October 1945 and the China-Taiwan Encounter

In November 1943, the Allied governments gathered at Cairo to discuss the post-war settlement. Among the leaders of the soon-to-be victorious powers was Chiang Kai-shek, the man who had led the Guomindang and the Republic of China (ROC) since 1927. Chiang was determined to restore China’s might in East Asia and to redress the wrongs that Japan had done to his country over the past fifty years. He therefore wanted all the territories which Tokyo had conquered by war, including Taiwan, to be returned to the ROC, which claimed to be the legal successor of Imperial China. 

From its temporary headquarters in Chongqing, where the Guomindang apparatus had retreated during the war, the ROC government organised Taiwan’s administrative takeover. Chen Yi, the former governor of Fujian Province, was chosen as the head of Taiwan Investigative Committee. He was helped by native Taiwanese who supported the Guomindang, the so-called half mountain.

On September 2, 1945, the Japanese signed the unconditional surrender, and on October 25, the official Retrocession Ceremony was held at Taipei’s Zhongshan Hall (see Davison 2003, p. 75). 

But how did the Taiwanese people react to their encounter with China after fifty years of separation? 

The Mainlanders Arrive in Taiwan

Contrary to a common belief, in 1945 Taiwan wasn’t a colonial backwater. In fact, Taiwan was one of the most developed countries in Asia, with a per capita GDP second only to Japan’s. Under Japanese rule Taiwan’s annual GDP growth averaged 4% and per capita income reached 752 USD in 1938 (Japan’s was 1,405). 20% of the Taiwanese population lived in urban centres with at least 20,000 inhabitants, and 6 out of 1,000 Taiwanese had a telephone at home. 

This remarkable development was achieved by Japan’s colonial administration through its pioneering state-led capitalism that combined market forces and government policies such as direct government investment, tariffs, regulation etc. (see Liberman 1996, Chapter 6).

Sakaemachi Street, present-day Hengyang Road (衡陽路) under Japanese rule. The street leads from 228 Peace Park (former Taipei New Park) to Ximen (source).

As I explained in a previous post, under Japanese rule a new Taiwanese professional elite emerged. The new Taiwanese ruling classes did not have strong ties to traditional Chinese society, since they were born at the end of the Qing era, had enjoyed Japanese training and education, and owed their financial and social status to the Japanese colonial system. 

In 1895, many members of this new elite had been the children of very poor families, but by 1920 they were acquiring under Japanese auspices a professional education–typically medicine–that would be their ticket to wealth and prestige. Their children, born in the 1920s, would from kindergarten on receive a Japanese education and identify personal success with success in the Japanese academic world, whether in Kaohsiung, Taipei, Kyoto, or Tokyo. This kind of elite was bound to have weaker emotional ties to the Chinese political and cultural order than those of families already well off (Lai / Myers / Wei 1991,  p. 17).

Peng Mingmin belonged to this new elite. The Peng family is representative of that class of Taiwanese that felt neither Chinese nor Japanese, though their upbringing had been shaped by both cultures. They constituted the section of the population that was intellectually and economically least prone to accept the return of Taiwan to Chinese rule after 1945.

In his memoirs, Peng Mingmin clearly defines his belonging to the wealthy professional class and the partly Japanised ruling elite of Taiwan:

At Ta-chia we were the children of a prominent family pampered and petted by household servants and surrounded by our Formosan friends. At Taipei after being rigidly examined, we were allowed to enter the best Japanese schools, attended principally by sons and daughters of Japanese officials (Peng 2012, Chapter I).

When the mainland soldiers and administrators arrived in Taiwan in October 1945, the Pengs were dismayed. They had grown up and prospered in a colonial system in which progress, modernity, and economic development had been the ideological justification for Japan’s rule. Now, the Pengs found out that the Chinese were different from what they had imagined. This is how Peng Mingmin describes the arrival of the Chinese forces:

In late October word came at last that Chinese military units were expected to land at Takao [=Kaohsiung]. My father was made chairman of a welcoming committee. The job soon became a nightmare. He was notified that the troops would arrive on a certain date. Preparations included the purchase of firecrackers and of banners bearing appropriate sentiments, construction of temporary booths at the exits from the landing stage, and preparation of huge amounts of roast pork and other delicacies, soft drinks, and tea. Then came notification that the arrival was delayed. The perishable foods had to be sold or given away. This happened twice again, tripling the expenses, before a fourth notification proved to be correct. 

An American naval vessel came slowly into Takao harbor, making its way among the sunken hulks. Local Japanese military authorities, awaiting repatriation with their men, turned out a smartly disciplined honor guard to line the wharf, ready to salute the victorious Chinese army. A great crowd of curious and excited citizens had come to support my father’s welcoming committee and to see the show.  

The ship docked, the gangways were lowered, and off came the troops of China, the victors. The first man to appear was a bedraggled fellow who looked and behaved more like a coolie than a soldier, walking off with a carrying pole across his shoulder, from which was suspended his umbrella, sleeping mat, cooking pot, and cup. Others like him followed, some with shoes, some without. Few had guns.  

With no attempt to maintain order or discipline, they pushed off the ship, glad to be on firm land, but hesitant to face the Japanese lined up and saluting smartly on both sides. My father wondered what the Japanese could possibly think. He had never felt so ashamed in his life. Using a Japanese expression, he said, “If there had been a hole nearby, I would have crawled in!” (Peng 2012).

This may be said to be the moment in which the seed of modern Taiwanese nationalism was planted.

In the next post, I will show how Peng Mingmin articulated his anti-mainland sentiment by juxtaposing the categories “modernity” (Taiwan) and “backwardness” (mainland China), and how this discourse continues to this day.


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