The month before he was executed, in April 1952, Guo Ching wrote letters to his mother, wife and children to say goodbye.
The letters had only 140 miles to travel, but they would take 60 years to be delivered.
When his daughter finally received her father’s farewell after a protracted negotiation with Taiwan’s government, she was in her 60s, twice his age when he died.
“I kept crying, because I could now read what my father had written,” said the daughter, Guo Su-jen. “If I’d never seen his writing, I would have no sense of him as a living person. His writing makes him alive again. Without it, he would live only in my imagination, how I picture him.”
The letters were among 177 uncovered in the past decade that were written by victims of the political repression known as the White Terror. From 1947 to 1987, tens of thousands of Taiwanese were imprisoned and at least 1,000 were executed, most in the early 1950s, after being accused of spying for Communist China.
The lost missives, which have been given to family members in recent years, are painful souvenirs from decades of authoritarian rule in Taiwan, a small part of the history buried in poorly cataloged government archives. But the landslide victory for President-elect Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party in January may soon bring much more of that history to light: In her campaign, Tsai vowed to do more to chronicle and right the injustices of Taiwan’s authoritarian past.
The letters are not just documentary evidence, though; they are also last expressions of love from beyond the grave. They offer words of comfort to children who grew up not knowing their parents and final apologies to spouses who would raise children alone.
They were uncovered only by chance in 2008, when a young woman requested information about her grandfather from Taiwan’s main archive.
Two weeks after applying for the records, the woman, Chang Yi-lung, was given a stack of more than 300 pages of photocopied documents, mostly court records and rulings. Within those pages, she discovered letters her grandfather had written to her aunt and uncle and to her mother, who had not yet been born when he was killed.
To her mother he wrote: “Before long I will leave this earth. I am trying to stay calm, to talk with you for the first and last time on this paper. I fear you can’t imagine what it’s like, alas. To face this moment and be unable to see you once, to hug you once, to kiss you once … I am heartbroken. My regret is unending.”
Chang said her mother’s response to the letter has not changed since the first time she read it.
“Every time she reads it, it’s the same,” Chang said. “From the first word she starts crying. She had never seen her father, so it was like he didn’t exist, but when she saw the letter she knew she had a father, and that he loved her.”
While Taiwan’s government has reckoned with some of the traumas of its past — including by creating a museum devoted to a notorious 1947 massacre — researchers say far fewer resources have been devoted to chronicling the decades of political repression under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party that ruled Taiwan as a one-party state from 1945 until Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996.
Academics say that little is known about the mechanics of repression under the Kuomintang, and that there has not been a thorough and transparent examination of the archives.
After receiving the photocopied letters from her grandfather, Chang’s family pushed the government to return the original letters. The government balked at first, arguing that the documents belonged in the archive. In 2011, with the help of the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation, they were finally given to her family.
The association, a nongovernmental organization housed in a walk-up in central Taipei, collects letters and personal effects donated by relatives of those executed. Its chief executive, Yeh Hung-ling, hopes they can one day be displayed in a museum devoted to the White Terror.
For Guo, the letters were a breakthrough in a life spent collecting clues about what happened to her father after he was taken away by the secret police when she was 3.
She said her mother harbored anger at her father for putting politics ahead of their family and risking everything by joining an underground communist group.
The most important thing that can happen now, Guo said, is for the records to be cataloged and released.
“For a long time people remained silent on this issue,” she said. “How much have we regressed as a society? So many people were killed and imprisoned, what effect does it have? These should all be up for discussion.”
For some families, such discussions are impossible. Chang’s grandmother died before she could see the letter from her husband, in which he told her to remarry. In a book about the letters, Chang’s mother contemplates the unknowable loss of a message never delivered:
”Six years a married woman, 56 years a widow. For her whole life, my mother never saw the letter and she never remarried. History has no ifs, but if the letter got to my mother the year it was sent, would she have had the same life?”