Forgotten Hero: Remembering Sun Li-jen

Forgotten Hero: Remembering Sun Li-jen
Photo Credit:WikipediaPublic Domain

What you need to know

'Indeed, dashing, brave and a natural leader of men, Sun was an immediate favorite with the British and the Americans, and one of the few Chinese commanders that the Allies saw as tactically adept. It was for these reasons that MacArthur, Rusk et al promoted Sun as the only way of staving off disaster in Taiwan.'

Dean Rusk read the secret missive with surprise, then burned it. The Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs felt certain the content of the note would get its author killed if discovered. It was early June 1950, and the Korean War in which Rusk was to play a crucial role, was just weeks away. He had a lot on his plate, to be sure, but nothing quite like this: An offer from Chinese Nationalist General Sun Li-jen (孫立人) to stage a coup on Taiwan against Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正).

A little over 15 months earlier, Sun had rejected a similar proposal from MacArthur during a meeting in Japan, declaring his loyalty to the Generalissimo. Sun even reported MacArthur's audacity to then Republic of China Governor Ch'en Ch'eng (陳誠) who relayed the details to Chiang. What, wondered Rusk as he disposed of the evidence, had changed Sun's mind in the interim.

The answer, it appears, was the same thing that made most of the American military and foreign policy top brass desirous of a decapitation strategy: a complete lack of faith in Chiang's ability to prevent a Communist invasion of Taiwan, and a distrust of the political commissar system, which made promotion contingent on loyalty and fealty to ideology, rather than ability and recommendations by superior officers.

Initially private about his misgivings, Sun soon became less circumspect, openly criticizing Chiang's decision making in front of ROC Ambassador to the United States Wellington Koo (顧維鈞). The latter felt compelled to warn Sun exercise a little more caution, “because not everyone [...] would understand or appreciate his views or manner.”

In May 1955, Sun's former aide Kuo Ting-liang (郭廷亮) was arrested and allegedly tortured into confessing he was a Communist spy intent on fomenting rebellion within the armed forces. The implication was obvious, and three months later Sun was placed under house arrest, where he would remain for more than 30 years. He was released upon the death of then-President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) in 1988. As head of the dreaded and euphemistically named Bureau of Investigation and Statistics, Chiang had played the key role in getting Sun locked up.

Known as the “Rommel of East” for his courage under fire, General Sun Li-jen saw out his days at number 18 Xiangshang Rd, Section 1 in Taichung's Xitun District, just around the corner from the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. Like its former inhabitant, the house sits under lock and key most of the time, though it is now open to the public between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. every Sunday.

Apart from the distinctive red iron gates, there is not much to mark the site out, and many locals have no clue about the restored Japanese-style wooden house or the man who was confined there for a third of his life. “Sun Li-jen? Is he a politician?” asks the boss of a breakfast shop located a couple of hundred meters from the gates. “I don't think he lives round here.”

Like many restored residences in Taiwan, the furnished living quarters are nondescript and of little interest. It is in the artifacts and information boards, mainly in the corridors and hallways, that the the Sun Li-jen Memorial Hall has value. There's a uniform donated by the Virginia Military Institute from which Sun graduated in 1927, and tales of his feats in rescuing the encircled and exhausted British forces during the Battle of Yenangyaung against the Japanese in Burma in April 1942. During this offensive, Sun is thought to have become the first non-British general to lead British troops during WWII. For his efforts, he achieved another rare distinction: an honorary knighthood.

Indeed, dashing, brave and a natural leader of men, Sun was an immediate favorite with the British and the Americans, and one of the few Chinese commanders that the Allies saw as tactically adept. It was for these reasons that MacArthur, Rusk et al promoted Sun as the only way of staving off disaster in Taiwan.

With his old antagonist Chiang Ching-kuo out of the picture, Sun finally gained his freedom. By this time he was a shadow of the man who Communist General Lin Biao (林彪) had cited as the only Nationalist general that he feared. Elderly end frail he passed away in 1990, aged 89.

In 2001, a report commissioned by the Control Yuan completely exonerated Sun from any wrongdoing. In fact, a similar investigation had come to the same conclusion in 1965 but had been buried and replaced by an ad hoc tribunal headed by Chen Cheng. As noted on the information panels at the residence, the members of the first investigation had shown an impartiality that was remarkable and ultimately unacceptable during the authoritarian era.

An interesting aside to the story is the fate of Kuo Ting-liang, truly the forgotten man of this slice of history. He was said to have jumped to his death from a moving train at the age of 70. The 2001 investigation cast doubt on this, concluding that he had died from blunt force trauma to the head.

The nine-man panel also noted the suspicious circumstances surrounding his imprisonment and release. Kuo's sentence had been reduced from death to life and then to 15 years, an almost inconceivably lenient punishment by the standards of the era. He and his family were also said to have received generous benefits after his release.

Did Kuo agree to take a fall so that the authorities could get Sun out of the way? Was he then murdered to ensure he couldn't expose the whole affair? We'll probably never know the answer to that one.

Finally, former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) expressed his regret at Sun's treatment during a 2011 visit to the memorial residence, with the late general's sister, son and daughter in attendance. As has often been the case, Sun's image has now been rehabilitated on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. In September, China's Xinhua News Agency gave glowing press to an exhibition held at Sun's alma mater, VMI, entitled “Ever Victorious General of World War II.”

Editor: Edward White