Today, I met one of the biggest Taiwanese Independence rockstars out there: Professor Peng Ming-Min. He could be considered the Jagger, the Morrison–or maybe even the Lennon–of Taiwanese independence history and activism.
And the first thing he said to me? “I’ve heard about you! I must say, I had great admiration for your grandfather.”
Okay, to explain now: Professor Peng Ming-Min (彭明敏) wrote a very famous book called A Taste of Freedom. It documented Taiwan’s international status as a Japanese colony, post-WWII returned territory to China, and the disastrous circumstances leading up to the 228 Incident and Martial Law (White Terror) period. During this time, Peng had grown up in Taiwan, was educated in Japan, and became a law professor at Tai Da (National Taiwan University). In 1964, was arrested for leading the publication of pro-independence materials. After several years of arrests, torture, harassment out of prison by the KMT government, and threats to his family, Peng was threatened with another arrest.
The dramatic twist here is that managed to escape Taiwan– smuggled out in disguise with the help of many people– and safely arrived in Sweden, and then the United States. From America, he wrote his book, candidly and thoughtfully documenting his experiences in Taiwan, and the state of rule by terror and fear going on currently in 1972.
Almost needless to say, the book was banned in Taiwan for over 20 years.
Now the original English version is available in a full text online, and from various sources such as Amazon, Powells, etc. A Chinese translation was eventually published in Taiwan, and is now available at Eslite and other local bookstores in Taipei. And today, we celebrated a new edition sharing Taiwan’s history with the world: a French edition, published by René Viénet, the so-called French “bad boy” of sinology. (French editions in Taipei can be purchased at the Librarie Le Pigeonnier, at 台北市 松江路97巷9號一樓 | No. 9, Lane 97, SungChiang Road.)
René has been kind enough to reach out to me this year, since he is publishing a French translation of George Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed, which is the place where I first learned about my grandfather’s political career. He has also published an article by Joshua Liao (廖文奎, Thomas’ older brother, and arguably, the originator of all of Thomas’ philosophical democratic ideas), entitled “Quo vadis Formosa?” (Whither Formosa?) and originally written in French. (None of us have found an English or Mandarin version, mystifyingly enough, so if you have any leads, I’d love to hear them! But then, I suppose it could be a translation project for me when I go back to the US…) So naturally, René has heard of Thomas Liao (廖文毅), and has offered me both help and support in continuing this crazy search to piece together his life, career, and legacy.
René has also introduced me to Roger Hsieh (謝聰敏), who was Professor Peng’s student and arrested with him in 1964. As Roger likes to say, he was a few cells down from the other Liaos in prison with him: my father’s cousin Suho (廖史豪), and Suho’s mother. Roger has, in turn, introduced me to many people who have provided help, resources, and important experiences that have added so much richness to my research.
The last time I saw him, he said, “Let’s call Professor Peng and find out when he’s coming back to Taiwan, so you can meet him!” And I was like, “No need to bother someone so important (like Jagger or Lennon)– I’ll wait!!”
Two of my friends in Taipei came with me today to the book party for Professor Peng and the new translation published by René’s press, “Editions René Viénet.” Before it started, I tried to explain what a foundational text A Taste of Freedom is, and just how influential a public figure Professor Peng is. And then I remembered something from his bio, post-1972, that would explain things:
“In 1996, when the first democratic elections for President of Taiwan were opened up, Professor Peng was the first DPP candidate. Since he challenged the incumbent Lee Teng-Hui (李登輝)–who had been appointed by Chiang Ching-Kuo (蔣經國) at the end of the Martial Law period–he was actually the first democratically selected Presidential candidate in Taiwan.”
“Ohhhhh. (!!!)” And just like that, we were all on the same page. Right. (Of course, we had to take a minute to debate the exact year of the first democratic elections!) Sometimes I feel as if I have no business being in the big shot places where I occasionally end up.
So yeah, it was an exciting day. Also, in talking about the book to those who may not have ever heard of it or know much about Taiwanese history, I realized that the burden is now on me, to inform and recommend sources on this topic that will both enlighten and entertain (or perhaps if not entertain then engross, due to the brutal subject matter here).
So on that note, here’s my quick list of MUST-READ books/articles/things, if you want to school yourself on post-WWII Taiwanese History. And why this was such a hard fight for people like my grandfather Thomas Liao and for Professor Peng, Roger, and others who struggled with them for a better future for Taiwan. So, without further hullabaloo, here’s–
Your Easy Breezy Guide to Books on the Subject of Taiwanese History:
1. A Taste of Freedom, by Peng Ming-Min
(Now available in English, Chinese, and French!)
2. Formosa Betrayed, by George Kerr
(It’s a long, substantial, and at times dry book, but worth reading in excerpts! Also, the chapters on the build up to the 228 Incident, the Incident itself, the March Massacre aftermath are both amazing and completely devastating.)
3.張炎憲、胡慧玲、曾秋美訪問記錄，《台灣獨立運動的先聲：台灣共和國》( 上冊 ) ( 下冊 ) ，台北：財團法人吳三連台灣史料基金會，2000.
Title translates loosely as: Taiwan Independence Movement’s Precursor: the “Republic of Taiwan.” This is probably THE formative text on Thomas Liao, his group of associates, and the “Republic” they formed in exile in Tokyo, which presented an alternate, democratic form of government than that of the KMT. It’s complicated, obviously. But it’s a very important book, written by several authors using oral history interviews– but primarily by a very important history scholar, Prof. Zhang Yan-Xian. I am reading parts of it in Chinese and getting parts translated. My understanding of it is going slowly, but it’s a great book for any native (or just tremendously expert) Chinese speakers/readers!
4. Formosa Calling, by Allan J. Shackleton
Shackleton was a diplomat from New Zealand, stationed in Taiwan during the 228 Incident, and was not able to publish this book about what really happened during that tumultuous time until much later.
5. “From a Taiwan Prison,” by Roger Hsieh
This was a letter that Roger smuggled out of prison in the early 1970s (during his second time in prison). He snuck it to a friend who was getting out, and that friend sent it to the New York Times, where it was published, exposing tactics of prison torture used on suspected dissidents in the 1960s and 70s. It also catapulted Roger into an international spotlight, and when he left Taiwan in political exile in the late 1970s, his career was solidified as a spokesperson exposing and denouncing human rights exploitations worldwide. If he’s willing, perhaps I’ll put the full text of this letter in a future post, but you can also find it in the New York Times archives (April 24, 1972, “From a Taiwan Prison”).