ has been a question asked by generations of people in Taiwan: ‘Who are we?’, ‘Where are we from?’, ‘Where are we going?’, but crucially the meaning of ‘we’ has changed over time. The last century has witnessed struggles over which senses of culture and self-consciousness should prevail in Taiwan: (1) from de-Chankoro (slaves of Qing)  to Japanisation during Japan’s colonial rule (1895–1945); (2) from de-Japanisation tore-China-isation (再中國化) during the KMT’s authoritarian rule (1946–1987); and (3) from de-China-isation to Taiwanisation (台灣本土化) since the lift of martial law (1988 onwards).

In his diagnosis of Taiwan’s cultural illness, Chiang Wei-Shui identified Taiwan‘s people as of Han blood. He blames the toxic policies of the Manchu-Qing government for “uncouth customs, superstitious beliefs,” while Chinese culture in the Han-Ming dynasty exhibited intelligent characteristics. He dismissed popular religion and customs as “backward” – an obstacle to developing a more progressive modern culture. Describing Taiwan as “a retarded child in this global cultural era”, Chiang operated the TCA as an immediate and appropriate way of dealing with Taiwan’s symptomatology and pursuing Taiwan’s cultural modernisation. From his recognition of “a slight recovery” under Japanese treatment, we can detect that Chiang saw Japan as a potential role model for modernisation. His prognosis was to use the opportunity afforded by Japanese suzerainty to strengthen the health of the Han population on the island by promoting modernised culture; in social Darwinian terms, to strengthen Taiwan’s cultural fitness for survival and for the population to become “complete human beings”.

In the TCA’s Constitution, the first sentence stipulated its primary aim as “advocating a progressive Taiwan culture.” To mark its establishment, Chiang Wei-Shui composed this TCA anthem:

We are all yellow people of Asia,
Mediating between Han and Japanese. 
Heaven has sent us a mission, mandating us urgently
To advance culture, revitalise morality, cultivate capabilities.

Seeking permanent peace in East Asia, friendship between China and Japan, 
We must act as a chain, linking brothers in harmony, 
Uniting all nations of East Asia to forge a great alliance, 
To generate a civilisation side by side with the West.

Preventing war between yellow and white, Peace in the world, 
We bring benefit to all under heaven; how could we give in to despair? 
But hope the mission will finally be completed, happily for the people of the world.  
Long live the world and mankind; Taiwan’s reputation forever fragrant. 

Chiang Wei-Shui regarded Taiwan’s people as Japanese nationals of Han/Chinese ethnicity. Inspired by Greater Asianism prevalent in Japan, Chiang positioned Taiwan as a transnational mediator between China and Japan charged with maintaining peace in East Asia and the world. Chiang enjoined “Taiwan’s people to rouse from their deep sleep … keep pace with the world’s population, achieve civilisation, enjoy rights and thereby become complete human beings”. The purpose of the TCA was primarily “to advance Taiwan’s culture, and cultivate Taiwan’s people … enabling them to accomplish the mission of peace-keeping … The Cultural Movement is the only treatment for Taiwan’s ills. The TCA is an organisation that specialises in implementing this treatment”.

Unfortunately, Chiang Wei-Shui died of typhoid in August 1931. Within one month of Chiang’s death, Japan invaded Manchuria on September 18, 1931. For the following five decades, Taiwan endured a period of the “Fifteen Years” war (Japan’s long-term experiment in “liberating” Asian countries, mainly China, from Western imperialism and replacing it with Japanese leadership) during Japanese colonial rule (1931–1945) followed by a quasi-war of “Retaking the Chinese Mainland” under KMT’s authoritarian rule and martial law (1945–1987).

However, after four decades (the 1930s–1970s) of being forgotten, Chiang Wei-Shui and the TCA were brought back to life in the 1970s through public lectures, publications and exhibitions. In his lifetime Chiang did use the term ‘Zhonghua Minzu (中華民族)’ and ‘zijue’. In contrast, in his afterlives, the focus has often been narrowed to a specifically ‘minzu yishi (民族意識)/national self-consciousness’, provoking vehement arguments about how the term ‘national (民族)’ should be interpreted. Thus, the TCA era has often been identified as “an unprecedented ‘Age of Zijue/Self-consciousness (自覺的年代)in the history of Taiwan. Chiang Wei-Shui has been commemorated as “Enlightener of Taiwan’s Zijue/Self-consciousness”. The past half-century (the 1970s–2020s) has seen the revival of several ghostly representations of Chiang Wei-Shui appropriated as significant symbols in the identity politics of post-martial law Taiwan. There are at least four contrasting paradigmatic representations of Chiang Wei-Shui which still haunt present political debates: 

  1. In the dangwai period (1970–1987), campaigners for democracy within the KMT party-state system portrayed Chiang as a pioneer model for a united front for democratic struggle. He was appropriated as an icon of being “both Taiwanese and Chinese”. He was used to advocate a duality in which Taiwanese are equally Chinese.
  2. After lifting martial law in 1987, Taiwanese nationalist advocates of Taiwan’s independence portrayed Chiang as an exemplary fighter for Taiwanese national self-consciousness. He was depicted solely as Taiwanese, a symbol for ‘Taiwanese zhutixing  (台灣的主體性)/self-consciousness’ and Taiwanese nationalism.
  3. Chinese nationalist advocates of unification with China lauded Chiang as “Taiwan’s Sun Yat-Sen” – thereby a key symbol of Taiwan’s link with the KMT/ROC – and subjected Chiang to Zhonghua Minzu/Peoples of China, his true nationality. Chiang was used to advocate a duality in which being Chinese was the marked term whilst being Taiwanese was submerged as supplementary.
  4. Communist adherents and Marxist scholars depicted Chiang Wei-Shui as a leftist icon. The anti-Japanese activities led by Chiang were re-described as a national liberation movement based on Taiwan’s working class. Chiang was thereby used to promote Marxism and communism.

Tsai Ing-Wen as President from 2016, highlighted a substantially different Chiang Wei-Shui, using the 1920s phrase “Taiwan is Taiwan’s people’s Taiwan” to promote Chiang’s abiding interest in cultural development rather than a narrow Taiwanese nationalist consciousness. Her discursive shift was to remember Chiang as an advocate of a modern, progressive culture of self-consciousness (encompassing individual and collective, but not necessarily nationalist, senses of self) to highlight her own pluricultural sense of Taiwanese citizenship. In my estimation, Tsai’s innovation was to see culture and self-fashioning as a process (not a fixed entity), as a combination and moving resultant of different component elements (which awkwardly might be labelled indigenous, Hoklo, Hakka, ‘Ming Chinese’, ‘Qing Chinese’, Japanese, ‘KMT-run ROC Chinese’, Taiwanese, Western, Southeast Asian). This is an approach which acknowledges that ‘culture’ and self-fashioning are not or should not be regarded as fixed, static, reified, and bounded as a sort of ‘national property’ and ‘political capital’ but, rather, treats them ecumenically as plural, changing, diverse and, thereby, democratic.

In short, Chiang Wei-Shui’s life has been ‘selectively remembered and commemorated’ as different afterlives from perspectives informed by presentist political factors rather than referencing his actual views. Chiang’s views on (1) Zhonghua Minzu (for Chiang, limited to Han People); and (2) zijue (for Chiang, self-consciousness limited to Taiwan’s Han population) do not match current precepts of (1) Zhonghua Minzu (all Peoples of China/PRC, including Han, Manchu, Mongolian, Uyghur and Tibetan Peoples); and (2) (transforming from zijue to) zhutixing/subjectivity(a national self-consciousness that is inclusive of all Taiwan’s peoples, including benshengren, waishengren, yuanzhumin, and ‘new immigrants’). He was – of course – a person of his time, not of ours. The significance of the historical legacy attributed to Chiang is indicated by the intensity of disputes over how his (nationalist or proto-nationalist) ‘zijue/self-consciousness (in his lifetime) or zhutixing/subjectivity’ (in his afterlives) is to be represented and commemorated. We have seen how different protagonists have (mis)represented Chiang from their contemporary perspectives and how commemoration and memory are problematic and contentious issues in the discourse of identity politics. This has demonstrated: “History was reconfigured at the time of discovery, but not found at the time of its occurrence”.

Fang-Long Shih is a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She co-founded and directed the LSE Taiwan Research Programme. She launched and edits a seminar series and eJournal, ‘Taiwan in Comparative Perspective’.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled “A Century of Development in Taiwan.”

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