In 1948, Tsai Kunlin was putting in some overtime when a military police officer came knocking. It was a Sunday morning.
A gentlemanly, soft-spoken man in his early 80s, Tsai describes himself at nineteen as the youngest, meekest, and most bookish of all his brothers. A Taiwanese, he grew up during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, dreaming of becoming an educator along the lines of the 19th century Swiss romantic pedagogue, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Tsai was an outstanding student, his father a wealthy merchant, and Tsai’s future in academia seemed assured. But then Japan lost World War II and left Taiwan.
The Allies allowed Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalists, who had lost China to the Communists, to pour into Taiwan and claim the island as the new seat of the Republic of China. Soon, rampant corruption among the Nationalists caused wild, unchecked inflation that melted away Tsai’s father’s fortune. And now Tsai, the passionate scholar of Tolstoy, Wordsworth, and Victor Hugo, could no longer afford to go to college. Instead, he took a job in his town’s administration office.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Devastated, but still diligent, Tsai went to his new office that weekend to finish up some work. And when he opened the door to find the military police officer asking for directions to the local police station, Tsai obligingly led the way.
At the police station, Tsai was bound with rope and thrown into a cell. Although his older brother ran to the station to intervene, Tsai, who still had no idea why he had been arrested, was loaded onto a bus and taken from his hometown. On the way, he passed through the schoolyard of a girl he had loved since kindergarten. She didn’t know; for thirteen years he’d been too shy to tell her.
He was interrogated at a larger police station in the nearby city of Chung Hua. It was during his interrogation that Tsai learned of his transgression: attending a reading group in high school, when he was sixteen years old. He and several friends had regularly met to read and discuss a wide variety of philosophical books. A couple of the books, and a couple of his friends, had turned out to be socialist, and as a result, the whole group was now being rounded up.
His interrogators used standard Chinese techniques: sleep deprivation, torture, including electric shocks, and, most harrowing of all, psychological manipulation. Nationalist interrogators routinely employed Taiwanese colleagues to pose as allies and friends to the prisoners. The nineteen-year-old, idealistic Tsai easily fell prey to the deception and to the promises that he would be set free if he would only sign his confession.
The eighty-two-year old Tsai pauses at this point in his tale, closing his eyes and bowing his head. “I’m sorry,” he says after a moment. “This is a very sad memory for me.”
He signed. He was taken to the Military Court Prison on East Road in Taipei, a prison that former inmates now refer jokingly to as “The Sheraton,” as it has since been torn down and replaced with Taipei’s Sheraton Hotel and several other businesses. At this prison, on his twentieth birthday, Tsai received a ten year prison sentence. His purported crime: joining an illegal organization and distributing communist pamphlets. He was among the first prisoners to be shipped to the notorious, windswept island, Hue Sho To, now called Green Island. And there, in a concentration camp called “New Life Correction Center,” the would-be European-style pedagogue spent the remainder of his youth.
The Nationalist Chinese government loved slogans. Among the most famous was this: “It is better to capture one hundred innocent people than to let one guilty person go free.” This principle, along with a healthy incentive system in which imprisonment entitled the arresting officer to a significant portion of the prisoner’s personal fortune and sometimes access to the prisoner’s wife, led to more than a hundred thousand incarcerations and several thousand executions during the White Terror, which lasted from 1949-1987. Tsai’s story is typical of White Terror victims, who were often highly educated, apolitical, and guilty by association or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The percentage of those arrested who actually were Communist or pro-Taiwanese independence was quite low.
Decades of harsh censorship have made this forty-year period obscure in the West and poorly understood even within Taiwan. Now, survivors like Tsai are struggling to make their stories known.
The fact that Tsai can now speak without fear of retribution is a sign of how very much Taiwan has changed. Both internal pressure from Taiwanese dissidents and external pressures from such entities as Amnesty International and the United States government, combined to result in the lifting of Martial Law in 1987 and the 1992 revision of Article 100 in the National Security Law to decriminalize anti-government thoughts and speech. Taiwan has even had a period of opposition rule, under the Democratic Progressive Party’s Chen Shui-ban, and it was during Chen’s presidency that museums were instituted in Taiwan commemorating victims of the White Terror and a series of massacres occurring February 28, 1947, popularly referred to as 228.
The most popular of these museums is the Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park, set on the grounds of the former concentration camp where Tsai and thousands of other political prisoners were forced to enclose themselves in walls they made of reef rocks. The Republic of China’s government now promotes Green Island as a spectacular diver’s and snorkeler’s paradise, and between dips in the tiny island’s salt water hot springs, many of the 300,000 annual tourists, noticing the Human Rights Monument and Memorial Park, stop by to take a look.
In the memorial park, visitors can walk through the remains of New Life Correction Center, from which the surf can be heard roaring just across the street. They can observe wax figures of New Life prisoners chiseling rocks from the shore, tending crops and livestock, and reading before bedtime. They can sit in a reproduction of a classroom where inmates endured many daily hours of slogans and lectures reiterating Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People. And they can view videos of Tsai and many of his fellow “classmates”—as they call each other—describing their experiences (in the Taiwanese language with Mandarin subtitles—translators are available).
The labor was back breaking. Tsai, feeling that it might strengthen his weak constitution, often volunteered for the hardest jobs, such as making rice for the prisoners, which required carrying sixty- to eighty-kilogram buckets of water. At night, he taught himself English and taught his illiterate bunkmate, Huang, to read Chinese.
In the documentary DVD Tongue Untied, Huang (now deceased) notes that his ability to read the newspaper is all due to Tsai’s kindness. Huang also recalls a day when he off-handedly mentioned that Tsai had kicked him during the night. The following night, Huang burst into tears upon seeing that Tsai had tied his feet to a wooden post to keep them still.
There were nights that Tsai himself could not sleep, when he would lie awake listening to the pounding surf and be reminded of the train that ran by his house. At those times he would think of the girl wistfully of the girl he loved and sing love songs to himself.
Close to the waves that made Tsai so homesick, a shoreline path winds at the base of high, black cliffs. This path leads past a “pillbox,” a small concrete cell where prisoners were at times put in solitary confinement and often tortured. Tsai recalls slipping past the guards to deliver candy to a friend locked up in here, only to hear his friend pleading desperately for water. This friend, punished for sending a letter to one of the women prisoners, was subsequently sent back to Taipei and executed. Tsai never saw him again.