TAIPEI, Taiwan – It took Faith Hong about a half-hour to run through a century of history and a lifetime of propaganda.
That is her mission as a volunteer at the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum, where she guided her visitors from mainland China through the somber displays, describing the events that set off the killing in 1947 of as many as 28,000 people.
The perpetrators? Troops dispatched to the island by Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, the man whose face is stamped on Taiwan’s coins and whose political party, the Kuomintang, still governs Taiwan. Lest that fact be lost on any visitor, large copies of the written orders he issued are prominently on display.
"They were very evil," Hong said of the Nationalist troops.
When it comes to facing history, East Asia has issues. In China, the bloody crackdown on the student-led movement that occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the spring of 1989 is a forbidden topic, the subject of state-sponsored amnesia. Any mention of it on China’s Internet is quickly deleted.
In Japan, seven decades after the end of World War II, the prime minister is under fire from neighboring countries, which say he is playing down Japan’s wartime atrocities, including its use of sex slaves.
Taiwan is different. Here, the most painful event in the island’s modern history is on display in two museums and a park in Taipei devoted to what is called "the 228 Incident." They are named, as are so many historical events in the Chinese language, by the month and day it took place.
For four decades, the Kuomintang, which governed Taiwan after losing the civil war on the mainland in 1949 to Mao Zedong’s Communists, tried to suppress any discussion of the 228 Incident. The process of restoring those difficult memories has been an integral part of Taiwan’s evolution into a democracy.
Part of that process involved setting up the state-funded museum in 1997 in a building that housed the government’s radio broadcast bureau during the Japanese occupation. It is in a park near the center of the Taiwan capital devoted to remembering the 228 Incident.
As the Taipei 228 museum shows on a street map display, the events actually began the previous day, on Feb. 27, 1947, when officials enforcing a government tobacco monopoly in Taipei got into a scuffle with a woman selling cigarettes, with one hitting her on the head with the butt of his pistol. That set off the people of Taiwan, resentful of the Kuomintang’s corrupt and maladroit ways, Hong explained, while a soundtrack of street protests played in the background. Within days, Taiwanese took over much of the administration of the island.
The governor, Chen Yi, assembled a force of Nationalist soldiers from the mainland to crush the uprising. The troops killed thousands of people in a spree that began the four decades of "white terror" – a campaign against Nationalist opponents, principally the Communists, that lasted until martial law was lifted in 1987.
At the museum, seemingly nothing is papered over. To somber cello music that evokes "Schindler’s List," displays memorialize the lives lost, including much of the island’s elite: painters, lawyers, professors and doctors. In 1992, an official commission estimated that between 18,000 and 28,000 people had been killed.
"They were patriots; many people who loved the Kuomintang were victims," Hong said. "The young faced the greatest danger."
Mainland visitors to the museum, who grew up in a country inundated with television shows and textbooks trumpeting the evils of Japan’s wartime occupation of China, got a more nuanced picture from Hong, a retired teacher.
The Japanese were surely exploitative overseers during the decades when they controlled the island, from 1895 to 1945, but they also brought education, sanitation, vaccinations and civilization to Taiwan, Hong said, pointing out that the cream of the island’s society clamored to enter Japanese universities.
"By 1935, Taiwan was very prosperous, with the second-highest standard of living in Asia," she said. "The Taiwan people were patriotic, and expected the Kuomintang to preserve that prosperity."
Hong herself embodies the raucous political freedom that took root in Taiwan starting in the 1990s. Chatting with mainland visitors, she made no effort to hide her disdain for the Kuomintang. She also drew the visitors into a conversation about whether China could face the ghosts of its own recent past: the millions of deaths during the famine induced by forced industrialization in the 1950s, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
"On the mainland, we just can’t do this," said one visitor, who wanted to be identified only by her first name in English, Jessica, to avoid possible retaliation from the mainland police. "But some day we may have this. No matter what, everything progresses."
Her friend Eric, who is from a city in northern China, said that with more young people studying abroad, China would eventually open up. For both Eric and Jessica, the museum evoked thoughts of how radically different their government’s approach to the Tiananmen crackdown has been from Taiwan’s to the 228 Incident.
"During that time, the Chinese people could stand up, they could protest, they could express themselves," Eric said. "But afterward, they couldn’t talk about it, and everyone just focused on chasing money."
Jim Lee, a professor of Taiwanese culture at National Taipei University of Education, said Taiwan’s experience of first suppressing its history in the interest of social stability, and then forcefully coming to terms with it, could be a "lighthouse for the mainland." That is, if the Chinese government and the Communist Party someday wish to confront the Communists’ own past, especially the suppression of the student-led movements in 1989.
"Taiwan has left those things behind and is facing its history," Lee said in a telephone interview.
Lai Jeh-hang, a history professor at National Central University in Taiwan, said that the process of coming to terms with the 228 Incident led to the flowering of civil society on the island. "People were no longer afraid to speak out," he said.
The process continues. Chen Tsui-lien, a historian at National Taiwan University, said the reconciliation was only "halfway through." Despite the evidence of the Kuomintang’s responsibility for the killings in 1947, on display at the museum, so far the focus has been on compensating the victims’ families rather than on assigning blame.
"Since there are so many victims, there should be someone responsible, and this part hasn’t been dealt with," Chen said.
But for Astrid Chiu, who teaches Chinese at a primary school in Hong Kong, Hong’s tour was inspiring. She thought the Taiwanese were lucky to have a system that was so open about its past, whatever the limitations. "That Taiwan can get the money to build this museum and to show the truth to people, and to let tourists come here to know the truth, it really surprised me," she said.