- Representing Atrocity in Taiwan: The 2/28 Incident and White Terror in Fiction and Film
The power of literature and the other creative arts on the global stage is that they can function as an antidote to state power in many different ways. The literature and film of contemporary Taiwan, for example, far exceeds in quality the quantity of its population or the lasting geo-political significance of its state. This has been said of other countries in the past, such as Ireland, generally speaking marginalized on the global playing field. Silvia Lin's book on literature and film that represent the political repression of the Kuomintang-backed February 28th Incident of 1947, slaughtering an estimated 15 to 30 thousand and silencing a generation of intellectuals, and the resultant forty years of "White Terror" that accompanied the economic rise of Taiwan, brings to light some outstanding works that will [End Page 232] be of interest to anyone who enjoys great literature and film and anyone who values the exposé style of cultural production that emerged from suspect regimes in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and South Africa. Her book is subtle and nuanced, revealing the complexities, ambiguities, and unique qualities of a dozen or more literary and cinematic works from the late 1940s to the 1980s and 1990s. The work also is savvy and informed, engaging the theoretical contributions of such scholars as Dominick LaCapra, Pierre Janet, Mieke Bal, Ann Whitehead, Lydia Liu, Maurice Halbwach, Maureen Turim, Avrom Fleishman, Thomas Elsaesser, and others. In the course of her elucidation of how political repression is represented in the written and cinematic texts of Taiwan, Lin addresses a passel of critical themes including trauma, redemption, revenge, memory, gender, ethnicity, privacy, melodrama, victimhood, and realism. The result is a complicated and neglected topic managed economically and lucidly in a volume that will surely intervene in Chinese cultural studies but also will prove attractive to anyone concerned with the overarching issue of atrocity and the literary and cinematic representation of the "disappeared."
Lin's book is divided into two main parts, each of which comprises three chapters. In the first part, she primarily focuses on literature and in the second on film. There is some interconnectedness that goes beyond thematic continuity, as some of the literary works have been adapted to the screen. She prefaces her work with an introduction and ends with a prologue. In the beginning pages of the introduction, she amply illustrates how challenging the subject matter is, for to date there still is in Taiwan no satisfying reckoning of the White Terror period from 1947 to 1987, no consensus has materialized from the people, and no objective assessment of the past has been written, nor under the present circumstances could it. Indeed, a substantial component of Lin's argument consists of showing how attitudes toward atrocity in Taiwan's recent past are affected and inflected by the ethnic background of individuals and the particular historical conjuncture in which those attitudes are being articulated. Thus, a daring and pioneering work written in 1983, for example, might actually exhibit a far more muted representation of past atrocities than would a work of 1989 or 1996. One thing, however, is certain: the long period of forced silence of any public (and most private) discussion of 2/28 and its aftermath has left a lasting, indelible scar on the Taiwanese body politic.
The consequence of the 2/28 demonstrations, subsequent violent crackdown, and the martial law under which civilians lived for the better part of the ensuing four decades was not solely the liquidation of dissidents through detention and extrajudicial execution. An attendant consequence was that the entire historical [End Page 233] period transpired during a virtual vacuum of any utterance of the events. Lin has unearthed one interesting story from 1947—Ou Tansheng's "Intoxication"—that addresses the topic; but the other works that mention, let alone depict, 2/28 were not written or published until the 1980s. This has led to the unique phenomenon of...