Located in the heart of Taipei, the Office of the President of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) is not only one of the centres of political power of the island-state, but also one of Taiwan’s most important historic buildings. Surrounded by some of Taipei’s major landmarks such as the Bank of Taiwan, Dongmen (East Gate), Taipei Guest House, 228 Peace Park, and the High Court, the Office of the President is one of the most characteristic symbols of Taiwan.
Constructed during the Japanese colonial era, the Office has witnessed more than a century of momentous political, social and economic changes that have transformed the small island. Built as the headquarters of the Governor-Generals sent by Tokyo, it became the Office of the President of the ROC when Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Since 1996 the building is the seat of elected presidents of a new, democratic Taiwan.
The Office of the President of the Republic of China is located on Chongqing South Road Sec. 1 Nr. 122. It was built in 1919 by the Japanese in a Western style influenced by the Italian Renaissance. In the colonial era the building was called ‘Office of the Governor’ (總督府). It has a conspicuous 60-metre-high tower (a futuristic feature by the standards of early 20th century Taiwan). Originally the building had 6 floors which were later expanded to 9. The Office of the President is the linchpin of the government district designed by the Japanese as the symbol of their power and authority.
The only pre-Japanese construction that the colonial rulers left is Dongmen (East Gate), which was one of the 5 gates of Qing Dynasty Taipei. All the other major landmarks of the area were built by the Japanese: Taipei First Girls’ High School, High Court, 228 Peace Park, Taipei Guest House and Bank of Taiwan.
The building’s red bricks, tower and elaborate adornment make it stand out from the surrounding edifices and give it a unique and consciously ostentatious character. The Japanese wanted to create a majestic, imposing and easily recognizable palace that embodied their colonial authority. The building is also highly symbolic. Its shape resembles the character ‘sun’ (日), which is part of the name of Japan (日本) and is also the emblem of the country, visible on the national flag. Its main facade faces East towards the rising sun.
History of the Office of the President
During the Qing Dynasty the area that is now occupied by the Office of the President was located in a sparsely populated part of Taipei Walled City. The only major buildings there were the ancestral halls of the Chen clan and of the Lin clan, and three study halls: The ‘Dengying Academy of Classical Learning’ (登嬴書院); the Xixuetang (西學堂, “Hall of Western Studies”), and the Fanxuetang (番學堂, “Study Hall for Barbarians”). Apart from a few small houses the rest of the area was just farmland or wasteland.
In 1895 the Qing Empire lost a humiliating war with Japan and was compelled to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki, with which it ceded Taiwan to the victor. Shortly after occupying Taiwan, the Japanese began to reorganise the island. Their aim was to create a model colony that could function as a source of revenue, food supplies and raw materials for Japan.
However, it took the Japanese a long time before they could pacify Taiwan. Chinese soldiers and Qing-loyalists fought a guerrilla warfare hoping to oust the invaders. In order to face these unexpected difficulties, the Japanese set up a military colonial government headed by an all-powerful Governor-General drawn by the ranks of the Imperial Army. The years between 1895 and 1919 therefore are called the “era of military Governorship” (武官總督時期).
Despite the use of force, the colonial government at first couldn’t quell armed resistance and dispel the Chinese-speaking population’s distrust. It was only during the tenure of Kodama Gentaro, aided by the talented civilian official Goto Shinpei, that order was re-established and the island began to develop. Kodama formulated the concept of “scientific colonialism” based on the idea that Japan’s cultural superiority and its vocation as a great colonial power could be demonstrated only through the successful promotion of medicine, sanitation, infrastructures, technology, and economic growth.
Consequently, the colonial government embarked on an ambitious programme of modernisation that had a profound and lasting impact on Taiwan’s society and economy. An important element of the Japanese’ colonial project was the construction of new modern capital. They were aware of the psychological effect of impressive architecture and infrastructure. Awe-inspiring, outstanding edifices were a fundamental part of the colonial state’s effort to submit the native Taiwanese by showing them the strength, modernity and technological achievements of the Japanese masters.
The Japanese brought to Taiwan the same Western-style architecture that they had experimented with in Japan itself during the Meiji Era. This architecture wasn’t just a copy of Western buildings, but a creative combination of Western design and Japanese taste. Many of these constructions made use of the latest technologies and materials such as reinforced concretes and lifts. The Taiwanese, accustomed to traditional Chinese architecture, must have been deeply impressed by the entirely new and innovate shape their cities took, by the magnificence and hugeness of those foreign-looking edifices. The Office of the Governor-General was the quintessence of the Japanese colonial architecture of this period.
As mentioned before, under Japanese rule the Governor-General was the most powerful man in Taiwan. He was appointed by and answered to the Emperor of Japan himself. When the Japanese occupied Taiwan the first Governor-General took over the Qing Dynasty Taiwan Provincial Administration Hall, which stood on the site of present-day Zhongshan Hall. This became the seat of the Governor-General for the first years of colonial rule. The Japanese, however, wanted a building that was much more monumental and less ‘Chinese’ (the Japanese obviously tried to deemphasize the Chinese heritage of Taiwan).
In 1897 the Japanese began demolishing various Qing Dynasty buildings: the Chen and Lin ancestral halls, the study halls, the Tiangong Temple (on the site of present-day 228 Peace Park), the Confucius Temple (approximately on the site of present-day Taipei First Girls’ High School), the Temple of the God of War (approximately on the site of present-day High Court) etc. In 1900 the Japanese also began demolishing the Taipei City Walls and Ximen (West Gate). They thus made space for their new government district.
In 1906 and 1907 the Japanese government announced a contest for the construction of the headquarters of the Governor-General. The first prize was 50,000 yen, the second was 20,000 yen, the third was 10,000 yen. The architect Suzuki Kichibee seemed to be the favourite, but one of the judges unexpectedly accused him of having copied the design of the Peace Palace in The Hague. The contest was won by Nagano Uheiji (長野宇平), who added the Office of the Governor to the list of his works both in and outside Japan. The costs of the building were immense: 2.8 million yen, which was over 6 times more expensive than the combined cost of Longshan Temple in Mengjia, Zhinan Temple in Muzha, and Chenghuang Temple in Xinzhu.
The construction works began in 1911 and were completed in 1919. At that time the Office was the centre of political power of the entire island of Taiwan, since the Governor-General was responsible for executive, legislative and judicial power. An army of around 1000 civil servants worked in the building.
The Office of the Governor-General was damaged during allied bombings in World War II. After the war members of the gentry raised private funds to restore the building. Taiwan had just been handed over to the Republic of China headed by Chiang Kai-shek. In order to celebrate the Chiang’s 60th birthday the Office was renamed Jieshouguan (介壽館), which literally means “Long Live Chiang Kai-shek Building”.
In 1949 Chiang Kai-shek and his Guomindang regime lost the Civil War to the Communists led by Mao Zedong. Chiang and what remained of his party apparatus, army and the government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan. Jieshouguan was the most suitable building to become Chiang’s new headquarters. Jieshouguan was renamed Office of the President of the Republic of China (中華民國總統府), the name it retains to this day.
Since Chiang Kai-shek’s time the annual parade that celebrates the birth of the Republic of China in 1912 (‘Double Ten Day‘) is held on Chongqing Road, in front of the Office of the President, an occasion for the state that lives in constant fear of a Communist invasion to flaunt its disciplined armed forces and latest military technology.
The Office of the President and the surrounding government district is one of the best-preserved examples of urban planning and architecture of Japanese Taipei, and is therefore a must-see for all visitors who are interested in Taiwan’s history and culture.
Zhuang Yongming: Taibei Laoshi (莊永明: 台北老街). Taipei 2012, pp. 186-191.
Ibid.: Taibei Gucheng Shendu Lüyou (台北古城深度旅遊). Taipei 2000, pp. 24-31, 83-87.