Chasing Chiang: Follow The Leader in Taiwan
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Taiwan's generalissimo has seen better days. Late last year, the government erased former president Chiang Kai-shek's name from the island's main international airport. Last month, it toppled his statues on every one of Taiwan's military bases. Next, it's planning to recast Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall -- a mammoth blue-and-white monument and major tourist attraction -- as Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall, a label better suited to the current ruling party's push for Taiwanese independence.
For individual Taiwanese, Chiang -- the stoic military leader who retreated to the island in 1949 at the end of China's civil war, along with 2 million followers -- remains a polarizing figure. Political persuasion determines how his legacy translates: Either you see him as a brutal dictator who held the island hostage under martial law, or as the man who valiantly defended Taiwan against Chinese Communist invasion. Because supporters of the first view are calling the shots these days, the dictator, who died in 1975, is taking a beating.
Those interested in tracing the life and times of "the man who lost China" can still find plenty of monuments to Chiang's 25-year rule on Taiwan, but now's the time to visit, before the old soldier fades away.
Start at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in central Taipei, where you'll find a massive bronze statue of Chiang seated at the top of 89 steps, one for each year he lived. Flanked by unmoving military guards, the statue looks out onto a wide plaza bounded by the National Theater and National Concert Hall in a pose not unlike Abraham Lincoln's on the Mall in Washington. The fact that Chiang's widow, the charming but manipulative Soong Mei-ling, was educated in and had a lifelong affinity for the United States probably influenced the over-the-top design.
Beneath the monument, the hall's ground floor holds several exhibition rooms that track Chiang's early life in Zhejiang province, China; his military campaigns against the Japanese; and his later flight to Taiwan.
Artifacts of note include Chiang's Western-style wedding suit (gray pin-striped pants and tails), his 1955 bulletproof black Cadillac, case after case of military medals and a gallery of photos that reads like a World War II-era film reel. With Madame Chiang turned out flawlessly in ankle-length cheongsams, the couple are pictured smiling in meetings with Mahatma Gandhi, Earl Mountbatten and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, drumming up global support for a "free" China.
The Chiangs spent most of their time in Taiwan at the Shilin Official Residence, an expansive Western-style estate in the northern suburbs of Taipei. The family has yet to open the main residence for public viewing, but the grounds are worth a visit to get a sense of the first couple's extravagant lifestyle. (They owned 15 homes across the island.)
The gardens are currently dressed up for the Year of the Pig, but American visitors may find themselves drawn to the red-brick chapel where the devoutly Christian Chiangs regularly hosted foreign dignitaries, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for Sunday services.
A half-hour bus ride into the hills north of Taipei leads to the Chiangs' largest villa, Yangmingshuwu, set amid 37 acres of plum trees and spectacular mountain views. Used primarily as a summer retreat to escape Taipei's oppressive heat, the Chinese-style home includes courtyards, covered walkways and a fully stocked goldfish pond. Here, visitors can glimpse a more personal side of the power couple: The general reportedly favored morning walks and meditation sessions on the grounds, while Madame Chiang painted watercolor landscapes in her second-floor studio.
Despite the villa's outward tranquillity, an echo of Chiang's uncertain political position remains in a series of underground tunnels built for his security. A small bunker in front of the home's main entrance is accessible to the public, but the rest are off-limits.
To follow Chiang to the end of his days, you'll need to travel to Taoyuan County, 25 miles southwest of Taipei -- a quick trip on Taiwan's new bullet train. Here, at Cihu Mausoleum, military guards watch over Chiang's remains, entombed in black marble. In a quiet park outside the tomb sits an odd graveyard of Chiang statues, gesturing to one another as if in mid-sentence. Like the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys, they were unwanted; many were carted off school campuses in recent years as the dictator's star dimmed.
It was the general's dying wish that his body not be given a traditional Chinese burial until it could be safely returned to his home province in China, pending Taiwan's reunification with the mainland. With nearly 1,000 Chinese missiles currently pointed at the island, he won't be making the trip across the strait anytime soon.
Julia Ross is a U.S. Fulbright scholar and writer in Taiwan.