Republic of China’s Declaration of Martial Law in Taiwan (May 20, 1949)

On May 20, 1949, the Kuomintang government proclaimed a state of martial law in Taiwan. With this act, the Republic of China suspended the 1947 Constitution and all individual civil rights. The government ordered a permanent state of emergency and instituted martial law. Through the 1950s and 1960s, these extra-constitutional arrangements were expanded, which effectively rescinded the presidential two-term limit and extended the terms of incumbent National Assembly members to life terms. In other words, the declaration of the martial law triggered a series of events that would ensure Chiang Kai-shek's re-election as president for five six-year terms and instituted a one-party authoritarian government over those areas controlled by the Republic of China.


  • 1. Why would the imposition of the regulations implemented by the martial law be necessary in Taiwan?
  • 2. Why did Chiang Kai-shek suspend the 1947 Republic of China Constitution rather than alter it? How did his legitimacy rely on his ties to the pre-1949 era?
  • 1. The [Taiwan] Headquarters with the goal to upholding public and social order of this province hereby declares martial law throughout the entire province, beginning May 20 at midnight.
  • 2. Effective that same day, all ports are to be closed except for the three ports of Keelung [Jilong], Kaohsiung [Gaoxiong] and Makung [Magong, Penghu Island] which will remain open to the public under the surveillance of this Headquarters, following designated sea traffic lines within the province (regulations to be announced separately). Entering or leaving ports is strictly forbidden.
  • 3. Under martial law the following acts are forbidden and enforced:
    • (1) Effective on that same day, a daily curfew from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. will be enforced in Keelung and Kaohsiung. All traffic is forbidden without a special permit. Other cities will not be under curfew for the time being but will be regulated as deemed necessary by the martial law commanding officer.
    • (2) All shops and places of entertainment in Keelung and Kaohsiung must be closed by midnight.
    • (3) All shops, and vendors throughout the entire province are forbidden from raising prices, closing their businesses, hoarding daily necessities, or otherwise disrupting the market.
    • (4) All travelers entering or exiting the province must undertake the requisite procedures in accordance with the regulations of the Headquarters and submit to inspection upon entrance and departure.
    • (5) Public gatherings, strikes or demonstrations of any kind are strictly prohibited.
    • (6) The spreading of rumors via writing, slogans or other methods is strictly prohibited.
    • (7) The possession of guns, ammunition, weapons or other dangerous items is strictly prohibited.
    • (8) Residents, at home or in public, must always have their identification cards available for inspection. Failure to comply will result in arrest.

4. Anyone disturbing social order by committing any of the following acts during martial law will be put to death in accordance with the law:

HONORIFICS—In China, villagers, neighbors, and friends are often addressed by adding “uncle," "elder brother," or "old" to one's surname.

  • (1) Spreading rumors and deceiving the public.
  • (2) Inciting public riots.
  • (3) Disturbing financial markets.
  • (4) Stealing or pillaging of property.
  • (5) Disturbing public order by going on strike or coordinating a closure of markets.
  • (6) Organizing students movements or inciting public criminal acts.
  • (7) Destruction or theft of transportation and communications equipment.
  • (8) Damaging public utilities: water, electricity, or gas services.
  • (9) Endangering public safety by [deliberately] setting fires, causing floods or otherwise causing harm.
  • (10) Possessing firearms, ammunition or explosives without a permit. 20th Day, 5th Month, 38th Year of the Republic [May 20, 1949]

FILM: Crows and Sparrows (1949)

Directed by left-leaning director Zheng Junli, production on Crows and Sparrows began in late 1948 and completed just after the People Liberation Army entered and "liberated" Shanghai in May 1949 in the last weeks of the Chinese Civil War. Tracing the life of the tenants, owners, and landlords of a single building, the film captures the despair, fatigue, and pessimism of many Chinese who, having survived eight years of war and occupation under the Japanese, had to then endure another four years of civil war under an increasingly predatory and dysfunctional Nationalist regime. Scenes were omitted from the script submitted to KMT censors to receive permission to film, while the completed film had to be reworked to meet approval of the new Communist government; though, when finally released in 1950, it was widely praised by the public and new Communist regime. The following scene captures the cramped living conditions and physical difficulties the families endured, their use of familiar honorifics but also their elation over the news ofChiang Kai-shek's fall from power and the hope for better days to come.

SCENE: A crowded multi-story home housing the Xiao family, Hua family and Mr. Kong.

(Lying in bed, Mr Xiao removes a bandage from his face with a feeling of satisfaction)

MR. XIAO: (turns to his wife, also in bed) How are you doing?

MRS. XIAO: Fine, and are you well too?

CHILDREN: (popping up between them in the bed) Hurrah! We

are all getting better!

(Mr. Kong enters the house from outside)

MR. KONG: Thank you. I'll close it. I'll close it.

WEIWEI: (from the second story window) Uncle Kong! Uncle


MR. KONG: Weiwei, you seem to have gotten all better!

MRS. HUA: (joining her mother in the window) Oh, Mr. Kong

you've returned home...

WEIWEI: (running downstairs to greet their friend closely pur

sued by her mother) Uncle Kong! Unde Kong! MRS. HUA: (turning to Weiwei) Remember, what I told you to


MRS. HU A: Say thank you to your Uncle Kong.

WEIWEI: (dutifully) Thank you, Uncle Kong!

MRS. HU A: Truly. It's entirely because of you, Uncle Kong,

that she survived.

MR. KONG: Oh, please, it was nothing.

MR. XIAO: (from another room on the ground floor) Old friend!

Come in so we can chat.

CHILDREN: (children running out to greet him) Uncle Kong!

Uncle Kong!

CHILDREN: (when they see their friend they invite her to go play

with them) Weiwei, get down! Come on let's go play! Weiwei, let's go.

MRS. HU A: (calling off after her daughter) Hey, Weiwei, don't

forget to be careful.

MR. and MRS. XIAO: (who are still in bed sit up to greet Mr. Kong) Come

in, come in. Welcome.

MRS. HU A: Please don't get up. Stay in bed.

MR. KONG: The two of you are both in good health. Well


MR. XIAO: The two of us both owe our lives to you, Old Mr.


MR. KONG: Oh, please, it was nothing.

MR. XIAO: (taking the newspaper out of Mr. Kong's hands)

What's the latest news? Any update on the peace efforts, hah? (begins to read the front page)

MR. KONG: Eh, peace? (gives a resigned sigh)

MR. XIAO: Hey! Peace is really here! Finally, peace at last.

Look! Old Chiang [Kai-shek] has stepped down.

No more fighting. Haha.

MRS. XIAO: What? Really!

MRS. HU A: Really?

YOUNG MISS: (running in from another room) What's all this? No

more war?

MR. XIAO: Yeah, it's true. Old Chiang has stepped down.

MR. KONG: What stepping down! More like his American

boss knew Chiang's reputation stunk and now just stuck Li Zongren to fool everyone.

MR. XIAO: You can call it whatever you want, the result is

the same: there's no more war!

MRS. HU A: If peace finally has arrived, then all those people

who they arrested . ..

MR. XIAO: Of course, they will all be released for sure! Mrs.

Hua, congratulations! Mr. Hua is sure to be released soon.

MRS. HUA: Oh, that would be great.

MR. XIAO: (turning to the young woman) You, little sister,

will be able to return to your countryside home, grow crops, and no need to be a maid serving others any more.

MR. XIAO: (turning to Mr. Kong) And you, old Mr. Kong, we

should congratulate you most of all! Your son will be back any day, I promise!

MR. XIAO: (turning to his wife) As for us, mother of Big Mao,

with the war over, we can get back to business once again! Someday soon!

MRS. XIAO: Praise Buddha, peace is finally here!


Useful Websites

1. VISUALIZING CHINA: HISTORICAL PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHINA—A truly impressive collection of historical photographs organized and run by the prominent historian of China, Robert Bickers. Originally comprised of a set of materials primarily from missionaries and other Westerners in China, the collection has digitized and made available through a single search engine other collections from Harvard-Yenching, Cambridge, and private albums from individuals.

2. 1919—AN INTERACTIVE COMIC MARKING THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE MAY FOURTH MOVEMENT html—An interactive examination of the events leading up to, and including, the May Fourth Movement. Created by the China Global Television Network (a division of CCTV) the "interactive comic" also offers insights to the way Chinese leaders today seek to repurpose the event for more contemporary ideological reasons.


https: / / nanking/documents—A sensitive, if narrow, treatment of a complex and politically controversial subject. The website is well organized, nicely designed, and includes a variety of documents and photos as told via materials held in the Yale University collection.

  • 4. WORLD WAR II: A VISUAL HISTORY WW2/index.html—A very slick website with considerable visual appeal. Although not limited to only China, the website offers thorough coverage of events in China as well as related events in Japan, Southeast Asia, and farther afield.
  • 5. VIRTUAL SHANGHAI—A project begun by Christian Henriot at Institut d'Asie Orientale in Lyons, France, that, alongside photographs, includes maps and texts. Although the website is primarily focused on Shanghai, it offers a depth of material spread across more than a century that is rare to find on the Internet today.

Suggested Readings

  • 1. Christopher Rea, Chinese Film Classics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021). An informative but entertaining guide to 14 classic films from the early "golden age" of Chinese cinema. Includes a wealth of images and suggestions for further viewings and readings. The author has also collaborated to create a Chinese Film Classics YouTube channel with updated subtitles for all the films discussed.
  • 2. Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945 (New York: Mariner Books, 2014). With a storyteller's eye for detail, Mitter not only breathes new life into the well-known details of China's war against Japan but also lays bare the long-term consequences for the choices made by the KMT and CCP.
  • 3. Germie Barme, An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). A biography of one of China's first political cartoonists. Offers a wealth of information about Feng Zikai as well as the turbulent era in which he lived.
  • 4. Gail Hershatter, Women and China's Revolutions (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018). A magisterial account of China's rise from 1840 to the present, historian Hershatter traces both the apparent as well as the often-overlooked roles that women played in shaping China's rise from an empire to a republic to a socialist nation.
  • 5. Alai, trans. Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin, Red Poppies (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002). Winner of the prestigious Chinese Mao Dun literary prize, this novel tells the story of local Tibetan rulers along the Sino-Tibetan border areas in the 1930s. An absorbing story that raises knotty questions of ethnic acculturation and modernization along China's borderlands.
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