I find it a very ironic time to have read Green Island, a novel about the life of a Taiwanese man imprisoned after the 228 Tragedy in 1948 and his family as they endure Taiwan’s decades of repressive martial law before it became a democracy in the late 1980s. I say this because of recent developments in China, where the president has become an “emperor,” (he even threatened Taiwan today in a speech at a national congress) and worsening political repression and government announcements seem to be harkening back to the sixties and seventies. Single-party authoritarian rule and political repression are what Taiwan, a proud democracy since the late 80s, suffered for decades, during which the events in Green Island take place against.
There are not many novels about Taiwan, so Green Island is rather unique. And by focusing on Taiwan’s turbulent period of martial law, also known as the White Terror, starting with the brutal massacre of the 228 Tragedy, the book is even more special.
The 228 Tragedy was a mass killing of Taiwanese by Republic of China troops after mass riots erupted in 1948 sparked by the beating of a cigarette vendor. Having been a Japanese colony, Taiwan was granted to the ROC in 1945, who behaved like oppressive occupiers, fuelling serious tensions with the locals. The death toll has never been verified but was at least several hundred, though some believe the number was in the thousands. The narrator’s father, a doctor who speaks up for during a public hearing a few days after the tragedy, is arrested in the ensuing crackdown. His family never gets any news of his arrest or whether he is in prison or dead. The narrator was born on the day the tragedy began – February 28 (a public holiday now in Taiwan in commemoration of the victims) and grows up as the youngest child and daughter without knowing her father until he suddenly appears 11 years later.
But instead of a joyful reunion, the father’s reappearance causes complications with the family with his haunted and stern presence. As the narrator grows up, she is introduced to a son of a family friend studying in the US and marries him. Moving to the US in the early 1980s, they start a family in California where the husband teaches at a local university. He is involved in a Taiwanese dissident movement, and when the couple take in a Taiwanese academic who has fled Taiwan, Taiwanese government agents shadow them. This is a chilling echo of reality in those days when Taiwanese agents and thugs spied on and intimidated activists in the US, even committing murder, something that happens in the novel as well. When the dissident decides to write a book about Taiwan, the narrator helps him translate it into English. But a Taiwanese consulate agent contacts the woman and tries to intimidate and bribe her to spy on the dissident. Things become murky as the narrator struggles to decide whether to accept and fear and paranoia creep into her relations with her husband and the dissident. The situation seems hopeless for the dissident movement as the regime continues to rule by intimidation and terror (a state of affairs that would not seem out of place in Taiwan’s giant neighbour across the Strait right now). The book ends with a return to Taipei in the midst of the SARS virus epidemic in 2003.
While I have a general understanding of Taiwan’s 20th century history such as the 228 Tragedy and the White Terror, which lasted from the late 40s to the 80s, I did not grasp the sheer brutality and climate of fear and repression that occurred during that time. Reading Green Island brought this dark period to life and increased my appreciation of how much Taiwan has progressed to become what it is today. What makes this period even more striking is that the 70s was when Taiwan left the UN after the organization decided to accept China and then saw its chief ally, the US break off official relations with it in favour of China. Taiwan’s ensuing international isolation, which still exists today with less than 20 countries officially recognizing Taiwan, was a big blow to the ruling KMT regime. I got the sense from reading the book that this loss of international legitimacy weakened the KMT and somehow helped Taiwan’s eventual democratization to occur.
At times while reading the book, I thought how Taiwan back then was so similar to China, both being one-party states ruled by dictators (Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek and then his son Chiang Ching-kuo, China by Mao Tse-tung) and with censorship; mass killings; citizen surveillance, secret detention, torture and killings of dissidents. The big difference is that China now still has some of these things. Taiwan now is a completely different place and sometimes given the country’s openness and easy-going nature, it is easy to forget that decades ago, it was under a terrible dictatorship that committed killings and repressive jailing of its citizens. There are some torture and killing described in the book, all the more chilling because it is not over-the-top gory but realistic and based on reality.
Green Island refers to a small isle off Taiwan’s east coast that was used to imprison dissidents like the father, so the main criticism I have about the book is that the father’s 11 years of imprisonment are not described at all. After he is captured and jailed, time goes by and the family picks up their lives until suddenly one day he reappears. While the father’s Green Island imprisonment is traumatic and affects his personality, the isle itself does not feature so I think the book being named after it is misleading.
You could say Green Island is both the story of a country and a family, both a political thriller and a family drama. There is an air of sadness and fear throughout the book, but it is lightened by the fact that in real life, we all know which side won in Taiwan between the authoritarian regime and the resistance.
Green Island is one of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read and there were a couple of times when I felt emotional and I rarely do so for books. Green Island is not an uplifting tale of heroism and happiness, but a somber story of survival and family that is also the story of a nation.