A Meditation on the Excesses of Authoritarian rule and Its Consequences
By Ian Chong(National Singapore University)
C.J. Anderson-Wu’s collection of short stories about the White Terror in Taiwan (1949-1987/1990) at once provides sensitive treatments of personal experiences under authoritarian rule and broader meditation about the effects of excessive, unrestrained, arbitrary state violence. In this respect, the collection of stories is both about Taiwan and the people there who lived through the White Terror and its consequences, as well as the more general phenomenon of authoritarian rule. The stories are reminiscent of so many of the personal stories about the White Terror in Taiwan and living under authoritarian rule elsewhere. They echo the anguish, sadness, and courage found in recently released letters from actual victims of the White Terror (the New York Times has a feature on this).
Importantly, the book makes it clear that while the perpetrator of violence was the state, victims were highly varied in their background. They include various groups that found themselves on Taiwan during the White Terror and the authoritarian rule of the KMT, including Hoklo, Mainlanders who fled from the CCP in China, as well as mixed blood children of American servicemen and local women. This cuts across the cruder older divide that saw all Taiwanese as victims and all Mainlanders as perpetrators or co-conspirators of the White Terror.
The narratives the book presents are important reflections and introspections on past experiences that are coming out of Taiwan at a time when its population are considering issues of transitional justice. Other recent English-language books on the topic are Shawna Yang Ryan’s “Green Island” and George Kerr’s “Formosa Betrayed” that was adapted into film. Writing in English allows Taiwan’s experience to speak more broadly and engage readers outside Taiwan with similar experiences. In fact, Taiwan’s experience under authoritarian rule parallels contemporaneous developments in many parts of Southeast Asia and Latin America. These pasts and the excesses of the state are critical to remember at a time when authoritarianism is again on the rise in the world.
The book A Room With A View that you and your mother selected for me finally arrived. I suppose the administration was checking it and could not find anything that violated the rules governing what we read here. You said you were impressed by the story that was featured in the film with the same name. The love story is indeed touching, and I think the film lightened the dark side of the story in order not to hurt the feelings of its caring audience members, like you. In the book, however, I see more about the inequality between different social classes.
In our place we do have windows with views, although I share a room with another thirty-one men. The windows at the head of our bunkbeds provide us light and air. Mine overlooks a corner of the sea, and between our building and the sea is a hill covered with wild plants and grass. It’s about a half mile from my place to the hill, and probably another quarter mile from the hill to the sea. In certain weather we can hear the tides. It sounds like they are being rushed toward the shore by strong winds, but they resist staying there. When the movement caused by their battles turns violent, we hear the roaring winds and shouting waves. They never get tired of battling.
The trees over the hill never fail to catch my eyes. How can they thrive in the gusty winds and the salty air? Some of the trees look like their trunks have been burned, but their leaves still stretch energetically in every direction. From here, I detect that in certain seasons there will be orange fruits growing under the strong branches; they have the shape of pineapples, but pineapples grow on the ground, not on trees. There are also trees similar to the bishop wood in our yard, but my judgement from this distance is probably not very accurate, because I am not sure bishop wood can survive in such a rough environment. Next to these trees there is pompous grass and something that looks like dog’s-tail grass. They seem to be fighting for sunlight, but invariably the trees with solid trunks that can reach to the sky win over. Of course this is all from my imagination; I never really know what is going on there.
In the night when I can’t sleep, I will look out into the pitch darkness and imagine these trees actually walking away without being noticed and then coming back before dawn to where they had been. One day they might just leave the hill for good, because who would care?
I wonder what else is on the hill. If I checked from the windows at the head of my roommates’ bunkbeds I might see something else, but in this overcrowded place everybody maintains a distance from one another. We don’t know the personal history of the others. I think the first thing I do when I get out of here, I’ll walk to the hill to check out the trees. Are they growing upon fertile soil or upon rocky earth?
Dear daughter, you are like a tree that I planted fifteen years ago, and the only thing I expect of you is to stand straight. I know that with a father in prison, it can’t be easy. I’ve failed to provide you a life of triumphs. There is no clear road in my life leading me to a certain destination or the achievement of specific goals. I only know that I chose the road my conscious told me to take, and looking back, I don’t regret it. I am paying a much higher price than I should have to pay, but I do not have remorse for I know of no other way around it. Although it is unfair and harsh, I’ve gotten support and love, and learned how to set my mind free when my body is confined. I have your mother and you growing stronger and tougher day by day from the soil in my chest. That will be more than I need to walk along this long, winding and desolate road.
I am worried that you won’t be able to stand straight, my dearest daughter tree. I am worried that my situation might empty your heart, that you might lose your strength to stand firm. I want you to remember that your father might dissent against the authorities, but he is not a traitor to the country.
Kaiting, My dearest wish is that each letter I write you will bring you some of the nourishment you need. The long separation has inevitably brought me a great deal of anxiety and a sense of guilt. My thoughts of you and your mother stir in my mind day and night, but they also give me hope. I hope my words will become nutrition for your roots to absorb. I hope they help strengthen your will and your life’s expectations. Being here gives me a bad name, but I hope my efforts will not be wasted in the gravel of despair, where trees have no chance to grow. I have been wronged, but I definitely don’t want you to feel the same way throughout your precious time of youth.
At this moment I lift my head from the writing pad that sits on my knees, and I see through the window that the tall trees on the hill are reflecting sunlight while fluttering in the breeze. They are like millions of sequins, and are so carefree!
There is so much I want to say to you, but I will stop here now and wait for the writing of my next letter.
C.J. Anderson-Wu’s short stories appear in Anthology of Short Stories in English, Eastlit, and Lunaris Review, among other literary journals. She has translated several significant literary works such as Darkness Visible by British writer William Golding, Fanny, Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones by American writer Erica Jong, and Decayed Lust by Taiwanese writer Chung Wenyin, among others. Since 2006 her priority is to build up an international readership for Taiwanese literature. She founded Serenity International Publishing House which publishes the English version of Taiwanese literary works. Titles of Serenity International include Sorceress Diguwan by Badai, Decayed Land by Chung Wenyin, and Undelivered- Anthology of Tainan Literature by 13 Tainan writers.
Given that the development of contemporary Taiwanese literature had been severely slowed down during the White Terror period and the traumatic past was hardly heard of, C.J. Anderson-Wu began to write about the historical incidents and how the life of ordinary people had been impacted by the historical injustice that is still not fully discussed today.
But who was able to control public opinion nowadays anyway? The influence from the West was greater and greater, uncensored publications were more and more accessible, and people absorbed different ideas easily. They no longer believed that social order and growth had to be sustained at the price of individual rights. Government achievements such as the full employment rate and the greatly improved infrastructure no longer entitled the rulers to conceal inconvenient truths.