Taiwan has a history full of oppressive rulers and people who resisted their oppression. During October to December
of 2008, widespread protests of government intervention in civil society showed that this struggle is not yet finished.
This paper analyzes those protests, particularly as they pertain to the Wild Strawberry Student Movement. Key concepts
used in this analysis are an action-centered conceptualization of culture as a tool-kit, a narrative of unfolding,
and a language of resistance.
"It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners." ~Albert
This paper explores the
social upheaval that occurred in Taiwan from October to December of 2008. For this analysis, I view culture as
a “tool-kit” of symbols, stories, rituals and worldviews, which people use in varying configurations
to solve different kinds of problems.1 The appearance of these tools
is in many respects born of necessity; in order to understand the raison d’être of any particular tool
we must look at the historical and social conditions that necessitated its existence as these conditions act like
a “culture” in a petri dish, out of which a multiplicity of tools may emerge. I will refer to
these tools as the language of resistance, or the slogans, chants, songs, and rituals that provide both
inspiration and solidarity within a social movement. I will also consider the importance of a sense of history,
or what has been termed a narrative of unfolding.2 Such a
narrative includes not just a sense of us as individual historical actors, but also a sense of being part of something
larger than ourselves, a collective sense of history as constituting a movement, a people, a nation, and the destinies
One of the central tensions of Taiwanese
society is a contested view of Taiwan’s destiny among the various factions in Taiwanese politics, primarily between
the two main rival parties: the Kuo Ming Tang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). A perfect example
of this rivalry was to be found in the Taiwanese entourage’s awkward visit to the US for Barack Obama’s inauguration.
The entourage consisted of delegates from the KMT, the DPP, and the Taiwanese government, presumably the neutral party
meant to maintain peace between the rivals.3 While addressing a banquet
of Taiwanese living in the US, a KMT representative said, “Taiwan is not a country, but the Republic of China is.
This matter however should not come between us for after all, we are all Chinese.” This statement so irritated the
DPP representative Annette Lu, the former Vice President, that she refused to attend a later event held at the Taipei Economic
and Cultural Representative Office (the de facto Taiwanese embassy). Mrs. Lu would have said just the opposite: Taiwan
is a country and we are all Taiwanese.
Before conducting my analysis, I
will need to give a brief synopsis of Taiwanese history so that the reader may get a sense of the narrative of unfolding
which is contested and the discourse contained therein. The historical synopsis will also help to illustrate a point social
theorist Michel Foucault made regarding the analysis of discourse: “The question posed by language analysis of some
discursive fact or other is always: according to what rules has a particular statement been made, and consequently according
to what rules could other similar statements been made? The description of the event of discourse poses a quite different
question: how is it that one particular statement appeared rather than another?”4 The
latter question that Foucault poses is one I hope to answer in this paper as I trace the historical origins of
statements that appeared during the protests, and also the social/historical conditions that provided for their
eventual mainstream emergence.
I also hope to show that discourse
and action are intricately bound—one informs the other. Any language of resistance within a continuing
discourse is underpinned by the activism which made its mainstream circulation possible; during Taiwan’s post-WWII history,
the statements that could or could not appear were determined by the KMT’s “cultural policy,”5 which
was designed to not only indoctrinate native Taiwanese into viewing themselves as Chinese but also to control the
flow of information, or what the KMT termed “poisonous thoughts,” which contained discourse on subjects such as
class struggle, democracy, or Taiwan independence.
History and Context
After the end of WWII, as
part of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, Taiwan was relinquished from Japanese colonial rule and placed under
Chinese rule. China was then the Republic of China and ruled by the KMT, headed by Chiang Kai Shek. In 1945, as
nearly 12,000 troops arrived in Taiwan, the KMT were warmly greeted by Taiwanese hopeful that KMT rule would be
better than Japanese rule. They were to be sorely disappointed. Just over two years later, the 228 Massacre
occurred. Twenty to thirty thousand Taiwanese died in an uprising that was instigated by government corruption.6 This
was to be a pivotal event in the formation of a Taiwanese narrative of unfolding as they came to see themselves
as a group oppressed by the KMT, who were often viewed as foreign conquerors in the same way as the Japanese.
Also during that time the Chinese
Civil War was being waged between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As it became increasingly clear that Chiang
Kai Shek was going to lose the war, he prepared Taiwan for his inevitable retreat by declaring Martial Law on May 20 of
1949—the official premise being that it was necessary in order to curtail the threat of Communism, a threat that
would be invoked repeatedly to justify other harsh measures. On December 7, 1949, the KMT retreated to Taiwan, along with
600,000 troops and over a million Chinese as the KMT central government set itself up in Taipei, Taiwan’s largest
city. With the arrival of the KMT came the White Terror, a period of extreme repression that brought with it a series of
abrogations that had cultural as well as political consequences.
Among the abrogations put in place
were a ban on private radio stations, which lasted until the early 1990’s; a ban on men’s “strange apparel,” which
were fashions showing relatively new styles or evidence of individualism; a ban on overseas tourism and visits to overseas
relatives; compulsory registration of radio sets and a monthly charge of 10 New Taiwan Dollars for the privilege of owning
a radio; a ban on newspapers not officially sanctioned by the state (lasted until January 1, 1988); a ban on middle school
student’s long hair for both men and women; a “General Inspection of School Books,” which required elementary
schools to inspect all books for evidence of opposition to state policy or the encouragement of class struggle; a ban on
Taiwanese history being taught (only Chinese history was to be taught); a ban on local languages, Hoklo (Taiwanese), Hakka,
and Aboriginal tongues; and a ban on Taiwanese folk songs and popular songs inclined to social realism.7
Such abrogations were repeatedly
revised and made more repressive, and new ones were frequently installed up until, and shortly after, the death of Chiang
Kai Shek’s son, Chiang Ching Kuo, in 1988. Although Chiang junior lifted Martial Law in 1987, change did not come
about overnight. With the ascendancy of Taiwan’s first native born president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1990, the pace of
change would accelerate throughout the 1990’s, leading to full democratization and the first direct Presidential
election, won by Lee in 1996. In 1997, Taiwan was listed as a “free country” by Freedom House, a human rights
NGO based in the United States.
The reasons for this transformation
are numerous and complex and include the democratic principles written into the ROC constitution by founder Sun Yet Sen,8 massive
domestic pressure on the KMT for change, particularly from the marginalized rural and urban working classes,9 and
international conditions as the KMT felt continual pressure to liberalize in order to gain favor and support from
Western countries that were leaning towards closer ties with Communist China.10
In addition to the preceding historical
account, there are other key factors that are essential for understanding the current paradoxes and contentions that still
remain in Taiwanese society and culture. First, the People’s Republic of China claims that Taiwan is part of its
territory and currently has anywhere from 800 to 1000 missiles aimed at Taiwan, threatening to use them should the country
formally declare independence. Second, as of May 2008, the KMT was democratically elected back into power after eight years
of rule by the Democratic Progressive Party. Ever since the party fled China to establish itself in Taiwan and up until
Lee Teng-hui took power, the KMT maintained that the ROC was the sole legitimate China, and it was their full intent to
take back the “mainland” by force. Lee however took up the position of “Two Chinas,” or in
other words, two separate countries across the Taiwan Strait, and the DPP viewed Taiwan as a country completely distinct
from China; the current KMT, led by President Ma Ying-jiao, has re-adopted the “One China” orthodoxy as its
official policy and has nebulously suggested that the ROC is still the legitimate China; they have also established a cozy
relationship with the CCP, and have rapidly, and rather surreptitiously, increased economic ties with China, a situation
that has many Taiwanese worried about an impending “sell-out,” a situation which has sparked numerous
protests. As in the past, the protests often gathered in the public area in front of Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall
(also referred to as Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall).
Shortly after it was built in the
late 1970’s to honor Taiwan’s late dictator, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall soon became the site of massive
protests, an obvious contradiction to its intended use. The large public area surrounding the memorial was dubbed
Memorial Square, which also included centers for traditional Chinese culture such as the National Opera House and the National
Concert Hall, all intended to express the “spirit of Chinese Culture.” In a profound example of just how much
Taiwanese politics had changed, in June of 2007 the huge Chinese characters which hung above the main gate of the complex
and read “Great Mean, Perfect Uprightness,” a reference to the late dictator, were replaced by the DPP led
government with characters reading, “Liberty Plaza,” no doubt meant to express the spirit of Taiwanese self-determination. The
controversial move, made by then President Chen Shui-bian, is an example of a statement many Taiwanese never thought
they would see and was made possible only by the activism of past struggles.11
As previously mentioned, since the
KMT returned to power, concessions have been made by the government that many Taiwanese believe could compromise their
national integrity. These worries came to a boil in November of 2008 after a visit by Chen Yunlin, the first high-level
visit by a Chinese representative since 1945. After the harsh police crackdown on the protests which accompanied Yunlin’s
visit, a student movement called the Wild Strawberries began in response and made three demands: an apology from President
Ma Ying-jiao, the resignation of the National Police Agency General-Director, and an amendment to the Parade & Assembly
law (installed shortly after the lifting of Martial Law), which would remove the stipulation requiring a permit for public
protest. The student movement began in front of the Legislative Yuan, the Taiwanese “congress.” After the police
expelled them from that location, the Wild Strawberries reconvened in Liberty Square, which would become their base of
operations. As will be demonstrated later, the movement utilized many of the same tools that were used by the activists
during the 70s, 80’s, and 90’s.
Data for this paper were
taken from my own pictures, videos, and conversations with locals acquired during October of 2008 to early January
of 2009. Blogs and YouTube videos were also instructive in putting together the pieces of the successive waves
of protest that typified the time during and immediately following Chen Yunlin’s visit. (Unless otherwise
indicated, all data are taken from my first hand observations.) It should also be mentioned that I was not necessarily
in Taiwan as an ethnographer, but as an English teacher, and acted as a participant/observer and supporter of the
protesters, hence not really a neutral observer. Not being neutral however allowed for more candid interactions
with the locals, who were very eager to confide their viewpoints and concerns. Whatever might have been lost in
objectivity was gained in insight into the innermost feelings of Taiwanese concerned about the direction their
homeland was headed.
True to the self-reflexive turn in
social ethnography, I will state very clearly that my position as a foreigner in the midst of this social upheaval was
one with some degree of privilege. During the protests, I was told repeatedly that the police would most likely not harm
me and that my presence might even cause them to be “more conservative” in the way they handled protesters.
For example, while living in a hostel several blocks from Liberty Square, I was able to monitor the student sit-in online
and in real-time via the Wild Strawberries ’ page on JustinTV, a podcast website where there was live streaming of
the sit-in proceedings. While watching this at my hostel, I witnessed some commotion between the police and students. Because
of my close proximity, I was able to run over to the site in just over five minutes. Once there, I turned on my digital
camera, set to take video, and recorded what was one of the many arguments between the students and the police as the students
tried to gradually re-assemble their sit-in after they were forcefully evicted from Liberty Square—to be explained
later. It was a cold night with a chance of rain, and the student’s were setting up a tarp for shelter. As had happened
many times before, after a lengthy debate the police left after giving the students a written warning. I was later thanked
by an older woman, not a student but one of the many locals that frequently joined the Wild Strawberry sit-in. She was
quite convinced that the police would be on their best behavior when foreigners were present and thought it would be a
great idea if foreigners could always be present. Although that was not necessarily possible, I made a point of it to be
present as often as I could.
Taiwan’s Language of Resistance
Under the perceived threat
to the nation’s self-determination, the past struggles for democracy and human rights were invoked, and the
symbols and messages born in those struggles were used as a language of resistance. During the student sit-in,
and prior to the forceful, yet temporary, removal of the students from the location, a survey of Liberty Square
would have shown the presence of the past struggles as well as an indication of the hopes and dreams of a new generation
On a weekday afternoon, what would
normally have been a placid Liberty Square, with students in class and workers at work, symbols of freedom, democracy,
and human rights were front and center. Three large metal cages stood side by side, containing chairs where students had
previously sat in dramatic repose. One cage contained a sign that read, in Mandarin, “Human Rights.” Attached
to the outside of a different cage was a sign bearing the English word “Freedom.” The next cage contained a
sign that read, in both English and Mandarin, “23 Million Taiwanese Decide the Future of Taiwan.” Sitting
in front of each cage was a bouquet of flowers.
As previously mentioned, such statements
have their origin in Taiwan’s previous struggles. The ideals of freedom, human rights, democracy, and self-determination
can be traced back to intellectuals such as Lei Chen and Peng Ming-min. Due to his ardent opposition to Communism, Lei
was actually a member of the KMT inner circle until his expulsion in 1955. His magazine, Free China, advocated
democracy and freedom of speech and was banned from publishing in 1960. Peng was instrumental in the advancement
of Taiwanese self-determination and was the author of the “Declaration of Taiwan People’s Self-Salvation” and the “One China, One
Taiwan” theory. In 1964, he had printed flyers and was preparing to circulate them throughout the island, but
before he could distribute them he was arrested and given a heavy sentence.12 During
the recent protests, one of the most popular signs read, “One Taiwan, One China.” However, in an apparent trick
on the protesters by a KMT supporter, the English part of the sign read, “On Taiwan, One China,” with the “e” having
to be inserted later.
Another prominent structure found
in Liberty Square was the “Human Rights Tower,” which was nearly 20 feet in height and modeled after an aboriginal
design. Each level of the bamboo tower contained a colorful horizontal banner, two of which read in English, “Stop
State Violence,” and “Stop Human Rights Violations.” Stretching vertically from the top of the
tower to the ground were banners that read, in Mandarin, “Revise the Parade & Assembly Law.” A ladder that
hung on one side of the tower led to the top level that could act as a look out. During their eviction, after which the
Human Rights tower was destroyed, one of the students had climbed to the top level and began chanting “He Ping (peace)” through
a megaphone, as if elevating “peace” above state intervention.13 In
general, during Taiwanese political assemblies, the omnipresence of symbols and statements of human rights elevate
them to the level of the sacred, and they are seen as a universal ideal that serves to shield the populace against
state abuse of power.
It was not just the students that
had joined the sit-in. Several veterans of Taiwan’s first wave of democratization, known as the “Deep Green
Coalition,” (green being the color of the DPP, whereas the blue is the color of the KMT) were also present. Propped
up by an easel, a large square of red construction paper bore pictures that told their story; written at the top was “Walk
our Taiwan Road,” a reference to their narrative of unfolding. One picture depicted a march organized by the Wild
Lily student movement,14 which in 1990 held a sit-in outside CKS
Memorial Hall in what was then called Memorial Square; the students marched holding signs bearing a picture of
Cheng Nan-jung, also called Nylon Deng, who is regarded by many as Taiwan’s first martyr of democracy; in 1989, he had immolated himself
in protest of the KMT’s attempts to incarcerate him for publishing the Freedom Era Magazine, which advocated freedom
of speech, direct democracy, and contained a Constitution for the Republic of Taiwan. The students in the front of the
march held up a banner that read (in Mandarin), “Without freedom, I’d rather die.” Cheng Nan-jung’s
remains an iconic figure, and his image could also be found in the many marches that occurred after the Yunlin visit.
Another feature of the sit-in was
the many open-faced wooden cabins that housed anything from a student painting of Che Guevara to a make-shift shrine that
had been built for Human Rights in the tradition of paying homage to a deceased family member. With handcuffs placed alongside
an orange, meant for the benefit of the deceased relative, this bricolage was a sarcastic statement on how during the Chen
Yunlin visit it was if human rights had died; it also served as a testimony to how sensitive the Taiwanese had become to
even a temporary curtailment of their civil rights.
Among the temporary abrogations put
in place by the Central Police Agency were the shutdown of major highways to prevent more people from joining the protest,
prohibiting people from waving the ROC national flag or chanting slogans such as “Taiwan does not belong to China,” and
the closure of a music store (situated near the hotel where Yunlin was staying) that played “Songs of Taiwan,” a
collection of patriotic songs.15 These measures were meant in part
to prevent Chen Yunlin from having to see or hear anything that suggested Taiwan was not a part of China. Although the
primary goal was simply to keep Yunlin safe, the repressive measures inflamed into riots what might have otherwise been
impassioned, yet largely peaceful expressions of national identity.
The cul de sac of the movement was
the December 9th march in defiance of the Parade & Assembly Law. The students did not petition for a permit but merely
informed the police of their intentions. The peaceful march itself was very well organized and included not just students,
but thousands of Taiwanese from all walks of life. Among the statements which appeared were slogans such as “I stand
for Human Rights,” and “Stick It To the Man,” as well as non-verbal statements such as an effigy of Ma
Ying-jiao, reminiscent of effigies past when Chiang Kai-shek was the center of ridicule. A business card created in promotion
of the march featured an image of Jules Joseph Lefebvre’s painting La Verite, with the top of the
torch bearing a strawberry. Similar symbols of freedom, such as the Statue of Liberty, are common in Taiwan.
A few days after the march, and only
hours after Ma Ying-jiao endorsed two international human rights documents at an Asian Democracy and Human Rights event
commemorating Human Rights Day, the police forcefully dispersed Tibetan refugees from Nepal and India that had also congregated
in Liberty Square, then the students; they were both separated into groups and bused to Taipei City outskirts.16 During
the first moments of the struggle, a student posted the following, in both English and French, to the Wild Strawberry
English website: “It is time for the Minuteman! Arise, children of the Fatherland, the day of glory has arrived! Against
us the tyranny’s bloody banner is raised.”17 This statement
recalls not only the American, but also the French Revolution, and demonstrates the considerable influence Western thought
has had on Taiwan’s language of resistance and the extent to which it has altered the consciousness of many Taiwanese.
At a different point, the students began to sing “We Shall Overcome,”18 a
song sung during the American Civil rights movement, indicating cross cultural appropriation of a will to self-determination.
During resistance any tool that is relevant to the cause can and will appear in the field of discourse.
The following day, the students,
as well as the Tibetans, returned to Liberty Square. One female student told the crowd that had gathered in the evening, “It
is useless for the police to come back again and again, because we will come back again and again.” Over the
weeks that followed, the students began to rebuild their sit-in while under 24-hour police surveillance. Yet
shortly after New Year’s Day, the sit-in ended; the students had made the decision to move their operations to a nearby office,
which they called “Strawberry House.”
In Eastern societies, a
healthy respect for authority is very often well regarded. A column in the China Post, entitled “Back to
school, Wild Strawberries” offered this advice to the students: “The best way to keep harmony in a
country and rid it of any unrest and woes that may befall its people, according to the time-honored Confucian doctrine,
is for everyone to play their roles dutifully.”19 However,
there is very little Confucian doctrine in Taiwan’s language of resistance. On the first night of the student
sit-in, in front of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s Congressional Building), a National Taiwan University
Professor20 explained the very conditions under which this doctrine
breaks down: “The state has stretched its evil hand into civil society where democracy has struggled for
30 years.” This situation presents the dilemma expressed on the Taiwanese blog Free Speech in Taiwan: To
Obey or not to Obey, This is the Question—if citizens do not have to conform to the law when they see it
as illegitimate, what authority would the law still retain in its ruling over members of society?”21
Such a dilemma invokes a language
of resistance, which has as its basis all previous struggles for human rights, freedom, and self-determination,
whether they occurred in Taiwan or the West. In such a tool-kit, social actors find the necessary inspiration and guidance
to make that choice: To Obey or Not to Obey. Where there is that choice, you will also find a language containing a blueprint,
drawn up during previous struggle but also including an assessment of contemporary conditions, for the continued
march towards self-determination.
Action Statement from the Wild Strawberry Movement. November, 2008 <http://taiwanstudentmovement2008.blogspot.com/2008/11/protest-statement.html>
Brown, Melissa J. Is Taiwan Chinese? Berkley: University of California Press, 2004
Edles, Laura Desfer. Cultural Sociology in Practice. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2002
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Tavastok, 1972
Harrell, Stevan; Huang, Chun-chieh. Cultural Change in Postwar Taiwan. Boulder: Westview Press Inc, 1994
Hung, Joe. “Back to school, Wild Strawberries,” China Post. November 17, 2008
The Road to Freedom: Taiwan’s Postwar Human Rights Movement, Taipei: Haiwang Printing Company, 2004.
Roy, Denny. Taiwan: A political History. London: Cornell University Press, 2003
Yang, David. “Classing Ethnicity: Class, Ethnicity, and the Mass Politics of Taiwan’s Democratic Transition.” World
Politics 59 (July 2007), 503-538.
Appendix: (all photos by Author)
Wild Strawberries marching (left). The Wild Lilies marching with photos of Cheng Nan-jung. The banner reads, “Without
freedom, I’d rather die.” (right).
An effigy of Ma Ying Jiao (left) An effigy of Chiang Kai Shek. Photo taken inside Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall
(aka Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall) in January of 2007 (right)
Wild Strawberry March (left) In
memoriam of human rights (right)
A woodcutting, from 90’s era protests, appropriating the “black power” fist. The heading reads, “Give
me civil rights.” (right) A t-shirt that could be found during protests in the Autumn of ‘08.
It reads, “Taiwan crisis. Mobilize all the people.” (left)
1^ Edles, Laura Desfer. Cultural Sociology in Practice.
Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2002 p. 221-222
2^ Brown, Melissa J. Is Taiwan Chinese? Berkley: University
of California Press, 2004 p.221
3^ For some time it seemed as if the DPP and KMT would have to
travel separately due to their ideological differences.
4^ Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London:
Tavastok, 1972. p. 14
5^ Harrell, Stevan; Huang, Chun-chieh. Cultural Change in
Postwar Taiwan. Boulder: Westview Press Inc, 1994.p. 22
6^ The Road to Freedom, Taipei: Haiwang Printing Company,
2004. p. 100
8^ Roy, Denny. Taiwan: A Political History. London: Cornell
University Press, 2003. p. 83
9^ Yang, David. Classing Ethnicity. World Politics 59
(July 2007), 503-538. p.509.
11^ On July 20, 2009, the placard that the DPP had installed
on Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, reading “Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall,” was removed and the
original placard was re-installed by the KMT run government. There were however no plans to replace “Liberty
Square” with the original characters on the main gate.
12^ The Road to Freedom, p. 109
13^ Youtube. < http://taiwanstudentmovement2008.blogspot.com/2008/12/20-mins-video-clip-on-1211-incident.html>
14^ This student movement met with more fortunate circumstances
as then President Lee Teng-hui was receptive to their demands for democratic reform. The Wild Strawberries
have had no such luck with Ma Ying Jiao.
15^ Action Statement from the “Wild Strawberry Movement” <http://taiwanstudentmovement2008.blogspot.com/2008/11/protest-statement.html>
16^ It was later reported by the students that the reason for
the dispersal was the aid the students had given the refugees, such shelter in the wooden structures they had
built along with blankets to keep them warm.
18^ Youtube < http://taiwanstudentmovement2008.blogspot.com/2008/12/20-mins-video-clip-on-1211-incident.html>
19^ Hung, Joe. “Back to school, Wild Strawberries,” China
Post. November 17, 2008.
20^ In June of ’09, this professor, Lee Ming-tsung, was
indicted for violating the Parade and Assembly Law.