KMT Divided Over God-Status of Founder Sun Yat-sen

KMT Divided Over God-Status of Founder Sun Yat-sen
Photo Credit: Wei-Te Wong@Flickr CC BY SA 2.0

What you need to know

A KMT central standing committee member said Sun Yat-sen was deified after death. Other KMT politicians don't think so.

A live-streamed meeting of the Kuomintang’s central standing committee took a strange turn last week after committee member Hsieh Kun-hong referred to Sun Yat-sen as having “become immortal” after death under the posthumous name of “Great Merciful True Monarch” (偉慈真君).

By this, Hsieh suggested that Sun had been deified after death. He made the comments during the Q&A session after a talk by Hsieh Ying-shi, the chair of the Environmental Quality Protection Foundation. Hsieh Ying-shi (no relation to Hsieh Kun-hong) had been invited to speak to members of the KMT’s central standing committee on the topic of “Climate Change and Democracy.”

The target of Hsieh’s comments seemed to be current KMT chair Johnny Chiang. In the meeting, Hsieh referred to Chiang as Sun’s successor, but suggested that Chiang was not living up to Sun’s legacy. Hsieh took aim at Chiang’s handling of the party, suggesting that Chiang should primarily focus on international outreach efforts and leave internal party affairs to others to manage.

Chiang took office in 2020 promising to reform the KMT and win back the support of young people by shaking off its pro-China image. But he has been criticized by party ideologues who view him as willing to compromise on the party’s fundamentals.

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Photo Credit: CNA
KMT chair Johnny Chiang

The live-stream of the meeting was cut off soon after Hsieh veered off script. But for some staunch pan-Blue politicians, what he had said was too much to take. Reactions from high-ranking KMT politicians were immediate, with KMT caucus whip Fai Hrong-tai calling Hsieh an idiot and KMT legislator Lai Shyh-bao describing Hsieh’s comments as “strange.”

In response, Hsieh doubled down on his comments, visiting the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall earlier this week to pray for rain. But DPP legislator Lin Chun-hsien remarked on the absurdity of Sun, who took a stance against idolatry in life, becoming worshiped as a god by members of the KMT.

Hsieh made the comments at a time when pan-Green legislators are calling for the removal of Sun Yat-sen portraits in the legislature and in government offices. Elected officials are required to take the oath of office in front of Sun’s portrait. The requirement has been criticized by pan-Green legislators as a legacy of the authoritarian period.

Taiwan is an only recently post-authoritarian country, after all, with a personality cult having existed around Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, during their lifetimes. Politicians are debating whether the government needs to do away with monuments dating back to the authoritarian period, such as the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial and Chiang’s statues present in parks and on campuses throughout Taiwan. The removal of these statues are part of measures aimed at realizing transitional justice in Taiwan.

To this end, members of the pan-Green camp often view Sun Yat-sen as a historical figure who has little to do with Taiwan. Sun, who died in 1925, had been dead for decades when the KMT moved the Republic of China government to Taiwan, following its defeat in the Chinese Civil War. The pushback against Sun Yat-sen portraits and the requirement to take oaths to them takes place as part of calls for more emphasis on symbols of local identities by the pan-Green camp, as opposed to the pan-Chinese nationalism of the KMT.

Hsiao is not the first to create an unusual intersection of religion and party politics in Taiwan. In 2019, Foxconn CEO Terry Gou claimed that the sea goddess Mazu had come to him in a dream and told him to run for president.

郭台銘與王金平合體拜關公(1)
Photo Credit: CNA
Foxconn CEO Terry Guo

Mazu is one of the most popular deities worshipped in Taiwan, with the yearly Dajia Mazu pilgrimage drawing millions of worshippers across cities. Both the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps esteem the sea goddess for reasons that are in line with their values.

In light of Mazu’s popularity in Taiwan, Gou was likely hoping to appeal to the devout by claiming Mazu was behind his run for president. It is common for politicians the world over to insist that they have a calling from God or some other higher power to run for public office, but not so much in Taiwan — despite the deep intertwining of religion and politics.

Consequently, Gou inspired no small amount of mockery through this claim. But perhaps Mazu was, in fact, on Tsai Ing-wen’s side? Ironically enough, in September 2015, Master Hsing Yun of the Fo Guang Shan Monastery claimed that Tsai Ing-wen was, in fact, an incarnation of Mazu! The Fo Guang Shan Monastery is Taiwan’s largest monastery and Master Hsing Yun is usually thought of as a pan-Blue figure, which was why the endorsement of Tsai came as something of a surprise.

That being said, it is indeed the case that traditional Chinese folk religion has a habit of posthumous deification — Mazu is herself a historical figure that was deified after death. There are some temples in Taiwan where Chiang Kai-shek is worshipped as a god. As brought up by political commentator Huang Peng-xiao, Sun is already worshipped in the syncretic Vietnamese religion of Caodaism.

Either way, with debates going on about what to do with authoritarian symbols of the ROC, some members of the pan-Blue camp have accused the DPP of seeking to push for “cultural Taiwanese independence” by “de-Sinicizing Taiwan” in the name of transitional justice. Some KMT members have taken to emphasizing how ROC symbols must be preserved at all costs, with the party having adopted defense of the ROC as a core party value at the KMT’s last national congress — this apparently includes insisting on Sun Yat-sen’s deification for some.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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