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

Taiwan musician and former political prisoner Chen Shen-ching gestures during an interview in New Taipei City.
Taiwan musician and former political prisoner Chen Shen-ching gestures during an interview in New Taipei City. PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (AFP ) - 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 having his instrument in prison, he scrawled songs on scraps of paper and memorised 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, Mr 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," Mr Chen told AFP.

At the age of 32, with a promising musical career and a young family, Mr Chen was given a life sentence for sedition after joining a group advocating Taiwan independence - taboo under nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.

Mr Chen's 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," Mr Chen said. "For a musician, playing a sad song helps release emotions."

He composed 20 songs in jail reflecting inmates' homesickness and mental anguish.

Mr 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.

Mr Chen is glad he stood by his beliefs. "I did what I did for my ideals," he said. "So, I have no regrets." .


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 that 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.

Mr Chen Wu-jen was jailed at age 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 became an art teacher 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, Mr Chen Wu-jen 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," the 68-year-old 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 is now a human rights centre.

"I think artists' depictions of a historical event leave a deeper impression on people than historians' narratives," said Mr Chen. "I hope my works will have some impact."


President Tsai Ing-wen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has organised 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 Kai-shek 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, said his grandfather was beaten during White Terror interrogations, although never convicted.

His group will sing their own political compositions as well as the 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 Mr Yu. "It should be a lesson for all."