Taiwan can offer us a lesson or two on how to deal with troubling historical figures and their monuments. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party and Taiwan’s president until his death in 1975, is both celebrated and vilified. He steered Taiwan from the verge of defeat in the late 1940s to becoming one of the “Four Asian Tigers” and resisted Chinese Communist rule. Yet, at the same time, he implemented the “White Terror” and martial law, under which tens of thousands of people were beaten and imprisoned, and between 18,000 to 28,000 died for threatening his rule.
Taiwan is now a thriving democracy, and its people are free to research the atrocities that occurred during the martial law period. President Tsai Ing-wen is working toward achieving transitional justice for the victims by opening archives and promising to write a comprehensive report on government oppression during the martial law era. How Taiwan’s people view one of the most important men in their history is changing, as is popular opinion on whether or not — and how — he should be commemorated.
But Taiwan seems to have arrived at a potential solution. It has established a park populated with more than 200 “rejected” statues of Chiang. The Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park, built near Chiang’s mausoleum, is funded by the local government and contains statues that were discarded by schools, government buildings and other public spaces. The park serves as one primary location for people who wish to celebrate Chiang’s life — away from those still haunted by his rule.
The idea for the park started when Tzeng Rung-chien, now the former mayor of Dashi, became aware of an argument over a statue of Chiang at a nearby university. Tzeng decided to create a home for these statues, understanding that the debate over their rightful place was just beginning. He believed the statues should be retained for their aesthetic and historical value. In 2003, he noted that the park could help stimulate a proper evaluation of Chiang’s rule: “It will help promote a fair discussion and evaluation of Chiang’s leadership. . . . Now Taiwan is democratic, every leader has to be evaluated by the public in this way.”
Questioning his legacy in such a way would not have been legal while Chiang was in power. Thus, the park, along with the discussion it generates, serves as a stark reminder of how far Taiwan has come as a free and open democracy.
If the United States were to adopt a similar idea, it would need to go one step further than Taiwan. The U.S. equivalent would have to provide information contextualizing the monuments, the circumstances in which they were erected and why they were relocated. Simply moving them without this context — as is the case with the Chiang statues in Cihu — would do a disservice to those who were enslaved, suffered under Jim Crow laws, and fought in the Civil War and for civil rights — and could provide a dangerous rallying point for neo-Nazis.
There is already talk of shifting Confederate statues to a single, out-of-the-way location. The director of Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s retirement home and now a museum, has offered to take monuments from “any city or jurisdiction [that] has decided to take [them] down.” The director also noted that the “monuments could serve an educational purpose for visitors while being displayed in gardens out of general public view.” If done properly and with care, a solution like this could work.
Of course, it would not solve the underlying problem of racial discord and violence across the country. It could, however, reduce the potential for violence by shifting the monuments out of public view, while also keeping these symbols of our ugly past alive for future generations to study and remember.
As a rule of thumb, we as a nation should not be honoring men who led a failed rebellion against the Union and fought for the institution of slavery. Their likenesses should not be allowed to populate the streets of the United States. But following in Taiwan’s footsteps and placing them out of common sight is a solution worth considering.