Reflection of the Cultural Policy in Human Rights Issues in Taiwan and the Response of the Art World

Chieh-Hsiang Wu
National Changhua University of Education


The four decades under the rule of the Republic of China (Taiwan) after World War II had scarred Taiwan’s human rights severely. It began with 228 Incident in 1947[1] and the following White Terror period[2]—an era of suppression of free expression. The Martial Law ruled Taiwan from 1949 to 1987, and the last law restricting free speech was not abolished until 1992.[3] Attempts of atonement have been made, various cultural policies implemented to memorize the wrongdoing and human right violation of the state in the past.

Today, there are plenty of events in memory of the 228 Incident and the following decades of repression; monuments had been erected, memorial art exhibitions and concerts are held every year, controversial sites such as political prisons have been preserved or transformed into human rights museums. Nevertheless, through reviewing the cultural policies for transitional justice,[5] this study finds that, defined for the governmental framework to correct past political and juristic mistakes, the procedure of transitional justice has its limitations.[6]

Artistic creations addressing issues of transitional justice show that art world has a quite different perspective to the official view. This study tries to answer how and why, beside the official commemoration, artists aspire to intervene the memory of the society in their creation and actions through revealing the little discussed problems of human rights. Through a contextualized review of the individual art projects regarding human right issues, this study also finds that art is capable in envisioning becoming history and future memory of a society for later generations.

The traumas of the past are still sensitive topics in our society, and indemnity is beyond the competence of political and judicial tools. Cultural policies are obliged to deal with cultural affairs regarding transitional justice, but endeavors to create an impression of forgiveness are too early at this point. There is still a long way to go before social reconciliation, and fact finding for what had happened in the past for later generations; debates and discourse on human rights as well as research in-depth on the impacts to the society are urgent tasks today.

DOI: 10.18278/aia.1.1.6


In 2009, the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Formosa Incident was held in the Jing-Mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park, remodeled from the Jing-Mei Detention Center. Formosa Incident happened in December 1979, when editors among other staff of the Formosa Magazine, a banned journal which nevertheless printed and circulated four issues, were arrested from their gathering for the International Human Right Day. The 61 defendants were tried in courts-martial and put in prisons. It is believed to be the ruling party’s desperate effort to muffle the increasing influential dissident voices of the political elites (PTS News Network 2010).

In the “Jing-Mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park”, a public art installation by Yu Wen-Fu was vandalized by human right activist Chen Chia-Chun, who asserted that the installation was to honor the White Terror perpetrator Wang Hsi-Ling (Figure 1). Yu’s installation was a meadow of white grass with several doves perching over it. This meadow surrounded the unit of Wang when he was under house arrest. But Wang was not a victim like the others incarcerated in this detention center, he was a high ranking officer of secret service and was imprisoned because of a scandalous assassination he had involved.

The dispute over the appropriateness of such a peaceful-looking artwork drew attention of the art society as well as the public. A question was raised: Has the transitional justice for Formosa Incident ever achieved? The chief of the Committee for Cultural Affairs at that time Emile Sheng later apologized to the political victims and their relatives as well as to the artist (Loa 2010).

This incident let us see that in Taiwan, instead of making history remembered, memorials appear to be the effort of establishing an official version of the history. When and how is (in)appropriate to memorize the traumatic past with art and what Taiwan’s cultural policy has to do with the historical human right issues; furthermore, whose interest is it to contrive an image that the society has reached conciliation and forgiveness, should be questioned.

Figure 1. Artist Yu Wen-Fu dismantling his installation work, 2009 (

1. Cultural Policy of Human Right Issues in Taiwan

The 228 Incident and the following White Terror marked the worst human right violation in Taiwan since the World War II (WWII). On February 28, 1947, the investigation of illegal cigarette traffic resulted in large-scale protest against the ruling Nationalist Party (Kuomingtang, or KMT), which was believed to be extremely oppressive and corrupt. Led by Chiang Kai-Shek, KMT took over Taiwan from Japanese colonial government after the war and retreated to Taiwan when it lost most of the territory in China to the Communist Party. The chaos from Taiwan’s handover disappointed Taiwanese people very much, and the corruption and incompetence of the new ruling party infuriated many Taiwanese elites. The turmoils of 228 lasted several days and were put down violently by armed forces of the state, and an unclear number of people were killed or missing. In order to retain its authority, KMT imposed Martial Law in 1949, and a regime relied on surveillance, censorship, secret service, and political policing kicked off. The Martial Law was not lifted until 1987, and this period of time was known as the White Terror period.

The opposite party Democratic Progress Party (DPP), established in 1986 by dissidents and victims of White Terror, took power in 2000 and began a slow investigation on the responsibilities of the past human right violation. The most routine cultural policy regarding human right issues in Taiwan is the memorization of the victims of the 228 Incident, the White Terror, and the Formosa Incident,[7] which are mostly the erection of memorials and museums, and art exhibitions organized by central or local governments.

1.1. Memorials and Human Right Museums

Up to 2008, the official commemoration of the 228 Incident could be understood as two stages, the first one was to piece together the history, and the second one was to integrate diverse historical views into the documents found much later. During these two stages, monuments were erected and numberless memorial ceremonies have been held. In addition to a National 228 Memorial Museum and the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum, there are another 23 memorials. The third stage began in 2008 when the nation founding party KMT came back to power after the eight-year ruling (2000–2008) of the DDP. Although KMT has apologized many times for their mistakes and urged people to move forward (Ling 2008), the pursuit of the truths and the ascription of political responsibilities of the past wrongdoings are far from fulfilled, and controversies of the official version of the history never cease.[8]

As the consequence of 228 Incident, the White Terror period began in 1949 and ended in 1992 (abolishment of Act for the Control and Punishment of Rebellion). During this time tens of thousands of people were secretly arrested and many of them were executed without due process of law. Speeches and publications were under strict censorship. For the victims of White Terror there is a Monument for the White Terror Victims directly opposite to the Presidential Office. And in 2002 Taipei City Government designated the graveyard of the executed victims during 1952–1953 in Liuzhangli as the “Memorial Park of Political Victims During the Martial Law Period” (Liberty Times Net 2015a, 2015b). Other memorial sites include the preparatory body of the National Human Rights Museum, consisting of two sites transformed from the prisons during the White Terror period: “Jinmei Human Rights Memorial Park” and “Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park”. Some cities, counties, or public institutes also renamed streets or plazas among other public spaces related to the state violence in the past to memorize the victims. Annual commemorations take place, such as the Green Island Human Rights Arts Festival.

1.2. Art Exhibitions

Since the governance of the Taipei City first shifted from KMT to DPP in 1994, the city initiated quite a few art exhibitions in memory of the past injustice. There were:

  • 228 Commemorative Art Exhibition, Dimension Art Centre, 1995.
  • Remembrance and Reflection—228 Commemorative Exhibition, Taipei Fine Art Museum (TFAM), 1996.
  • Sadness Transformed—228 Commemorative Art Exhibition, TFAM, 1997.
  • Reflection and Reconsideration—228 Commemorative Art Exhibition, TFAM, 1998.
  • Historical Event Remapping. Witnesses, Reflections and Revivals, TFAM, 1999.
  • Time’s Other: Witnesses of the Era of the 228 Incident in Art, Taiwan Museum of Art (Now National Taiwan Museum of Art),[9] 1999.
  • Strength and Catharsis in Sadness—Exhibits by 228 Victims and their Families, Taipei 228 Memorial Museum, 2000.
  • Reflecting on Taiwan: Motivating the 228 Elements in Taiwan’s Art, The Presidential Office, 2002 (commissioned to Foundation of Ocean Taiwan).
  • Recovering Memory—Transcending Pain and Restoring Justice: Reflect on History to Build Consciousness for Taiwan, Kaohsiung Museum of History, 2003 (commissioned to Foundation of Ocean Taiwan).
  • Paint My Value, Erik My Respect, Kaohsiung Museum of History, 2004 (commissioned to Foundation of Ocean Taiwan).
  • Longing, Yearning, Where am I, Kaohsiung Museum of History, 2005 (commissioned to Foundation of Ocean Taiwan).

Under the curatorial framework, Taiwanese art historian Chen has analyzed the selection of the exhibited artworks as well as the discourses on these exhibitions and found out that during the period of DPP government, the process of transitional justice was strongly appealed in the exhibitions. Beside commissioning Taiwan born artists to create works to memorize the incident, many of the curators showed their inclination to realize the “transformation”, instead of the up-to-date dominant traditional Chinese style such as ink landscape paintings, through promoting “Taiwan School” of art to stress the Taiwanese subjectivity. However, using general terms as the “Taiwan School” or “Taiwanese painting” to present only certain types of works by Taiwanese artists of certain ethnic origins has limited the qualification of creators as well as possible diversity of artworks (Chen 2005). Thus the emphasis Taiwanese subjectivity through selecting artworks with certain materials and styles for themes regarding transitional justice is doubly questionable. It means not only that the materials and styles of artworks are overpowering the other criteria, but also allowing political concerns to intervene artists’ decisions, as well as the art history in the long run.

1.3. Renaming of Public Spaces

Beside the official policy of memorials, in recent years there were places renamed to memorize the White Terror victims. One example was the “Machangding Memorial Park” (2000), where a number of the White Terror victims were executed. The renaming was conducted by the Taipei City Government while the present president Ma Ying-Jeou was the mayor of Taipei City (Wanhua District Office Taipei City 2013). Other examples are the National Taiwan University’s Chen WenChen Memorial Plaza (2015) and the unofficial Nan-Jung Square (2014) in the National Cheng-Kung University. Chen Wen-Chen, a professor and a democracy activist who had advocated for Taiwan’s independence, was found dead on the campus the next day of his arrest in 1981, and the case remains unsolved (Wikipedia/Taipei Times 2013). Cheng Nan-Jung, a dissident and an advocate of free speech, burned himself dead in 1989 when he was sieged by police. (Wikipedia/Apple Daily 2015) In 2012 and 2013, some county governments announced April 7, the day Cheng committed suicide, Day of Expression Freedom (Liberty Times Net 2012). In 2012, the Taipei City Government named the lane of the Cheng Nan-Jung Foundation where he burned himself Freedom Lane. (Taipei City Government News 2015) In 2014 the Tainan City Government also renamed two streets to Nan-Jung Boulevard as a declaration of its full respect to freedom of speech (Tainan City Government News 2014).

1.4. Criticisms on the Cultural Policy of Human Rights Issues

The politics of remembrance and apologies could be loaded with political propaganda. In analyzing the 228 Incident memorial art exhibitions held by the Taipei Fine Art Museum (1997–1999) and Foundation of Ocean Taiwan (2002–2007), Chen (2005, 2013) urged to heal the historical traumas through artistic activities so the society would be able to proceed for reconciliation. Unfortunately, so far most of the art exhibitions that had been organized were, unbelievably, based on the assumption that what had happened had been thoroughly investigated and social reconciliation reached.

Until 2015, most of the official speeches on the 228 commemoration have been focused on the victimhood. Chang observed that since 1996, through the repeating Annual Central Governmental Commemoration, the 228 Incident has been transformed from a historical trauma into a national memory. However, instead of looking into the historical facts, the symbolically ritualized commemoration has successfully lifted the memory of pain and strengthened the impression of a new era of a “harmonized” nationalistic identity. Paradoxically, the anniversary ceremony is utilized to legitimize this nationalistic identity,[10] no matter it was conducted by the KMT or the DPP, whose birth came from the efforts of many dissidents under the White Terror and was in power from 2000 to 2008.

The later studies found out that the official gesture of harmonization didn’t work. After KMT returned to power, in the 2009 Commemoration, Chang (2011), researcher and observer of ceremonial rituals of official commemorations, witnessed people shouting at President Ma Ying-Jeou, demanding him to take the responsibilities for the 228 massacre his KMT Party had committed. Also, Yeh (2015) studied the “monumentalization” of the process of transitional justice in Taiwan and criticized the superficiality of the policy, especially the formation of the “Jing-Mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park” and the “Green Island Human Rights Culture Park”, both were penitentiaries of political prisons. The ruling party still tends to mix reasons of the misfortune of the victims and claims all of them were wrongfully prosecuted and sentenced despite some of them were for Taiwan’s independence, some of them were for their involvement with the Communist Party, and some were for other political reasons. On Green Island, many names of the victims carved on the Human Rights Monument are mistakenly categorized due to the lack of research. Yeh assumes that most of the writings about the 228 Incident and White Terror tend to indistinctly describe the victims as local elites and their sacrifice heroic deeds were to appease the victims and their families; however, it conceals the multifaceted historical facts we should have known. Another problem Yeh noticed is, rather than addressing the public, the routine and ceremonial commemoration functions tend to limit the dialogs within the victims and their relatives, especially when it is commissioned to private businesses such as public relation agencies. Similarly to the 228 commemoration art exhibitions aforesaid, the events they curate often come up from the ideas of a small group of curators and in all these years the content and the style of presentation repeat themselves. Yeh questioned that the superficial routines of honoring the victims aim rather to re-justify KMT’s power in post martial law era as well as to sacralize the DDP’s rising than to remind the historical tragedies. Seeing similar problems, Tsao (2011), executive director of Cheng Nan-Jung Foundation, urges that in deciding what and how to represent the historical traumas in a museological context, the curatorial teams must face competition of diverse discourses or challenges from different political views.

2. Theories and Practices of Public Memorization and Individual Perception of Human Rights Issues

In addition to the ruling party’s intentional or unintentional ambiguity, any presentation in the context of museology inevitably will compromise the complex nature of the history and the courses behind the historical situations. Personal memories of the victims and their relatives who might provide important resources of what really had happened in the past are often overlooked in such official and museological operations. In this chapter we see some Taiwanese scholars’ elaborate observations may confirm that the ritualized commemoration of the 228 Incident, the White Terror, the Formosa Incident, and other human rights atrocities could have influenced the society at different directions.

2.1. Presentation of Unspoken Memories

In discussing the long-time disputation about the number of deaths in 228 Incident, Wu (2012) pointed out that although memorization belongs to public policies, the historical memory is still largely simplified and formed by privileged political figures. There are always messages from the underprivileged and oppressed parties overlooked. Taking the Taiwan Communist Party members who were in the uprising during the 228 Incident for example, they prefer to be remembered as the failed “revolutionists” than “victims”.[11] Wu commented that without looking into the multifaceted history, the historical memory will end with empty memorization when time passes, as Peter Novick noted in his study of the Holocaust. To understand something historically is to be aware of its complexity, to have sufficient detachment to see it from multiple perspectives, to accept the ambiguities. Collective memory simplifies; sees events from a single, committed perspective; is impatient with ambiguities of any kind; reduces events to mythic archetypes (Novick 1999:4). In order to create a harmonized collective memory and reach immediate reconciliation, Taiwan’s cultural policy for 228 Incident and White Terror has reduced the complex of the history and hindered us to look into the real countenance of the our past.

Beside the oversimplified proclamation of the sacrifice of the White Terror victims and the compensative representation of the Taiwanese subjectivity in exhibitions, the ritualized commemorations in Taiwan are also criticized. A review of the theories helps us to reflect the themes from other perspectives.

The Federal Republic Germany is the country where most research on the memorization of human rights violation has been conducted. Based on the discipline of museology, the design of memorials and museums, such as how objects are displayed or exhibited, have been discussed for decades. From the perspective of museum exhibition, many theorists mentioned ideas about “democratization of memories”—through re-organizing objects, mostly original documents and authentic materials, to encourage active understanding and to inspire interpretations coming from the audience (Hoffmann 1976). An exhibition of human rights issues should not limit itself in representing the history but try to answer the causes of the disastrous past. And as time passes, an open interpretive structure is increasingly important when eyewitnesses are fading out.

Other theorists emphasize that although representing past human rights abuses from the viewpoint of the victims could give back the dignity they had been deprived, it could lead to de-contextualization of the history. There are also concerns that, in order to increase the legibility of exhibitions, simplified information, numbers or material evidences for example, might reduce the significance of the facts that are more difficult to visualize for the audience. Since memories fade, mourning for the historical tragedies should strengthen public acknowledgement of the past, and at the same time enable individual perception of what had happened (Lutz 2009). Referring to the much disputed book Hitler’s Willige Vollstrecker (Hitler’s Willing Executioners) by American historian Daniel Goldhagen in 1995, German historian Knigge (2002) reminds us that the debates at that time have helped many Germans step out of the shameful feeling by breaking the taboo to participate in the discourses. Given this experience, as for exhibitions from the viewpoint of the state, narrative is just a fundamental requirement. The style of documentation and presentation should open to arguments.

2.2. Negative Heritage and Exhibitions of Human Rights Issues

Negative heritage is a term normally discussed in relation to monuments and remains of war and conflict that are undesirable because people don’t want to be reminded. Taking the “Jing-Mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park” as the example of the first official negative heritage in Taiwan, Huang (2011) discussed how the site could be preserved to remind not just the traumatic past but also all dimensions of human rights. The detention center is designated to be a part of the National Human Rights Museum after six years of fierce debate, and renamed as “Jing-Mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park”. It will serve as a reminder of the inhuman persecution of dissidents under the unjust Martial Law. Huang suggests, in order to respond to a society with increasing diversity, the spatial, architectural and museological arrangement must have the capacity to confront controversies. Historical truth can’t be disclosed without communication between divided opinions and discourses.

The assistant researcher of the National Human Rights Museum Lin (2014) has pointed out that the immaterial part of the museum is still missed. In addition to the accessible historical documents and the representation of the living circumstance of the inmates, the juridical system during the Martial Law period and White Terror period also should be made presentable to make the audience aware of how the human right violation could have happened. Referring to Pierre Nora’s idea of memory site (lieux) in three senses—material, symbolic, and functional, which enables even an apparently purely material site like an archive becomes a circumstance of memorization if the imagination invests it with a symbolic aura (Nora 1989), Lin urges that only to juxtapose the authentic circumstances with suggestive objects, the museum can inspire the imagination of the audience and make memories perceptible, and give rise to discussions between the audiences.

In practice we find forerunners. In his paper Sandell (2012) introduced the projects of the biennial the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Glasgow initiated for human rights. In 2001 a kurdish asylum seeker Firsat Yildiz was murdered brutally in Glasgow, the city council demanded all the public institutes to work together and fight against racism and discrimination against minority groups. The murder case gave rise to the human rights series for GoMA Biennial since 2003–2009. In cooperation with Amnesty International, the Scottish Refugee Council and numerous volunteers, and through the power of visual art to reach a wide audience, these exhibitions aimed to raise public awareness of social exclusion. Since then the biennial has dealt with issues such as violence against women, (trans-)gender, identity, and territorialism. These events drew a lot of media attention as well as controversial reactions. With the example of GoMA, Sandell contends that through curatorial profession, a museum could show certain attitude toward social affairs and become more interventional and influential in shaping values.

2.3. Personal Perception for the Non-witness Generations

German historians of the “culture of remembrance” (Erinnerungskultur) Assmann (2007) and Pakendorf (2006) have analyzed some literary works published in the twenty-first century which integrate personal history into German or world history.[12] The authors of these biographical novels look back to the generations ahead to find the relations of Germany to the world as well as to the present. The delayed genealogical pursuits of German history reveal that the German history after WWII was determined by the shame of Holocaust and there has been a scar not only wrapped in the national history but also in individual perception. Seemingly to respond to Theodor Adorno, the cultural productivity of Germany after Auschwitz had also been impeded for decades (Pakendorf 2006). Meanwhile Thonfeld (2015) has observed that since the reunion of West and East Germany in 1990, and with the trend of europeanization and the immigration policy, the reconstruction of the collective memory of the German state has stepped into its third stage,[13] in which more and more individual viewpoints of the third generation after the WWII have been represented in creative works, such as films and fictions. Among many examples the movie Im Labyrinth des Schweigens (Labyrinth of Lies) (Greven 2014) by Giulio Ricciarelli looks back to expose the conspiracy of prominent German institutions and government branches to cover up the crimes of Nazis during WWII. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (Finger 2006) directed by Florian Henckel talked about the secret surveillance under East German regime, and the human right issues under the dictatorship. The TV movie Der Turm (The Tower)(Cammann 2012) based on the novel of the same name published in 2008 by Uwe Tellkamp reminded the united German society how German people were punished with their country divided after WWII and the decline of the corrupt East Germany. These creations allow the later generations to interpret their histories through multiple perspectives, and quite a few of them have contextualized the German transitional justice process with personal experiences explicitly or implicitly.

With the examples how German people memorize their history, we see that the historical documents are not the only source of memory. Non-witness generations could be inspired and motivated to formulate fictional works in order to look into a variety of issues of the past, for which fictionality provides greater possibilities and imagination.

Theorists and artists have provided us some clues that art could make up what collective memory has missed—personal perspective. The experience of other societies showed us that through the visualization of controversial issues, art can draw public attention, stimulate discourse, and raise awareness of the past mistakes. And historical lessons won’t be forgotten only when traumas and shame are discussable.

3. Art Creation Regarding Human Right Issues

In this chapter I review several artworks contextually to clarify how the human right issues in the past have been interpreted and reminded through artistic vitality, and to which extent the audiences are evoked to memorize the history in their own way.

3.1. Art Creation Featuring the White Terror

Wan Jen’s movie Super Citizen Ko (1995) is a story of White Terror victim Ko. After serving his sentence, Ko’s final wish was to find the buried site of another victim Chen, who was turned in by Ko. From Ko’s narrative we are reminded how absurd the “policy of forgetting” is and how ignorant we are in dealing with the past. Following Ko’s memory, we see how the urban development of the Taipei City has erased most of the White Terror related sites, including the Higashi Honganji Temple (now the Department Store Lion Grove Garden), the Judicial Office (now Sheraton Grande Hotel), and Machangting (former Youth Park and now Machangting Memorial Park, 2000). They were either the places for interrogation, detention, or execution grounds during the White Terror period. The tension in the scenes of street protests showed the audience how repressive it was when freedom of expression did not exist (Figures 2–4).

Figure 2. Poster of Super Citizen Ko, Chen signs 2 and 1 to explain that his death penalty was according to the Article 2 Section 1 of Act for the Control and Punishment of Rebellion (1949–1992)


Figure 3. Screenshot from Super Citizen Ko (


Figure 4. Screenshot from Super Citizen Ko. The protagonist Ko mourns for the eradicated memories of White Terror through the urbanization and commercialization of the city spaces in Taipei. The Higashi Honganji Temple where the wronged were tortured, dignity deprived, became a bustling shopping area, and the detention center where the innocents totally lost hope became a hotel for drinking parties (


After analyzing the city spaces shown in several Taiwanese cinemas in the 1990s, including Super Citizen Ko, Lin (1998) asserted that Taiwanese cinematic industry has a culture to imply a disturbed nationalism since the White Terror. In Super Citizen Ko the protagonist Ko got lost in the Taipei City many times after his 12 years sentence and 16 years of self-imprisonment. His anachronistic memories and the geographic confusion implicate the lost national identity of the Taiwanese citizens. And as the historical landmarks are wiped away, such a lost national identity is even more impossible to trace. Memory of the sites related to the White Terror is totally removed, replaced by commercialism. A capitalism oriented urban development means that the role of a state is absent, and the national pride is ruptured and overpowered by consumptionism.

With similar critiques to ruling the society with overwhelming commercialization and consumptionism, Mei Dean-E’s work Swinging Memorandum (1999) was also to memorize Formosa Incident 1979. [14] The hanging and swinging military policemen in the abandoned factory came from the recollection the Martial Law period from 1949 to 1987 in Taiwan. Each of the eight masked military policemen was holding a rose bouquet to symbolize the softened state apparatus. The golden masks indicated that after the abolishment of Martial Law, instead of democratization, the nationalization of Taiwan is accelerating toward capitalization (Chen 2008). The state power, here represented by the hanging military policemen, is signified as an undefined status of Taiwan as a political entity. While arguing that the state has turned into an enthusiastic supporter of capitalism (Hsu 2014), the masks Mei utilized to cover the faces of the military policemen also symbolized the lost subjectivity of Taiwan in the post-colonial as well as the neo-capitalistic era. This art project reminds us that there is no conciliation achieved for the Formosa Incident, behind the consumption oriented “recovery” of Taiwanese society, the traumatic memory still haunts (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Swinging Memorandum, 20th Anniversary of Formosa Incident by Mei Dean-E, 1999 (Photo: Taipei Museum of Fine Art)
Figure 5. Swinging Memorandum, 20th Anniversary of Formosa Incident by Mei Dean-E, 1999
(Photo: Taipei Museum of Fine Art)

Also referring to French historian Pierre Nora, Wang (2013b, 2013c) analyzed the artworks Long Live (2011–2012) and Long Long Live (2013) by Yao Jui-Chung and pointed out that memory and history can be contradictory to one another. Memory is carried by individuals and communities, while history is a remembered reconstruction of the fragments of phenomena that no longer exist. Memory mixes all kinds of feelings and history is a secularized intellectual construction; memory is always shared by a specific group or between individuals, while history belongs to everyone and at the same time no one (Nora 1989). In the video Long Long Live, Yao costumes as a uniformed commander, saluting and calling out “Long long live for the Republic of China” on an abandoned stage for flag-raising in Taiyuan Prison. Located in Taitung, Taiyuan Prison[15] was used as a branch of the Green Island Prison.

In Yao’s work, as the camera zooms out, we see that the scene is displayed on the TV screen in the dining room of the Jing-Mei Detention Center. Wandering in the ruins of former military sites and judicial institutions, memory of the past martial rules in Taiwan is brought back. In Yao’s photography and videos, Taiwan and the even smaller islands around it used be under the rules of the dictatorial regime were abandoned now (Yao 2007). In Long Long Live the artist’s acting is rather like a man possessed by the past than a commander in power. Yao means to express that although since 2011 the preparation of the National Human Rights Museum on both of the “Jing-Mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park” and the “Green Island Human Rights Culture Park”, Taiwanese people are still confused with their historical memory, and their national identity is just like a haunting ghost. In Yao’s work, both the human right culture parks represent rather the escapism of the collective memory than the embodiment of a transitional process supposed to legitimize the state apparatus (Figures 6 and 7).

Figure 6. Screenshot from Long Long Live by Yao Jui-Chung, single-channel video, Taiyuan Prison, 7` 30, 2013 (courtesy of the artist)
Figure 6. Screenshot from Long Long Live by Yao Jui-Chung, single-channel video, Taiyuan Prison, 7` 30, 2013 (courtesy of the artist)
Figure 7. Screenshot from Long Long Live, Yao Jui-Chung, Single-channel Video, Jing-Mei Detention Center 7` 30, 2013 (courtesy of the artist)

Compared to the aforementioned art exhibitions held in public museums or institutes, these works are much more critical. However their criticism to the state as well as to the society is ambivalent. Through reflecting the absence of state role in the realization of transitional justice, the artworks remind us that state is the only authority to endorse the justice. (Wu 2016)

3.2. Artistic Innovation in Human Right Issues

In 2011, 747 pages of letters from the inmates sentenced to death of the Taiyuan Incident (1970) and of the underground workers of Taiwanese Communist Party (1946–1952) were released to their recipients, some of them already deceased.[16] These letters from the incarcerated to their families were confiscated and never delivered, thus unknown for more than six decades. Some of them have been stored in National Archives Administration. After arduous efforts of the relatives of the wronged and the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (Taiwan TRC), these letters were finally released. Some of them have arrived at the families of the victims, and some of them would never reach the addressed recipients. As the witnesses and memories of the White Terror are fading out, Taiwan TRC engaged six young writers to interview the family members of nine executed prisoners. It’s an attempt to relay the historical memory with writing. Nine heartbreaking stories have been re-established based on the letters and the interviews with the victims’ families. Their stories became a book of literary quality Undelivered Last Will—To the People in the Age of Terror (2015).[17] Through the writers’ artistic capacity, the highly sensitive issue is touched, and many of the survivors began to talk about their lost beloved for the first time, and the suppressed and nearly lost memories can reach to readers today (Figure 8).

Figure 8. The Letters Kuo Ching wrote to his wife and parents-in-law (

Creativity enables artists to reach much more people than expected. During the twelfth Havana Biennial 2014–2015 a Cuban-born artist Tania Bruguera was arrested for her attempt to reconstruct the stage in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, which was to remake her 2009 performance Tatlin’s Whisper #6 that offered an open microphone for Cuban people to express their views about their country’s future. For her another project #YoTambienExijo (I Also Demand) the artist traveled to Havana to meet the director of the National Council of the Fine Arts, Rubén Del Valle, who had made clear that Bruguera would never receive any official support from Cuban cultural authorities. Bruguera lives and works between Cuba and the United States, and was arrested in Havana by Cuban police on May 24, 2015 after she has finished her 100 h of reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) in public, and her passport has been confiscated for more than six months. Bruguera has been in and out of prison whenever she is working on her art in her hometown.

In her 2009 work, the artist provided a temporary platform for free speech, the audience was invited to speak freely in public for one minute on a subject they chose, which was and still is a taboo in Cuba. The empty podium resembled a monument for the leader who had decided the fate of Cuban people for 49 years (1959–2008) ( Bruguera 2009). Since her arrest in December 2014, more than 2,000 artists, curators, art historians, and activists from all over the world have signed a petition, demanding Raul Castro to release Bruguera (Milliard 2015). The repeat of the same work after five years mirrored the development of Cuban politics, and the detention of the artist tells the world that although the world is talking about lifting the embargo on Cuba and the diplomatic relations between Cuba and many countries are to be restored, the government hasn’t actually changed, the citizens are still not allowed to express their political views in public.

As mentioned before, private memories of the past are often on the contrary to the officially defined, collectively shaped memory. Another explicit example is in South Korea. Decades after the Korean War (1950–1953), the National War Memorial was erected in 1994 (Figure 9). Although the war was rather a trauma than a victory for the divided country, instead of memorizing the past as a negative heritage, an outdated aesthetics was employed in this nationalistic monument to emphasize the militant mentality of Korean people. Also the reliefs of soldiers on the wall of the memorial representing the traditional battles in Korea are for the purpose of legitimizing the interpenetrating state power (Jager 2002).

Figure 9. The main building and museum of the National War Memorial of Korea (Wikipedia)

In contrast to the official aesthetics, the Gwangju Biennale, founded in 1995, is aimed to commemorate the pro-democracy protest and massacre now known as the Gwangju Uprising.[18] In the 10th Biennale in 2014 South Korean artist Minouk Lim presented her work Navigation ID together with the widows and descendants of the victims of several overshadowed Korean War massacres. The artist revealed the fact the Korean state and society would rather forget that, during the dictatorial era, the South Korean government had killed more than 100,000 suspected communists and other political opponents. To remind the public the unacknowledged deaths for decades, the artist presented the bones of the victims at the opening of the biennial. Planned like a ceremonial process, the trailers carrying the bones arrived the scene, escorted by a helicopter. Family members in mourning clothes and blindfolds proceeded to place offerings around the remains.[19] Lim’s art not only reminds people the cruelty of the dictatorial regime, but also challenges the legitimacy of the heroism that the official policy utilizes to strengthen South Korea people’s identity with the state (Figure 10).

Figure 10a. Screenshot from Navigation ID by Minouk Lim, 2014 (
Figure 10b. Screenshot from Navigation ID by Minouk Lim, 2014 (


To intervene the collective memory of being in peace, Alketa Xhafa-Mripa, a Kosovo-born British artist showed her work Thinking of You in June 2015 with 5,000 dresses stretched on clotheslines across a football field in Kosovo’s capital Pristina (Figure 11). The dresses were donated in response to the artist’s call that 16 years after the war, the sexual violence during the war has never been dealt. It is estimated about 20,000 Albanian women, and some men, were victims of sexual violence during the Kosovo war (1998–1999), caused by Albanian separatists fighting against the Yugoslav regime led by Serbian Slobodan Milosevic. Some of the victims who have spoken out faced criticism and were expelled by conservatives in Kosovo, mainly Muslim Albanians. Many women who had been raped during the chaos were later divorced by their husbands. With Anna Di Lellio, an Italian expert of international affairs in Kosovo, Alketa Xhafa-Mripa has implemented her concept as a powerful visual reminder of an aspect of the Kosovo War that is seldom faced and discussed (Booth 2015).

The victims of sexual violence in Kosovo suffered during and after the war. The artwork with thousands of dresses hanging on the clotheslines is to symbolize that the victims have cleared their names from the stigma, just like the freshly washed clothes. With the huge scale in the public space, the artwork aims to break the indifference of the society as well as the suppression of the majority to the sexual victims. Only the problem of sexual violence is faced, can we prevent it from happening again.

Figure 11. Thinking of You by Alketa Xhafa-Mripa, 2015 (photo by Jetmir Idrizi, courtesy Anna Di Lellio)

All the artworks mentioned in this chapter have successfully increased public awareness of the overlooked past as well as the absence of the transitional justice. Hopefully with these examples, the visualization of the unspeakable memories of the victims and their relatives who had been condemned and isolated, more facts will be discovered. Through artistic strategies, a greater audience and the non-witness generations could be motivated to participate in the traumatic past and the challenging tasks of transitional justice.

4. Conclusion

This study finds that Taiwan’s official cultural policies in regard to human rights are not much beyond organizing commemoration ceremonies, erecting monuments, founding human right cultural parks, and staging art or document exhibitions for the victims of the human right violation. In profiling the victims, they focus on their suffering and make them heroes without real faces although each of them had been prosecuted and tried by different reasons. This could be understood that, in this manner of dealing with the memorization of the historical tragedies, the ruling party has further political purposes. As mentioned before, the public commemoration is institutionalized to re-justify the power of KMT after the abolishment of the Martial Law, and at the same time appease some DPP politicians by honoring their heroic deeds in the past.

In Taiwan, the atonement of the past wrongdoings is nothing but the musealization of the archives and the routinization of the commemoration. There are no legal measures taken, no investigation, no institutional reform, and no discourse. Monuments, exhibitions, and concerts could be easily utilized to create a false image that the society has reconciled and people should be able to forgive and move forward. Such culture policies seem to be usual in Taiwan as in other countries.

The artworks mentioned in this study demonstrate an active role of art in various human right issues. These artworks touch subtle topics that the collective actions fail to deal with, like the suppressed feelings of anger and shame, the forced silence about the victimhood, and the ambiguity of their personal background. With creative ways of expression, art gives images and voice to the imageless and voiceless, making up the discrepancy between the official history and individual memories.

We see plenty of cinematic products, video art pieces, and installations in public spaces initiated by artists to trigger interaction with the communities and audiences. Wan Jen’s film introduced the sites related the White Terror in Taipei city that have been almost erased by urban planning and commercialism, reminding us how forgettable our society is. Yao Jui-Chung and Mei Dean-E used the ghostly figures of national symbols and military gestures to suggest a country of fake reconciliation. The young writers of the Undelivered Last Will who take the roles of the victims and write down their sorrows and regrets for their families have not just consoled the bereaved families but also the readers after six decades. We see Minouk Lim’s questioning the attempt of the South Korean government to justify its violence by valorizing military forces while facing the permanent threat from the North Korea. And not until Tania Bruguera’s detainment in Cuba has drawn worldwide attention, did we become aware of her appeal and the recent political development in Cuba. Alketa Xhafa-Mripa’s large-scale installation should shake us up from our ignorance about what kind of brutality could have happened in wars.

While the official commemoration only tries to create the impression that the society has achieved reconciliation and secured the forgiveness of the past mistakes, artists and creators keep presenting stories different from the official version. This study has found that through contextual review of artworks related to historical issues, we see the artistic capacity could form an influential power to intervene the collective memory the authorities attempt to sustain. At last, we have been reminded by these artists that the most possible offender of human rights is the state apparatus.

Keywords: Taiwanese Art, Transitional Justice, 228 Incident, White Terror




[1] 228 Incident—The incident was an anti-government uprising in Taiwan. Taking its name from the date of the incident, it began on February 27, 1947, and was violently suppressed by the government constituted by the ruling party Kuomingtang (KMT), also the founding party of the Republic of China. Countless civilians were killed during the suppression. The massacre was not only but result of the conflicts between the Mainlanders and Taiwanese-Chinese. Most of the former were retreated officials and soldiers from Mainland China during the civil war against the Chinese Communist Party.

[2] White Terror—The 228 turmoil kicked off Kuomintang’s White Terror period in Taiwan; the term is used to describe the suppression of free speech and censorship of press. During the period, citizens could have been arrested secretly, murdered, or imprisoned without due process of prosecution and trials. This period covered a longer time than the Martial Law Period from 1949 to 1987.

[3] Article 2 Section 1 of Act for the Control and Punishment of Rebellion (1949–1992).

[4] It is estimated that during the 228 Incident the population of Taiwanese killed by the KMT regime was from 10,000 to 30,000 and that this marked the start of a long-time repression of Taiwanese by Mainlanders. During the White Terror period from 1949 to1992, around 140,000 people were imprisoned, of which about 3,000–4,000 were executed, for their real or alleged opposition to the KMT. Soon after the abolishment of Martial Law, the process of transitional justice in Taiwan began to emerge in the 1990s facilitated by the investigations of the 228 Incident and the White Terror. From 1998 to 2014, in accordance with the Compensation Act for Wrongful Trials on Charges of Sedition and Espionage during the Martial Law Period, up to date around 13,000 cases have been compensated or rehabilitated through the foundation established for this task. Yet, the complicated political contradictions between different groups of people leave transitional justice far from complete (Shih and Chen 2010). And this process of juridical correction does not completely stop human right violations in later juridical decisions.

[5] Transitional Justice—The origins of transitional justice commenced from the establishment of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg after World War II. The joint efforts to investigate the crimes committed during the war and the various efforts toward de-nazification in Germany marked the birth of transitional justice. Transitional justice was called upon to respond to the dilemmas that beset the social and political transformations underway in South Africa, the countries of Central and South America, as well as in the Central and Eastern European states after the collapse of communism since the 1980s. According to the International Center for Transitional Justice, four fundamental measures must be taken in order to restore justice: (1) prosecution of those most likely to be responsible, (2) reparations to those who suffered for the harms caused by the state violence, (3) institutional reform to prevent the machinery of abuses from repeating past mistakes, and (4) truth commissions to investigate the systematic patterns of abuse and the underlying causes of serious human right violations. None of these measures have been taken in Taiwan. Victims and their families might have received financial compensation, but not any legal step has been proceeded.

[6] Also, this limitation is caused because the perpetrating party, KMT has been the ruling party for the most of time until now. Power shifts in Taiwan—Kuomintang (KMT), the Nationalist Party ruled the state from 1945 to 2000, the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) took over the state from 2000 to 2008, then KMT returned to power again from 2008 to 2016. Voters for KMT intent to inherit the traditional Chinese culture and reunion with People’s Republic China, while DPP voters incline to identify Taiwanese Nationalism.

[7] The incident occurred when Formosa Magazine and other opposition politicians held a demonstration commemorating Human Rights Day in an effort to promote and demand democracy in Taiwan.

[8] For example, in 1995 when the first 228 Memorial was erected by the central government, fierce debates about the wording of the inscription finally resulted in the vandalism of the inscription plaque by the families of the victims. Arguments were mainly about how the inscription of fewer than 600 words should be put, and whether the Memorial marked that the reconciliation has been achieved or not.

[9] Taiwan Museum of Art, which fell under the jurisdiction of the Taiwan Provincial Government and became a national art museum after the abolition of the Taiwan Provincial Government in 2000.

[10] While KMT emphasized the forgiveness, DPP focused on the Taiwanese subjectivity, and only in the Commemoration of 2002, the presidential speech by Chen, Shui-Bian has mentioned the 228 Incident as a human right issue (Chang 2011:80).

[11] There are also disputes about the location of Taiyuan Incident Monument in Caotun, and debates about the terminology of “reparation” or “compensation” (Liberty Times Net 2015a, 2015b).

[12] These works are Nach den Kriegen (After the Wars, 2004) by Dagmar Leupold, Ein unsichtbares Land (An Invisible Land, 2003) by Stephan Wackwitz, Am Beispiel meines Bruders (In My Brother’s Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS, 2003) by Uwe Timm and Meines Vaters Land (My Father’s Country, 2004) by Wibke Bruhns.

[13] The first stage was after the WWII, the second stage began in the 1980s when the President Richard von Weizsäcker claimed Germany was “freed” from National Socialism (Thonfeld 2015).

[14] Before the Abolishment of Martial Law in 1987, in Kaohsiung on December 10, 1979 the Formosa Incident took place. It was the first major conflict between the government and civilian protestors, characterized by the government as a “violent rebellion” at the time. Its background was a protest march demanding democracy and freedom, organized by a group of opposition activists centered around Formosa Magazine. But when the government attempted to suppress the march, it evolved into a violent confrontation. Afterward, several opposition activists were arrested and tried for sedition, which carried the death penalty. Ultimately, under pressure from all quarters of Taiwanese society and from the United States, the court handed down life sentence.

[15] Prisoners in Taiyuan were mainly incarcerated because of their activities for the independence of Taiwan from China. In 1970, a group of people consisting of the inmates, prison guards, and local indigenous intellectuals intruded the prison, freed the inmates and occupied the broadcast station. The insurgence was put out quickly by the joint force of marine and police.

[16] The handover ceremony of the letters to the family members was held in the 24th anniversary of abolishment of Martial Law, by president Ma Ying-Jeou personally. The speech drafts of the family members had been inspected by the officials in advance. Taiwan TRC criticized that the handover was nothing but a staged transitional justice. Undelivered Last Will—To the People in the Age of Terror (2015:100-101).

[17] These writers are Lu Cang-Yi, Hu Shuwen, Chen Chung-Yen, Yang Mei-Hung, Lou Rob Yu-Chia, and Lin I-Cheng.

[18] The uprising began on May 18, 1980, when students assembled to peacefully protest the inauguration of yet another military strongman, Chun Doo-hwan, as Korea’s new president. Within nine days at least 240 protesters had been murdered by Korean Special Forces. Hundreds if not thousands more were beaten and and more than 1,000 arrested in the aftermath (Wikipedia: Gwangju Biennale).

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