As the Western world erupts in a wave of iconoclasm which combines the violence of the French Revolution with the zealotry of the Taliban, many in East Asia watch bemused, but also feeling that it is very distant from their daily lives.
But iconoclastic controversies, each with its own complex history, are very much alive in East Asia. Their lessons might be instructive for the West.
Taiwan and the Generalissimo
Everyone in Taiwan knows the Chiangs. After fleeing there after being defeated by the Communists on the Mainland, they ruled Taiwan with an iron fist from the 1940s until the 1980s. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who led the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalists or KMT) to safety on this island of 36,000 square kilometers, built a massive personality cult during and after his authoritarian rule.
At the peak of his power an estimated 43,000 statues of the smiling dictator dotted the landscape. His birthday was a public holiday, and when he passed away a song in his memory was obligatory at every school. Taiwan’s major international airport, major metropolitan roads and many schools were named after him. A majestic memorial built in the style of a Chinese palace together with a towering statue stands in central Taipei and is a major tourist destination.
Of course, as with all dictatorships, the personality cult didn’t last. Chiang Kai-shek’s son began a process of democratization which accelerated in the next few decades. Chiang’s public image changed from the saviour of the Chinese nation to the brutal dictator with Taiwanese blood on his hands. Pro-independence Taiwanese, many of whom were jailed, executed or exiled during the decades of Chiang hated him. Calls for his statues to fall, for his name to be purged reached its peak when the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) finally came to power in 2000.
Since then, radical young pro-independence activists have dragged down, beheaded, spray-painted, cut off the limbs and burned Chiang statues across Taiwan. The majestic Chiang statue in the Taipei Memorial Hall was doused in red paint even though it had Army guards. Chiang’s name is disappearing from public facilities. As the DPP engages in what it calls “transformative justice”, the “de-Chiangisation” of Taiwan seems to be in full swing.
You may say that this sounds familiar. In the West, everyone from Columbus and Robert E. Lee to Washington and Cervantes has been called a genocidal racist with his statues burned, toppled, or thrown in lakes. Not so fast — the Taiwanese story comes with a twist.
As with every political opinion, there are those for and those against it. To many young Taiwanese who grew up learning from a DPP-written history curriculum, Chiang Kai-shek is a mass murderer who slaughtered tens of thousands of freedom-loving Taiwanese, a Chinese invader. But history is complicated.
Chiang is indeed an authoritarian dictator and in early 1947 his Army massacred thousands of pro-independence Taiwanese (many of whom harboured sympathy with Japan). But without him, his supporters argue that, Taiwan would have become Communist a long time ago. Without the American alliance during the Cold War, Taiwan today would merely be a province of Mainland China.
Moreover, without the alliance, there would have been no economic aid and Taiwan’s economy would have never taken off. Many pro-independence Taiwanese imagine that if Chiang had never “invaded” after World War II, the Republic of Taiwan would have been founded. But an independent Taiwan without a massive army (which Chiang brought in following his defeat on the Mainland) and American support would have been a joke. Communist China would have taken Taiwan quite easily.
For the KMT, Chiang is a benevolent authoritarian who saved Taiwan from Communist rule. When his name was removed from the main plaza outside his Taipei memorial, his supporters brawled with pro-independence Taiwanese and the police. When proposals appeared to demolish or re-purpose his Memorial, they vigorously protested.
Hence even in 2020, despite the fact that the DPP is now in complete power in Taipei, President Tsai is very reluctant to fight with the KMT and millions of Chiang supporters –a battle could energise her opponents. The Chiang memorial still stands in Taipei, his statue is guarded by soldiers, and not a single school that bears his name has been renamed.
What happened to his statues is instructive. Many thousands of them remain in KMT-ruled territory, although the DPP-ruled parts of Taiwan opted to remove – but not destroy — them. They moved hundreds of them to the Daxi district in northern Taiwan, the site of Chiang Kai-shek’s mausoleum, within a sprawling property guarded by the Army.
Chiang intended to be buried in his Mainland Chinese hometown of Xikou. But a temporary solution became permanent and the mausoleum has been transformed into a sculpture park. Over the years, hundreds of his statues have been moved to Daxi, some of which have been carefully restored. DPP parliamentarians have called for all Chiang statues to be moved to Daxi but the KMT resists.
Surprisingly, Chiang’s statues got themselves a new life in Daxi because while his reputation was trashed in Taiwan, his image was rehabilitated in Mainland China. For decades, Chiang was denounced as a dictator and capitalist; his rule in Mainland China was described as hell on earth.
But Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were a real hell on earth and his reputation rose. Mainland Chinese have also begun to appreciate Chiang’s role in fighting the Japanese after they invaded Manchuria in 1931. There is even a joke that Chiang should not be condemned for having been a capitalist dictator but for not “eradicating enough Communists”.
Surprisingly, the Mausoleum became a sort of pilgrimage site for Mainland Chinese tourists, many of whom are descendants of soldiers and administrators of Chiang’s KMT. Those who did not manage to escape to Taiwan endured decades of persecution; some of the survivors want to pay their respects to the Generalissimo. Chiang’s Taipei Memorial is also a magnet for tourists who admire the architecture and who are interested in Cold War history. Had his memorials been razed and his statues smashed, none of this would have happened.
China and the Mao statues
But perhaps the best example of iconoclasm comes in China. Some conservative commentators are comparing the situation in the US to the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, in the 1960s, when Mao unleashed his Red Guards to wreak havoc across the country, their slogan was “Smash the Old World and build a New World”.
However, they only succeeded in smashing the old one. No one had any idea how to build a New World, but everybody had a sledgehammer to smash statues of Confucius, Buddha and church crosses.
There is an uncanny similarity when people shout empty slogans and call George Washington a genocidal racist whilst setting up a “Summer of Love” autonomous zone in downtown Seattle. Fanaticism inspired by Marxism looks the same everywhere.
But the real irony lies not in the Cultural Revolution but in what happened after Mao. Mao Ze-dong statues are everywhere, from factories to universities to schools. Like Chiang, he has a giant memorial for his mummified body in central Beijing. It is a shrine for millions of Maoist Chinese. He may have outlawed traditional religions, but eventually he became God to many Maoist Chinese. Many weep and shout at the sights of his remains in what can only be described as a religious experience – a bit like the woke cultists who weep, kneel and shout orthodox woke slogans.
But when Deng Xiaoping and the “revisionists” took over, many Mao statues were quietly removed and placed in warehouses and rural courtyards. This infuriated Maoists, many of whom were Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. They formed groups, organized seminars and rebuilt Mao statues. A giant golden one was erected in Henan Province a few years ago and when it was taken down the Maoists condemned and attacked local officials.
The Maoists had no qualms about smashing countless ancient statues, burning temples and churches, and murdering clergy. Many still do not regret it to this day. But when the same fate befell their beloved Chairman Mao, albeit in a far more gentle way, they reacted violently.
Campaigns to revive Mao are working. In recent years the Great Helmsman’s popularity in China has surged. Whenever a professor or intellectual denounces him on social media, the Maoists pounce. They surround the universities, set up loudspeakers near the homes of the individual and demand his dismissal. They often succeed.
Lessons from China
What can the West learn from the Chinese experience?
Well, for one thing, they need to grow a backbone and do some actual resistance. The KMT may be out of power of Taiwan today, but their followers are unapologetic in defending the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek. They point out that history is complicated and that most historical figures did both good and bad. They have set up a dignified refuge for his statues.
The Maoists in China were out of favour for decades, but they kept the cult of Mao alive. And today, both Chiang and Mao are enjoying a popularity revival in China, and their legacies are debated but alive.
Western conservatives are called upon to defend men of far more calibre than Mao and Chiang. We are talking about Gandhi, Washington, Jefferson, Junipero Serra and Winston Churchill. Of course, all of these men said things which would be called racist, sexist or Islamophobic today. But they are not the targets. The deeper meaning of this iconoclasm is to transform America and Western civilization.
In the worldview of today’s woke mob, the West and white people should not even have existed. So they won’t stop at statues. They will move on to smashing images of Jesus in churches “because he’s white” and to blowing up Mt. Rushmore. In a worst case scenario, American could have its own cultural revolution. Whenever iconoclasm frenzies emerge, bloodshed follows. The French Revolution produced Jacobins, Robespierre, guillotines and the martyrdom of hundreds of thousands of Catholics. The Cultural Revolution extirpated Chinese historical sites and murdered millions.
Despite this, Western politicians are complacent. Useful idiots say that Confederate statues and Winston Churchill aren’t worth defending. But the mob won’t be satisfied with Robert E. Lee and Churchill. It will never be satisfied and surrender will only embolden it. Maoist Chinese know this very well — they were the mob. But when their sacred symbols are attacked, they defend them. Perhaps Western conservatives can borrow a page from them and learn.
Western readers, please listen! Communists defend Mao Tse-tung; the KMT defends Chiang Kai-shek; Mongolians revere Genghis Khan who massacred millions; Indians venerate Gandhi even though he thought that Africans were savages; South African Zulus respect Shaka Zulu who enslaved and murdered many other Bantu tribesmen. The West can defend its own complicated history and it should do so without apologies.
“Assata’s chant,” the fiery chant composed by Assata Shakur, is the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. She’s a cop-killer on the FBI’s Most Wanted List who’s hiding in Cuba. If BLM won’t apologise for revering a terrorist, why should the West apologise for honouring its heroes?