Today is “Peace Memorial Day,” a national holiday in Taiwan. Though every other national holiday I can think of in Taiwan is also celebrated in other parts of the Chinese-speaking world (even Double-Tens day is somewhat recognized in China), “Peace Memorial Day” is Taiwan’s and Taiwan’s alone. It is a memorial to the “2/28 Incident” (AKA “2/28 Massacre”) which happened in 1947.
In the Fires of 2/28 is a manhua by Du Fu-ann published last year which describes the events which led to the “2/28 Incident,” the “incident” itself, and the aftermath.
TRIGGER WARNING: This manhua describes violent conflict, including sexual assault, and I have decided to include some graphic imagery. Also, because of the graphic imagery, this post is NSFW.
So, What Happened?
Here is a summary of what happened, as told by the manhua.
After WWII, Japan had to cede control of all overseas territories, including Taiwan. Whereas many Asian countries (such as India, Korea, and the Philippines) got independence after WWII, The Allies decided to transfer Taiwan to the administration of the Republic of China. At first, the Taiwanese people were really happy about this, since China was their ancestral land and they considered this to be the equivalent of independence. It would be a little as if world leaders had decided make Quebec a part of France.
However, once the Republic of China actually took control of Taiwan, the people were bitterly disillusioned. The Chinese soldiers were poor, shabby, and greedy. The economy went down the tank, with rapidly rising unemployment, hyperinflation, and grain shortages. The Kuomintang (KMT), who controlled the Republic of China government, was far more corrupt and discriminatory than the Japanese administration, promoting Chinese people without qualifications to well-paid positions while forcing qualified Taiwanese people to do low-paid work, looting left and right, and sexually assaulting people with impunity. By 1947, the Taiwanese people were seething with fury, and all that was needed was a match.
The match was lit on February 27, 1947, when government agents hit a woman selling tobacco on the street on the head with a pistol. Other people in the street came to the woman’s support, and then one of the government agents fired a gun and killed somebody in the crowd. This sparked a huge spontaneous protest, which the government did not respond to.
The next day, Feburary 28, was the beginning of a violent uprising by people all over Taiwan. In some places, the Taiwanese stole weapons and formed their own armies to drive out the Chinese, and many Taiwanese people were organizing to form their own government, independent of the Republic of China.
The army of the Republic of China brutally repressed this uprising. After they took back control of Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s second largest city), they brutally punished the residents. The KMT also rounded up many intellectuals, even ones who were not part of the uprisings, and executed them, lest they form an independent government. Tens of thousands of people were murdered this way. The forces of the uprising were driven deeper and deeper into the mountains, until finally, they were defeated. After this, the KMT imposed martial law on Taiwan.
Meanwhile, the KMT was losing the Chinese Civil War, and eventually their army (as well as well as many Chinese citizens) had to retreat to the islands of Hainan, Kinmen, Matsu, Zhoushan, and Taiwan. Then the islands of Hainan and Zhoushan also fell to Chinese Communist control, leaving only Kinmen, Matsu, and Taiwan under the control of the Republic of China.
In the epilogue, the manhua mentions that martial law was finally lifted in 1987, and ends with an image of Lee Teng-hui, then president of the Republic of China and leader of the KMT, officially apologizing in 1995 for the 2/28 incident and offering compensation to the victims’ families.
So, how does this work as a comic book?
This manhua is only about 150 pages long, so it has to simplify things and leave some aspects of the “2/28 Incident” unexplored. I’m okay with that, since it’s intended to be an accessible introduction, not a thorough account.
In my first draft, I expressed my discomfort with the way the Chinese are depicted as two-dimensional villainous caricatures, not because I excuse their crimes (the looting, corruption, rape, and murder are inexcusable), but because it rings false—all of those heinous crimes were committed by people. However, upon reflection, I realize that from the victims’ point of view, they may very well have been caricature villains, and the manhua is primarily interested in the victims’ perspective.
However, I still think the lack of personalization of the Taiwanese people makes the story feel too dry and didactic. Since this is a story of many people, focusing on a few characters would also be artificial on its own way, but I think the manhua would have benefited from putting a little more emphasis on individual stories instead of mostly telling the story from the point of view of the masses. Comic books draw strength by appealing to feeling, and the best way to draw feeling is to tell stories of individual people.
There is a Taiwanese family which plays the role of Greek chorus but … something about them feels too didactic to me.
The closest the manhua comes to showing the Chinese point of view is the inclusion of a political cartoon from a Shanghai newspaper.
In this cartoon, the Republic of China/KMT are worms which have infested the big apple (China) for a long time, and have just started infesting the small apple (Taiwan). It shows that, as intense as the suffering of the Taiwanese people under the KMT was, the Chinese had been suffering worse for a longer period of time. I think this is a really important point. Even though the poor Chinese soldiers did commit a lot of crimes too, it was the KMT elite, not the non-elite Chinese, who were ultimately responsible. And, in some ways, the suffering that the KMT imposed on the poor Chinese soldiers was worse than what they imposed on the Taiwanese.
What makes the manhua work, however, is the artwork.
While I criticize the narrative for not being sufficiently personalized, the artwork does partially make up for this by making the events come alive through is lively movement, such as in this page where a soldier breaks in and shoots an older man:
However, I also think the artwork is the main reason I’m uncomfortable with the depiction o the Chinese. Looking carefully at it again, there’s not much in the text which dehumanizes the Chinese. It’s mainly the artwork which makes the Chinese look like caricatures.
On the one hand, I recognize this may represent the victims’ point of view. However, I am especially bothered by the way the Chinese, particularly the KMT, are depicted as being humorous. I know that it’s artistically a good idea to balance tragedy wit humor, but even with my warped sense of humor I don’t think any part of this story is remotely funny, and making the criminals look funny just feels … wrong.
The manhua also makes use of various metaphorical imagery. One image which is repeated again and again is this flower … I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the flower’s significance is, by it generally accompanies a block of text describing historical details.
Some of the imagery works very well, such as this image of the Republic of China (represented by the hands) wringing Taiwan dry.
I do applaud the manhua from not shying away from gruesome imagery. It doesn’t dwell on the graphic stuff too much—the purpose is to tell a story, not to revel in violence—but I think drawing out some of the horrors is necessary for the reader to feel a tiny bit of how terrifying the “incident” was.
There are some drawings which are beautiful in a horrifying way, such as this scene:
These gruesome images make a stark contrast to the almost expressionless “leaders” who seem oblivious to the horrors around them.
This, in my opinion, is a more powerful way to show how monsterous the KMT elite were than making them look like cartoon villains.
This is one of the most politically charged sections of Taiwanese history, and as such, people have very passionate views on this story. Just as black people, southern whites, and non-southern whites tend to have different interpretations of the U.S. Civil War, so do different groups in Taiwan tend to have different interpretations of the 2/28 “incident,” and it tends to reveal one’s political bias.
The slant taken by this manhua is that General Chen Yi, who was put in charge of Taiwan immediately after Taiwan passed into Republic of China control, is the big bad guy. This is a relatively non-controversial position to take, since almost everybody agrees that he was horrible. Not much is said about Chiang Kai-shek, though the manhua does compare him to Koxinga (the Ming dynasty general who fled to and took over part of Taiwan after the Ming dynasty was driven out of China).
Of course, the very act of making a manhua about this at all is a political statement. For decades, anything referring to the “incident” was heavily censored, and one of the big fights of the Taiwanese democracy movement was making it possible to discuss the “incident” in public. This manhua is exercising the freedom won by the democracy activists.
Availability in English
As far as I know, this manhua is totally unavailable in English.
While it is primarily targeted at a young Taiwanese audience, I think people all over the world have something to learn from the “2/28 Incident,” and this is an accessible introduction. However, I have no idea who would translate this into English.
For those who want to know more about the “2/28 Incident,” Formosa Betrayed by George H. Kerr (who appears in the manhua) is available online for free.
I do wish the people who put the manhua together had consulted an English editor.
This “incident” was so formative of Taiwanese politics and identity that I don’t think it’s possible to have a deep understanding of Taiwanese society without knowing what happened.
I think it’s also helpful for getting a better understanding of Taiwanese media. For example, in Fated to Love You, Xinyi (the lead female character) comes from a family which was on the victims’ side in the 2/28 “incident,” whereas Cunxi (the lead male character) comes from a family which was on the aggressors’ side. I don’t think the audience needs to know this to appreciate and enjoy the drama … but this is a fact which is very apparent to Taiwanese audiences.
Sara K.’s grandfather was actually in China when World War II officially ended. According to her father, when WWII was declared over, from her grandfather’s point of view, that was the end of the war. But for his companions, who were in the Republic of China army, the war was not over—they knew that the Chinese civil war was going to restart almost as soon as Japan was defeated. Sara K. does not know what happened to her grandfather’s companions, but most likely they switched sides to the Communists, fled to Taiwan, or were killed.