The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall is one of the most popular sights in Taipei today, a beautiful piece of architecture. So, who is the man it is dedicated to, and what was his role in history?
Taiwan, Republic of China
To understand why Chiang Kai Shek is so important in Taiwan, you must first understand the history of the country. Officially, its name is the Republic of China – different to the People’s Republic of China, the one most of us just call ‘China‘. This is a shortened version of events, as the whole story is, of course, much more complicated!
So, this all goes back to 1911, when 2000 years of imperial rule in China came to an end with the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. On 1st January 1912, the Republic of China was established, led by Sun Yat-Sen and the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party. The ROC struggled in the early years, against warlordism throughout the region, but regained power by 1927. This involved using a military-led, authoritarian regime – not ideal, although they claimed their ultimate goal was democracy? However, during this time, the Communist party began to rise. Combined with corruption in the Nationalist government, and the interference of the US after WWII, this led to the Chinese Civil War. The Communist party took Beijing in 1949, and founded the People’s Republic of China on 1st October the same year.
The Nationalists fled to Taiwan, which then became the last remaining pocket of the ROC, with Taipei declared as the temporary capital. Both the PRC and ROC still claim to be the legitimate Chinese government, each saying the other is part of their territory. Both continue to exist, agreeing to “no unification, no independence, and no use of force”. In 1971, the ROC lost its United Nations seat to the PRC, meaning most of the world recognises the PRC as the ‘legitimate’ government of China. Taiwan is only able to have diplomatic relations with a small number of countries, but maintains informal relations with many others.
Who was Chiang Kai Shek?
Chiang Kai Shek was a politician and close ally of Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the KMT, who helped establish the ROC. After Sun’s death in 1925, Chiang Kai Shek became the next leader of the KMT, and its army. They had been driven south by the warlords, but Chiang led the Northern Expedition, the military campaign to reclaim China. This was ultimately successful, and the ROC became the legitimate government. Chiang became the Generalissimo of the National Government in 1928, and led the country for the next two decades – so you can start to see why he was pretty important. However it wasn’t all smooth sailing. He could not maintain good relations with the Communist party, as Sun had done, resulting in the Civil War – more on his actions there in a minute!
In 1949, he fled to Taiwan with the rest of the Nationalist refugees, and declared himself President of the Republic of China. He represented China in the UN – at least, until the removal of the ROC in 1971. The General Assembly re-elected him multiple times, as Taiwan was a one-party state at the time, and no other political parties could form. Throughout his rule, he always wanted the reunification of China, with the ROC restored as the legitimate government. Chiang Kai Shek ruled the ROC for 26 years, until his death in 1975.
Building the Memorial Hall
After Chiang Kai Shek’s death, the ROC government decided to construct a memorial to him. They hosted an international competition to design it, which was won by Yang Cho Cheng, a local Taiwanese architect. Yang designed not only the memorial itself, but the entire plaza where it is situated, and it’s definitely an impressive piece of work! He placed three entrance gates around the square; the main Gate of Integrity to the west, of Loyalty to the north, and of Piety to the south. From the main gate, the Boulevard of Homage, lined with bushes, leads to the hall itself.
For the design of the hall, Yang found inspiration in the Sun Yat-Sen mausoleum in Nanjing, China – that same guy that formed the ROC! Construction began on 31st October 1976, which would have been Chiang’s 90th birthday. It took three and a half years to complete the project, opening for the public on 5th April 1980, the fifth anniversary of Chiang’s death. The government also decided to create a cultural arts centre on the same site, resulting in the National Theatre and Concert Hall, on either side of the boulevard. Yang designed their exteriors in the same traditional Chinese style as the Memorial Hall.
Subject of Controversy
Now, the KMT clearly viewed Chiang Kai Shek as a hero, to build him such a memorial. But to many others, he wasn’t such a great guy. When reclaiming China from the warlords, he used aggressive tactics, and essentially led a dictatorship. He defended his methods, saying that this was a necessary first step before democracy could be established. But little evidence of that ever surfaced during his lifetime! Then, he tried to purge the Chinese Communist Party, using military troops to kill thousands in the 1926 Canton Coup, and 1927 Shanghai Massacre. Millions more died of starvation across the country, due to decisions he made. And then this all ultimately led to the Chinese Civil War. His regime continued after the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, where he ruled it as a one-party state, suppressing his critics. This period of authoritarianism became known as the “White Terror”.
Only years after his death, in the 1990s, did political reform finally start to happen in Taiwan. Other parties could form at last, and in 1996, they held the first direct presidential election. The government could discuss political status for the country other than reunification, to attempt to solve the issue. Taiwanese culture also resurfaced, previously smothered by pan-Chinese identity. In 2000, the Democratic Progressive Party became the first to take power from the KMT. In 2007, they decided to rename the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall as the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall. However, this caused outcry amongst the KMT, of course, who restored the original name of the Hall when they were re-elected to power in 2008.
A Continued Site of Significance
Since the Memorial Plaza opened, it has been the site of many mass gatherings. In particular, during the 1980s and 90s, pro-democracy rallies took place here. The Wild Lily student movement in 1990 was the most influential. For six days, over 22,000 demonstrators, both students and others, held a sit-in at the square. This happened at the same time as the inauguration of President Lee Teng Hui, the last Taiwanese president elected by the National Assembly. Luckily, he listened to the public, and their protests, and went on to implement many political reforms to bring democracy to the country. For the next presidential election, in 1996, the public could directly vote for their leader! Today, Taiwan is very forward-thinking in this respect – it was even the first Asian country to legalise gay marriage!
These events led the DPP government to rename the Memorial Plaza as ‘Liberty Square’ in 2007, at the same time as renaming the Hall. While the Hall’s name was reverted by the next KMT government, they chose to keep ‘Liberty Square’, in recognition of the country’s democratic process. In 2017, the Ministry of Culture announced plans to transform the Memorial into a national centre for ‘facing history’. This will attempt to recognise both the good and bad, emphasising human rights, and reducing the ‘personality cult’ surrounding Chiang. He was undoubtedly an important figure in the history of Taiwan and the ROC. Yet also, definitely a controversial one, something the country is now having to face up to.
Your visit to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial will likely start at the main entrance on the west side. You can look down the long boulevard to the Hall itself, passing through Liberty Square to get there. Look for that name inscribed above the gate, in Chinese calligraphy script! This is the Gate of Integrity, a blue and white structure with five huge arches. The Boulevard of Homage, or Democracy Boulevard, as it is also known, is lined with perfectly manicured lawns and bushes.
To the right is the National Theatre, and to the left, the Concert Hall. Both of these are traditional Chinese buildings, with sloping roofs and ornamental columns. On either side of the Hall, you will find the other entrance arches, Dazhong (Loyalty) Gate on the left and Daxiao (Piety) Gate on the right. Continuing behind the Memorial Hall, you can visit the gardens there – the whole complex covers 62 hectares. Admire its traditional Chinese style, with waterfalls, ponds, and ornamental bridges.
The Memorial Hall
At the far end of the Boulevard, you will reach the Memorial Hall itself, completing the symmetrical design of the whole park. Like the rest of the structures, Yang designed it in the traditional Chinese style. The building is 76m high, and shaped like an octagon, with eight sides. This is a very lucky number to the Chinese, associated with fortune and wealth. To reach the entrance, you walk up 89 stairs, representing Chiang’s age when he died. The building is made from white marble, with a blue tiled roof and red accents, the same three colours as the ROC flag. The colours represent the Three Principles of the People, as taught by Sun Yat-Sen; blue for democracy, white for nationalism, and red for people’s livelihood.
Inside the main hall, you will see the great bronze statue of Chiang Kai Shek himself. Soldiers guard the hall, and change shifts in a ceremony every hour. On the wall behind the statue are the Chinese characters for ethics, democracy, and science, the three political principles Chiang stood for. Below the main hall, there is a museum about Taiwan’s history, pan-Chinese civilisation, and the progress of the ROC since moving to Taiwan. And of course, you can learn about Chiang’s own life and career. This exhibition includes artefacts such as military medals, uniforms, photos, and authentic documents. You can even see the bulletproof Presidential cars he rode in! Despite the controversy surrounding him, the building is a beautiful memorial, and an informative way to learn about the history of the ROC and Taiwan.
Memorial Hall – Daily, 09.00-18.00, except some public holidays
Memorial Park – Daily, 05.00-00.00
The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall is centrally located in Taipei City, in Zhongzheng district, and can be reached on the MRT, with its own station named for it, or on several bus routes. It is walking distance from Peace Park, and very close to Xinyi Road, leading to the Taipei 101 building. There are shops and a café within the complex, and daily tours are available in Mandarin, or you can book in advance for a tour in English or Japanese – see website for details.
Have you been to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall? Leave a comment about your experiences!