Taiwan: A History of Agonies

Source: Taipei Times (2/25/16)
Book review: The growing pains of Taiwanese consciousness
The release of this long-overdue English translation of the Japanese original reveals that Taiwan’s independence movement was nurtured in Japan following World War II
By Jerome Keating  /  Contributing reporter

Taiwan: A History of Agonies, by Ong Iok-tek, translated by Shimamura Yasuharu.

Ong Iok-tek’s (王育德) Taiwan: A History of Agonies has finally become available in English. Originally written in Japanese and translated into Chinese, its long-awaited English translation was completed last year. For that reason, Ong (1924—1985) may not be a household name among many in the West who study Taiwanese history, but that does not diminish the valuable insights and contributions of this work.

To place Ong in context, he was born in Taiwan in 1924 during the Japanese colonial era, and was a contemporary of Su Beng (史明, b.1918), a historian and Taiwan independence advocate, former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝, b. 1923) and democracy pioneer Peng Ming-min (彭明敏, b. 1923), all Taiwanese who studied in Japan.

Parallels can be found between Ong’s book and Su Beng’s 400 Years of Taiwan History. Both books were originally written in Japanese. Su’s 400 Years was written in 1962; Ong’s History of Agonies in 1964. Both were later translated into Chinese and would be instrumental in informing Taiwanese of their past. Ong’s book was translated into Chinese in 1977; Su’s was translated in 1980. Su’s book would further be translated into English in 1986, whereas Ong’s English version was published last year.

Su and Ong both fled to Japan where they moved in different circles. Ong returned to his studies in 1949 and went on to get a doctorate in literature at the University of Tokyo; he would work with developing Taiwan support groups in intellectual and international spheres. Su escaped Taiwan in 1952 and would continue as a revolutionary, training insurgents to return to Taiwan.

Ong’s book is for those researching Taiwanese consciousness post-WWII. What makes it unusual is not just the historical content, much of which can now be found in other contemporary works, but the realization that awareness of Taiwan’s history and identity had reached a state of maturity in Japan by 1964.

Taiwan: A History of Agonies
By Ong Iok-tek, translated by Shimamura Yasuharu
367 pages
Avanguard Publishing House, Taipei
Paperback: Taiwan

Taiwan of course was under martial law and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) controlled most discourse coming out of the nation to the English-speaking world. In 1964, Peng was arrested on charges of treason for his pamphlet Declaration of Formosan Self-Salvation. In the following year, Lee left Taiwan to study for a doctorate at Cornell University.

While in Japan, Ong kept close tabs on Taiwan-related issues, including Peng’s house arrest and later escape. In Ong’s update of 1970, he devotes several pages to Peng’s ideas and flight to Sweden. Ong’s daughter, who helped in making the English version available, stresses that her father’s lifelong aim and pursuit was, “Taiwan is not China. The Taiwanese are not the Chinese. Taiwan should be ruled by Taiwanese themselves.”

Ong’s attention to detail and his ability to draw from Japanese periodicals and other sources are added benefits. Some may be familiar with the Qing Dynasty adage: “an uprising every three years and a revolution every five years.” Ong provides a list for each uprising and revolution, including the year, names of important people and the consequences.

Ong also provides the name, position and background of over a dozen Taiwanese who were targeted and murdered during the 228 Incident and its aftermath, including his brother who was a prosecutor in the Hsinchu District Court. Ong also writes how Taiwanese later were aware that Communist China and the KMT, though at odds, were united in their efforts to suppress any suggestions of Taiwan independence

As Ong spent the final 36 years of his life in Japan, one comes to realize the extent to which Taiwanese consciousness and the support of the independence movement was housed there throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It would later shift to the US in the 1970s and 1980s as more Taiwanese did their graduate studies there. Ong was involved with these different groups and was instrumental in setting up the “Taiwan Youth Society,” which was the forerunner of World United Formosans for Independence.

The book’s preface and final chapter were added by Ong’s daughter to take it well beyond Ong’s 1970 update. She also adds a timeline which ends with the KMT’s overwhelming loss in the November 2014 nine-in-one elections.

The translation reads extremely well. Since most of the book was written in 1964 and updated in 1970, the work uses the Wade-Giles system of Romanization. One can also expect a few discrepancies in historical dates and perceptions that would be cleared up in later decades as more information became available.

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