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Opinion

Life Under Martial Law: "I Was On My Classmates' Blacklist"

I consider myself a child of the martial law era. I was ten when martial law was finally lifted, but as we stepped into a new era, I didn't get a sense that anything had changed. I spent those days shouldering my backpack to class, studying and taking exams. For us ordinary folk, the end of martial law wasn't like a knife that sliced two eras apart; the legacy of that era seeped into one's memory even after it was over. That's how it was for me during my elementary school years. 

For example, I was often chosen to participate in speech contests, and the topics would be on crime prevention or the importance of keeping secrets from spies. I wasn't very good at these competitions, but I was likely selected because my father was a police officer, and it was assumed I inherited the "correct blood."

For a child, the concept of crime doesn't really exist. They don't understand what constitutes classified information, nor do they know how to protect it. But spouting off phrases like "the evil communist bandits" and "spies are everywhere" were second nature for us, they flowed from the tips of our tongues, but didn't reside in our heads. From the first to the last word I spoke, not a single one came from my own head or hand, it was all prepared by my homeroom teacher long in advance. The entire thing was written using a specific equation and cadence; my job was just to memorize the lines and then deliver them.

My coach knew I wasn't taking any of these lessons to heart, but they assigned these unpleasant tasks to me all the same. My life in elementary school was filled with government propaganda talent shows, sometimes they needed someone to paint a mural promoting Chiang Ching-kuo's (蔣經國) "Ten Major Infrastructure Projects", other times they needed someone to demonstrate Chinese calligraphy. Even dictation and writing competitions were vehicles for government propaganda. I felt restless at times, but I was also moved by the sacrifices made by my family, the country, the military and the police. During the morning flag raising ceremony, I stood in the last row of the chorus, feeling especially proud of myself.

When I grew up, I would often show off how I could sing the national anthem and list off all the heads of the the five branches of government. The birthdays and death anniversaries of each of leader were also drilled into us, from Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), to Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo. Walking past their portraits everyday or staring at them in the hall during a time-out, no one could ever forget their faces. Some of us may have even inadvertently memorized The Final Testament of Sun Yat-sen (國父遺囑). 

But times change. There was one year though, when something felt different, but it was hard to pinpoint what exactly. When the boys were feeling naughty, they'd wave their arms in class and shout in unison "DPP! DPP!" They said it in Taiwanese Hokkien, a language that was once prohibited in school. The words "DPP" or "Democratic Progressive Party" — the newly formed opposition party to the KMT — had somehow come to replace the words "oppose" or "object" for Taiwanese youth. Sometimes it was just a way to crudely cut off a conversation. Even today, I'm not sure if they were using the word "DPP" in a positive or negative way, I think they were just silly kids mimicking the mood in the air. 

What kind of mood was that? There's a word people use to express nostalgia for that era: "orderly."

My mother is a great example: when I explained to her what happened during the White Terror, she said: "it was better back then, it wasn't chaotic like it is today." Many people are like this, and see the lifting of martial law as nothing more than a dividing line between order and chaos. 

I have memories of this newfound "chaos." After martial law was lifted, Yao Chia-wen (姚嘉文) led a group of locals to surround the police station and town hall in Homei, Changhua for several days. I remember this because my father was the local police chief, and we lived in a residence next door.

That day, we couldn't go home, and when we did return home, our pet myna bird was dead, and all our other birds were dying, and same with the dog too. 

The shock and anger I felt that day helps me to understand those who fondly recollect martial law and long for its stability. Perhaps people associate this transition with "chaos" because of destructive moments like these. It was a transformative period after all, and it wasn't clear what was the future direction and purpose of the country. 

Apart from this, my definitive memory of the end of martial law is the same as the rest of my generation: that is, the death of "Mr. Chiang Ching-Kuo." I really liked this "TV grandfather-president" figure, but when they suddenly interrupted the eight o'clock television drama that day and all of Taiwan learned of his death, I stood on my chair feeling amazed but not sad. I remember turning to my parents and saying, "what will happen now that we don't have a President Chiang?" Over the next few days, you'd hear people say things like "I'm just not used to having a President Lee."

Many years later, when my mother finally understood the severity of martial law and the White Terror period, she would say things like "if you were born just few years earlier, you'd have been snatched up too, given your clueless behaviour and all."

Even by the time we were democratically electing our presidents, my university professors were saying something similar: "you would've definitely been blacklisted in the past."

I wasn't self-aware enough to know that saying the wrong thing could put you on a watch list. I wasn't able to escape the "blacklists" of my own classmates either. 

Once, my female classmates and I gathered at the town hall to attend a mourning ceremony for President Chiang. When they put on armbands, I refused, and when they wept bitter tears, I remained expressionless. My friends were angry and wouldn't stop scolding me. They even refused to talk to me. They thought I wasn't sad enough and didn't love the President. They said I had betrayed my status as the child of a police officer. I was dumbstruck. How could these children — whose parents owned factories or businesses — love their country more than I?

A few days later, I said to them, let's go do another little prayer for President Chiang, and we went to the ceremonial hall on the second floor of the town hall together. I stood in front of the counter to pay my respects, bowed three times in the center of the hall, forced out two teardrops and said "I'm crying. I'm so sad, what will happen now that the president is gone?" They laughed and patted me on the shoulder, saying don't be sad, come on let's go for a walk.

(To read the Chinese version of this article, please click: 【戒嚴生活記憶】阿潑/我上了同學的「黑名單」 )

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