Tag Archives: White Terror

An American providing help to opponents of the Kuomintang White Terror



Milo L. Thornberry, who recently died in Bend, Oregon at the age of 80, was a remarkable man, and one who wrote a remarkable memoir, Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror (2011), focused on the time (1966-71) he spent in Taiwan, two decades into the White Terror by what the US touted as “free China.” Posted to Taiwan by the United Methodist church, he quickly realized that Taiwan was neither “free” nor China, though a minority ferried from its disastrous misrule and failed war against the Chinese communists ruled Taiwan in ways similar to the Boer minority in South Africa. Not at all coincidentally, the apartheid regime in South Africa continued to recognize the so-called “Republic of China” after most countries acceded to the reality that China (and Tibet) were ruled by the communists from Beijing.

Thornberry was instructed to avoid “politics,” (“We don’t talk about such things. We are guests in this country, and guests don’t offend their hosts by getting involved in politics”), but he was quick to realize that acquiescing to the Chinese dictatorship (the Kuomintang [KMT] of the so-called “generalissimo” Chiang Kaishek [1887-1975], who had been converted to nominal Methodist Christianity by his wife, who was raised Methodist, Soong Mei-ling [1898-2003]) was no less “political” than opposing it. He quoted Elie Wiesel for one of his chapter epigrams: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Another guide, via Reinhold Neibhur, was Richard Briffault, who wrote in Rational Evolution: “No resistance to power is possible while the sanctioning lies, which justify the power, are accepted as valid. While the first and chief line of defense is unbroken, there can be no revolt. Before any injustice, any abuse, or oppression can be resisted, the lie upon which it is founded must be unmasked, must be clearly recognized for what it is.” (This is the epigram heading another chapter.)

Thornberry and some other Americans collated some material on the ongoing White Terror (and widespread corruption) of the KMT and distributed it to newcomers not totally gone on backing anything any regime professing anti-communism did.

A few months after arrival in Taiwan (with his wife Judith), Thornberry was introduced to the leading voice for Taiwanese independence, Dr. Peng Mingmin (born in 1923), who had been convicted of sedition for advocating democracy in “free China” in 1964 and had been imprisoned for 14 months before international pressure convinced President Chiang to place Peng under house arrest with tight surveillance. Peng’s former students, coauthors of the pamphlet advocating democracy, Hsieh Tsongmin and Wei Tingchao continued to be tortured in prison. (Thornberry would meet them later.)

Thornberry and Peng met most every week. After Peng was threatened with being disappeared/killed, the Thornberrys and some missionary friends (mostly not Methodists; it was Presbyterians who refused to stop using the majority language (Hoklo) for the Beijing language (Mandarin) mandated by the KMT government) decided Peng had to leave.


The central part of the book details how they managed to get Peng on a plane to Hong Kong (3 January 1970), from where he proceeded to Stockholm, where he was granted asylum, and later on to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he had a job offer. Both the Chinese Nationalists (the KMT) and the Chinese communists suspected that the US government had arranged the escape. Peng would not endanger those who had helped him by telling how his escape had been arranged, but stated unequivocally that no government had been involved (until Sweden gave him asylum).

In 1972, when Richard Nixon went to China, Zhou Enlai, Henry Kissinger, and Nixon discussed the mystery (to all three of them) of Peng’s departure from house arrest in Taipei. Decades later, the transcript of that discussion was released, and provided considerable amusement to Thornberry (and, presumably, to Peng). Hsieh and Wei who had been kept out of the loop were imprisoned and tortured a lot more.

The Thornberrys, with the assent and cooperation of the US State department officials in Taipei, were deported in March of 1971. For decades, they did not know why the KMT deported them then. Their role in spiriting the most prominent dissident on Taiwan out remained unknown to the KMT.

Milo Thornberry had been wrestling with moral questions about violence for some time (and some space in his memoir). He never engaged in any, though involvement in a bomb-making plot is what the KMT told the US representatives was the reason to expelling the Thornberrys.

Their passports were revoked and it was decades before they learned what had happened. This makes for a second thriller plot within the story of the Thornberrys in Taiwan, one with twists that surprise not only them, but Peng Mingmin.

Only with the pressure from three US senators (from both parties) was he allowed to leave the country three decades after being expelled from the ROC.

IT was a US Department of State official who commented in 1971 that ““there is no shortage of American graduate students, missionaries… with both ardent views on Taiwanese Independence and a willingness to conduct themselves as if they were fireproof moths,” inadvertently supplying the title to Thornberry’s memoir. The sarcastic statement was not true, but there were some daring Americans who were sympathetic to the oppressed majority population on Taiwan. Fireproof Moth recounts the very real-life adventures of one small bandwho were outraged by the collusion of their country (the USA) with KMT torture, murder, and corruption.


BTW, corruption was useful in Peng’s escape. Those charged with monitoring his movements continued to submit reports of movements he could not have made and to collect reimbursement for weeks after he had left, further confusing the not-so-“secret police” headed by Chiang’s son and successor Chiang Chingkuo. There is some mordant humor along with justifiable horror at the conduct of KMT torture.

In addition to detailing the evolution of Thornberry’s thoughts about what his moral obligations as a Methodist minister and as an Amercan were in a state where both his church and his government were colluding with torture (as elsewhere, some of the torturers received training from US institutions, as well as official US refusal to acknowledge torture and corruption by an anti-communist regime), Fireproof Moth is a first-rate thriller.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

I have also written about two recent  fictional accounts of the KMT White Terror, Green Island and The 2-28 Legacy, as well as  about American witnessed to the launching of the White Terror in 1947 here and US promotion of KMT dictatorship here.

Taiwan was a colony of Japan from the  1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki until 1945 and the Peace Treaty between the Allies and Japan, signed in San Francisco on 8 September 1951, included Japan renouncing sovereignty without assigning any particular recipient of what neither the KMT nor the CCP had considered part of China before WWII. The Q’ing Dynasty negotiators were quite happy to be rid of any responsibility (in the view of other nations) of the pirate- and cannibal-ridden island that had never entirely been governed by any Chinese dynasty (until the US Navy transported KMT military forces in 1945).



Some American Witnesses of the KMT’s 1947 Reign of Terror on Taiwan

In the summer of 1986 a group that included Yang Chonchung, Keelung Hong (Ang Geeliong), and I went to Grass Valley in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in eastern California to talk to Ed Paine, who had been a lieutenant in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II and was assigned to the Relief and Rehabilitation Unit of the United Nations. Like George Kerr, author of Formosa Betrayed, Ed Paine was frustrated that instead of reconstructing what had been damaged by U.S. bombing, KMT officials were lining their pockets and shipping off to China anything of value that could be moved (including railroad rolling stock, and most of the rice and sugar produced on Taiwan). From direct contact with officials put in charge of Taiwan by the Allies (and transported to Taiwan by the U.S. military), he learned that before losing the mainland, Chiang’s underlings considered Taiwanese as “enemy aliens” to exploit, not “Chinese brothers.” Resident in Daiba (Taipei) in March of 1947, he was a horrified observer of the bloody arrival of KMT troops to eliminate any dissent or possible dissent on the vassal island.

For Paine, even after more than 40 years, the horrible sight of corpses floating in a blood-red Keelung River remained the unforgettable part of KMT reassertion of domination. He had heard gunfire the night (March 10th) Chiang Kaishek’s troops landed in Keelung, but had not realized the scale of indiscriminate slaughter that began then.

In the following weeks, he learned of the more carefully planned murders of educated Taiwanese. He reported what he observed to Washington at the time. After returning to the United States, he wrote letters to Congress and various news agencies seeking to raise concern about what he had seen. He showed us various letters, some of which were published, and the noncommittal bureaucratic responses he received.

For a time he and George H. Kerr worked on a book manuscript. Although they had received an advance from a publisher, Kerr stopped work on the book without giving Paine any satisfying explanation, and only much later (1965) published Formosa Betrayed. That book is very critical of Chiang and his subordinates. It would have had a greater impact, however, closer to the time of the events (and closer to the time when it appears to have been written). I wrote to Kerr asking about the sequence of writing and publication of Formosa Betrayed, but in two letters Kerr avoided the direct (and repeated) question of why a book about his observations did not appear much earlier. (My guess is that the virulent attack on American experts for “losing China” in part for reporting the unpopularity of Chiang Kaishek had traumatized and/or deterred him, but this is a surmise for which I have no evidence.)

Ed Paine also told us that he had recommended a young Taiwanese with whom he had worked to translate for (Captain) Vern J. Sneider when Sneider came to Daiba. Sneider’s first novel, Teahouse of the August Moon, is a bemused account of the education of a U.S. Army of Occupation officer by Okinawan villagers. It was a best-seller, the basis for a hit Broadway play, a Hallmark Hall of Fame television production, and a movie (in which Marlon Brando played the Okinawan employee of Glen Ford; it was released on video in 1990).


The book Sneider wrote about Taiwan, A Pail of Oysters, published in 1953, also contains some amused accounts of an American’s incomprehension of Pacific Islanders’ ways of doing things that is similar to the central comedies of inter-cultural misunderstandings in Teahouse of the August Moon and in The King from Ashtabula, his later novel about a Micronesian student in Missouri who suddenly is recalled (by another U.S. Army occupation) to be king of an American-administered island.

A Pail of Oysters is much less light-hearted than those more popular works of Sneider’s fiction. It describes not just the foibles of confused Americans out of their depths across the Pacific, but accounts of KMT terror, including the shooting of Li Liu, the character based on the interpreter Ed Paine recommended to Vern Sneider.

The book opens with a KMT patrol seizing oysters gathered by Taiwanese coast dwellers (on the coast of Changhua). The first chapter also appeared as a story in a 1950 Antioch Review and was reprinted in the 1956 collection of Sneider’s mostly-set-in-Korea short stories, A Long Way from Home. Sneider makes very vivid the terror in which Taiwanese lived during the late 1940s and beyond, under the oppression of KMT bandit-troops. He also makes clear the common Taiwanese views that what land reform was really about was breaking up any Taiwanese power bases.


Even with a white American charcter, journalist Ralph Barton, Hollywood did not evidence the same interest in A Pail of Oysters as in his other books. Although well-reviewed, it was not a popular success. Even more than Formosa Betrayed, copies of A Pail of Oysters disappeared from most libraries, probably on instructions issued to the student spies paid by the KMT to monitor Taiwanese on U.S. college campuses.

Informed estimates of the extent of killings of Taiwanese continue to mount (from ten thousand to 150,000). Despite the attempt of a Hoover Institute book to downplay both the number of fatalities and the responsibility of the “Republic of China” government, since the lifting of martial law, scholars in Taiwan have finally been able to discuss the extent of the horror since the end of martial law. A Pail of Oysters continues to provide a vivid contemporary picture of the terror in which adult Taiwanese lived in the late 1940s. It has just appeared as an e-book with a very useful introduction by Jonathan Benda that includes discussion of CIA and USIA attempts to smear Sneider as communist for showing how the Chinese (KMT) acted in the colony of Taiwan they took over from Japan, which was only possible with US logistical support. (A sample is available at https://archive.org/stream/strategytacticso0105unit#page/98/mode/2up)


In addition to Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed, see New Zealander Allan James Shackleton’s eyewitness account in  Formosa Calling It was written in 1948 but not published until 2009.  And there is a new novel, Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan, l hinging on the White Terror with a female protagonist who moves to the US without being able to escape the damage inflicted by the KMT to many Taiwanese families.

©2016, Keelung Hong and Stephen O. Murray; an earlier version of this posting was included in our book (published by the University of Nebraska Press), Looking Through Taiwan. That book also includes a reprint of “A Case Study of Pseudo-Objectivity: The Hoover Institution Analysis of 1947 Resistance and Repression in Taiwan.”)

Three generations of Taiwanese-American Angelenas shaped by the Chinese White Terror on Taiwan

228 Legacy.jpg

“Scaring people into saying nothing in public that could be construed as critical of the armed forces…is more than the production of silence. It is silencing, which is quite different. For now the not said acquires a significance and a specific confusion befogs the spaces of the public sphere, which is where the action is…The point about silencing and the fear behind silencing is not to erase memory. Far from it. The point is to drive the memory deep within the fastness of the individual so as to create more fear and uncertainty in which dream and reality commingle”

— Michael Taussig, The Nervous System,  1992, p. 27)

228 Legacy is an ambitious first novel by Jennifer J. Chow, who, according to the book’s author blurb is” a Chinese-American, married into the Taiwanese culture. The 228 Legacy was inspired by the family stories she heard after viewing photos of a two-million-person human chain commemorating 2-28 [1947]. ” I think that it is the first American novel dealing with the Kuomintang (KMT) white terror since the 1953 A Pail of Oysters 1953 by Vern Sneider (better known as the author of The Teahouse of the August Moon).

Sneider’s too-little-known novel is set entirely in Taiwan, drawing on the experiences of his Taiwanese interpreter. In response to protests challenging KMT (mis)rule that began on 28 February 1947 (hence the label “2-28”) Chiang Kaishek sent troops sent to quell the “rebellion.” The slaughter and targeting of the Taiwanese elite (trained during 50 years of rule by Japan) began when troops landed in the port of Keelung in the early hours of 9 March 1947. Thus, I find it unlikely that the husband of the grandmother (Silk) was disappeared on 2/28. And, given that Chow acknowledges the standard account of the KMT white terror and US acquiescence to it, George Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed, she should know the chronology.

Silk recalls her husband, a technician, going off, never to return, to a meeting or rally 2/28/1947. They did not know that Silk was pregnant. Chow’s narrative does not mention how she got out of Taiwan and to LA, where she has worked in a vineyard into 1980. (Silk recalls that she was accepted into the US as a “displaced person.” Even if that is an official category from the late-1940s, the question of how she got from Taiwan to San Francisco is still begged in the book.)

That the four narrations are not set in the recent past did not dawn on me until Silk and her daughter Lisa and grand-daughter Abbey visit Taiwan while Chiang Kaishek’s son Chiang Chingkuo was ruling (he lifted martial law after 40 years in 1987 and died 13 January 1988).  Near the end, the 1980 US presidential election is mentioned (Lisa votes for Reagan). There are no other period details, and Silk being 55 when her grand-daughter begins sixth grade (and Lisa 32) seems possible but pushing it (for no good reason!), while Abbey seems older than a plausible fifth-grader. (Abbey’s father is a nonentity, not recalled as Silk does her disappeared husband.)

Silk remains terrified, not wanting her daughter or grand-daughter to risk being educated (since the KMT targeted the educated on Taiwan during the White Terror). Abbey is vying with Ara Aroyan, the son of a prominent pediatric dentist, to be valedictorian of their grade school (is there really such a thing? With ranks updated publicly on a regular basis?). For a time, she gains admittance into the grade school’s in-crowd (which seems much more like middle school/junior high) and attends a party at Ara’s, at which his uncle drugs and molests some girls. Abbey escapes and tells the police about a classmate tied up and screaming. The Aroyans cover up the predation, and Abbey is ostracized for slandering Ara’s beloved (not in the sexual sense) uncle. (I find it difficult to believe that even a local newspaper would headline “AROYAN FAMILY DEFAMED,” btw.)

Lisa has difficulty holding onto a job (even before the Reagan recession). She is hired by a Chinese-American, Jack, whose beloved wife recently died. Jack worked as a janitor in the school Abbey attends and lived in an upscale nursing home from which Lisa was laid off. He becomes something of a father figure for Lisa, who never knew her biological father. But Jack makes the mistake of assimilating Taiwanese to “fellow Chinese” that enrages Silk. (I have seen Taiwanese bristle at the equation, particularly Taiwanese who grew up discriminated against by Chinese, whose governance was similar to that of white South Africans, but Silk’s reaction seems unrealistically extreme to me.)

Jack is the fourth POV (not narrator, the book is entirely in the third person) and further clogs the narrative(s) by sponsoring a homeless person, temporarily housing him in the nursing home with him and getting him the janitorial job that has been kept open for Jack’s return.

All four protagonists do some good deeds, including Silk taking Lisa and Abbey to visit Taipei (where she grew up and met her husband) and Kaohsiung (where she was living in 1947 when she lost her husband).

With some flashbacks for Silk, the novel moves linearly, alternating chapters reporting what Silk, Lisa, Abbey, and Jack do and think. It’s a lot easier reading than the most famous novel alternating four narrators, The Sound and the Fury. Chow’s characters are sympathetic and the insecurities of the three generations of women are credibly a legacy of the White Terror (which Taiwanese lump into the category “2-28”). The simultaneous (and unrelated) finding peace of all three generations strains belief some, however.

The many acknowledgments do not include any to an editor. Some of the dialogue seems clunky to me (e.g., “I thought I’d have to wrestle with deep sorrow when I came back, but it’s been the opposite experience” that I can’t imagine anyone actually saying), and an editor might have balked at the newspaper headline I already mentioned, diction such as  “Abbey imbibes the ambience of downtown Fairview… Downtown Fairview possess an urban, gritty feel,” or “At first glance, the tall swan-like woman with undulating hazel hair and grey eyes seems very different from her,” and proofreading might have caught a missing preposition in “I didn’t want return to Monroe.” Still, I thought the book engaging and worthwhile.

(BTW, Chow studied gerontology at Cornell, worked as a geriatric social worker, and writes a blog (http://www.jenniferjchow.com) that is mostly foodie—much more so than 228 Legacy, though Lisa takes a job at a coffee shop that leads to starting a support group for women taking care both of older and younger family members that turns into a paying gig.)


With Keelung Hong (both reprinted as chapters in Looking Through Taiwan, published by the University of Nebraska Press), I have written about “Some American Witnesses of the KMT’s 1947 Reign of Terror on Taiwan” and  “A Case Study of Pseudo-Objectivity: The Hoover Institution Analysis of 1947 Resistance and Repression in Taiwan.”

In addition to Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed, see New Zealander Allan James Shackleton’s eyewitness account in  Formosa Calling. Though focused on later KMT murder of a Taiwanese-American professor considered a “dissident,” see the movie that borrowed Kerr’s title: “Formosa Betrayed.” And there is a new novel, Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan, l hinging on the White Terror with a female protagonist who moves to the US without being able to escape the damage inflicted by the KMT to many Taiwanese families.


©2013, Stephen O. Murray




“Green Island” by Shawna Yang Ryan



Less than one percent of Shawna Yang Ryan’s new novel Green Island is set on the volcanic island off the east coast of Taiwan where political prisoners were incarcerated. Its name is a specimen of Kuomintang (KMT) doublespeak.* Until 1949 it was known as “fire-seared island” (Kasho-to in Japanese). Though a major character, Dr. Tsai, the father of the narrator, was held at “Oasis Village” (more KMT doublespeak) for ten years, it seems that he was already broken by torture and the murder of his neighbors before his long prison sentence on the desolate island of the title.

Before the never-named female narrator’s birth, her father went to medical school in Tokyo and was deployed with the Japanese colonial army in Burma, where he nearly died of dysentery. Had that happened, there would be no story, the narrator would not have been conceived or delivered by her father.

It is difficult for me to suspend disbelief about several crucial plot points, beginning with Dr. Tsai leaving his newborn child (and wife and older son and daughter) to attend a meeting airing grievances about KMT misrule. It was speaking there that got his name on the list of people to be rounded up when KMT reinforcements were deployed by Chiang Kai-Shek who had not yet retreated from mainland China to Taiwan.

It is also difficult for me to credit the University of California, Berkeley retaining one of its own graduates, the narrator’s husband Wei. It would have been more plausible for him to have earned his Ph.D. in physics somewhere else, then to be hired by Berkeley. More crucially, it is hard for me to believe that he would (1) risk returning to Taiwan with the ashes of a comrade in the anti-KMT movement’s armed wing in 1982, before the end of martial law on Taiwan (2) with his very pregnant wife, and (3) though blacklisted, would receive a visa.

In contrast with these implausibilities, the torture and killings (estimates range from 10,000 to 50,000) of the White Terror, which began when the KMT army reinforcements landed when the narrator was seven days old, the KMT spying on US campuses, and the murder and intimidation of Americans who had been born on Taiwan is all too plausible, if unknown to most Americans not born on Taiwan. The book brings the pressure to collude with KMT spies deployed in the US vividly to life. In effect, family members in Taiwan were hostages who could and were used to discourage documentation of the ongoing reign of terror and suppression of dissent against the apartheid-like Chinese Nationalist regime. The psychically and physically fragile Dr. Tsai is an example of this. Also the collusion in KMT/ROC cover-up of the torture of US citizens in 1982 (during the Reagan administration) is all too plausible.

A lot of history is stuffed into the novel with the character of the maternal grandfather consisting entirely of reporting on events long before the birth of the narrator. Even with that device, there are switches to omniscient narration of events the generally dominant first-person narrator could not have witnessed. The one historical point I think is misleading is that in the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué of 1972 the US recognized that the PRC (and, for that matter, the KMT) considered Taiwan a province of China without accepting that view. What she quotes on p. 183 was the PRC position, NOT something agreed upon by US and PRC officials. (The second quotation’s “creative ambiguity” of “all Chinese” does not include the Taiwanese majority living on Taiwan. The whole document is online at https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v17/d203) Though Henry Kissinger was quite willing to sell out Taiwan and the ROC, the communiqué was not ratified by the US Congress the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 requires the US to defend Taiwan from any PRC invasion. (I also think she confuses the PRC denial of SARS in 2003 with that of the ROC public health bureaucracy; the PRC coverup is undeniable; see the lengthy analysis at http://www.asianresearch.org/articles/1502.html. PRC blocking of ROC membership or een observer status in the World Health Organization (WHO) was more important than any denial of cases on Taiwan.)


The combination of White Terror on Taiwan and immigrant life in the US for Taiwanese was also the subject of Julie Wu’s 2013 novel The Third Son, (which begins in Japanese Taiwan of 1943) and of Jennifer Chow’s three-generation 2013 novel The 228 Legacy; the White Terror on Taiwan was the focus of A Pail of Oysters by Vern Sneider (better known for The Teahouse of the August Moon) published in 1953. “Formosa Betrayed,” the title of George Kerr’s belated (1965) report of what he witnessed (as US vice-consul) on after 2-28-1947 was used for a 2009 thriller about an FBI agent’s investigation of a KMT-sponsored murder of a Taiwanese professor at a Midwestern US university (that combined the murder in Daly City, CA of journalist Henry Liu and the death while in KMT secret police custody of Carnegie Mellon University professor Chen Wencheng, whose corpse was dumped on the campus of National Taiwan University).


  • In a New York Times interview (online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/23/world/asia/taiwan-shawna-yang-ryan-green-island.html?_r=0), Ms. Ryan, who teaches writing at the Unversity of Hawai’I’s main campus in Honolulu, said that she thinks of “Taiwan as a ’’green island’ as well — verdant and beautiful — but during martial law, it had become a kind of prison itself.” Taiwan was long called “Formosa” in English, based on the Portuguese “ilha Formoa,” “beautiful island.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray