BOOK REVIEW: Taiwan, the White Terror and the Power of Literature

A Review of Shawna Yang Ryan’s ‘Green Island’
J. Michael Cole

It wasn’t the dreaded knock on the door in the middle of the night. Instead, the undercover military police officers posed as clients wanting to buy tea from Mr. Wei. Their main objective was something of an entirely different nature, however: to recover incriminating documents from the White Terror era that Mr. Wei had in his possession and which he had advertised for sale on the Internet. In all, after luring him out of his residence, eight men accompanied Mr. Wei back to his home, where they made it clear that “bad things” could happen if he refused to let them search his house without a warrant and did not hand over the documents (which he kept hidden in a dehumidifier unit). To keep the matter quiet, the officers later allegedly offered Mr. Wei NT$15,000 (about US$500) in return for his silence. Mr. Wei did not take the money, nor did he remain silent.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Taiwan’s troubled past could conclude that the incident described above occurred during the Martial Law era, when Garrison Command and various security agencies under the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) control literally had power of life and death over the population of Taiwan. But that would be wrong. The scandal took place not in the depths of the 1950s or 1960s, but in February 2016, nearly three decades after the lifting of Martial Law. It serves as a powerful reminder that despite democratizing, Taiwan has yet to go through the process of transitional justice that is necessary for truth and reconciliation.


The release of Shawna Yang Ryan’s novel Green Island therefore could not have been timed any better. Her second novel, Yang Ryan’s Green Island follows the Tsai family over nearly six decades, opening on the eve of the 228 Massacre (Feb. 27, 1947) — that night the female narrator is born — and closing with Taiwan as it copes with the SARS epidemic in 2003. A medical doctor and head of the family, Dr. Tsai becomes one of the thousands of victims of the KMT regime, and spends 11 years in jail (including on Green Island) for criticizing the government during a meeting with officials.

Through the eyes (and imagination) of the youngest of the Tsai daughters, we experience the idealism of Taiwanese activists, the harsh prison conditions, the torture, the arbitrary executions and the betrayals as Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) KMT tightens its paranoid grip on society. Torn by moral conflicts and identity crises, the traumatic effects of fear upon ordinary individuals and the dislocation of exile, the Tsai family serves as a microcosm of Taiwan during those six decades. Although the Tsais are fictional, most of what happens in the book is based upon real events, and many of the victims of the state apparatus are real historical figures.

While several parts of the book read like non-fiction (there are echoes of George Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed), the author nevertheless succeeds in maintaining the right balance between history and fiction, and for the most part avoids sounding too didactic, a tendency that often has marred works of fiction about Taiwan due to the author feeling the need to intrude and to educate an audience that doesn’t know the first thing about Taiwan. With a few exceptions, Yang Ryan weaves the two skillfully and doesn’t allow history to interrupt good storytelling.

The theme of imprisonment — from a prison cell to conjugal life, a political refugee’s hideout to a hospital under quarantine — recurs throughout the novel and reinforces the notion that despite their best efforts and many sacrifices, the Taiwanese people have always been subject to external forces and circumstances over which they have little control. However unfair this may be, it is, it seems, Taiwan’s fate, and something that the author wants us to be aware of.

Green Island is beautifully written, paced nearly perfectly and above all heartfelt, a work that reaffirms the unique power of art to entertain and to educate. By humanizing history and drawing us into the intimate lives of a single family caught in the waves of history, it creates an emotional bond between the reader and subject that not even the best work of non-fiction can accomplish. By doing so, it positions itself as an important work in Taiwan’s often uneven efforts to make itself known and understood more widely. (As the main architect of Taiwan’s isolation, China understood long ago the great “soft” power of art — books, movies — to not only shape the narrative about it but just as importantly, to spark the imagination.)

Thanks to the prestige of its publisher (Knopf), Green Island joins the ranks of major contemporary works of fiction about Taiwan like Wu Ming-yi’s (吳明益) The Man With Compound Eyes (Vintage) that should succeed in reaching a wide audience and, we can hope, in breaking the wall of indifference that has kept Taiwan imprisoned even as it broke free of authoritarianism.


Shawna Yang Ryan
385 pp, Alfred A Knopf, 2016


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

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