Taiwanese Theatre’s Struggle: The 228 Incident and White Terror Era

Written by Yin-Chen Kang.

Image credit: Public domain.

This year marks the 76th anniversary of the February 28 Incident, also known as the 228 Incident. Occurring 76 years ago, this event was sparked at the end of February, leading to the KMT military’s brutal campaign in March against those they considered dissidents, resulting in the slaughter of numerous civilians. This marked the beginning of an extended period of White Terror. While the incident profoundly impacted Taiwanese society, many people may not be aware of the significant consequences of the 228 Incident and the ensuing White Terror on the development of modern Taiwanese theatre.

Taiwanese modern theatre appeared as a result of modernisation in Taiwan. Japanese introduced a modern form of theatre when they began to colonise Taiwan, just like introducing all kinds of modern things, constructions, systems and so on. After modern Japanese theatre was performed in Taiwan for two decades, in the 1920s, modern Taiwanese theatre was born, which was called “cultural theatre” along with the New Cultural Movement advocated by Taiwan Culture Association.

In the 1930s, numerous Taiwanese intellectuals travelled to Japan to study modern theatre. Upon their return to Taiwan, they transformed the cultural theatre landscape by introducing a new form of theatre known as “sin-kiok” (新劇) in the Taiwanese language. The Taiwanese intellectuals who studied in Japan emerged as prominent dramatists, steering the course of modern theatre in Taiwan. Key figures included Tiunn Tshim-tshe (張深切), Tiunn Ui-hian (張維賢), Lim Thuan-tshiu (林摶秋), Kan Kok-hian (簡國賢), Song Hui-ngoo (宋非我), Lu Hik-liok (呂赫若), and Lu Soo-siong (呂訴上), among others. With the onset of World War II, the Governor-General’s Office tightened its grip on theatre, mirroring its control over other aspects of Taiwanese society. Censorship was imposed on scripts; however, sin-kiok was promoted, while traditional Taiwanese theatre was prohibited due to its Chinese origins.

After the war, Japan relinquished control of Taiwan, and the KMT government subsequently took over the colony from China. Although Taiwan was no longer colonised, it did not experience democratisation like Japan under GHQ rule. This situation became the root cause of the 228 Incident and White Terror, ultimately leading to a tragic impact on modern Taiwanese theatre. Despite the war’s end, the new KMT government did not repeal the existing theatre regulations.

Scripts continued to be subject to pre-emptive censorship, with the number of censoring offices increasing to four. This meant a script could potentially be censored four times, compared to just once during the colonial period. In addition, content that criticised contemporary social or political issues was still prohibited, and the police would ban plays featuring such content. As a result, Taiwanese dramatists did not enjoy creative freedom despite the end of Japanese colonisation.

The Wall (壁) in 1946 is a representative case. The script was written by Kan Kok-hian. Song Hui-ngoo led his troupe in staging the production, which accurately depicted the social conditions in Taiwan following the KMT government’s takeover. The play captured the widespread dissatisfaction among the Taiwanese population with the new regime and foreshadowed the 228 Incident. The storyline revolved around a wall dividing two neighbouring families. On one side lived a profiteer who capitalised on post-war hyperinflation to become newly wealthy. On the other side of the wall was a family struggling with the effects of hyperinflation. They were renting their home from the profiteer. One day, the profiteer decided to reclaim the house to store more food and supplies. Facing poverty, illness, and impending homelessness, the desperate father of the family chose to poison his entire family on the eve of their eviction. Enraged by society’s injustices, the father yelled at the wall and ultimately met his end by repeatedly striking his head against it. Simultaneously, on the other side of the wall, the profiteer and his wife were hosting an extravagant party. “The Wall” condemned the hyperinflation and the collusion between government officials and business leaders that emerged following the KMT government’s takeover of Taiwan.

According to Lim Thuan-tshiu’s recollection, Kan Kok-hian and Song Hui-ngoo initially intended Lim to direct the play. However, upon reading the script, Lim quickly recognised its strong left-wing political metaphor, describing it as having a “red colour.” He recalled that “the entire work could not be redder; even at the end, when the lead character was dying, his blood spurted all over the wall.” Lim attempted to warn Kan and Song about the potential risks of staging the play.

Following the premiere, newspaper critics in Taiwan largely praised the production. Encouraged by the positive reception, the troupe planned to extend the “The Wall” run for four more days. However, on the eve of the extended performances, the Taipei police prohibited the show, citing orders from the Chief Executive Office (行政長官公署). The official reason given was that the script had not been submitted for censorship before the performance and that the content did not meet societal needs. However, newspaper commentators criticised the official justification, expressing scepticism about the stated rationale.

Unfortunately, misfortunes often arrive in clusters. In the same year, Lim Thuan-tshiu’s play, Island Hai-lam (海南島), was banned before its premiere. The story depicted Taiwanese citizens being forcibly conscripted and sent to Hai-lam Island by the colonial government during World War II. The censors rejected the script, citing its excessively sombre tone. Following this setback, Lim abandoned his theatre pursuits. These incidents help us understand the political and social climate before 1947 and explain why the tragedy was seemingly inevitable.

In 1947, the 228 Incident took place. Song Hui-ngoo was arrested and imprisoned for six months. Tiunn Tshim-tshe managed to evade capture by hiding in the mountains for nearly a year, witnessing the loss of many friends in the process. This experience led him to withdraw from society. Meanwhile, Tiunn Ui-hian was in Shanghai when the incident occurred. The KMT government in Nanjing sent him back to Taiwan to investigate the situation. However, amidst the chaos, the mission failed. Although Tiunn survived the military crackdown, some of his relatives and friends did not.

Following the 228 Incident, the White Terror era began. Tiunn Ui-hian, who had returned to Shanghai after the incident, moved back to Taiwan in 1949. However, he never re-engaged with sin-kiok. In 1949, Song Hui-ngoo left Taiwan for Japan, later relocating to China. After the incident, Kan Kok-hian secretly joined the Taiwanese Communist Party and starting in 1949; he organised underground activities while hiding in the mountainous regions of Taoyuan. In 1953, Kan was discovered, arrested, and executed the next year. Lu Hik-liok also became involved with an underground group, fleeing to the mountains in 1950, where he later died under mysterious circumstances.

These playwrights, who studied in Japan, were active up until the 228 Incident. After that, most experienced the White Terror and, because of this, abandoned theatre altogether. Their theatrical careers primarily occurred during the Japanese colonial period, even during wartime. Sin-kiok, known for its strong social criticism, ended under the intensified suppression of the KMT government.

During wartime, enthusiastic discussions and debates about theatre took place between Taiwanese and Japanese playwrights in Taiwan. However, this atmosphere vanished under KMT rule due to the severe restriction of free speech. Consequently, debates between Chinese mainlanders and Taiwanese playwrights became rare. Even those not directly affected by the White Terror remained cautious, refraining from expressing their genuine opinions.

Moreover, Taiwanese playwrights, who received a solid education during the Japanese colonial period, were pushed out of the spotlight in the post-war era. Huaju, performed in Mandarin Chinese, replaced sin-kiok as Taiwan’s primary form of modern theatre. This situation mirrored the one in modern Taiwanese literature. Chinese writers who arrived with the KMT government in 1949 dominated Taiwan’s literary scene. Taiwanese writers, educated and beginning their careers during the Japanese colonial period, found themselves marginalised or even silenced.

The Taiwanese modern theatre movement began in the 1920s and progressed through the 1930s and 1940s, only to be halted by the 228 Incident and the subsequent White Terror. The Taiwanese dramatists active during the 1930s had the potential to become masters and should have continued to advance modern Taiwanese theatre in the post-war era. However, this generation of playwrights exited the stage en masse due to political persecution or overwhelming fear caused by the 228 Incident and the White Terror. Consequently, it became nearly impossible for them to pass on their theatrical ideals and knowledge to younger generations or mentor new dramatists. The 228 Incident and the White Terror devastated these dramatists’ personal and professional lives, resulting in a significant loss for modern Taiwanese theatre and, more broadly, Taiwanese culture.

Post-1940s, modern theatre troupes in Taiwan continued to perform, but they steered clear of social and political issues. Taiwanese modern theatre transitioned into pure entertainment, moving away from its pre-war role as an instrument of enlightenment, as exemplified by cultural theatre and sin-kiok. It wasn’t until 1987, when martial law was lifted, that the critical spirit of modern theatre reemerged in Taiwan. Today, the general public may not remember or be familiar with these dramatists, but their names deserve recognition in Taiwanese cultural history. Therefore, it is worth commemorating the existence of this talented generation of playwrights during Taiwan’s pre-war period.

Dr Yin-Chen Kang holds BA and MA degrees from National Taiwan University and a PhD from SOAS, University of London. She is currently an associate professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan. Her area of expertise focuses on mid-20th-century Taiwanese theatre history, particularly during the Japanese colonial period. Since 2017, Dr Kang’s research projects have been consistently sponsored by Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology. Her publications include journal articles such as “The Golden Age of Japanese Commercial Theatre in Taiwan during the Pre-war Period: A Case Study of 1913” (Taipei Theatre Journal 30, 2019), “Shingeki, Shinkageki, Bunkageki and Bunkakageki: The Forms and Themes of Modern Theatre in the Japanese Colonial Period, Revealed by Columbia Phonograph Recordings” (Taipei Theatre Journal 26, 2017), and “The Construction of the Study of Taiwanese Classical Theatre in Pre-War Time during the Japanese Colonial Period” (Taipei Theatre Journal 21, 2015), among others.

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

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