Fixed in time
Whether history is taught well or not, its use never fails to determine the kind of world we live in. In places like Serbia, to name but one, the stubbornness of some to not let go of ancient history — or rather, an ancient interpretation of history — has long given rise to conflict, which even to this day, after long years of intervention by NATO, the UN, the EU and others in the alphabet soup of interveners, remains as unresolved as it was on the day before NATO dropped its first bombs on Slobodan Milosevic and his cronies. Without a complete abandonment of a certain view on history, namely that on Kosovo and Milosevic’s justification for doing what he did to reclaim it, it will be impossible for that country to move on.
Similar phenomena exist the world over, with people being taught things about events and people that, upon scrutiny or with the outsider’s advantage of distance, would seem ludicrous. Through reverence for Mao Zedong (毛澤東) to that for Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Robert Mugabe, Yasser Arafat, Napoleon Bonaparte, Joseph Stalin or Adolph Hitler — all, by various versions of history alive today heroes to some — people remained fixed in the past, unable to see events and motivations with enough emotional distance to make judgments of their own. Of course, a pre-digested version of history, which is what is given adherents of the “fixed” historical model, also requires less effort than reaching one’s own conclusions through the study of it.
This is the power of myths and why they manage to survive down the ages, as the ideas and concepts that lie at their core remain untouchable, cannot be questioned. And they are easy. Dangerously easy, bereft of the complexities, of the grey areas, that true history is made of.
When, for example, Palestinian children who can barely walk are taught to hate Israelis and, wearing those cute little military uniforms or explosive belts or mock AK-47s, to revere mass murderers before the camera, or, on the other side of the fence (palpable and metaphorical), when same-age Israelis are taught hatred for Palestinians and instilled admiration for “heroes” with hands as bloodied as those of their Palestinian counterparts/nemeses, it becomes nigh impossible to break the vicious circle of violence because those views, once perpetuated, do not allow for the progression of history, for a fresh take on events ancient and recent. When such history is taught children, it robs them of the possibility of a better world, as if parents were unable to accept that their offspring should be spared the calamities they had to go through.
Sadly, Taiwan is no exception from this rule, and many are those today (including children the same age as the young Israelis and Palestinians mentioned above) who are taught that dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), whose responsibility in the 228 Incident, where tens of thousands of Taiwanese were killed (see “Remembering the 228 Incident,” February 28, 2007) is becoming clearer (to some) by the day and whose role in the subsequent regime of White Terror and thirty-eight years of Martial Law, during which people were imprisoned, disappeared or killed by the thousands, is undeniable, was a savior of the people. Whose savior he was, exactly, is unclear, as he mismanaged China, lost the Civil War to the communists and for all intents and purposes invaded Taiwan, where he imposed a foreign regime on a people, whom he ruled with an iron fist while dreaming of retaking China. This is not to say that the generalissimo did not make a contribution to history, for he certainly did — and under the direst of circumstances, facing both Japanese invasion and communist guerrillas. Heaven knows what would have happened to Taiwan if it had been Mao, and not Chiang, who fled there in 1949. But mythmaking and undue reverence for a very flawed and ultimately morally compromised man does everybody a disservice and in the end robs him of his humanity, of the tremendous moral struggle he faced — and eventually succumbed to, turning him into a tyrant.
It was with those questions in mind that I wrote an article, titled “Revisionism is Taiwan’s big enemy,” published today in the Taipei Times. Readers can access it by clicking here.