by Jay Chen
Photo Credit: UDN
Historical Contestation Over Who is Taiwan’s Founding Father
CONCERNING DEBATES about whether Sun Yat-Sen is Taiwan’s founding father or not, we might revisit the question of who exactly is Taiwan’s founding father. The notion of a founding father would be to point to a singular, historical figure as the originator of a nation-state. As part of nationalist discourse, a founding father is usually seen as a figure possessed of extraordinary, even superhuman qualities. The qualities of a founding father are to be reflective of the values of the nation-state.
In the case of Taiwan or rather, the Republic of China, its official founding father is Sun Yat-Sen. Sun Yat-Sen was the founding father of the Republic of China, as founded in China in 1912. Sun Yat-Sen, of course, had long dead by the time the KMT fled to Taiwan from China after its defeat to the CCP. As such, many have questioned what relation Sun Yat-Sen has exactly to Taiwan, seeing Sun as the founding father of the imported Republic of China framework, which is not Taiwan, but something brought over from China when the KMT came.
Sun Yat-Sen statues are often targeted for defacement in Taiwan on the basis of their representing KMT, China-centric values. Sun statues are found all over Taiwan, particularly on high school and college campuses. Photo credit: Liberty Times
KMT patriotic education taught for decades that Sun Yat-Sen to be the venerable founding father of the Republic of China, the founder of the ideology of Tridemism, and depicted Sun as an embodiment of civic virtues. This continues to some extent in the present, with this continuing to be taught in textbooks used nationwide, but schools differing on how much they push the point.
It is such, however, that in order to deconstruct the values that KMT ideology seeks to instill in Taiwan’s young, some have turned towards criticizing Sun as a way to critique KMT values. Many like to point to Sun as being an adventurer who somehow bumbled his way into being the founding father of China, pointing to his many failed attempts at revolutionary and questionable financial or gang-related ties, for example. Still others point to aspects of his personal life, a popular target being that Sun had during his lifetime a number of relations that by modern standards would be considered pedophilic.
With calls last month by DPP legislator Gao Jyh-peng to reconsider Sun’s status as founding father of the nation and a recent spate of defacements of Sun and Chiang Kai-Shek statues to commemorate 228, questions of who exactly Taiwan’s founding father is have been raised.
Does Taiwan Need a Founding Father?
SOME HAVE attempted to point to an alternative founding father for Taiwan who would be an greater embodiment of Taiwanese identity values. Examples include Nylon Chen, the martyr of the dangwai movement who self-immolated himself in 1989, as we see in his inclusion on the Republic of Taiwan passport sticker campaign, or even Su Beng, the “grandfather of Taiwanese independence” and leftist revolutionary born in the early 20th century.
The recent Taiwan passport sticker campaign includes a picture of Nylon Chen on it, as a foundational figure for Taiwan. Photo credit: Denis Chen
On the contrary, we might provocatively suggest that if the founding father of a nation is the person who establishes a nation, the founding father of the Republic of China—a wholly different thing from both Taiwan as well as the Republic of China which existed on the Chinese mainland from 1912 to 1949—is of course Chiang Kai-Shek. Sun Yat-Sen of course has nothing to do with the latter-day Republic of China, having been the founding father of the Republic of the China which existed in China but not the one which came to exist in Taiwan as the ghost of the earlier Republic of China. The latter-day Republic of China, however, was constructed by Chiang Kai-Shek.
And it is that Chiang Kai-Shek is the individual most responsible for the history of the ROC after 1949, at whose feet we can lay blame for the White Terror and martial law period. It is that the post-1949 ROC is a regime founded upon blood and so it is natural that its founding father was an authoritarian dictator and mass murderer.
But, in truth, the notion of a founding father is a futile one. Nationalist ideology is what dictates the need for there to be the figure of a founding father, who embodies the values of a nation. To use a recent example, despite his own legacy of authoritarianism, Lee Kuan Yew was not criticized as harshly as he should have been for his actions during his life after his death, for example, because of the view that criticizing Lee would be to insult all Singaporean people. In fact, Lee’s memory was even used as a tool to suppression dissent, with suppression of dissent occurring under the justification that it was insulting of Lee’s memory.
In the case of the ROC, Chiang Kai-Shek is its founding father. It is that Chiang is in fact representative of the values of the ROC as something which has historically been an institution of oppression upon Taiwanese. And the ROC, as well as Chiang, need to go. Only then can we realize “Taiwan.”
Chiang Kai-Shek statues, which are also found all over Taiwan, are also targeted regularly for defacement, particularly around the time of yearly events such as 228. Photo credit: : Wu Cheng-feng/Taipei Times, Chang Ching-ya/Taipei Times
But who should be the founding father of a future “Taiwan”? Taiwanese do not need one. Instead, it should be the Taiwanese people who found Taiwan, deciding what they would like the country to mean and what values it embodies, rather than some individual who is singled out as being embodying the values of the nation. Only then will we move beyond the history of attempts to force Taiwan to conform to a social vision imposed from without, but rather decide for themselves what values they stand for.