Friday, August 02, 2013

Reviving Deng Nylon’s (鄭南榕) spirit

The times call for unity, for everybody who calls Taiwan his or her home to shine a bright light into the gathering darkness that threatens to swallow their country 

In troubled times, it is always useful to turn our heads towards the past for guidance. Not only does it teach us many lessons, but it can also serve as a reminder that while the present often looks bleak, hopeless even, other generations went through similar trials and prevailed. The past can therefore be a reflection of hope. It can also serve as a source of inspiration, especially the heroes who fought the darkness and help improve our lot.

Taiwan’s history has many such heroes, leaders, survivors, and those who gave their lives so that others could lead better, freer lives. One person in particular comes to mind for the present times, and that man is Deng Nylon, or Deng Nan-jung, the editor in chief of Freedom Era Weekly (自由時代週刊) who on April 7, 1989, self-immolated at his office near my home for the cause of liberty.

What made Deng an extraordinarily powerful symbol wasn’t simply the fact that he fought for his ideals, or that he used the ultimate sacrifice as a spear to gut state repression. Heroic though such acts may have been, the true power of Deng as a man was his ability to transcend politics and ethnicity. As he famously said, “I am a Chinese descendent. And I support Taiwan independence.” His words, which he often repeated at rallies, sent a powerful — perhaps even undefeatable — message to those who would seek to enslave people in Taiwan and China that being a Taiwanese had nothing to do with DNA, ethnicity, or even place of birth. For Deng, being Taiwanese was far greater than that, and went well beyond the cynical use that politicians have made of Taiwanese independence in recent times: it was an inclusive force, pitting those who believe in liberty against those who would deny it others for the sake of power and fortune.

Two members of Kou Chou Ching
As I type this, I am listening to a wonderful hip hop album by the Taiwanese band Kou Chou Ching, some of whose members I have had the honor of meeting in recent weeks at various protests in Taipei. The reason I mention them is because their art epitomizes the essence of Taiwan; it blends modern sounds with traditional instruments, and mixes Mandarin, Hakka, Hoklo (Taiwanese), Aborginal languages and English. All those voices and the many guest artists who lent their talent for the project are united in telling Taiwan’s story to the world, and in the process they are helping define what it means to be Taiwanese in the 21st century. Other musical genres, and many movies, also successfully depict the rich amalgam of cultures and languages that makes Taiwan unique and precious.

Such inclusiveness is also what is most threatening to the forces across the Taiwan Strait, and here in Taiwan, that indefatigably endeavor to destroy Taiwan’s democracy and existence as a distinct society. For years, the Chinese Communist Party, and those within the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) who seek “reunification” against the wishes of the majority of people in Taiwan, have benefited from the ethnic divide that has kept Taiwan disunited and fighting against itself. The only way Taiwan will succeed in defeating such predations is if its people manage to erase that artificial divide and unite as a force for freedom against that of repression.

Chen Wei-ting chats with a supporter
Sadly, Deng is often forgotten nowadays, except every April 7, when commemorative ceremonies are held (I strongly encourage readers to visit the museum that was created in his name, which is located in his former office on Freedom Lane; the charred remains are a moving sight). But his powerful spirit carries on, and I have seen it time and again in the young Taiwanese activists and those who support them against the orchestrated assault on their freedoms, liberties, and the country they call home. More and more, the groups of protesters are multi-ethnic, polyglot, and are sacrificing their own welfare for the sake of others who, in the old days, would have been considered “the enemy” or “the occupation.” I see it in “ethnic Taiwanese” who fight and risk arrest to defend the rights of an elderly “Mainlander.” I see it in Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), one of the student leaders and a Hakka, speaking Taiwanese by the roadside with an old female supporter. I see it in Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆), another leader, paying his respects to Deng on April 7, and the many, many others whose identity as a Taiwanese, in the purest and noblest sense of the word, is unassailable and indivisible.

The times call for an end to the fissiparous nature of Taiwanese politics, to the artificial divides created by politicians and the media that keep Taiwan on its knees. The times call for unity, for everybody who calls Taiwan his or her home to shine a bright light into the gathering darkness that threatens to swallow their country. (All photos by the author)

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