Perhaps there is something about being an island nation that uniquely shapes the national memory. Loud voices on my own island continue to argue that Britain can make its own way in the world free from the shackles of the EU even as the pound bows to reality, performing contortions on currency graphs that make Tom Daley look like an amateur. These futile, but nonetheless damaging, rallying cries are a result of a particular vision of the British past, one in which plucky Britain, once ruler of ¼ of the world, always comes out on top.
Last week I was struck by the uniqueness of the national memories of another island nation. Visiting Taiwan for the national day holidays I was taken to the site of the former Miyahara eye hospital, now an upper end restaurant. Named after Takekuma Miyahara, the former Japanese governor of Taichung, the site is now a monument to nostalgia. The staff walk around the building in army uniforms, and because the setting is Taiwan in the 1920s, these are very specifically Japanese army uniforms. The prospect of a similar restaurant in mainland China is preposterous because in many ways the country’s relationship with Japanese imperialism is far less complex. China was invaded and subjected over a period of 14 years from 1930-45. Taiwan was colonized, perhaps even developed, over 50 years of Japanese rule from 1895-1945.
Beyond this there are, perhaps, two other reasons why Miyahara was singled out specifically for this colonialist theme park, reasons which resonate with my own research into the commemoration of the foreigners who died fighting the Taiping in China. The first is contingency. Landmarks sometimes come under threat. In the case of the Miyahara eye hospital, it was damaged the earthquake of 1999 and subsequently by a Taiphoon in 2008. The monuments to the foreign dead of the Taiping war, meanwhile, were threatened by the advance of Japanese troops during the Sino-Japanese war (1937-45). With the hospital damaged, two choices remained: demolition or reconstruction. It is here I suspect that a particular vision of Taiwan’s history rescued the building. Miyahara, the restaurant’s website suggests, was a ‘maverick figure’ who supported Taiwanese independence. The Japanese colonial period resonates within Taiwanese popular memories in a way which is anathema to the People’s Republic in part because it makes the island less Chinese. This in turn renders Beijing’s claims on Taiwan void, or, rather, resting on the tenuous Qing dynasty hold over the island before it was ceded to Japan. In the same way, foreign communities in China before world war two clung to the dead of the Taiping war, and the monuments to them, for their own contemporary political purposes, the preservation of their rights in China. The long dead who had ‘died fighting China’s battles’ stood as proxy for the perceived ongoing role of those still living.
History can be made to serve many different agendas, which perhaps makes the historian’s role, as I see it sometimes to complicate and challenge our understanding of the past, all the more vital.