Filling in the blanks: When a Society Acquires Freedom of Speech


By Julie Wu

Tonight, I will be flying to Taiwan.  A pluralistic democracy, Taiwan has freedom of speech and a free press.  To Americans, these descriptors sound ho hum, but in the context of Taiwanese history, they are a miracle.

In my parents’ suburban Boston home, we had a 1971 World Book Encyclopedia that was printed in Taiwan.  Though it was in English, it had a fundamental difference from the 1971 World Book at my school library: it was censored.  In our Taiwanese edition, Chinese history ended in 1949.  The pages where Mao was supposed to be were blank, both in the China section and in the M volume, and the Communists never won China.  In fact, Communism, along with the border between Mongolia and China, simply did not exist.

Our World Book was printed during the White Terror in Taiwan, a forty year period (1949-1987) under the Nationalist Chinese government during which saying the wrong thing or even just owning the wrong book could result in arrest, torture, imprisonment, and even execution.  It has taken decades for me to find out what really happened during that time—I’m still learning, as are many Westerners and even many Taiwanese.  But because of that World Book, I never doubted for a moment the repressive nature of the regime at that time.

These days we Americans are seeing that there can be a dark side to freedom of speech, that it can at its worst enable reckless people to incite acts of hatred and violence.  So I think it’s worth keeping in mind that the alternative to free speech is censorship, and that censorship is a marker of sanctioned, governmental violence.  Because censoring means more than whiting out words in books.  It means silencing people who speak those words, arresting those who might try to write them, and killing those who champion them.

During my trip to Taiwan I’ll be thinking and talking a lot about free speech.  My first novel, The Third Son, is one of the first in English to describe events of the White Terror.  In the 1970’s or 80’s, I would have been terrified to publish a book like this—even in English, even in America.  If I had published it then, I wouldn’t have dared show my face in Taiwan, and no one there would have touched me with a ten foot pole.  But in 2012, that same Nationalist government in Taiwan (after a complicated transformation that is beyond the scope of this post) now allows free speech, debate, and opposition parties, and tomorrow morning I’ll be meeting with mainstream Taiwanese reporters—including one working for the state-owned media—eager to hear more and report about my book.  As part of my research for book two, in the following days I’ll be meeting with and interviewing former political prisoners who want to tell me their story—people who formerly were or might have been imprisoned for speaking their minds.  I’ll visit new museums in Taiwan that document the White Terror and memorialize its victims.  The existence of these museums is all the more incredible to me because I recall in 1990 reading the same whitewashed history on Taiwanese museum plaquards that I had seen in our 1971 encyclopedia.

I don’t expect a utopia in Taiwan, as there’s not one in Western democracies, either.  But I do expect a radically changed place, a place where people are no longer afraid to speak their minds.  I expect a cacophony of voices, that same cacophony that Taiwanese broadcast over the media and the internet.

And you can be sure that if I come across any English language Encyclopedias there, I’ll expect the parts that used to be blank to be filled in.




  1. Dell Smith says:

    Julie, you are truly brave and amazing. This is an insightful look into the effects of censorship on not just writers, but a nation. I wish you well on your journey–

  2. Julie,
    this is very touching. I grew up with parents who couldn’t speak their mind during the Nazi time. Books were burned and listening to the wrong radio station could mean concentration camp. To read about the transformations in Taiwan and your courageous research filled me with joy and hope. Thank your for your post and all my best for a save trip.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Christiane! You have such a valuable and interesting perspective. I have to say, the German government has done an amazing job of educating its youth on the Holocaust and I’m so impressed with its active persecution of war criminals. It’s certainly a model many other countries with sordid pasts could benefit from studying.

  3. Frank chen says:

    My pleasure to meet you on the 2nd day of this trip to visit couple of places of white terror museums,including meeting some elder survivors. Wish to read you work soon.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Frank, it was my pleasure entirely! Thank you so much for your kindness, your translating expertise, and the experience of a lifetime! Hope to see you in a couple of days.