Life Under Martial Law
Martial law, the imposition of strict control over manpower and supplies with unchallengeable state authority, is an abnormal status for a government, and usually takes place during emergencies such as war or rioting.
During Taiwan's social development, there was an extraordinarily long period of martial law—thirty-eight years, to be exact. During that time, the lifestyles of Taiwanese people were directed by slogans and orders from the government.
That era's popular culture was mixed with propaganda produced by the authoritarian government. The remnants of that abnormal lifestyle—be they major or minor, positive or negative—are now ghosts that sometimes reveal themselves in contemporary daily life.
When we see the abnormal as normal, we become abnormal.
The Imposition and Duration of Martial Law
The period of martial law in Taiwan is usually said to have begun on May 19, 1949, when the Taiwan Provincial Government announced the imposition of martial law. It ended on July 15, 1987, when president Chiang Ching-kuo declared the lifting of martial law. During this period, the government declared all sorts of regulations in accordance with the Order of Martial Law, to closely monitor and control people's associations, publications, individual actions, and the population as a whole. When civilians broke these law, they were tried in military courts.
Yet, before the imposition of the Order of Martial Law, the Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of the Communist Rebellion had been declared in 1948. This gave birth to the Betrayers Punishment Act, used by the authorities as a tool to deal with dissidents until 1991. Alongside those regulations were the Police Contravention Punishment Law and the Publication Act. Together, these rules constituted a tight web of jurisdiction, managing every aspect of Taiwanese people's lives, and restricting their freedom.
Under the close watch of martial law, most people chose to protect their lives by evading the unspeakable terror. However, there were still some people who were persecuted for defying the government, and some who were hunted for trying to defy the regime.
Even in the darkest moments of "the White Terror," the Free China periodical and the Taiwan Provincial Consultative Council were fighting for freedom and democracy on behalf of the people. There were also the “parties with no name” (political organizations outside the Nationalist Party [Kuomintang, or KMT]), the “magazines with infinite names” (magazines that were re-published under different names after being proscribed by the government), and “the people with no faces” (blacklisted people trying to return to Taiwan from overseas) that gave life to the opposition movement.
In terms of lifestyles at the time, local social activities in Taiwan also experienced radical changes. Government-backed movements—including "Combat Literature," the "New Life Movement," the "Chinese Cultural Renaissance," and the "no dialect" policy—almost completely reshaped Taiwanese culture. Nonetheless, books and songs forbidden by the government still circulated widely among the people, and bans on mini-skirts, boot-cut trousers, and long hair on men, also failed to stop these trends. The disappearance of local languages from the public arena did not stop them from thriving in folk songs, movies, and dramas. These symbolized the strength and energy of the Taiwanese people, who were used to facing all kinds of challenges in their lives.
The defiance of state power reached its peak around the time martial law was lifted. The following issues became matters of public activism one after another: party assembly; the rights of labor, women, indigenous people, and farmers; environmental protection; local languages; and whether Taiwan should be an independent country or part of China. During the final years of the martial law period, diverse opinions were expressed, as the former defiers became the leaders of an unstoppable future. From then on, Taiwanese people also started to free their thinking.
From the legal perspective, the declaration and lifting of martial law were simply changes in the status of the government's control over society. However, from the viewpoint of social development, they meant a great deal more—one being the normalization of authoritarianism, the other being that the reformation of a society needs people's continuous efforts.
"Thirty-eight years of martial law" and "Thirty years after the end of martial law"—these two phrases demonstrate the political development of Taiwan and are also reminders of history. They warn us to remain vigilant regarding what seems to be normal and just, and they prompt us to ask ourselves, might there be anything abnormal behind our daily lives?
If you also wish to see a freer, more democratic, and fairer Taiwan, let us keep our thoughts sharp, and not be afraid to be defiers.
The Defiers - 30 Years After the End of Martial Law
Location: 3rd Special Exhibition Room, 4th Floor, Exhibition & Education Building, National Museum of Taiwan History
Supervised by: Ministry of Culture
Organized by: National Museum of Taiwan History
Co-organized by: Taiwan Green Team Documentary Film Association, Wu San-Lien Foundation For Taiwan Historical Materials