Features | Society | East Asia

Remembering Taiwan’s White Terror

One man recounts his journey through a dark chapter in Taiwan’s history.

By Julie Wu for
Remembering Taiwan’s White Terror
Credit: REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

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.

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

Lined with spiny pandanus trees, the shoreline path opens out to a small bay lined with black coral and volcanic rock, their spiky surface hewn flat by the prisoners and worn into smooth pools by the surf. The path then ends at Swallow Cave, where the prisoners cremated fellow inmates, and where they built a stage to perform plays and operas. Tsai maintains that he never enjoyed these plays, all of which were performed to tout the Nationalist doctrine. Instead, he recalls a famous dancer, Tsai Zwei-yue, whom he had read about in magazines and seen on posters. She was held for one or two years at New Life Correction Center, and performed under the stars together with female guards she had trained.

“Dance is just dance. It can’t be political,” he says. “So this I really enjoyed. I couldn’t believe I was seeing this famous dancer I’d only heard about, on Green Island.”

The dancers and opera singers were accompanied by bands and orchestras made up of prisoners, playing instruments they had made themselves. The artifact room at the Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park museum contains a violin made by prisoner Cheng Meng-ho from driftwood and broken gardening tools. Cheng, who convinced the prison administration to hire him as official prison photographer, had a relatively easy time of it, as he made the violin in his photography studio, using a prison-issued knife. In contrast, Huang, a former post office worker with no carpentry experience, made his own violin at his bunk, using shards of broken glass from a crockpot lining he found on the beach, and asking the kitchen workers to boil the wood for him. Huang intended to learn to play in prison so he could earn a living as a violinist afterward, and he practiced while tending the livestock.

“I played for the pigs,” he says. Though he never became a violinist, his violin still plays well today.

Aside from Cheng’s violin, the artifact room contains a highly detailed geographical globe a prisoner made from a volley ball, a translation of the Bible into Japanese, and several other remarkable artifacts. But museum designer Tsao laments that, with the exception of these, many of his exhibits, including many photographs of oil paintings by former prisoners, are reproductions. Funding for his museum has dried up since the presidential office has returned to the Nationalists, and his museum relies on donations of artifacts from survivors’ families.

Close to the museum, the Green Island Human Rights Monument, a gray granite wall inscribed with names, curves into the earth. Its resemblance to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. is no coincidence; Tsao states that he visited Washington D.C. and was deeply impressed with the monuments there. One difference, though, is that the names on Green Island have dates of imprisonment attached, and many of these people are still alive. Another difference becomes obvious at the bottom of the monument, a rounded chamber with a listing of the thousands killed in the White Terror. These names are printed on granite-colored poster board stuck to the walls; the project lacks sufficient funds to chisel all these names into the stone. Many of the poster boards are gone, washed away with the latest typhoon.

Chiseled into the cliffs overlooking the area is evidence that the prison administration in the 1950’s had no such funding issues. They simply dangled inmates from nearby cliffs to chisel the pro-Nationalist and anti-Communist slogans that terrify visitors from communist China even today.

Tsai was released from Green Island in 1960, when he was thirty years old. Like many prisoners’ families, his family had never made the arduous, week-long journey to visit Green Island, and Tsai now journeyed for days fishing boat and bus to see them. When he reached their house, his brother and mother greeted him joyfully.

“Where is my father?” he asked.

His mother’s face fell. And it was then that Tsai learned that his father had committed suicide in 1951, one year after Tsai’s arrest.

Tsai ran to his father’s room, fell to the floor, and cried, banging his head against the wall. He blamed himself for his father’s death, as he felt that if he had been a tougher, stronger boy his father would not have worried so much about him.

“This is why I hate myself,” he says now, fingers tapping the table.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But it is just as likely that his father was distressed for reasons that had nothing to do with Tsai’s constitution; families of prisoners were routinely harassed and ostracized. They often lost their jobs and became destitute; Tsai’s father had already lost his fortune and was likely in dire straits. After his death, Tsai’s younger brother supported the family by working several different jobs.

If life for the families of prisoners was difficult, life for the former prisoners, themselves, was nearly intolerable. The secret police visited weekly, often in the middle of the night, peppering them with questions and searching their homes. The police warned potential employers against hiring former prisoners and encouraged current employers to avoid trouble by firing them. In many cases, friends and family would shun former prisoners, and the former prisoners would isolate themselves to avoid bringing trouble to loved ones.

Tsai was fortunate—his family was always supportive. In fact, discovering Tsai’s diary filled with wistful entries about his teacher’s daughter, Tsai’s family shared the diary with his teacher. Soon after arriving home, Tsai found the courage to approach the woman he had admired from afar since age six. They married shortly thereafter.

Tsai also benefited from his studies before and during his imprisonment. Unable to sustain employment during the first few years, he worked as a freelance translator. Soon he found a permanent position under an advertising executive willing to put up with state harassment in order to have Tsai’s invaluable translating skills at his disposal. Soon, with his father-in-law’s support, Tsai opened his own publishing company and hired many of his former “classmates” from Green Island. In this way, the self-proclaimed shy weakling became the lifeline and savior for friends who could not otherwise find work.

At times, the responsibility overwhelmed him. When a flood destroyed his headquarters, bankrupting the company and depriving his friends of their income, Tsai despaired. He and his wife left their newborn son with Tsai’s sister-in-law and headed to the seashore to drown together. Fortunately, the sister-in-law, sensing something amiss, stopped them, and Tsai eventually recovered.

Now, decades after his arrest, Tsai displays the same obliging willingness to lead a stranger—in this case, an American writer with limited conversational Taiwanese—down the street in his hometown as he did when he was nineteen. And he is just as apolitical as when he was first arrested. (Museum designer Tsao states that not one of the hundreds of former political prisoners he has interviewed was ever won over to the Nationalist Party.)

His greatest desire now is to tell his story, to help Tsao and others document the events of the White Terror. If the younger generation never learns, he says, they may repeat the atrocities of the past.

Julie Wu’s debut novel, The Third Son, was published by Algonquin Books and appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine as one of ten riveting reads for May 2013. Wu’s short fiction has won honorable mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest and has been published in Columbia Magazine. Also a physician, she has published creative nonfiction in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). She earned a B.A. in Literature from Harvard and spent a year studying opera performance at Indiana University in Bloomington, many lifetimes ago.