Unresolved Veterans’ Nostalgia — Anti-communist Martyrs of the Korean War

Author / Chi Chu

Due to the influence of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, David Der-Wei Wang, there has been an attempt to understand how the traumatic experiences of the turmoil of war in China. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the Chinese Civil War (1945–1950) and the Korean War (1950–1953) were the most turbulent and chaotic in Chinese history. They caused large-scale family relocation, abandonment of homes, unexpected sacrifices and trauma for many people. On 23 January 1954, more than 14,000 prisoners of war (POWs), who were members of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army and had engaged in the Korean War, decided to be repatriated to Taiwan (ROC) instead of China (PROC) and were subsequently called ‘anti-communist martyrs’ after the war. They were marked with various ‘anti-communist’ tattoos on their bodies (Picture 1) and KMT emblems as part of swearing allegiance to the Republic of China (ROC) and their determination to pursue freedom (Huang 2016). In order to ensure the identity of POWs, their lives have been dominated by political propaganda and post-traumatic stress. Therefore, this essay will discuss, firstly, how the bodies of POWs from the Korean War became a boundary of home. Secondly, the essay will evaluate how trauma has affected their behaviour by using several individual cases and the Hebei Taipei documentary.

Due to the changes in modern war patterns, famine, and changes in the social structure, wars continue to migrate, and there never seems to be an end. Bourdieu (1993) in The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society uses the term’ social suffering’ to understand the situation in natural and human-made disasters. This means that people have suffered damage to the social structure and experienced ‘La Misère du monde’. Lary (2010) in Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation finds that for many Chinese people the wars meant separation because family members fled and young men joined the army or fought as guerrillas. Accordingly, this kind of separation is abrupt and has no signs to follow, no deadlines, no plans, and it happens naturally. The anti-communist martyrs, who are called the ‘Exiled People’s Volunteer Army in Taiwan’ by China, have lived in the shadow of the war and the trauma of their country’ s/family’s ruin. Their collective memory may be enforced to fix in official history. However, there are some differences (Huang 2016: 148). Their destiny was the product and tool of international political relations during the unset political period. They were between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party. Identity only obeys and loses human rights. It means that the state apparatus manipulated their identities. Moreover, their tattoos are examples of the domestication and discipline of the identity of the nation-state.

A well-known photograph printed by Life magazine depicts the arrival of the anti-communist martyrs in Taiwan after the Korean War on 23 January 1954 (Picture 1). Compared to the life experiences of anti-communist martyrs as POWs or tools of propaganda, the image is particularly ironic. In that period, due to the political situation between China (PROC) and Taiwan (ROC), people were taught to obey the nation-state, and bring down all communists (Chang 2018). In an era in which ‘homogeneity’ was emphasised, in order to consolidate the centripetal force of the country, the government established the ideology of ‘the enemies are not incompatible’ in people’s thoughts. Consequently, discipline created a tamed and trained body, and people became ‘submissive’. Sartre (1934) in Being and Nothingness describes three types of being for the human being. One is being-for-others, which means that people notice others observe and judge the beings of self. It means that people pretend and lose themselves in order to live in groups. Therefore, the oral content of the prisoners of war may be not authentic due to an attempt to hide their traumatic experiences. Nevertheless, memories of home can still be found in their words. The deceased anti-communist martyr Zhang (2014) always verbally stated that ‘Taiwanese are Chinese. Chinese are Taiwanese.’ His talking is a significant presence in unrooted identity. A documentary about anti-communist martyrs, Hebei Taipei, presents the resigned life experience and reluctance of anti-communist martyrs. The protagonist of this documentary, Li, said, ‘It was fate who chose me.’ The documentary shows that this is a typical feeling for anti-communist martyrs.

As Hartman (2008:2) states, the archive is a ‘death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, a medical treatise on gonorrhoea, a few lines about a whore’s life, an asterisk in the grand narrative of history’. Therefore, in the official historical narrative, it is necessary to think repeatedly about the complex text of the anti-communist martyrs of the Korean War. There are several records and books relating to the narratives of the anti-communist martyrs, such as Chou (2005) History of the Korean War and Anti-communist Martyrs, Halberstam (2008) The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, Li (2015) Hebei Taipei. After the end of the Korean War, some of the Chinese POWs, who used to be KMT troops, were later forced to join the People’s Liberation Army and others became loyal to the Communist Party. After the POWs arrived in Taiwan, most of them became involved in the army and built cross-roads as workers in Taiwan. Even though they are the anti-communist symbols, they are not trusted by the government and are closely monitored due to their sensitive political status. Their strong local accents and individual military identity made it difficult for them to integrate into Taiwanese society, and their hometowns were isolated on the opposite side of Taiwan’s ideology. This history is influenced by political ideology, causing individual anti-communist martyrs to feel isolated, and as a consequence, they start to seek identity to rely on. At the junction of death and separation, scars and imprints are not only imprinted on the body but also inscribed in the mentality. It means that the imprint inscribed on the body expresses another symbol of social culture via the medium of memory, presenting the experiences and reaction of oneself inside and outside. Since 1988, anti-communist martyrs have been allowed to visit relatives in China. However, these anti-communist martyrs, which symbolise the ‘anti-communist’, seem to be incompatible with visiting China because of the intangible opposite political positions. Some martyrs are concerned that the tattoos may attract political persecution from the CCP regime. Therefore, before returning to their hometowns, they must cover tattoos or undergo skin suture operations, especially to hide those words that are abusive and critical of the CCP, as well as the national flag of the ROC, which must be hidden. Hence, by the times, the dichotomy ideologies of ‘the enemies are incompatible’ seems to end. The political signs profound in the body, whether with consent or not, must also be changed, from faded to clear vague, like their embarrassing identity as ‘anti-communist martyrs’ (Chang 2018).

As mentioned above, the uncertain status of home and unrooted emotions dominate the thoughts and behaviours of anti-communist martyrs. In the documentary Hebei Taipei, Li repeated the same story, one about the changes and ruin of his family and individual life because of the wars. The documentary reveals the truth behind the official historical discourse, which is based on the concept of narratives -‘Who am I? Where am I?’. Through this kind of documentary, it is able to present the individual experiences and memories. As Hartman (2008:12) states, ‘it is a history of an unrecoverable past, a narrative of what might have been or could have been, and a history written with and against the archive’. The protagonist, Li, talks about death: the death of his parents and his death. Li says, ‘If you do not like yourself, who will like you?’(Huang, X. 2016) Hence, he liked himself when playing with toys and has a particular habit (dressing up as a woman). It is a kind of healing process for Li to cover the deep wounds from wars and life experiences. In addition, Li cursed all the time to release his stress. His daily hobbies are to drink and watch pornography. The lonely man needs inflatable dolls to sleep with and has posters of naked women on the wall next to his bed. He dresses as a woman, which seems to be his happiest time, and even builds tombs with his first and last names written squarely with red paint because he bears too much misery in his life and hopes to have a stable place after death.

About Li’s dressing behaviour, the director of Hebei Taipei, Li Nyssa (2016; Cited in TFF), has personally states that Li lives in an era of shortage of supplies. Therefore, Li feels wasteful about a lot of beautiful things, and he must pick it up. Moreover, Li seemed to be ageing about himself and was not very satisfied with his appearance. Also, his tattoos are related to anti-communism and symbolise the consciousness of a nation-state. Hence, as mentioned above, perhaps, when Li puts on these glamorous costumes, he can forget the memories symbolised by the tattoos and escape from the distressing impression he has. Accordingly, he is no longer a homeless veteran but a happy and’ beautiful child. This behaviour as a resistance attempts to reverse or cover the cruel factual and individual experience. It tends to link to the concept of queerness. Tinsley (2008:199) states, ‘queerness is not apparently a gay or same-sex loving identity, however, as a tangible of resistance. Queer apparently make disturbance to the violence of normative order potently’. Also, Bahng (2018:6) states, ‘speculative fiction allows us to think against the grain of normativity, to challenge the naturalisation of certain orientations and ways of being.’ It means that queerness attempts to generate a reflection and resistance about ‘normal’. Hence, Li always wears women’s clothing and laughs because he has temporarily got rid of his homesickness and cut off the mark and ideology of national consciousness. Furthermore, the cross-dressing becomes a resistance against political patriarchy and reflect the masculinity of soldiers.

Overall, through the cases mentioned above, official historical discourses cover individual life experiences and traumas. Those anti-communist martyrs have been dominated, manipulated and colonised by the state apparatus. As Fanon (1967: 128) stated in A Dying Colonialism, ‘all this gnawing at the existence of the colonised tends to make of life something resembling an incomplete death’. It means that anti-communist martyrs have no sovereignty itself, not to mention ‘to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power’ (Mbembe 2005, cited in Beriant 2007: 755) because their individual identity, ideology and behaviours are dominated by a nation-state. The diversity of social forms of migrations thus gave way to a progressive homogenization. Diversity either disappeared or transformed itself. The anti-communist martyrs have started to heal themselves through particular behaviours such as Li’s. ‘Often people who are dominated resisted and reconstructed itself.’ (Bouteldja 2017). Furthermore, individual remembrance is more real than history because history is more like a fabrication (Le Goff 2010:2). It means that remembrance depends on the processing of memory, and history is an arrangement of the past. History is the past, the present, the enemy of truth, and the product of conscious political manipulation. Consequently, like the anti-communist martyrs’ case, ‘People first tell stories to testify, leave traces, and give a form of life to survive‘ (Stewart 1996: 58). Reflections are necessary to reframe normative society through individual life experiences.

Picture 1 anti-communist Martyrs with tattoos (CommonWealth Magazine 2018).
Picture 2 The welcoming scene for anti-communist Martyrs of Korean War on Jan. 23 in 1954 in Taiwan. Photo by :Joseph Scherschel (1954 ; Cited in Zhang 2014)


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獨立藝術工作者。自 2009 至 2018 從事展覽統籌、出版與媒體公關相關工作。2014 年開始行走北亞、中亞與西亞,撰寫各類文章,關注人權、文化、藝術、移民、文化遺產議題。