Pain runs deep for Tai­wan artists 30 years af­ter 'White Ter­ror'

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

When sax­o­phon­ist Chen Shen-ching was jailed dur­ing Tai­wan's "White Ter­ror" po­lit­i­cal purges, it was mu­sic that helped him hold on to his san­ity. Banned from tak­ing his in­stru­ment into prison he scrawled songs on scraps of pa­per and mem­o­rized them dur­ing his 12 years be­hind bars. As the is­land pre­pares to mark 30 years since mar­tial law was lifted and it be­gan its jour­ney to be­come a vi­brant democ­racy, Chen is one of a num­ber of cre­ative Tai­wanese who want to en­sure those dark days are never for­got­ten.

Now 75, he con­tin­ues to sing his prison songs at po­lit­i­cal ral­lies and hu­man rights events. "I hope peo­ple will lis­ten, sing them and want to learn more about White Ter­ror his­tory," Chen told AFP. At 32, with a promis­ing mu­si­cal ca­reer and a young fam­ily, Chen was given a life sen­tence for sedi­tion af­ter join­ing a group ad­vo­cat­ing Tai­wan in­de­pen­dence-taboo un­der na­tion­al­ist leader Chi­ang Kai-shek.

His fa­ther died soon af­ter he was ar­rested and he penned a tribute song to help him through his grief. "I taught oth­ers to sing it and we of­ten cried," Chen said. "For a mu­si­cian, play­ing a sad song helps re­lease emo­tions." He com­posed 20 songs in jail re­flect­ing in­mates' home­sick­ness and men­tal an­guish. Chen was freed in 1986 as part of a prison amnesty and slowly man­aged to re­build his life in south­ern Tai­wan.

He still wants the self-rul­ing is­land to split from China and of­ten per­forms at pro-in­de­pen­dence ral­lies. Bei­jing con­sid­ers Tai­wan part of its ter­ri­tory and has said it would re­spond with force if it ever an­nounced a for­mal break­away. Chen is glad he never wa­vered from his be­liefs. "I did what I did for my ideals," he says. "So, I have no re­grets."

Blood and hor­ror

Chi­ang Kai-shek fled to Tai­wan in 1949 af­ter los­ing the civil war to Com­mu­nist forces on the main­land, but saw him­self and his au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment as the le­git­i­mate rulers of the whole of China. Un­der his rule, po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents were killed and im­pris­oned, there was no free press and songs deemed vul­gar or pro-Com­mu­nist were banned. Of­fi­cial records state around 140,000 peo­ple were tried by mil­i­tary courts with as many as 8,000 ex­e­cuted dur­ing the 38-year crack­down. Many be­lieve the ac­tual num­bers are higher.

Chen Wu-jen was jailed aged 20 for sedi­tion af­ter scrib­bling anti-gov­ern­ment phrases on the back of an ap­ti­tude test for new mil­i­tary con­scripts as he was about to start his com­pul­sory ser­vice. Re­leased af­ter two years, he took up art teach­ing but only painted por­traits and land­scapes for fear of be­ing im­pris­oned again. Af­ter mar­tial law was lifted by Chi­ang's son, Chi­ang Ching-kuo, on July 15 1987, he was able to truly ex­press him­self for the first time.

Since then, al­most all his cre­ations re­volve around the White Ter­ror. "I re­gret what I did," Chen, 68, told AFP at his stu­dio in south­ern Tainan. "But as an artist I feel lucky be­cause this ex­pe­ri­ence has given me a pro­found sub­ject to work on." His sculp­ture se­ries "The Ver­dicts" is a col­lec­tion of large skulls made from wood, pasted with pho­to­copied sen­tenc­ing doc­u­ments. Claw­ing hands stretch out from the skulls while feet tram­ple them. Paint­ings de­pict a woman scream­ing in front of a train, an­other suf­fer­ing a mis­car­riage and be­ing dragged by her hair through a pool of blood.

He lends his works to ex­hi­bi­tions but does not sell them-cur­rently some are on dis­play in a for­mer dis­si­dents' prison on re­mote out­ly­ing Green Is­land, which has been con­verted to a hu­man rights cen­ter. "I think artists' de­pic­tions of a his­tor­i­cal event leave a deeper im­pres­sion on peo­ple than his­to­ri­ans' nar­ra­tives," said Chen. "I hope my works will have some im­pact."

Young gen­er­a­tion

Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen's Demo­cratic Pro­gres­sive Party (DPP) has or­ga­nized a mu­sic fes­ti­val fea­tur­ing young bands per­form­ing pre­vi­ously banned songs as part of this week­end's com­mem­o­ra­tions of the end of mar­tial law. There will also be an ex­hi­bi­tion of banned books, mag­a­zines and al­bums. The DPP has its roots in the po­lit­i­cal move­ment that op­posed Chi­ang and for­mer rebels have be­come top of­fi­cials and law­mak­ers. The young mu­si­cians sing­ing at the fes­ti­val were mostly born af­ter 1987, but say they want to play a part in keep­ing his­tory alive.

Bassist and song­writer Mickey Yu, 32, of hip-hop band Com­mu­nity Ser­vice says his grand­fa­ther was beaten dur­ing White Ter­ror in­ter­ro­ga­tions, al­though never con­victed. His group will sing their own po­lit­i­cal com­po­si­tions as well as pre­vi­ously banned song "Home­town at Dusk"-pop­u­lar with those who were black­listed and forced to live over­seas dur­ing the purges. "His­tory def­i­nitely can­not be for­got­ten," said Yu. "It should be a les­son for all." — AFP

Tai­wan mu­si­cian and for­mer po­lit­i­cal pris­oner Chen Shen-ching plays the sax­o­phone dur­ing an in­ter­view in New Taipei City.

Tai­wan mu­si­cian and for­mer po­lit­i­cal pris­oner Chen Shen-ching dis­plays a CD of his mu­sic al­bum dur­ing an in­ter­view in New Taipei City. — AFP pho­tos

Tai­wan mu­si­cian and for­mer po­lit­i­cal pris­oner Chen Shen-ching ges­tures dur­ing an in­ter­view.

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