When I was a primary school student in Taiwan, I learnt of the great Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey who had modernised the country through the careful study of the West.
I was not familiar with his deeds but was well aware that he was an honourable man, as espoused by my teachers and textbooks. Government leaders also often used Ataturk’s achievements to illustrate the “Three Principles of the People” (三民主义).
Turkey’s national hero
Strangely, after prolonged exposure to these teachings, Ataturk’s image became blurry and he was increasingly likened to Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China (ROC). It was as though Ataturk’s achievements in Turkey were the result of the implementation of the “Three Principles of the People” and replicating Sun’s ideals in the country.
In our young hearts, Sun inherited the legacy of the seven great people in Chinese history — Yao, Shun, Yu, Tang, Wen, Wu and the Duke of Zhou — and was certainly unsurpassable.
So then, who did Ataturk resemble? It would have to be former ROC President Jiang Zhongzheng (in those days, only the rebels dared to call him Chiang Kai-shek).
Ataturk (1881-1938) graduated from a military academy and was an outstanding soldier during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. He won several battles, especially during the First World War when he firmly defended the Dardanelles in the Gallipoli campaign and defeated the Allies, thus solidifying his reputation and becoming a national hero.
Subsequently, the Ottoman Empire fell with its defeat in the First World War, leading to the partition of the empire’s territories. Ataturk then initiated the Turkish War of Independence, chased out the Allied powers, established the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and became its first president. The Turkish Grand National Assembly bestowed on him the surname “Ataturk” — “Father of the Turks”.
... because of these similarities, the Taiwanese authorities are able to sympathise with and understand Turkey. Hence, they teach young students about the greatness of Ataturk. This may appear innocuous but in fact harbours an ulterior motive.
Resembling Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek
Under Ataturk’s leadership, Turkey adopted the principles of the “Six Arrows” — namely republicanism, populism, secularism, revolutionism, nationalism and statism — and carried out democratic reforms under a one-party state.
In fact, the principles are very similar to Sun’s “Three Principles of the People”. One could even define Turkey’s founding ideologies as the “Six Principles of the People”: democracy (民主), civil rights (民权), people-governed (民治), revolution (民革), nationalism (民族) and people-run (民管).
There are also similarities in the historical experiences of modern China and Turkey, with the fall of the Qing dynasty on one side and the dissolution of the Ottoman empire on the other; and the Chinese Revolution led by Sun on one side and the founding of the Turkish republic by Ataturk on the other. In the developments that followed, both sides emphasised “military rule” and “political tutelage” as the foundation and necessary stage of “constitutional rule”, making a one-party rule necessary to cultivate the people’s competence in political participation.
Perhaps because of these similarities, the Taiwanese authorities are able to sympathise with and understand Turkey. Hence, they teach young students about the greatness of Ataturk. This may appear innocuous but in fact harbours an ulterior motive.
I often pondered over the fact that when Sun passed away in 1925, the revolution did not succeed and a one-party rule was not achieved. Besides, Sun was not trained as a soldier and did not have any stellar military achievements. Thus, the image of an “honourable Ataturk” that Kuomintang cadres had wanted to instil in the children was perhaps the Turkish alter ego of the "Honorable Chiang", in the hopes that the exposure and teachings would encourage students to show greater reverence to Chiang.
I wonder if Sun’s portrait still hangs in the classrooms of every primary and secondary school.
Portrait of the people’s leader
When I travelled to Istanbul for a meeting several years ago, I discovered that their airport is called “Ataturk Airport”. During a seminar on the future of the humanities at a university, I also saw Ataturk’s portrait hanging in every classroom. I felt as though I was transported back to the old days of Taiwan.
A while back, my Taiwanese “peers” launched a campaign to “de-sinicise” and remove any influence of Chiang Kai-shek (去蔣化) in Taiwan, such as renaming Chiang Kai-shek International Airport as Taoyuan International Airport. I wonder if Sun’s portrait still hangs in the classrooms of every primary and secondary school.
Yet, on the flip side, the portrait of George W. Bush, who is nearly seen as a war criminal these days, was hung in primary school classrooms in the US at the time, along with Queen Elizabeth’s portrait on the walls in the UK. Portraits of the king and queen of Thailand are even hung up in Thai restaurants overseas.
Indeed, whether the portrait of a nation’s leader is put up or not does not necessarily relate to the democratic progress of the country.
Related: Blue and white porcelain in Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace Museum | Chiang Kai-shek and the ‘President’s Fish’ at Sun Moon Lake | Sun Yat-sen and the Xinhai Revolution: A pictorial journey | [Photo story] Taiwan and the ROC: Same, yet different