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What is Peace Memorial Day in Taiwan? Significance, historic background and more

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Every year on the 28th of February, everyone in Taiwan gets a day off. When I first started living here, I immediately thought that this was because of a festival that is celebrated in Taoism. I could not have been more wrong.

2/28 or 二二八 ‘er er ba’, as the locals like to call it, marks an important date in the history of Taiwan and is commemorated every year. In English we often call it ‘Peace Memorial Day’, which might already give you more of an idea as to what this holiday is about.

On this day people in Taiwan commemorate the people that died during the 1947 anti-government protests in Taiwan, as well as the White Terror period that lasted nearly 40 years. To really make sense of this, we have to dig into history a little deeper.

The history

For 50 years Taiwan had been ruled by colonial Japan, but after Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II (in 1945), administrative control over Taiwan was handed to China. For nearly two years, Taiwanese inhabitants saw members of the Kuomintang (KMT or 國民堂) become corrupt and misuse their position of power. After a widow had been accused of selling cigarettes on 27 February 1947, an officer fired shots into an angry crowd of bystanders, injuring an innocent local, who died in the hospital the next day. Taiwan could no longer keep quiet and demonstrations took place all over Taiwan on that very 28th of February 1948. People started rioting and taking over government buildings to set up some form of self-government and the leadership couldn’t handle it by themselves. So, Chen Yi, the KMT governor at the time, requested help from the National Revolutionary Army. The army that had to come from the mainland arrived in Taiwan on March 8th and started handling the situation right away. Though records vary, most of them show that the fighting stopped on the 21st of March, after having made many victims already. We can’t be sure on how many people were killed in these few weeks, but researchers estimate between 18,000 and 30,000 people died in the 228 Massacre.

In 1949 the so-called White Terror period started. In this period Taiwanese citizens were repressed under the KMT-rule. During this time there were numerous pro-democracy demonstrations attempted, but they were harshly suppressed. In 1987 the White Terror came to an end with the end of Martial Law that was imposed during this period.

What 228 symbolizes

Many people argue that this terrible event that took place in history, is the start of true Taiwanese identity. Because during this period people were told they couldn’t be too Japanese or Chinese, they didn’t have a choice but to become Taiwanese. The call for democracy and peace during this period shows the Taiwanese heart; open and honest, looking for a bright future.

How 228 is commemorated

In 1995 president Lee Teng-Hui issued an official public apology and declared the 28th of February Peace Memorial Day. Even though the past cannot be reversed by this apology, the Taiwanese government showed good faith and offered monetary compensation to the survivors of the massacre.

Every year on Peace Memorial Day the president and officials gather to ring an official bell in honor of the victims that were killed during the massacre. In every city events are organized in order to commemorate and remember. Sometimes this includes walks through the city or speeches or performances in honor of the victims.

In different cities in Taiwan you can find memorial parks and monuments to commemorate the victims. In Taipei you can find Peace Memorial Park close to the Presidential Palace and MRT NTU Hospital Station. And closer to Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall you can find the National 228 Memorial Museum, in which you can find out more about this tragic day and its importance for Taiwan.

So, before you go and have a fun day off, consider what the importance of this holiday is and what it might mean to other people.

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