Written by Hana Bredstein, (University of Texas-Austin), Student Correspondent for CET Taiwan, Summer 2022
What better way to spend a rainy afternoon than meandering through a museum? June is one of the rainiest months in Taipei, so my friends and I headed to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall during a recent downpour.
Luckily, one of our trio knew a lot about the history of Taiwan and gave us a rundown: after Sun Yat-sen overthrew China’s last dynasty, the country struggled to unify as nationalists,
communists, and warlords fought for control. The nationalists and communists, eventually headed by Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, respectively, both saw themselves as the true successors of Sun’s ideas. In fact, Chiang later married Sun’s sister-in-law. The two parties briefly united to defend the country from Japanese invasion in the 1930s and 40s. After World War II, civil war broke out again. Outside forces like the US and Soviet Union got involved in this first of many Cold War showdowns, and the nationalists, under Chiang, were forced to flee to Taiwan.
Artwork by Soong Mei-Ling, Chiang’s wife, an influential woman in her own right.
Walking through the museum was much more informative with this context in mind. Many of the memorial’s exhibitions are dedicated to Taiwan’s hard-won battle for democracy that followed Chiang’s death in 1975, as well as art pieces about the ongoing pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. I was especially impressed by how delicately the memorial pays homage to Chiang as a leader, while acknowledging the lack of freedom Taiwanese people faced under his rule. One wing features Chiang’s personal belongings; from clothes and books to plastic models of his favorite dishes, baozi included. The top floor has a giant statue of Chiang Kai-shek with two guards on either side who switch out every hour. As we waited for the elevator to take us up, the doors opened and the guards marched out in unison, wearing full military dress; they were coming back down after their shift. It was exciting to see them up close!
Trying calligraphy to write our names.
My friends and I also got to see a collection of modern art inspired by calligraphy, and even tried writing our Chinese names with a calligraphy brush and ink! Speaking of names, Chiang’s name was sometimes written as Jiang Zhong Zheng (蔣中正), instead of the usual Jiang Jieshi (蔣介石). It turns out that he was known by many different names throughout his life and that it was common for people at the time to use one name with family and choose others for school, work, or as a pseudonym. Chiang chose Zhong Zheng to mirror Zhong Shan, the name Sun Yat-sen went by most often. Fun fact: Zhong Shan Junior High also happens to be the name of my nearest subway stop!
With friends in front of the Chiang Kai-Shek statue.
I’m glad I got to learn a little bit about Taiwan’s history during my first week here, and hope it will give me some insight into current events. One of my classes last fall talked about the Chinese Civil War, but it’s a lot cooler to see things with my own eyes than read about them in a book. While it’s never a bad idea to do some preliminary research when traveling abroad, definitely make time to visit historical landmarks and museums once you arrive – you’ll be surprised by how much you learn.