Tag Archives: Taiwan

Chiang Kai-shek on the Forbidden City

Originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel as Forbidden Portrait.

In 2016, at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, I saw a black and white photo that didn’t compute at first. The photo featured a portrait of the Generalissimo, Chiang Kai-Shek, hung above the Tiananmen gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Chiang’s upright military posture was evident, even though he could only be seen from the shoulders up. His expression was serious and piercing; his shaved head and moustache gave him a look of grim determination. The portrait was put up to celebrate victory over the Japanese in 1945 – before which it was Sun Yat-sen’s face that had graced Tiananmen square ever since his death in 1925. Mao Zedong’s portrait replaced Chiang’s in 1949. Mao has been up there ever since, except on the odd occasion when another figure has been honoured  – like Joseph Stalin on March 9th 1953, to mark his death.

A traditionalist and authoritarian at heart, Chiang Kai-Shek was the leader of China and chief of the Nationalist army before the Communist takeover in 1949. Defeated after a long civil war, Chiang and his followers escaped to the island of Taiwan and set up an alternative Chinese government. Chiang arrived in Taiwan after decades in China fighting against warlords, communists and the Japanese. Once there, he got busy dominating Taiwan – committing some atrocities along the way – and never gave up his dream of re-conquering the mainland. Chiang is not popular among many circles in Taiwan today (the new government even rounded up statues of him and relocated them in a single park) but the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall remains an impressive tribute.

A huge number of tourists get their pictures taken in front of the Tiananmen gate entrance to the Forbidden City, especially domestic tourists on a pilgrimage to Tiananmen square. A popular place to take the snap is beside the Huabiao at the north edge of the square, a ceremonial marble column engraved with a twisting dragon. The column is topped off by a dragon-like creature that looks skyward to convey the mood of the people to the heavens. Past it, Chairman Mao’s portrait is flanked by giant placards that read, “Long Live the People’s Republic of China” and “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s Peoples.” From Mao’s headshot, you can tell that he stooped, and his receding bowl-cut is instantly recognisable. I had always assumed it was Mao who first had the cheek and bad taste to put his portrait on the Forbidden City, so it was a shock to find out Chiang had been up there before him.

Beijing was not the capital of China in Chiang’s time: his Nationalist government had set up in Nanjing – literally “southern capital” – inland from Shanghai. Later, he was forced by the Japanese invasion during World War II to move the capital further west to Chongqing. And after his defeat in the civil war, Taipei became the capital of the Republic of China – complete with its own Imperial Palace museum, full of artefacts taken from the Forbidden City when the Nationalists fled. Yet despite many of its other architectural highlights, such as the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium and the Temple of Heaven, contemporary Beijing could feel like any other mainland Chinese city if it didn’t have the Forbidden City. Once you go through the Tiananmen gate, you can forget the Communists; you are now in the nine-hundred-and-ninety room palace of the emperors of old. Traditional Chinese culture takes over.

You would be hard-pressed to find a copy of the picture of Chiang Kai-shek looking over Tiananmen square inside China – just as other incidents on the square that have sullied the Communist Party’s version of history have been scrubbed out. That is not just the student protests that ended with the mass killings of June 4th 1989, but also the sit-down protests nearby by thousands of Falun Gong practitioners in 1999, a group that President Jiang Zemin named an illegal, subversive cult. Then in 2001, there was an incident where Falun Gong members self-immolated themselves on Tiananmen square. This helped turn public opinion in China against the group, but Falun Gong disputes the events and has claimed that the self-immolations were staged by the government; the figures sitting cross-legged engulfed by flames, they said, were actually People’s Liberation Army soldiers in fire-proof suits.

In Taiwan, Falun Gong practitioners are common and occasionally accost Mainland tourists, trying to change the minds of their cousins across the straits who have been submitted to twenty years of propaganda demonising the group. I noticed billboards in the Taiwanese countryside, featuring a smiling blond woman in her twenties and the phrase “Falun Gong is good”; the other side had a smiling Chinese woman and the same message in Mandarin. The 1989 Beijing massacre is also widely commemorated, in the Taiwanese press and in popular culture. And Chiang Kai-shek’s name, while widely reviled, is a common sight, with buildings and streets named after him, although in Taiwan they use the honorific title Chiang Chungcheng. A few years back there was even a Chiang lookalike in Taipei that mainland tourists liked to get a photo with.

Chiang, who died in 1975, is no longer a thorn in the Chinese Communist Party’s side. But to see this photo of him on the gate of the Forbidden City, I had to go all the way to Taiwan. A great player in China’s modern history had been swept under the carpet. The defeated Nationalist party, enemies of the people, are rarely mentioned. There is a museum to Chiang Kai-shek at his former residence in Zhejiang, but otherwise, he is not so much vilified as ignored. The photo likely exists inside China, but it is not one you would want to take out at a dinner party. 

I also wrote a version of this article in Spanish.

China Sketches: Yixing Chemical Plant

Through the window tens of identical apartment buildings glowed pink. After curving down the bridge interchange and taking a number of lefts and rights, our cab pulled over. The train station would be already crowded even this early, but at the long distance bus station was quiet. There were empty seats on the bus we took to Yixing city.

In Yixing we bought bottles of sweet red tea and hard-boiled eggs. The women selling them, in addition to our change in RMB, gave us a few Hong Kong dollars in coins, her idea being that she’d never go there again but we might. My buddy, Pearl man, wanted to look at earthenware teapots, Yixing is famous for them. I could only look at so many teapots, so after an hour of going from store to store, I left him and headed for the hotel.

Tapped on the shoulder by something sharp I woke up. Pearl man had bought a scythe he said had been used in the fields during the Cultural Revolution. It would sell in America along with the posters he’d picked up: one featured a badly drawn Donald Duck playing with some Chinese kids, the other a portrait of Stalin looking malevolent. It was hard to find posters of Stalin in China in 2007. How Pearl man was going to get that scythe back to America I didn’t know but he was experienced in such matters.

That afternoon we went to a Chinese-Norwegian chemical plant to get shots for Pearl man’s ‘industrial scenes’ photo album. While he took photos of chemical brewing tanks, I stared into a murky pond just outside the gates searching for Blinkie the three-eyed fish. When I’d had enough of that, I went and inspected the administration building. It was box-like with external staircases exposed to the elements. The walls were covered with small white tiles better restricted to bathrooms. This plant in Yixing would look interesting in Pearl man’s photos…in the flesh the single chimney place was fairly unimpressive.

I liked big scale industrial sites like the Shougang steel factory on the outskirts of Beijing, once an employer hundreds of thousands – or the Bayer plant in Caojing, Shanghai, where thousands of engineers devoted their considerable grey matter to producing new kinds of plastic. Even the cement factories of Hualien in Taiwan had something as they contrasted with the green mountains and the sea. In New Zealand, the abandoned freezing works by the river in Patea was once my favourite industrial landscape. Then they got rid of those asbestos and heavy metal filled buildings, which had been holding down surrounding property prices. All that remains are concrete storehouses by the river, their windows covered in corrugated iron; gulls resting on the roofs. Derelict wooden jetties complete the picture.

New Zealand is a country of middling architecture. The casino in Auckland springs to mind as an offence, a red and green blimp with a needle sticking out the top. However, even our most maligned towns have pleasant wooden houses and modest neoclassical architecture. China’s block buildings, a communist legacy imported from the Soviet Union, have leaked well into the age of rampant capitalism; before those, there were the gates, walls, tombs, palaces and pagodas of imperial cities. In the twenty-first century some style has come back with the likes of the Jin Mao tower (a skyscraper with traditional Chinese characteristics) in Shanghai, and the CCTV headquarters in Beijing (a cubist pair of shorts, which I have never seen) – ambitious architecture for sure.

The Chinese idea of architectural continuity is biological – cells are always dividing and dying. None of the cells that made your body at ten years old are still with you. So it is with many thousand year old temples in China…they got smashed in the Cultural Revolution or burned down completely several times in their history. They rebuilt them with different planks and stones but they are still the same temples, still seen as ancient – just like you are old and your cells are new. If the World Trade Center twin towers had been in China they would have rebuilt them again immediately. Sinologist Simon Leys claimed that immortality lay with the builder not with the building itself. The idea of the building, the design was important – not the age of the materials that made it.

The European idea is more geological – there is a striving to make buildings with materials that will take millennia to erode. If a structure is destroyed once…it’s gone. WWII created a notable exception to this, as it forced a rebuild of much of Europe. The Europeans brought their ideas of material permanence to China, we can see the evidence on the bunds of Tianjin, Shanghai and Wuhan – banks, hotels and custom-houses built to last for eternity.

If I were Chinese I’d feel ambivalent about those European buildings constructed in the first half of the 20th century. Why weren’t they torn down in the Cultural Revolution, were they just too damn solid?  

Back in downtown Yixing we had a fantastic dinner of crab in Sichuan mala sauce for a fraction of the Shanghai price. Pearl man had more shopping in mind for the next day, he wanted me to come along. “Nah man you’ll be better off alone.” Early the next morning I headed for Shanghai. The traffic on the bus ride back was shocking, I should have got the train.

Photo: cement factory, Hualien, Taiwan, FE Beyer

Un Retrato Prohibido

Chiang Kai-shek sobre la Puerta de Tiananmén

Chaing Kai-shek sobre la Puerta de Tiananmén, Wikipedia

En 2016 en el Salón Conmemorativo de Chiang Kai-shek en Taipei, Taiwan, ví una foto que mostraba el mismo Generalísimo, Chiang Kai-shek, sobre la Puerta de Tiananmén de la Ciudad Prohibida. Siempre había pensado que era Mao quien primero tenía el mal gusto para poner su retrato en la Ciudad Prohibida en Beijing, por eso fue una sorpresa saber que Chiang había estado allí antes que él.

En el retrato la postura militar de Chiang era evidente, a pesar de que solo se lo podía ver desde los hombros hacia arriba. Su expresión era seria y penetrante, su cabeza afeitada y el bigote le daban una mirada de sombría determinación. Se colgó el retrato para celebrar su victoria sobre los japoneses en 1945. El retrato de Mao Zedong reemplazó lo de Chiang en 1949. Mao ha estado allí desde entonces, pero de vez en cuando se había honrado a otra figura, como Joseph Stalin en el 9 de marzo de 1953, para conmemorar su muerte.

Retrato de Stalin sobre la Ciudad Prohibida, Wikipedia

Un tradicionalista y autoritario, Chiang Kai-Shek fue líder de China y jefe del ejército nacionalista antes de la victoria comunista en 1949. Derrotado después de una larga guerra civil, Chiang y sus seguidores escaparon a la isla de Taiwán y allá establecieron un alternativo gobierno chino. Chiang llegó a Taiwan después de décadas en China luchando contra caudillos, los japoneses y los comunistas de Mao. Una vez allí, no cayó en una depresión, de inmediato se ocupó de dominar Taiwán, cometiendo algunas atrocidades en el camino, y nunca abandonó su sueño de conquistar de nuevo la China continental. Chiang no es popular en Taiwán hoy en día (el nuevo gobierno incluso reunió sus estatuas y las reubicó en un solo parque), pero el Salón en Memoria de Chiang Kai-Shek sigue siendo un homenaje impresionante.

En el Beijing de hoy, una gran cantidad de turistas se toman fotos frente a la Puerta de Tiananmén. Un lugar popular para sacar una foto está al lado del Huabiao, una columna de mármol grabada con un dragón retorcido. La columna está rematada por un denglong, una criatura mítica. El denglong mira hacia el cielo para transmitir el estado de ánimo de la gente hacia los dioses, un papel importante porque en la Plaza de Tiananmén ha pasado mucha historia. Más allá del Huabiao, el retrato del presidente Mao está flanqueado por pancartas gigantes que dicen “Larga vida a la República Popular de China” y “Larga vida a la gran unidad de los pueblos del mundo”.

La Puerta de Tiananmén hoy en día, Wikipedia

Beijing no era la capital de China durante el mandato de Chiang, su gobierno nacionalista se había establecido en Nanjing, literalmente “capital del sur”, en el interior. Más tarde, la invasión japonesa lo forzó trasladar la capital al oeste a Chongqing. Y después de su derrota en la guerra civil, Taipei se convirtió en la capital de la República de China, con su propio museo del Palacio Imperial, lleno de artefactos extraídos de la Ciudad Prohibida.

Sería difícil encontrar una copia de la imagen de Chiang Kai-shek mirando por encima de la Plaza de Tiananmén dentro de China. Otros incidentes en esta plaza central que no coinciden con la versión de la historia del Partido Comunista han sido borrados. No se trata solo de las famosas protestas estudiantiles que terminaron con las matanzas masivas del 4 de junio de 1989, sino también de las protestas contra el acoso policial de miles de practicantes de Falun Gong en 1999. El presidente del momento, Jiang Zemin, nombró al grupo como un culto ilegal y subversivo. Inicialmente, la gente se preguntaba por qué había tantos problemas con un grupo de abuelas meditando y haciendo ejercicios de qigong. Sin embargo, en 2001 hubo un incidente donde los miembros de Falun Gong se autoinmolaron en la Plaza de Tiananmén. Esto ayudó a que la opinión pública se volviera contra el grupo. Los de Falun Gong discuten los hechos, y ha afirmado que las autoinmolaciones fueron organizadas por el gobierno; las figuras sentadas con las piernas cruzadas y envueltas en llamas, según ellos, eran en realidad soldados del Ejército Popular de Liberación en trajes ignífugos.

Cartel de Falun Gong, foto: Frank Beyer

En Taiwán, los practicantes de Falun Gong son comunes, y hablan a los turistas de China continental, tratando de cambiar las mentes de sus primos, que han sido sometidos a veinte años de propaganda demonizando al grupo. Noté carteles en el campo taiwanés, con una niña europea y la frase “Falun Gong es bueno”; el otro lado tenía una mujer china sonriente, y el mismo mensaje.

La matanza de 1989 en Beijing también se conmemora ampliamente en la prensa taiwanesa y en la cultura popular. Y el nombre de Chiang Kai-shek, aunque vilipendiado, es una vista común, con edificios y calles que llevan su nombre, aunque en Taiwán usan el título honorífico de Chiang Chungcheng.

Chiang, que murió en 1975, ya no es una espina en el lado del partido comunista chino. Pero para ver esta foto de él en la puerta de la Ciudad Prohibida, tuve que ir a Taiwán. Un gran jugador en la historia moderna de China había sido barrido bajo la alfombra. La historia está escrita por los vencedores. El derrotado Partido Nacionalista, enemigos del pueblo, rara vez se menciona. Hay un museo para Chiang Kai-shek en su antigua residencia en Zhejiang, pero por lo demás no es tan vilipendiado como ignorado. La foto del retrato de Chiang sobre la Ciudad Prohibida probablemente existe dentro de China, pero no es una que quieras sacar en una cena.

Una versión de este artículo apareció en inglés en LARB China Channel