Last month, Manfred P.T. Peng, the director of the Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in San Francisco, shared some background information about the 228 Incident with the audience of A City of Sadness. The screening of a new print at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco celebrated the film’s twentieth anniversary. It won the Golden Lion at the 1989 Venice Film Festival.
The historical drama was one of director Hou Hsiao-hsien earlier works. It followed the tumultuous lives of the Lin family in the aftermath of the violence surrounding the 228 Incident in 1947, and the cultural conflicts between the newly-arrived mainland Chinese and the native Taiwanese. The film was the first Taiwanese movie to deal with the tragic 228 Incident, which was a taboo topic in Taiwan for half a century.
When did the 228 Incident take place?
In 1945, World War II ended with Japan’s defeat. Japan returned Taiwan to China. During this time, Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government were engaged in fighting the Communists in China.
In 1947, Chiang’s troops suffered setbacks in the Civil War and his government was in a state of disarray. On February 28th, conflict between residents and the KMT administration broke out in Taiwan. The riots were brutally suppressed. This uprising and the aftermath would be known as “the 228 Incident.”
In 1949, Chiang’s government relocated from the mainland to Taiwan.
Why did it happen?
Three factors contributed to the 228 Incident:
1. Since the 16th century, a large number of Chinese moved from China’s coastal provinces to Taiwan. In 1895, the Qing Dynasty was forced to cede Taiwan to Japan after being defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War. Separated from the Chinese mainland for 50 years and ruled by Japan, the Taiwanese had developed differences in language, living habits and political perceptions from the newly arrived mainlanders. These differences led to conflict.
2. Before the end of World War II, Taiwan had been the most modern colony under Japan. After 8 years of war with Japan, the soldiers sent by Chiang to take control of Taiwan were in a bad shape. The Taiwanese were disappointed at the appearance and discipline of the troops from the motherland. Most of the KMT officials were corrupt and incompetent, refusing to let Taiwan’s elites participate in public affairs. Under the guise of controlling the riots, they went on to massacre Taiwan’s intellectuals.
3. The incident occurred at the critical moment of the Civil War. Chiang was losing in China, costing millions of military and civilian lives, and probably based on the fear of communism spreading, did not manage the crisis in Taiwan peacefully.
Who killed whom?
After the incident, Chiang’s troops cracked down on the uprising by executing dissidents and others in the general population. The killing spread throughout the island. The estimated death toll ranges from 10,000 to 30,000. Among them, approximately 3,000 mainlanders were killed by angry Taiwanese.
The 228 Incident impacted Taiwan in three major ways:
1. The incident resulted in suspicion and mistrust between the Taiwanese and the mainlanders. It also sowed the seeds of the Independence Movement by claiming Taiwan was not a part of China, which caused the island’s identity issue.
2. The victims of the incident included top intellectuals of the time (lawyers, doctors, journalists and entrepreneurs), creating a talent gap in Taiwan’s elite society. This hampered Taiwan’s consciousness after the period of Japanese occupation.3. After the incident and the end of the Civil War, Chiang’s government imposed martial law, putting restrictions on the lives of not just Taiwanese but mainlanders as well. Human rights and political participation were frozen, retarding the island’s democratic development. Time healed much of this national trauma with the passing of Chiang in 1975 and as his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, adopted economic and political reforms in the 1980s. For decades, Taiwanese and mainlanders have worked towards a better future, with equal educational opportunities, social mobility, intermarriage, and a shared determination that Taiwan will not fall under the military threats of China.
In 1995, the first ethnic Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui publicly apologized for the mistakes made in the 228 Incident on behalf of the government and the ruling KMT. Financial compensation was paid to the victims and their surviving family members. The massacre is now included in school textbooks and is a well-researched topic in Taiwan. On the island, February 28th is now a national holiday known as Peace Memorial Day.
- The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.
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