Su Beng, a Father of Taiwan Independence, Dies at 100


Su Beng, a revolutionary widely known as the father of Taiwan independence for his efforts to liberate the island from colonial rule, died on Sept. 20 in Taipei, the capital. He was 100.

His death, at Taipei Medical University Hospital, was confirmed by Ray Jade Chen, the hospital’s superintendent, who said the cause was pneumonia.

Mr. Su’s stature as a key figure in the independence movement was cemented when he wrote “Taiwan’s 400-Year History,” a three-volume foundational book published in 1962 that embraced the notion that centuries of colonization had given Taiwan’s people a distinct identity in East Asia.

Mr. Sun began his political life seeking to free Taiwan from the yoke of Japanese colonial rule, only to find himself, decades later, simultaneously fighting two oppressive Chinese governments — the Communists in Beijing and a nationalist regime in Taipei — each standing in the way of Taiwanese self-determination.

As a university student, Mr. Su had taken to Marxism and lived in China, where he assisted Mao Zedong’s revolution for more than seven years. But after Mao triumphed in 1949 over nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese civil war, Mr. Su abandoned the Communist Party that sought to recruit him.

The reason, he said in an interview in March, was that after witnessing countless executions of Chinese by Communist forces, he realized that their true ideology was not Marxism but rule by fear.

“Why should you need to kill so many people to move things forward?” he asked.

He returned to Taiwan. No longer a Japanese colony, it had become the new base for Chiang’s vanquished Republic of China government, now ensconced about 100 miles from the mainland across the Strait of Formosa. Taiwan had also entered what would become a nearly four-decade period of martial law known as the White Terror, under which Chiang’s party, the Kuomintang, arrested and tortured more than 100,000 people and executed more than 1,000.

Determined to overthrow the Republic of China and establish a Taiwanese state, Mr. Su and others drew up plans to assassinate Chiang, who had become a Cold War ally of the United States. But in 1952 their plot was discovered, and Mr. Su stole away to the northern port of Keelung, where he made his escape to Japan on a boat exporting bananas.

In Japan he reunited with his girlfriend, Hiraga Kyoko, whom he had met years earlier in China. Months later, the couple opened a restaurant, New Gourmet, in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro neighborhood. (The restaurant still operates, under different management.) He continued his underground operations from Tokyo, training Taiwanese revolutionaries in the guerrilla tactics he had learned in China.

New Gourmet (which specialized in noodles and boiled dumplings) also generated enough revenue to support Mr. Su’s long-term endeavors, including researching and writing his monumental “Taiwan’s 400-Year History.”

The work, published at first in Japanese, became one of countless forbidden books on Taiwan under the government’s martial law.

“Su Beng’s book is the foundational text of a specifically Taiwanese history,” said Jonathan Sullivan, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham in England. “Su himself was a pivotal figure, not just for the Taiwan independence movement, but for what he did to center Taiwaneseness and the Taiwanese experience outside the narrative of Taiwan’s colonizers.”

With regulars still slurping down bowls of noodles in his restaurant, Mr. Su founded the Taiwanese Independence Association in 1967. Members he trained in guerrilla warfare would go on to launch arson and bombing attacks against police stations and army trains as well as a failed assassination attempt against Chiang’s son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1970.

Around the time of the elder Chiang’s death in 1975, Mr. Su switched from advocating violent revolution to promoting revolution by peaceful means. It was at that time, he said, that he determined that realism should trump idealism.

In 1980, the first Chinese-language copies of his book were published, in San Jose, Calif., reaching a younger Taiwanese readership that did not speak Japanese. With nearly 2,400 pages over three volumes, the new edition fed a growing Taiwanese democracy movement, which was largely being driven by United States-trained Taiwanese lawyers.

These lawyers would go on to start the first major opposition party in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party, in 1986, one year before the younger Chiang, as president, declared the end of 38 years of martial law.

In the 1990s, Taiwan began to move away from the Chinese identity that had been forced on the island’s people by the Kuomintang and to embrace its own identity, a blend of Austronesian and Chinese cultures shaped by the colonial rulers from the Netherlands, Spain, Japan and China.

Mr. Su returned to Taiwan from Japan in 1993, the year after Taiwan’s first democratic legislative elections and three years before its first presidential contest.

It wasn’t until after the landmark election of 2016, however, that both the executive and legislative branches of the Republic of China government in Taiwan were controlled by people who considered their nationality to be Taiwanese.

Since then, President Tsai Ing-wen, a Cornell-trained lawyer, and her Democratic Progressive Party cohort in the legislature have governed Taiwan. All the while it has become increasingly under threat by Beijing, which continues to claim Taiwan as its territory despite having never ruled it.

Mr. Su remained optimistic in the face of China’s rising threat, while acknowledging the difficulties posed by Taiwan’s highly polarized society. Although there is a consensus among the Taiwanese against unification with China, there are major differences of opinion regarding how close the relationship should be.

“Taiwanese society has its issues — it’s not united,” Mr. Su said. “But when threatened it will come together.”

He was born Lim Tiau-hui on Nov. 9, 1918, in Taipei into a middle-class family. His mother, Si A-siu, steeped him in Confucian culture. His father, Lim Tse-tshuan, was an agronomist with anticolonial activist friends.

As Lim Tiau-hui, he studied economics and politics at Waseda University in Tokyo. He took the pseudonym Su Beng when he wrote “Taiwan’s 400-Year History.” He would be known by that name — meaning “clearly seeing history” in Taiwanese — for the rest of his life.

He did not leave any immediate survivors.

President Tsai visited Mr. Su in the hospital during his last days. He had been a senior adviser to her since her inauguration in 2016 and had been supporting her re-election; she faces a pro-China candidate, Han Kuo-yu, in January.

Huang Min-hung, the director of the Su Beng Education Foundation, said that one of the last things Mr. Su said was, “Tsai Ing-wen must win.”

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