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Pondering history at the Martyrs Shrine

The National Revolutionary Martyrs Shrine(忠烈祠) isn't near the top of any list of Taipei's finest tourist attractions. Indeed, some Taiwanese people dislike this place for the same reason many shun Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. They see it as a celebration of war and authoritarianism, a holdover from a dark period of history.

When I had a free morning in Taipei a few months ago, I did not hesitate to visit the Martyrs Shrine. I went for the same reasons I visited Yasukuni Shrine a few years ago: I'm fascinated by 20th century Asian history, and I think it's important to hear every side of the story. For anyone interested in the history of China, the Martyrs Shrine is an engrossing – if somber – place.

The complex was completed in 1969. In architectural terms it's cut from the same cloth as the Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen memorial halls. It has the same kind of entrance gate as the former, and a Sanctuary topped with the same glazed roof tiles as the latter.

The approach to the Sanctuary is lined with seventy ROC flags. On either side of the approach there's a two-story pavilion. The one on the left commemorates Shih Chien-ju, the one on the right Lu Hao-tong. Both paid with their lives for their politics in the early part of the 20th century. CCTV cameras face the bronze busts of these men, suggesting vandalism has occurred or been threatened.

Once past the towers, you'll notice four buildings: an ornate entranceway, the main hall (off-limits to visitors), a shrine for civilians on the right and another for soldiers on the left. In total, more than 390,000 martyrs are commemorated, with each wooden tablet recording up to 75 names.

Some died before the establishment of the ROC in anti-Qing uprisings, others perished fighting the Japanese or the Communists. Some of the photos are prison mugshots, and at least one was taken after the firing squad had done its work. Many of the profiles are bilingual, and they make for interesting reading. There's a 'Kazakh Islamite' who died in battle aged 80; a 32-year-old poetess who was tortured and executed by the Qing; a student of the Political Warfare School (where the ROC trained its spies and saboteurs) who died during a raid on a Communist-held island in the early 1970s.

One of the most curious concerns Juan Bo-shan, a young scholar from Taiwan, “killed by Chicom united front elements during the evening party for celebrating that National Day of the Republic of China” while studying in California in 1974.

Among the Taiwan-born martyrs is Lo Fu-hsin. Lo left the island soon after the Japanese takeover, then returned to organize a KMT branch in 1913. He was quickly arrested by the Japanese and hanged the following year.

If you find the celebration of suicides committed 'to preserve national righteousness' when surrender was an alternative somewhat unsettling, you're not alone. The most extreme example is Liang Tun-hou who, when Taiyuan City was about to fall to the Communists, ordered 500 subordinates to commit suicide with him “in order to preserve their loyalty and benevolence.”

Memorial tablets are grouped according to era and region, but these aren't labeled in English. One category within the civilian hall is devoted to around 2,900 Taiwanese who died resisting Japan's 1895-1945 colonial rule of the island.

If the history doesn't interest you, the hourly changing of the guard might. The slow-motion goose-stepping and rapid twirling of rifles is done with absolute and fascinating precision. These young men deserve the round of applause they get at the end of each ceremony.

How to get there

The shrine is at 139 Beian (北安) Road, near the American Club. It's open from 9:00am to 5:00pm each day and admission is free. There are no MRT stops nearby, but several bus routes connect it to Yuanshan (圓山) Station on the Red Line.

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Pondering history at the Martyrs Shrine
Incense burns before memorial tablets within the civilian section of the Martyrs Shrine. (By Steven Crook, Special to The China Post)

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