Escaping The Past

Chiang Kai-shek has seen better days. At the National Teachers College in Taipei, students are lobbying to pull down his statue. Once revered--and feared--as the Nationalist Party leader who ruled Taiwan after fleeing with his ragtag army from mainland China half a century ago, Chiang represents everything Taiwan is trying to leave behind. In the past few years, thousands of similar Chiang statues around the island have been taken down and stuck away in storage rooms. In the town of Dahshi, where Chiang and his son are buried, Mayor Tzeng Rung-chien is creating a six-acre park in which to preserve the discarded statues. He hopes to boost tourism, which is fading at the forbidding black marble tomb. But on a recent weekday, Tzeng himself was the only visitor, taking three ritual bows. In the small stone chamber, the shadow of the old regime is still palpable.

It's about the only place on the island where that's still true. Taiwan is racing away from its history, and hence its connections to mainland China. That's a potentially dangerous sprint: the Communists in Beijing and the Nationalists in Taipei have always agreed that there is one China, even if it appears to be divided in two. But in Taiwan, now a vibrant democracy, the connection to China is looking less and less appealing. President Lee Teng-hui alarmed Asia and sent American diplomats scrambling earlier this month when he announced that Taiwan is a separate "state." Beijing rushed its jets over the Taiwan Strait and called Lee a separatist "historical sinner." Unmoved, Lee last week refused to back down. "I know it will not be easy for the Communist Party to accept this view right away," he told legislators from the Philippines. "But if they can remain cool and think this over, they will understand what I am saying." One China, he added, does not square with the "historical facts."

Those facts are getting rewritten faster than you can say Taiwan independence. These days, Taiwan's history begins not 5,000 years ago on the mainland but with Australasian tribes that inhabited Taiwan when Chinese migrants began arriving 400 years ago. Once taught to shun the tribal people and think of themselves as pure Chinese, Taiwan middle-schoolers now learn that they are "New Taiwanese" of mixed blood, including that of aborigines and Chinese, as well as the European and Japanese invaders who came later.

Right now, the cool thing to be is an aborigine. Once brutalized and herded into isolated villages, the nine original tribes of Taiwan are undergoing an image revival. The Taiwan Museum is featuring an exhibit called "Atayal facial tattoos, family trees on their faces." The government has sent an aboriginal troop on a world tour, now dancing in Israel. A hot-selling CD series documents the songs of each aboriginal tribe.

Independent thinking, in tune with Taiwan's new political freedoms, is replacing obedience in the classrooms. Courses on old Confucian values like discipline and respect, preached for decades to students by the mainland Chinese who used to dominate the political scene, are being phased out in favor of "Understanding Taiwan," a new class that teaches 12- and 13-year-olds to be independent, cosmopolitan citizens of the New Taiwan. "I teach them to be masters of their own destiny," says Sun Ming-hua, who teaches the course in a Taipei middle school. "The next generation will grow up to think of themselves as New Taiwanese, less closely linked to China."

The new history exposes how Chiang Kai-shek's once glorified troops really treated Taiwan. Facing defeat by communist forces on the mainland, Chiang began sending men to prepare for his arrival on Taiwan. When locals rose up in revolt on February 28, 1947, the nationalists slaughtered more than 50,000 Taiwanese and aborigines during a monthlong crackdown. The infamous "2/28 incident" paved the way for four decades of oppression known as the "White Terror." Taiwanese were not allowed to speak their native tongue or even to mention 2/28 until years after the passing of both Chiang and his son, in 1988.

The curriculum began to change with the 1994 election of Lee, the first native Taiwanese president. Under Lee, native Taiwanese have sidelined the mainlanders politically. Mainland scholars, still powerful in the education establishment, scream that the schools are "training separatists." They have succeeded in postponing a plan to put Taiwan at the center of all humanities courses, from geography to law, for ages 6 to 14. But change is coming. The idea, says Tu Cheng-sheng, editor of "Understanding Taiwan," is that Taiwan should be "the trunk" and China a "branch" of the curriculum, not the other way around. Until recently, Taiwanese students grew up knowing more about provinces in mainland China than they did about their own island.

Already, publishers are catering to the increasingly nationalistic tastes of a population that is 85 percent Taiwanese. At Eslite, Taipei's largest bookstore, there is one bookcase devoted to China studies and five to Taiwan studies, including histories of Taiwan medicine, plants, folk superstition and so on. "Ten years ago you could hardly publish a book with Taiwan in the title," says author Michael Hsiao. "Now everything is Taiwan, Taiwan, Taiwan. Sometimes it's even a bit too much."

In intellectual circles, says military analyst Andrew Yang, those who challenge the New Taiwanese orthodoxy can find themselves shunned by employers and publishers. Mainly they are members of the old ruling mainland minority, and few bemoan their fate. But if you are exposing the brutalities of mainlander rule, anything goes. Graphic cartoon histories of the White Terror are selling like hotcakes.

Taipei has established a memorial to 2/28 victims, and is considering case by case the compensation claims of 10,000 people jailed as spies or troublemakers during the White Terror, the oppressive early years of Nationalist rule. "It's unbelievable... a dream come true," says author Bo Yang, 80, who spent nine years in jail during that period. His offense: translating a Popeye cartoon with a sardonic allusion to Chiang Kai-shek. This is a time of nation-building. Many of the aging tycoons who helped created Taiwan's postwar economic miracle are writing celebratory memoirs, feeding the widespread sense of resentment that Taiwan does not get the international respect it deserves. Populist politician Hsu Hsin-liang, a failed presidential candidate, has set up a think tank named after his 1997 book, "The Rising People." He argues that the Chinese who came to Taiwan no longer have much in common with China. Instead, he places them in a line of "stronger" races from the Mongols to the Japanese who are destined to "rise, conquer and succeed."

The $40 million invested in businesses in China will continue to bind Taiwan to the mainland economically. But President Lee, says author Hsiao, is trying to end the "civil-war mentality" so Taiwan can move on socially and politically. It's clear Beijing doesn't like it: each step he takes to distance his island from China will surely be met by new threats. When China's planes buzzed over the strait this month, it was only the latest of many confrontations since 1995, when Beijing launched missiles across the strait, according to political strategist Yang. Typically, China sends jets on "pseudo challenges" to Taiwan, provoking Taipei generals to scramble their fighters when the intruders cross within 20 nautical miles. It's psychological warfare, a handy way of scaring those who would write China out of the history books.