Queering the Intergenerational Remembrance of the White Terror

Written by Linshan Jiang.

Image credit: R0010365 原來戒嚴也是5月20日 by matrix yang/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC 2.0.

In 2020 and 2021, the National Human Rights Museum and Spring Hill Publishing released two literary collections on the White Terror in Taiwan (1947–1987): a four-volume novel collection entitled Making the Past in the Moment (2020) and a five-volume essay collection, entitled Soul and Ash (2021), co-edited by two Taiwanese writers, Hu Shuwen (1970– ) and Tong Weiger (1977– ). “White Terror” refers to the 50-year oppressive rule by the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) in Taiwan after the Republic of China took over Taiwan from Japan in 1945. Then the KMT lost the Chinese Civil War (1945–1949) and was exiled to Taiwan in 1949. As a result, it is officially known as the martial law period. Although it should be admitted that the concept of “white terror” may not encompass every aspect of the martial law period, my focus is on the continuing oppression of the people due to KMT’s authoritarian rule, and I will mainly use White Terror to refer to this period in this article.  

Despite its specific historical context, the oppression and resistance associated with the White Terror in Taiwan may resonate with the broader global context. Many of the works discussed in this article highlight the transnational narratives of White Terror literature. Furthermore, recent works often amplify intersectional voices that bring White Terror memories into conversation with issues of gender and political identities, thereby expanding the discussion about this historically significant theme.  

The literary collections mentioned above include diverse voices, encompassing male and female political prisoners, family members of political prisoners, members of the Chinese Communist Party and Taiwanese Communist Party, and marginalised individuals such as peasants, workers, and Indigenous people. The collections cover a long historical trajectory from the late 1940s to the present. They inquire about what people have experienced during the White Terror, how they remember or forget it, and how institutional power reshapes people’s experiences and memories. The intergenerational dimension of remembering the White Terror captures the divergent impacts and memories of different generations as well as the postmemories—proposed by the Holocaust Studies scholar Marianne Hirsch—of the second and third generations who did not experience the White Terror directly after the 1980s.  

There are two phases of the White Terror in the reading guide of the second volume of the novel collection. According to the editors, the underground communist parties were almost all jailed and even executed in the 1950s; Although there were fewer executions in the 1960s and 1970s, the White Terror was still prevalent in people’s lives (Hu 24). If the 1950s were the calamity years for the leftist activists, the 1960s and 1970s were the years for the next generation to process what had happened to their parents and to rethink how they should live their lives. Tangwai (literally means “outside of the KMT”) movements, which were political movements to argue against the KMT, flourished in the 1970s and 1980s.  

Writers of different generations have distinct experiences and memories reflected in the characters they create. Sylvia Lin, in her ground-breaking work Representing Atrocity in Taiwan: The 2/28 Incident and White Terror in Fiction and Film, classifies the writings about the White Terror into four periods: 1) silence from the 1950s to 1970s; 2) “cultural memorisation” starting in the early 1980s; 3) “open descriptions and direct reference” after 1987; 4) “self-reflexive style of pondering the (im)possibility of recapturing the past and discovering the truth” in the mid-2000s (Lin 15-16; Rowen 2-3). The two earliest literary works touching upon the White Terror collected in these two collections are Wu Zhuoliu’s (1900–1976) Section Chief Potsdam (1948), published in Taiwan and Kyū Eikan’s (1924–2012) Hong Kong (1955), published in Japan, both written in Japanese. These two stories, to some extent, challenge the period of silence in Lin’s observation. 

In addition, Tong expresses regret that Nieh Hualing’s (1925– ) novel, Mulberry and Peach (1976), cannot be included in the collections due to copyright issues (18). The publication history of Mulberry and Peach is noteworthy. The story was written during the White Terror after Nieh Hualing, as an editor, experienced the shutdown of the journal Free China and the arrest of its founders, including Lei Zhen (1897–1979) and Yin Haiguang (1919–1969). After she moved to the United States from Taiwan in 1964, Nieh authored the novel Mulberry and Peach in 1970. Although she had the freedom to write this novel since she was in the US in the 1970s, the serialisation of the novel in the literary supplement of the United Daily News in Taiwan halted because her work alluded to the White Terror. As a result, the first complete version of the novel was published in 1976 in Hong Kong. It was only after the lifting of martial law that the first complete version of the novel could be published in Taiwan in 1988. This transregional and transnational history of Mulberry and Peach also exemplifies literature as a worlding process. 

Another author the editors, cannot include due to copyright issues is Chen Yingzhen (1937–2016). Chen Yingzhen was born in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period in 1937. He published his first writing in 1959 and wrote actively until he passed away in 2016. He was imprisoned from 1968 to 1973 and then arrested again in 1979 but was released after 36 hours, thanks to the help of other activists and writers. In the 1980s, he wrote a trilogy about the White Terror, including Bell Flowers (1983), Mountain Road (1983), and Zhao Nandong (1987). The trilogy narrates the harrowing experience of different individuals during the White Terror, such as teachers and students, members of the Taiwanese Communist Party, and younger generations. 

The collections also include more recent works from the 2010s, such as Lan Bo-Chow’s (1960– ) Taipei Lovers (2014) and Huang Chong-kai’s (1981– ) Dixon Idioms (2017). However, another work that is also important to consider is Zhang Yixuan’s (1973– ) novel, A Farewell Letter: In the Era that I Leave You (2015). This work is highly self-reflexive, written in contemporary Taiwan when issues of indigeneity and the tongzhi movement have turned into political correctness. Nevertheless, the work compels contemporary readers to reexamine the tangwai and tongzhi movements. 

Instead of reiterating the prominent heroic figures of the White Terror, the three works that I highlight, including Mulberry and Peach, Zhao Nandong, and A Farewell Letter: In the Era that I Leave You, portray three unconventional figures in parent-child relationships, namely, Mulberry and her daughter Sang-wa in the attic, in Mulberry and Peach, Zhao Nandong as the queer offspring of political prisoners in Zhao Nandong, and He Yinyin as a lesbian person and the offspring of tangwai activists in A Farewell Letter. By examining these characters, we can uncover a queer dimension that challenges the seemingly heteronormative narrative of the White Terror. Furthermore, all three novels explore the intersection between sexuality and politics, where sexuality allows the characters to shy away from politics.  

The works included in this article represent just a few examples of the numerous works that reflect memories of the White Terror. Nevertheless, they embrace distinct approaches to the theme and accentuate intersectional identities that can potentially transcend the borders and make the personal memories and geo-historically specific narrative of the White Terror accessible and relatable to global readers.  

Linshan Jiang is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University. She received her PhD in East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she also obtained a PhD emphasis in Translation Studies. Her research interests include modern and contemporary literature, film, and popular culture in mainland China, Taiwan, and Japan; trauma and memory studies; gender and sexuality studies; queer studies; as well as comparative literature and translation studies. Her primary research project focuses on female writers’ war experiences and memories of the Asia-Pacific War, entitled Women Writing War Memories: Hayashi Fumiko, Nieh Hualing, and Zhang Ling

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Taiwanese Literature in/and the World‘.

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