Taiwan Looks Back At Nationalist Defeat In 1949

On a chilly late autumn day in 1949, Chi Shih-ying jumped on one of the last flights to Taiwan, joining other senior members of the Nationalist Party in a humiliating retreat from mainland China.

In all, 1.2 million people fled to the island 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the Chinese coast as the Nationalists fell to the communists in China's civil war.

For most of the ensuing years, only the outlines of this mass exodus have been told in Taiwan. Now that is changing. As China celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Oct. 1, 1949, founding of the communist state, Taiwan is beginning to revisit the Nationalists' defeat and its consequences, looking at the once taboo subject as never before.

Chi's story is told in one of five recently published books that detail the torment of those who left behind relatives, friends and hometowns. The books have touched off discussion of their personal trauma as well as public acknowledgment of a major military loss _ rather than a temporary "force withdrawal" from the mainland, the veiled term long preferred by the government.

"It takes a lot more courage to look back at a setback than a victory," said Tsai Kuo-chiang, a columnist who writes about cultural issues.

More than 1 million Nationalist troops were killed or captured between 1945 and 1949. Those who fled to Taiwan were forced to sever all contacts with the mainland until the late 1980s, when Taiwan lifted a travel ban amid concerns that many might die or become too old to travel.

The humiliation of the defeat _ and Taiwan's three decades of authoritarian rule under Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek _ helped enforce a collective silence.

Books and films, produced under censorship, glorified the Nationalist troops and vilified the communists. First Chiang's obsession with invading the mainland and later Taiwan's rise to the world's 13th largest economy and transition to democracy kept people focused on the future.

Some analysts thought that President Ma Ying-jeou, whose parents were among the mainland emigres, might break with tradition and make a speech on Oct. 1. He did not, perhaps because of worries that doing so could sap public support for his policy of seeking rapprochement with China since taking office 16 months ago.

Taiwanese society "has never seriously listened to the unspoken trauma of the last generation," essayist Lung Ying-tai said last month at the launching of her book, "Big River, Big Sea: Untold Stories of 1949," in Taipei.

As a movement to assert a Taiwanese _ rather than Chinese _ identity has taken hold over the past decade, some whose families fled China in 1949 want to explore their roots for fear of losing their heritage.

For many, time to address the past is slipping away.

Chi Shih-ying's story is told in a book, "The Big River," by his 85-year-old daughter, a retired literature professor.

"It takes full dedication for a big narrative such as this ... but I wanted to tell the story before I departed," Chi Pang-yuan says in the preface to the book.

She writes how her father, who had studied philosophy in Germany, mobilized Chinese to fight Japan in World War II near his home in northeastern China and then to confront communist forces after Japan's defeat.

In Taiwan, Chi Shih-ying was reunited with his wife and four children, who had sought refuge on the island months earlier. He became a lawmaker, though he was expelled from the Nationalist Party after he and some others from the mainland published a magazine advocating democracy. The magazine was later banned.

Until his death in 1987 at the age of 88, Chi was wracked with sorrow for his Nationalist colleagues who could not escape and faced harsh purges in China, his daughter writes.

The books also find a silver lining in the defeat.

Chiang's followers included economic planners and engineers who helped transform the island into one of Aia's most prosperous economies, Wu Chin-hsiun writes in "Listen to Me, Taiwan."

The refugees "were losers, but they were the ones behind Taiwan's modernization," said Lung, 57, the author of "Big River, Big Sea."

Her book tells the stories of her parents and others who fled. Her father, a military officer, was separated from her mother during the escape. They reunited in Taiwan, but tens of thousands of others were forced to leave their loved ones behind.

"Because of the total military defeat, Taiwan was able to develop a different set of values in the following 60 years, a soft value that chases personal happiness instead of nationalism and militarism," she said.

In a recent editorial that would have been impossible to write only a few years ago, the United Daily News asked, "1949: Was that a pang or blessing in disguise for Taiwan?"

Still, Taiwan lacks a systematic, thorough look at the civil war period, said Hsi Hsien-teh, a journalism professor at Fu Jen Catholic University.

"Our government has long evaded the subject even though it should at least take a conclusive look on the 60th anniversary," Hsi said.

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