Monday, 11 April 2016

The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Tour

Situated in central Taipei, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is one of, perhaps even, the most important monument in Taiwan. It is dedicated to the Chinese military commander and statesman who was leader of the Republic of China from 1928-1975. I had already visited the monument as part of a Taipei audio tour during a previous visit to the city, today I had the opportunity to be shown around the memorial hall itself. What's more, not one but two tours were being offered. Since they were given by the same guide and were just covering different parts of the same building, I'll lump the two of them together here. 

We were taken down to meet our guide who was waiting at the visitor desk. A smartly dressed, older gentleman, he was the main man around whom a small flurry of staff circled.

Ascending up to the main monument, a colossal bronze of a seated Chiang Kai-Shek, we waited for the changing of the guard. While standing there, our guide talked enthusiastically about the wooden roof being constructed without any nails. This seems to be a running theme: in Longshan Temple the guide was also keen to make a similar observation. What have they got against nails? Whatever it was, he seemed mighty happy. 

Next we looked out over the gardens to the National Theatre and National Concert Hall. He stressed how the area was open to the public and democratic. To illustrate this he said people come to dance and run around the park and, right in front of us, there was a huge Disney tent. Quite how Disney equals democracy is a little bit of a mystery to me unless it is simply that Walt Disney was rabidly anti-communist and, following the 'enemy of my enemy is my friend' logic, that makes him a good democrat. A surprising omission in the commentary was the fact that the memorial hall was, between 2007 and 2009, renamed The National Taiwan Democracy Hall a divisive move in a politically polarised Taiwan. It still bears this name on Google Maps some seven years later. He was more keen to stress unity than division, however, so Walt Disney and Chiang Kai-Shek it was.

Down in the exhibition hall, we got to see what Chiang Kai-Shek typically had for lunch. This is one of those, only in China, sort of exhibits, a culture where people casually ask "have you eaten?" instead of "how are you?" It turned out to be rather simple. We also learnt about his wife and Christian faith which had a lasting influence on a national level. It was interesting to hear how the personal and political spheres elided.

The second tour was the more overtly political one. It was a temporary exhibition on the Sino-Japanese War, put up last year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of its ending and still on display. It pays to know the basic history when trying to make sense of exhibitions showing this period in Chinese history as the mainland and Taiwanese versions of the story diverge significantly. Indeed, it is not so easy to find terms to talk about either the history or the current situation of Taiwan without saying something that one side or the other will take objection to. Even the very names of people and places are written and translated differently. I therefore tread carefully.

The rest of the group had returned to the conference and so it was just the unlikely pairing of the elderly guide and I walking around the paintings and looking at the maps. I began to realise his English, which was previously fine when he stuck to his script, broke down somewhat when I asked questions off topic, which is what it is most fun to do when on a one-to-one tour. Somehow we got onto the topic of wars today and he was of the opinion that mainland China and Taiwan would not come into conflict. I hope he's right. He thought muslims were more inclined to war and while I tried to dispute this blanket judgement we both realised we were straying a bit too far from the exhibition and moved onto the next painting. 

This brought us to probably the most bloody episode in the war: Nanjing or Nanking, as it was written here. This was the site of mass executions, rapes and looting that resulted in an estimated 300,000 deaths according to both this exhibition and the Museum of the War of Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in Beijing. Where the two differ is in how they interpret and present the events. In Beijing I felt it was still held up as a major sore and source of continued anti-Japanese sentiment whereas here it was more a dark passage of history that people have emerged from. I wondered if that was in part due to Taiwan being a former-Japanese colony between 1895 and 1945 and then having been thrown into a post-war military and economic block with Japan under the Americans.

The paintings presented Chiang Kai-Shek as leading the Chinese war effort. Here he is in a conference in Cairo. In Beijing his role was seriously sidelined with the KMT painted as collaborators with the Japanese and the Communist party as the liberators of the country. He said Shek had studied Sun Tzu's Art of War and was a gifted military strategist but not such a great peacetime leader. He said Shek had, like Mao, gone on to become leader for too long. He never mentioned it but I'm guessing he was referring to the protracted period of martial law in Taiwan that was only lifted in 1987 and which included the persecution of political opponents. In any case, the guide ironically thanked Mao for the cultural revolution as, he said, it let Taiwan get economically ahead while the mainland stagnated. 

There was then my favourite moment of the tour. We had already witnessed the changing of the guard upstairs, an hourly ritual that involves three purely decorative soldiers stringing out something that should take twenty seconds into a six minute routine. It features a lot of heel clicking and turning abruptly at right angles which the, predominantly mainland, tourists seem to lap up. Perhaps because it is so decorative and yet insists upon being taking seriously, the whole effect is slightly camp. Downstairs in the exhibition hall, the soldiers have to enter the lift to ascend to the monument. They face the problem that the lift door is too narrow for more than one of them to enter at a time and the lift too small for them to continue doing their military drill in it. This necessitates the one loose moment in their routine. When they approach the lift they stop five meters from the door, drop the pretence of being made of iron, jog into the lift then reform while the door closes behind them.

Like the Beijing museum, pictured to the side, the exhibition finishes with the Japanese surrender. The scene is depicted quite differently, however. In Beijing they add a life-size recreation of the table. The actual site of the surrender seems to have been more similar to the Taiwanese painting in that it was relatively humble and without the trappings of state that the painting on the left depicts. That said, both of them seem to take more than a few liberties.

The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is a quite definitely a site worth visiting and does have a lot more to it than just the monument and changing of the guard. It is a site made much more rewarding when visited with a guide but you would do well to do a little reading before you go so as understand why the history here has been written the way it has been written. If, as is commonly said, history is written by the victors, then it should come as no surprise that an unresolved civil war is written in at least two, very different, ways.

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