‘Praising Righteous Fan’: pla Air Force Commander Fan Yuanyan’s 1977 Defection to Taiwan

In: International Journal of Taiwan Studies
Andrew D. Morris Professor of History, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, U.S.A.,

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People’s Liberation Army Air Force Squadron Commander Fan Yuanyan flew his MiG-19 from Fujian Province, People’s Republic of China (prc) to the Republic of China (roc) on Taiwan on 7 July 1977. The timing of this defection, which came as u.s. President Jimmy Carter was moving decisively towards normalisation of relations with the prc, made Fan an anticommunist star. Fan spoke for years afterwards on behalf of the ‘800 million mainland compatriots’ who he felt wanted the roc to retake the mainland, even as he also became more critical of the excesses of capitalism and liberalism in Taiwan. Much of the Kuomintang’s propaganda use of Fan was related to ways in which Nationalist and Communist ideologies about authoritarian and antibourgeois values overlapped. Fan thus represents the ways in which Nationalist and Communist ideologies and societies were mutually constitutive and constructed with the other clearly in mind during the Cold War.

Everywhere the righteous Fan goes, there are surging tides of people, packed so close to be watertight. From the top of the street to the end of the alley, everyone talks about righteous Fan when they greet; when family members gather to chat they chat about righteous Fan; when composers compose new songs, when poets write poems, when calligraphers execute scrolls, it’s never not on the subject of praising righteous Fan. This common orientation of people’s hearts at home and abroad can explain our resolute and aroused anticommunist will, and proves that we will succeed in the sacred enterprise of anticommunist national salvation; the final victory and success certainly will be ours.

Young Warrior News, July 1977 ( li, 1977b: 103)

He looked a little like Jimmy Carter with a short haircut. But he talked a lot differently about the Chinese Communists.

Free China Review, August 1977 (k. liu, 1977: 15)

In June 1977, the 1st Reconnaissance Wing of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (plaaf) was sent to Jinjiang in coastal Fujian Province to take part in the People’s Republic of China’s (prc) top-secret Project 1977. Squadron Commander Fan Yuanyan (范園焱) and his men were charged with flying photographic missions over the area around Haitan Island 90 miles to the northeast. Off Haitan, some 30 fathoms below the surface of the Taiwan Strait, lay the wreckage of the Awa Maru (阿波丸), a Red Cross relief ship sunk by the uss Queenfish in April 1945. Legends circulated for decades about the billions of dollars’ worth of platinum, gold, and diamonds (and even perhaps the priceless fossil remains of Peking Man) that the Awa Maru had been carrying back from Japanese holdings in Southeast Asia to the home islands. Hua Guofeng, the new party chairman and premier, committed to a major recovery venture, projecting that a successful retrieval of this treasure could result in a windfall of 20 renminbi (c. us$10.50) for each citizen of the prc. The government closed the area around Haitan, and filled the sky above with flights by Fan’s 1st Reconnaissance Wing (Fan, 1978: 21; Luo, 1977: 14; usnsa, 1981: 3–9).

Less than a month later, Squadron Commander Fan decided to execute his own legendary venture, one that he had been dreaming of for many years. At 1:45 p.m. on 7 July, the 40th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident that began the Second Sino-Japanese War, Fan set out to complete Single-Plane Inland Photographic Training Mission #145. Moments after taking off, however, Fan turned his Shenyang J-6 (歼-6, or the ‘Annihilator’, the prc-built copy of the renowned Soviet MiG-19S) to the southeast at 900 kmph (560 mph). He took advantage of the fighter’s high-altitude capabilities to rise to 20,000 metres, and began to ‘fly to freedom’ towards the Republic of China (roc) on Taiwan (Zhao, 1977: 3–5).

Thanks to Fan’s ongoing surreptitious monitoring of roc broadcasts to the mainland, he was aware of how to signal his peaceful intentions to the roc Air Force (rocaf) planes that would be approaching him at any minute. ‘The clear and familiar call, “Welcome Chinese Communist Air Force Insurrectionary Brothers to the Nationalist Army Ranks” [歡迎中共空軍弟兄起義參加國軍行列, Huanying Zhonggong kongjun dixiong qiyi canjia Guojun xinglie], sounding in his ears’, Fan decreased his speed, lowered his landing gear and wing flaps, and descended to 7,000 feet (2,130 m) (Huang, 1977: 23). Landing at Tainan Airport 27 minutes after taking off into ‘the mainland’s grey … devilish skies’, Fan emerged from his jet, unholstering his service pistol and crying out a message of surrender to the rocaf military police swarming him. Photos restaged later show a number of joyous jumpsuit-clad airmen carrying a beaming Fan on their shoulders away from the prized MiG copy. However, it is obvious that the original moments of landing and deplaning were far more stressful and dangerous. Newsreel footage shows reporters being kept at a great distance from the flight line by machine gun-wielding mps (Taiwan Province Film Studio, 1977). It is likely for these reasons that there were several recorded versions of Fan’s ‘first words’ on the soil of ‘the free motherland’ (自由祖國, ziyou zuguo). The official roc newsreel of that week had him declaring, ‘The mainland comrades’ lives are too bitter. I am truly happy that I was able to seize freedom’ (Li, 1977b: 172–173; Taiwan Province Film Studio, 1977). Taiwan’s China Daily News (中華日報, Zhonghua ribao) had Fan blurting out, ‘You don’t know how many people have starved to death under the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule of the mainland!’ (Li, 1977b: 88). Meanwhile, the Washington Post had Fan opening more eloquently with, ‘Comrades, it’s the Communists who forced me to do this. I just cannot take it any more. I came here to seek freedom and human rights which are totally lacking on the China mainland’ (Chu, 1977: A19).

The J-6 was quickly towed into Hangar #4 so that rocaf technicians could begin inspection and analysis of the plane’s features, although this was not nearly the coup that Soviet Air Defence Forces Lieutenant Viktor Belenko had provided to the u.s. and Japan when he defected in his far more advanced MiG-25 nine months previously. Indeed, the value of Fan’s MiG-19S copy would lie much more in its propaganda uses; it would be exhibited publicly for large crowds attending Retrocession and Chiang Kai-shek birthday celebrations that October (Chan Wang Publication Service, 1978: 43). But Fan himself proved to be much more valuable cargo. He was swept into the pilots’ lounge of the airport, where the comfortable sofa, plush carpet, colour television set, and cool air conditioning immediately fascinated him. Before the real military bigwigs reached the scene, a Major General Wang fetched Fan an iced coffee and a President Brand cigarette, and arranged for the native of Yongchuan, Sichuan, to have an authentic home-style spicy ‘motherland meal’ (Li, 1977b: 166; Luo, 1977: 14).

This quick episode inaugurated two important elements of the official narrative about Fan: his experiences of Communist privation on the mainland, especially in comparison to the wealth and comfort of 1970s Taiwan, and also the benevolent and caring reception that Fan received from what he imagined as his fellow Chinese living in Taiwan. As the Young Warrior News (青年戰士報, Qingnian zhanshi bao) reported, Fan was greeted in Taiwan by ‘100,000 welcoming faces, lovely respectful faces that [Fan] could never have dreamed of on the mainland, who have shown him their familial brotherly love’ (Li, 1977b: 174). As opposed to the class solidarity that the Chinese Communist Party (ccp) had tried to enforce on the mainland, Taiwan’s populace was imagined to have developed a natural, modern camaraderie based solely on the compassion and fraternity taught by sages from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen to Chiang.

In this article, I explore the reaction in Taiwan to Fan’s dramatic defection and the hubristic narratives of anticommunism, ‘Free China’, and imminent reunification that it reinforced. Fan arrived in a Taiwan deeply enmeshed in political, social, and economic transition and ruled by a Chinese Nationalist Party (i.e., the Kuomintang, or kmt) becoming increasingly divided two years after the death of President Chiang Kai-shek. The bracing heroism of Fan’s flight seemed to many to rejuvenate and clarify the almost-40-year-old dreams of a return to the mainland. But this triumphalism was also paradoxically shot through with notions of superiority and materialism produced by Taiwan’s economic boom. These bourgeois notions of Nationalist comfort, at the same time as they were used to attract defectors like Fan and to herald the coming counterrevolution, also troubled kmt conservatives used to thinking in terms of militarism and party discipline. If Commander Fan appeared as a messenger of victory, this moment also foretold the end of the Chiangist dream of conquering return.

A Slight Historiography

Fan was the eighth pla pilot to make his way to Taiwan, and his flight the fifth such defection incident. By 1991, when the roc government ended its reward programme for pla defectors, 18 pilots had arrived in 13 separate incidents. Very little historical scholarship has emerged on this group of defectors from the mainland, who were known as ‘anticommunist righteous men’ (反共義士, fangong yishi). Several scholars have looked at the first generation of fangong yishi defectors to Taiwan from the prc after the Korean War in 1954. 1 However, the celebrated pilots like Fan—whether because the fuss made over them in Cold War Taiwan might now appear vulgar and misguided, or because of an underlying scepticism about the real motives of these defectors—have gone almost totally unexamined by historians. Meng-an Ni’s National Central University History ma thesis (2006), which provides very detailed information about these 13 events, was remarkably the first sustained study of this group of defectors. During the Chiang era, no one could have believed that they would fade into historical anonymity.

Sarah A. Son’s 2016 article ‘Identity, security and the nation: Understanding the South Korean response to North Korean defectors’ is a very useful study of a parallel (if later) history of anticommunism and defector politics in South Korea. Son traces coexisting South Korean narratives about North Korean defectors as heroes, messengers of unification, dependent migrants, foreigners, and subjects of human rights-defined mercy (2016: 172–179), showing how defectors are always understood and defined by the receiving polity and society with regard to their immediate political needs and ideologies. While differently defined in 1990s–2000s South Korea, these competing beliefs illustrate a set of tensions about reunification that is similar to those that were thought out and constructed in 1970s Taiwan. Combined with Felix Berenskoetter’s work on the ‘biographical narratives’ of national identity, or the ‘structure of private knowledge delineating a community’ (2014: 268–270), these imaginations of reunification across a divided nation help bring out just how much was at stake for three or four generations of ‘mainlanders’ who longed for home and how this coloured their views of defectors like Fan.

Brendan I. Koerner’s high-profile 2013 book The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking provides background on hijackers in the West who captured the public’s attention with their dramatic crimes. This is not an academic history of the relationship between the Cold War and the culture of ‘skyjacking’ that it birthed. But the work does provide a valuable insight into Fan’s defection. Koerner describes pilots like Fan as ‘debonair heroes … [who] could instantly command an audience of millions. There was no more spectacular way for the marginalised to feel the rush of power’ (Koerner, 2013: 9). This reminder of the thrilling dynamism of the new art of hijacking, when inserted into this moment of roc exile, adds to the important work by Scott Simon (2006), Mau-kuei Chang and Meng-hsuan Yang (2010), Joshua Fan (2011), and Mahlon Meyer (2012) on the lives of the roughly one million mainland Chinese who went to Taiwan with the roc government and military between 1945 and 1949. After they were subsequently stuck there and separated from their families on the mainland for three decades, Fan’s arrival as Taiwan’s newest ‘mainlander’ seemed to electrify this group the most. Simon studies the construction of a diasporic identity by this ‘expatriate minority communit[y] characterised by memories of their homeland, a desire to return, and a collective identity constructed around it’. Mainlanders’ cultural domination was under more thorough and formal challenge by 1977 (2006: paras. 18, 24), when Fan’s defection breathed new life into this community’s dream of returning to China. Chang and Yang’s crucial reminder of the importance of recognising the multiplicity of mainlander identities—that these migrants and their descendants could be ‘both “war refugees” and “outside colonisers” or “power-holders” and “dis[en]franchised victims”’ (2010: 122) is also useful in framing how they saw their lives in Taiwan and their disappearing Chinese futures. The degrees of trauma and longing that these often powerful migrants could still experience also is crucial to understanding the hope that Fan’s single escape seemed to portend for the ‘800,000,000 mainland compatriots’.

Joshua Fan’s 2011 study of the mainlander veterans stuck in Taiwan, especially the enlisted men who were barred from marriage, reminds us that by no means did all mainlanders lead privileged lives courtesy of the kmt who had taken them from their families. Their homesickness and clear understanding since the 1950s of their low status, despite the government’s lip service to veterans’ affairs, also primed this group to see undue possibility and opportunity in the aftermath of the 1977 defection. Meyer’s work, though less historical, also helps reinforce our understanding of this trauma, shame, and nostalgia as experienced by mainlanders in Taiwan, many of whom felt so humiliated and unappreciated, exiled among the uncultured and ‘slow-moving’ Taiwanese (2012: 78). Commander Fan and his fellow defectors were a very small and unique subsection of this larger ‘mainlander’ population in Taiwan. This larger group joyfully celebrated these dramatic defections, hoping against most evidence that each event would bring them closer to a Nationalist reconquest of the mainland and their own returns home. These histories of longing were the background conditions for the hubristic, triumphalist, and crass fantasies and ideologies that flowered after Fan’s 1977 defection to Taiwan.

The Free Motherland, 1977

Fan’s sudden arrival in Taiwan gave occasion for the regime and reunification thinkers to assess the state of Free China. They were able to use Fan’s authentic voice and anticommunist credentials to confirm what a success the 30-year Chiangist experiment had been, especially from the view of the mainland. A volume of Fan’s ‘testimony’, published two months after his defection, provides a clear view of this narrative, summing up his impressions of ‘the free motherland’:

The people’s hearts are full of high morale; from top to bottom all are one in fighting the communists and recovering the nation…. Everyone has confidence in the government and in their own abilities.

The people are wealthy; food, daily items and all material goods are in abundance…. Everyone smiles often, speaks freely and loudly, and lives with others in harmony and without hatred.

Wealth is evenly distributed; one cannot find wide gaps between rich and poor in the cities or in the countryside….

The atmosphere of freedom can be felt everywhere….

The government does not fool the people….

The government definitely serves all of the people.

fan, 1977: 179–180
By 1977, it had become useful to praise the accomplishments of the roc government from an outside perspective; officials perhaps understood that their own word was no longer sufficient.

The Taiwan that Fan found had been experiencing great change during the previous several years, despite the propaganda that Fan would have heard crystallising the island into a unified harmonious Free China. Most Western historiography of Taiwan from the 1970s onwards concentrates on the outwardly visible changes stemming from the opposition movement after 1979 and the Kaohsiung Incident (a.k.a. Formosa Incident). Yet there were also very significant—yet simply less public—patterns of opposition, liberalisation, and reaction during the early 1970s that made Taiwan much less stable than Fan assumed. Cohen describes a ‘brief but intense period of intellectual ferment’ from 1971 to 1973, including the founding of the magazine The Intellectual, popular protests over the Diaoyutai Islands dispute with Japan, and democratic successes in the 1972 Legislative Yuan election (Cohen, 1988: 30–32). Gold sees this same moment as a ‘sudden political awakening’, due to more general recent trends like migration to the cities, expanded education and literacy, the growing middle class, and increased exposure to Western ideas (Gold, 1986: 111–113). What is clear is that Premier Chiang Ching-kuo, accepting the reins of leadership from his father, began instituting measures of liberalisation at this same time, like promoting young Taiwanese kmt and government officials, instituting election reforms, shortening the sentences of criminals (if very few political prisoners), and allowing the publication of opposition magazines like Taiwan Political Review (台灣政論, Taiwan zhenglun). These measures, called ‘Innovations to Protect Taiwan’ (革新保台, gexin baotai), were meant to absorb this ferment and dissent (Hsu, 2014: 52; Jacobs, 2012: 48–51; Winckler, 1984: 494).

Yet the kmt was not Chiang’s alone to reform as he pleased; these measures were also met by strong opposition led by figures like General Wang Sheng (王昇), the eminent director of the General Political Warfare Department (國防部總政治作戰部, Guofangbu zongzhengzhi zuozhanbu). Not only was the 1971 loss of the roc’s United Nations seat crushing, but by 1974–1975, prc leaders like Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping began making more convincing appeals to Taiwan’s mainlanders about their own project to unify China. The fear of these developments only made Chiang’s liberalisations that much more threatening (Clough, 1993: 141). The mid-1970s wave of Taiwan Independence terrorism (Marks, 1998: 246) and increasingly powerful labour and environmental movements (Minns & Tierney, 2003: 112–114) made this an even more combustive environment. Wang and conservative allies like Foreign Minister Shen Chang-huan (沈昌煥) worked hard to battle against Chiang’s new populism and to ensure that his liberalising efforts were ‘repeatedly followed … with new waves of repression’ (Clough, 1993: 141, 155; Cohen, 1992: Chap. 5, sec. 1). A pla pilot like Fan, no matter how many Voice of Free China broadcasts he listened to secretly, would not have been able to understand how complicated the politics of his beloved roc had become.

Fan’s Testimony

Fan’s propitious defection on 7 July 1977, however, provided a valuable moment for the crafting of a new narrative of the history and value of the roc regime. The events of the 24 hours following Fan’s entrance in Tainan also provided many important foundations of this new narrative. At 6:00 p.m., Fan was taken to Taipei by plane, accompanied by the aforementioned General Wang Sheng. Tainan Airport personnel had been shocked by Fan’s lack of any modern pilot gear, although Fan soon explained that he purposely had not worn a pressure suit that would have betrayed his high-altitude intentions (Luo, 1977: 17; Zhao, 1977: 3). Likewise, General Wang could not believe that an air force pilot like Fan did not even have a wristwatch! A high-level act of Chinese Nationalist comradeship followed, when Wang took the ‘Forever Our Leader’ Chiang Kai-shek memorial watch off his own wrist and gave it to the grateful defector (Li, 1977b: 167; Luo, 1977: 13).

Fan spent his first night in Taiwan in Room 201 of the Yangmingshan Air Force barracks, an old Japanese-built structure. A New Life News (新生報, Xinshengbao) reporter wrote from Fan’s perspective that morning, imagining what it must have felt like to wake in the light wind and sunshine, hearing the songs of birds and smelling the fragrance of flowers, ‘enjoying the motherland’s embrace for the first time [since 1949, and] … showering in the motherland’s love’ (Li, 1977b: 184). 2 This shower of love continued at 3:00 p.m. that same day, with an hour-long press conference for Fan in front of a hundred-plus reporters at the Armed Forces Officers’ Club.

Fan’s entrance at the press conference, which was broadcast live on television—on Chinese Television System (cts; 中華電視公司, Zhonghua dianshi gongsi), for example, as part of 40 consecutive hours of ‘flight to freedom’ coverage (Yang, 1977: 38)—also helped to establish the dominant discourse about this event. The Government Information Office (gio) secretary Ting Mao-shih (丁懋時), smartly dressed in suit and tie, escorted Fan, still wearing his coarse, threadbare ‘uniform’ of a light cotton shirt, blue trousers, and a dated cloth aviator helmet and goggles, to the front of the room among much hubbub and excitement (Hid288, 1977a). The image of Fan’s primitive wardrobe, the media’s genuine elation at this spectacular playing-out of ‘freedom’ winning out over ‘tyranny’, and the welcome they extended to Fan all helped to make this a story of authentic brotherly Chinese democracy and capitalism winning out (for once!) over cruel Soviet-style autocracy and misery. What emerged from this encounter was a Nationalist hubris that allowed excited anticommunist observers to attach far too much significance to the defection of one disgruntled pilot, a superficial Taiwanese materialism that mistook the discrepancy between Asian Tiger-era Taiwan and Cultural Revolution-era China for an ahistorical and absolute economic and moral victory for the kmt, and a blindness to the many actual similarities between Communist and Nationalist rhetoric of national salvation and revolutionary purity.

After entering the Officers’ Club venue, Fan stood for photographs for more than a minute, at first stiffly but soon winning over the room by spontaneously smiling and clapping. After much pushing and shuffling by photographers and Ting Mao-shih’s eloquent introduction, Fan took questions. The first was simple enough: What were Fan’s motives and process in escaping to freedom? Fan started out unsteadily, choppily, disorganised and hard to understand through his Sichuan-accented Mandarin, but his sincerity came through. Fan understood official Nationalist discourse, as he explained, from his close, clandestine, and risky attention to anticommunist radio broadcasts from Taiwan to the mainland. The island’s Central Broadcasting System sent these out towards northern, central, and southern China, 24 hours a day, in eight different Chinese languages (Fang, 1979: 47). The very first factor that Fan mentioned as convincing him to defect were the ‘Six Freedoms and Three Promises’ (六大自由,三大保證, liu da ziyou, san da baozheng), which had been featured in roc broadcasts to the mainland since an important 1957 National Day speech by President Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang appealed to members of the pla ‘bandit’ military or the ‘bandit puppet’ Communist Party to defect, promising any such freedom-loving comrades-in-arms fair and equal treatment under the law, rewards for their heroic efforts, equal rights under the constitution, and protection of life and property ( gio, 1960: 1, 12–13). It is perhaps not surprising, though, that Fan had come to understand these promises in terms much more specific to the Maoist era—as he explained, he was moved to defect by the way he had remembered Chiang’s ‘three promises’: To not kill, to not struggle against, and to not conduct personal investigations of any pla defectors (Hid288, 1977a). Indeed, this confusion betrays many of the similarities between the two competing Chinese regimes’ dreams of unification and records of punishment of the enemy.

Fan’s initial unease in front of the audience quickly revealed a plain eloquence and an authentic bitterness and rage about the brutalities of Maoism, forged, in one reporter’s words, through ‘10 years of longing [to escape] and 28 years of suffering’ (Luo, 1977: 14). He immediately began to give an emotional testimony to the miserable lives of the 800 million people of the mainland, especially the farmers who had nothing to eat or wear, the constant trickery and lies practiced by the ccp, the repeated attempts at popular uprisings against the regime, and the lack of any real political or social freedoms that were guaranteed by the prc Constitution (Hid288, 1977a).

The crowd was soon his, vying to ask the next question about his background, his escape, the current political situation on the mainland, and his views on the contrasts between the free motherland and the enslaved mainland. His answer to the fourth question of the session, in which he pledged to fight on the front line to take back the mainland, won him a standing ovation (Luo, 1977: 16–17). The crowd remained standing and cheering as Fan made a more distinct point about prc politics, declaring that the people of the mainland all felt that new prc leader Hua Guofeng was simply ‘the same as Mao, raccoon dogs of the same mound [一丘之貉, yi qiu zhi hao]’ (Luo, 1977: 16–17). 3 The enraptured cheering here was interesting; Fan’s critique here of Hua’s ‘two whatevers’ policy—that the ccp should simply follow ‘whatever’ policies and instructions left by the late Mao—would have been much more germane to prc residents than to Fan’s new roc brothers and sisters. He was voicing real fears that China would simply continue in the destructive path of late Maoism. But for the audience, this down-home ‘raccoon dog’ slur represented the mainland’s continued hardship and need for roc salvation. If not a form of Schadenfreude, Fan’s lament felt like one more important confirmation of the necessity of the continued Free China anticommunist struggle.

Fan’s simplicity made him an effective showman. He moved the audience to great tumult when he stood smiling with his service pistol above his head, and then to emotional reflection when he admitted that he expected the ccp to retaliate against his family, and that he hoped that u.s. President Jimmy Carter would apply his ‘human rights diplomacy’ to this case and try to protect them (Hid288, 1977a, 1977b). It is impressive to consider how closely Fan must have been paying attention to roc broadcasts and to the never-ending plaaf political study sessions, including some that covered classified information about world events, and how he had been able to synthesise this information into a coherent and moving testimony against the devastation of three decades of Maoism. His indictment of the ccp regime was quickly understood to be material that could gather a strong nationalistic response throughout Taiwan, that could add visions of imminent triumph to the roc’s own biographical narrative (Berenskoetter, 2014: 272–274).

Media Coverage of Fan’s Defection

Fan’s defection was an event that was experienced almost instantaneously by the great majority of Taiwan’s population. Indeed, part of the Fan coverage provided by official state media was just as much about the coverage itself as it was about Fan, self-referentially folding back on itself at this moment of technological progress that (like the defection) was meant to be testament to the advancements that made the roc the true heirs of the Chinese revolution. More than one fifth of the official roc newsreel on the event was dedicated to showing its viewers images of earlier viewers of live coverage of Fan—their neighbours and compatriots captured on film watching Fan’s press conference on television sets placed in public areas on city streets, next to vendors in small alleys, and in their homes (Taiwan Province Film Studio, 1977). Not only was Taiwan a technologically advanced society, then, but also one joined by bonds of nationalism and anticommunism. The monthly magazine Radio & Television dedicated much of its September issue to coverage of Fan coverage. Fan’s defection was a boost to the industry itself; industry insiders boasted how this event put Taiwan at the centre of the world media. cts sent out by express mail videotaped footage to eight different Asian and North American cities. As a China Television Company (ctv; 中國電視公司, Zhongguo dianshi gongsi) news director pointed out in an article titled ‘From Taipei to the world’, this was the first time that all three American television networks depended on roc broadcasts for their reports (Wang, 1977: 34; Yang, 1977: 42).

Taiwan’s academic and media communities began working quickly to construct their own complex discourses around this event. National Taiwan University political scientist Hu Fu (胡佛) started with a predictable condemnation of Maoist rule, writing that Fan’s actions ‘represented 800 million mainland compatriots’ humane cry for “freedom or death”’ in a society that had ‘ravaged human rights, destroyed the rule of law … [and] regressed to primitive barbarism’ (Li, 1977b: 150). The New Life News used equally strong language, reminding readers in Taiwan, ‘In the Communist “heaven” there are actually people who have no pants to wear and who are starving to death. Communism is a bankrupt ideology, a system that should not exist, an impractical society with no ideals and no future…. Fan can denounce to the free world the bloody reign and tyranny of the communist bandits’ (Li, 1977b: 185–186).

While these observers concentrated on the specific failings of the ccp, others worked to fold Fan’s defection into a hubristic narrative of impending triumph and joy. The Young Warrior News gloated that the event was:

‘the one leaf that tells you it’s autumn’. The Communist bandits, who by now have been abandoned by the masses and deserted even by their relatives, will totally collapse and perish. This is imminent, right before our eyes … [and] the precise proof and material confirmation of late President Chiang’s saying that tyranny shall perish…. We will soon recover the national territory of the mainland and build a rich, powerful, healthy, happy new China based on the Three People’s Principles.

li, 1977b: 100–102
The same newspaper also quoted Du Fu’s (杜甫) poem ‘Both Sides of the Yellow River Recaptured by the Imperial Army’ (聞官軍收河南河北, Wen guanjun shou Henan Hebei):

News at this far western station! The north has been recaptured! […]

And loud my song and deep my drink

On the green spring day that starts me home […]

Up from the south, north again—to my own town!

li, 1977b: 97
This harkening to Tang Dynasty orthodoxy for appropriate celebratory verse to demonstrate ‘our confidence that anticommunism shall be victorious’ was revealing about the depth of sorrow that so many late-1940s mainland émigrés still felt after three decades of the trauma of exile.

Meanwhile, a third triumphalist discourse emerged about Fan based on a superficial materialism and a condescending view of Fan—an expert MiG pilot!—as a silly if well-meaning bumpkin. While his flight to Free China inspired many who still believed in a Nationalist recovery of the mainland, or who agreed with Fan that the world should know about the atrocities and inequities of Maoist life, others saw in Fan a Chinese gaucheness that residents of the roc on Taiwan should have been grateful at leaving long behind. This began on Fan’s first full day in Taiwan, when he appeared in his frayed military casuals. During the press conference, one reporter asked Fan to describe the state of the mainland economy, considering that ‘the clothes [Fan] wore were made of very poor material’ (Luo, 1977: 16). A Central Daily News (中央日報, Zhongyang ribao) article opened with a description of Fan as speaking with an extremely heavy Sichuan accent, ‘dark, skinny … with clothes that were not ripped but extremely coarse, his standard issue shirt not really yellow or white’ (Li, 1977b: 157). A China Daily report praised Fan for choosing freedom over slavery, and for escaping the ‘atmosphere of surveillance, suspicion and political struggle’, but could only describe Fan himself as ‘skinny and dark … his clothing extremely crude … made of fabric as coarse as that which was used in the war against the Japanese. You could never find an item of clothing of this poor quality in our military today’ (Li, 1977b: 165–166). Another China Daily report opened with a description of Fan as ‘clumsy and awkward, frank and open … a classic Sichuanese’, and described his military issue yellow jacket as ‘old and disintegrating, not like [that of] our [roc] pilots who are so handsome and chic’ (Li, 1977b: 168–169). The United Daily News (聯合報, Lianhebao) quoted a Sichuan native at the press conference as opining that ‘if Fan didn’t have to wear such a shoddy [蹩腳, biejiao] uniform he would look like a handsome and dignified foreign service official!’ This reporter went on to contrast Fan’s ‘crummy cotton jacket’ with the ‘handsome and chic’ uniforms that pilots usually wear (Li, 1977b: 189–191).

In 1977 Taiwan, Maoist rule evidently could not be convincingly dismissed with simple proof of the crimes of ‘that despicable, hideous, sinister, wolflike, treacherous Communist bandit party that tricked, exploited, coerced and persecuted righteous Fan for 18 long years’, or discourse on how ‘communism goes against human nature, against the way of heaven, against democracy, against freedom, and is thoroughly bankrupt … the poisonous cancer of mankind’ (Song, 1977: 8–9). There needed to be material evidence that the ‘handsome and chic’ people of Taipei could immediately understand. However, this superficial materialism was a strange foundation for a narrative of the roc’s successful institution of Sun’s Three People’s Principles. Indeed, a crass attention to individual wealth and prosperity provided one lasting paradox within the narrative of Fan and Free China.

Not about the Taels

Another element of this story that fascinated the public was the huge reward that Fan was presented by the government for flying his MiG copy to Taiwan. In 1960 the roc had instituted an official ‘Policy for Awards to [Communist] Bandit Air Force Officers and Airmen who Rise in Insurrection and Return Home’ (對匪空軍官兵起義來歸優待辦法, Dui feikongjun guanbing qiyi laigui youdai banfa), with similar policies for defecting army and navy personnel as well (Ni, 2006: 39). This measure paralleled the u.s. Army’s controversial 1953 ‘Operation Moolah’, which had established a us$100,000 reward for the first Russian, Chinese, or North Korean pilot to defect in an operational late-model MiG fighter (Harden, 2015: 152, 193–195). Another relevant precedent was the Eisenhower-era encouragement of anti-Castro Cubans to hijack commercial jets to Florida in 1959–1960, the u.s. government happy to score a Cold War win by granting asylum to successful hijackers who made their way to freedom (Hubbard, 1973: 228; Mickolus, 1980: 50). The roc system of rewards for defecting pilots was widely advertised to the mainland via the radio broadcasts mentioned above, as well as via balloon airlifts that dropped propaganda leaflets along with useful Nationalist merchandise like toys, cooking oil, underwear, soap, and cups with removable anticommunist slogans.

This propaganda work in itself was quite an operation for the roc military. Underground factories were set up to extract from seawater the hydrogen used to lift the balloons, which were sent up on the northern prevailing winds between April and November. Low-altitude balloons could carry 800 pounds of leaflets and goods, while the high-altitude balloons launched towards Mongolia carried 20 pounds of leaflets (Fang, 1979: 46, 53). The rocaf also sent planes to drop massive loads of these leaflets over southern China. Academia Historica’s Collection of President Chiang Ching-kuo includes a top-secret letter from Chen Jianzhong (陳建中), a kmt stalwart who specialised in psychological warfare, about one of several December 1965 drops over 20 locations in Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces. On 20 December, a plane left Taiwan loaded with 700 pounds of leaflets (140,000 copies) advertising the recent defection of plaaf pilots, Li Xianbin (李顯斌), Li Caiwang (李才旺), and Lian Baosheng (廉保生) (the last Air Force defectors before Fan). These would be dropped, with some element of unspecified American assistance, over southern Guangdong, southeast Guangxi, and the Leizhou Peninsula. Chen’s letter came with copies of the three different colour leaflets that showered over southern China that night; they included vivid photographs of Li Xianbin meeting President Chiang and his son, being toasted at a fancy military banquet, and appearing before a huge crowd at the Sun Yat-sen 100th birthday celebration at the Presidential Palace. One leaflet had Li testifying, ‘Every compatriot in the free motherland welcomes me like their own brother. I welcome you to come!’ Another included a map of flying distances and directions to Taiwan from 18 mainland cities, and a detailed chart outlining the reward amounts pilots could earn by flying different pla craft to Taiwan (according to Article 4 of the ‘Policy for Awards’): 4000 taels (兩, liang) of gold for a Ilyushin Il-28 bomber or the MiG-19, 2000 taels for a MiG-17, and 1000 taels for a MiG-15 (Academia Historica, 1965: 5–13). 4 In the mid-1960s an Insurrection Handbook (起義手冊, Qiyi shouce) was air-dropped over China including reward information for anticommunist rebels delivering to roc territory 13 types of aircraft, 13 types of sea craft (10,000 gold taels for a destroyer or submarine, 100,000 taels for a light armoured cruiser), and 13 types of weaponry (Li & Hong, 1998: 73). This system of rewards remained in place until 1991, and would change and complicate greatly the life of each of these anticommunist defecting heroes.

By defecting in his MiG-19S copy to Taiwan, Fan was eligible for a reward of 4000 taels, or 150 kilograms of gold, tax-free. Standard policy, however, was to present defectors like Fan with the cash equivalent of the pile of gold bars that appeared as an important prop in the dramatic welcome ceremonies—in this case nt$24 million (us$600,000) (K. Liu, 1977: 17; Yu, 2005: 60). These massive rewards were a very important part of the ritual of receiving these anticommunist heroes. The sizable amounts of money involved, compared to Taiwan’s average annual income of us$3,610 in 1977 (Free China Weekly, 1978), complicated these mega-events in many ways.

First and most simply, the notion of a ‘free motherland paradise’ (Free China Relief Association, 1965: 1) governed by an ultra-benevolent kmt was compromised by the very presence of these great rewards: Wouldn’t life under the Three People’s Principles be reward enough to a defector like Fan? The appearance of bribes luring Communist airmen at some point left the kmt regime open for criticism like that appearing in the first issue of Formosa: The Magazine of Taiwan’s Democratic Movement in 1979. There, an author (already jailed by the time of publication) wrote about the celebration of these anticommunist heroes as simply an exercise in ‘worshipping mythological idols’, while the practice of involving them in domestic politics was a ‘fascist tendency’ worthy only of villains like Tōjō, Hitler, or Mussolini (Chen, 1979: 96). It was also obvious that the technology of Fan’s MiG-19S copy was not terribly prized by 1977; the original fighter was introduced in 1955 and in different versions had been used by the militaries of 26 different communist and nonaligned countries since then. This anachronism also made the roc’s pilot payoff policy seem misguided.

More importantly, these great government payments also served, predictably and naturally, to cast doubt on the motivations of these anticommunist insurrectionaries. ‘Ever since I was a child, I’ve known about Dr Sun Yat-sen’, Fan told an interviewer after his arrival, also confessing his admiration for Chiang Kai-shek’s ‘persistence in following Dr Sun’s revolutionary will’. He told another of secretly going to visit Chiang’s former mountain residence in Kuling, northern Jiangxi, a practice that was evidently common among pilots with some amount of political privilege (Fan, 1977: 125; Li, 1977a: 141). But with more than twice his own weight in gold bars, or 1,250 times his annual plaaf salary, at stake, many did wonder if it was really a love of the Three Principles of the People that drew Fan to Taiwan. Seemingly every article on the defection made mention of the enormous prize, and he was even asked about it at his opening press conference. His answer—that he flew to Taiwan for freedom, not for money, won him a standing ovation and United Daily News praise for his ‘admirable sentiment in a money-worshipping society’ (Huang, 1977: 27; Li, 1977b: 191). At other times, Fan went further than this, though, maintaining that he ‘had not known a thing’ about the rewards (Fan, 1977: 127), despite his close knowledge of Chiang’s ‘Six Freedoms and Three Promises’ programme and his constant monitoring of roc broadcasts. This frankly is harder to believe, and Fan’s efforts to distance himself from any knowledge of this pricey practice end up revealing much about the stigma it brought.

In October, the Los Angeles Times reported on its front page about Fan’s frustrations with the reward and his desire to return the $600,000. He wanted to donate the reward back to the government, or even to victims of the late-July typhoons Thelma and Vera, but the Nationalists were afraid of the accusations of perfidy that the ccp might make about such a settlement. And he could not even spend the money, because ‘generous shopkeepers, excited that Taiwan’s hero of the hour is visiting their premises, insist[ed] on lavishing free merchandise on him’. Fan lived a modest life, his rocaf lieutenant colonel’s salary more than enough to cover his expenses, and his great reward simply earning interest in the bank (Mathews, 1977: 1, 6; New York Times, 1977: 18). This fact was not as interesting as the image of all those gold bars, though, and seemingly was not reported on in Taiwan. In interview after interview, Fan insisted that he defected only because ‘though I love my wife and children, I love my great country even more’, and only in order to ‘tell of the sufferings of the mainland [and] … allow the free world to knock down the gates of hell and extinguish the red toxic flames’ (Fan, 1977: 2). He swore again and again that he ‘would not rest until the ccp is overthrown’, pledging his life to ‘resolutely, cleanly, thoroughly exterminating the ccp’ (Li, 1977b: 2). However, one permanent result of Taiwan’s reward system was that, for decades, Fan and his defecting comrades would often be suspected of having defected only in order to cash in on the promised kmt gold. 5

The Weaknesses of the Free World

After his arrival, Fan spoke often about his shock at Taiwan’s material wealth. This fact came up in an interview with America’s People Magazine, in a piece following an article on Farrah Fawcett’s new contract with Fabergé. Fan recalled, ‘I thought that maybe every family would have its own radio … but I certainly didn’t expect to find a television set in every house or all the refrigerators and washing machines. I don’t think even the Communist leaders suspect the people here are living so well’ (Revzin, 1977: 33).

For a three-week, nine-part radio programme on the Broadcasting Corporation of China (bcc; 中國廣播公司, Zhongguo guangbo gongsi), titled ‘Fan Yuanyan Time’ (范園焱時間, Fan Yuanyan shijian), the defector toured department stores, schools, factories, hospitals, and homes around the island, explaining to his Taiwanese hosts how comfortable and prosperous their lives were in comparison to their mainland compatriots living under ‘the communist bandits, a society of grinding poverty and destitution’ (Fan Yuanyan Time [2], 1977). Fan was savvy enough to understand the performative element of this programme, but his amazement at conditions in Taiwan also seemed authentic. In the third episode of this programme, he voiced his astonishment that in Taiwan people rode bicycles for fun, when in the mainland they were simply tools for transportation. Talking to a 12-year-old boy still on summer vacation from school, Fan proved a bit confused about life in Free China: ‘So you don’t need to do labour during summer vacation?’ The boy and the adult accompanying him, likely his father, laughed loudly. Fan repeated his question, and the two interviewees still truly did not understand what Fan meant, until he explained good-naturedly how summering first-graders in the mainland would have to dig holes or collect fertiliser at least one or two days a week. But these encounters—especially when his Taiwanese hosts seemed to enjoy a bit too much Fan’s comparisons of wealthy Taiwan (‘life in heaven’) to China (‘life in hell’) (Fan Yuanyan Time [3], 1977; Fan Yuanyan Time [4], 1977)—may have begun to aggravate Fan’s revolutionary sensibilities.

At some point, Fan began to voice second thoughts about the implications of Taiwan’s material wealth. As he told one interviewer, ‘The ccp says that communism is heaven, but that is a total lie. The real heaven is here, where the common people have air conditioning, refrigerators, everything they could eat, everything that they could wear, and everything they could use: What else could they want?’ (Li, 1977a: 158). The final phrase here indicates impatience and perhaps some misgivings about the society that had developed under the kmt in the ‘free motherland’. This probably should not be too surprising, considering the 28 years that Fan spent learning the ways of Maoist asceticism and class struggle. Indeed, published interviews with Fan would include his frank explanations of his original attraction to ccp political platforms, the Party’s attraction to him as a favoured ‘red element’ (as the son of craft workers), and how he ‘grew up drinking the ccp’s milk’ (Li, 1977b: 1, 3). This was quite an allowance considering the typical suppression of any public procommunist discourse, but evidently acceptable considering Fan’s reconversion to kmt ideology and his palpable and marketable hatred of the Maoist system. The old distrust of bourgeois culture was quick to emerge in Fan’s discussion of life in Taiwan, though. In fact, he detected a problem with the free motherland the very afternoon that he made his heroic flight, speaking later about his disappointment at seeing young women in the Tainan airport that day with eye makeup and ‘wearing clothes that really reveal way too much skin’. He continued, ‘I know from the newspapers that some others also don’t like the looks of this, some women who expose [much of] their breasts and their backs’ (Li, 1977a: 157). Fan’s furious condemnations of Maoism were just the thing for a diplomatically reeling roc, but his critiques of Taiwanese society also reveal the ways that anticommunism could align with conservative Nationalist social critiques and tensions.

Fan often was given the space to voice these critiques of a socially and culturally liberalising Taiwan. Newsweek reported on Fan’s fondness for the American television programmes Bionic Woman and Hawaii Five-O but also on his complaints about so many of Taiwan’s own programmes as ‘decadent’, especially the musical and variety shows where he felt the women singers ‘wriggle so much’ (Newsweek, 1978: 9). Then there were ‘those women writing letters saying they “want to be friends” with him’; the China Times (中國時報, Zhongguo shibao) editorialised, ‘when righteous Fan sees these letters he just cannot help but say, “Their mother!”’ (Guo, 1977: 111). What was happening under Chiang Ching-kuo’s ascendance and policies of liberalisation that was making Free China perhaps a bit too free? And it was not just women’s behaviour that grated on Fan’s sensibilities. Some of Taipei’s young men were wearing pants that were ‘tight and too “sexy”’. This was not even to mention the city’s apparently commonplace drug use, pornography, gender-bending clothing, and cross-dressing that Fan felt were ‘emblems of a sick society’ (Geng, 1977: 107–108).

Fan no doubt was conditioned by what he had learned in the endless political study sessions in the plaaf, where such work occupied so much of pilots’ time that he had only averaged 60 hours of flight time a year (M. Liu, 1977: 50). Fan reflected on ‘the weaknesses of the free world’, America and Japan being clear examples of societies where ‘people had a harder and harder time controlling their desires’ (Geng, 1977: 107–108). As he sighed in Newsweek, ‘sometimes I wonder if Taiwan hasn’t adopted too many things from the West’ (Newsweek, 1978: 9). It is also somewhat predictable that one of Fan’s solutions to the problems of Free China was more government control of the print and broadcast media, like he was used to in the prc. Taiwan’s newspapers, Fan thought, were full of ‘strange and bizarre [光怪陸離, guangguai luli] content’, while the television shows spoke to ‘too little patriotic and collectivist thought, and too much selfish and self-serving thought’. Fan shared this distrust of bourgeois popular culture with kmt conservatives distressed about the social changes accompanying Chiang Ching-kuo’s liberalisations. In 1975, for example, one of the waves of kmt reaction included the banning of 91 popular songs whose lyrics included the words ‘love’, ‘hate’, and ‘tears’, which right-wing Nationalists imagined could only have ‘a “depressing effect on the spirit of the general public” during a period of “anti-Communist struggle”’ (Lelyveld, 1975: 76).

Figure 1
Figure 1

‘Righteous man Fan Yuanyan says: Domestic radio broadcasts and television programs should more promote patriotic thinking’

Citation: International Journal of Taiwan Studies 2, 1 (2019) ; 10.1163/24688800-00201004

(ding, 1977: 42).

Like General Wang Sheng and his conservative allies, Fan worried about this soft society: ‘In this state of affairs, when the war [with the Communists] starts, it will not be a joke. That is when one truly has to risk one’s life—at that moment will people be able to give up their material possessions? Will they have the spirit [to fight]?’ (Geng, 1977: 107). Fan had sprung from the mainland uniquely qualified not only to testify to the disasters of communism, but also to explain how Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary notion of the ‘people’s livelihood’ was being misinterpreted in the 1970s roc on Taiwan. With his new-found fortune, Fan was authoritative enough on the subject to declare, ‘having too much money is meaningless; if everyone is just working hard for money then it is not a good system’. In a way that was not surprising at all, Fan concluded, ‘only a collective life has any meaning’ (Fan Yuanyan Time [2], 1977; Geng, 1977: 111). Fan unknowingly was engaging in a strain of anticommunist discourse that had been expressed most famously by Soviet-spy-turned-agrarian-conservative Whittaker Chambers in the mid-1950s, who worried about the West’s lack of conviction and its ‘soft complacency that would suffocate the spirit in abundance’ (Kimmage, 2009: 244). But the fight against communist values was not an intellectual exercise for Fan the way it was for many in 1950s America or 1970s Taiwan. Instead, it was part of an ideological mission that he felt he was uniquely qualified to describe to those who had forgotten the true nature of China’s twentieth-century revolution.

Fan’s conservative critiques filled an important need, as he gave a voice to the misgivings that KMT conservatives felt about the development of post-Chiang Kai-shek Taiwan. One author appreciated Fan’s instruction in helping to construct a discourse of Zen authoritarianism, where roc citizens learned to work harder on sacrificing the ‘small self’ and completing the ‘large self’ (Geng, 1977: 111). The Young Warrior News, while rejoicing that Fan’s defection ‘proves we will succeed in the sacred enterprise of anticommunist national salvation’, went further by cutting this Nationalist hubris with some good old-fashioned moralistic scolding:

When exulting and rejoicing, however, every person also has to engage in deep self-reflection, to look inside and see if s/he need to fix any faults … Today the base for recovery of the mainland has a prosperous economy … But the result of this prosperity and individual liberty has been that not a few rich people lead lives of extravagance and depravity [窮奢極慾, qiongshe jiyu], malaise and debauchery [萎靡放蕩, weimi fangdang] … There are several restaurants with meals that cost nt$10,000 [us$250]. How could we have the guts to face our suffering family members and friends on the mainland? How could we have the guts to face our own consciences? … We need to take the poor lives that our relatives and friends live on the mainland, where they sell their children, to get these people to reflect and consider and stop leading arrogant, excessive, debauched lives.

li, 1977b: 103–104
Fan’s asceticism and turn as the moral conscience of the people of Free China was welcomed by conservatives critical of the changes happening in mid-1970s Taiwan. This Communist pilot’s ‘return’ to the roc allowed for the very clear expression of some of the ideas of social revolution that the Nationalists and Communists had both aimed towards at different points during the twentieth century.


Upon hearing the news of Fan’s defection, the people of the entire nation exulted and rejoiced; there were none whose spirit was not roused. Because everyone knew that righteous Fan’s flight home was a sharp warning [當頭棒喝, dangtou banghe] to the Western nations who call loudly for ‘appeasement and reconciliation’ [of and with the prc], and proof that the Communist bandits’ tyranny shall perish.

Extract from a student essay, Taipei unified high school entrance exam, 9 July 1977 ( li, 1977b : 204)

On the morning of 9 July 1977, 15-year-olds all over Taiwan filed into classrooms for high school entrance exams. These exhaustive affairs included essay questions chosen by local authorities to test their students’ writing abilities. Youngsters in Zhanghua showed their stuff by writing on ‘My Understanding of Freedom’, their fellow students just south in Yunlin answered an existentialist question of ‘Why I am Taking This High School Entrance Exam’, and Jiayi’s class of ’80 tackled the age-old question of ‘How to be Filial to My Father and Mother’. However, when Fan Yuanyan landed in Taiwan on 7 July, members of the Taipei High School Exam Board saw a chance to score political points with the ruling kmt. At the last minute they changed the essay question that youngsters in the capital would tackle. Without time to properly print out exam sheets, all they could do was ask examiners to write the new politically correct and grammatically terse questions on their blackboards: for Taipei’s young men, ‘From the MiG Surrender Examine the Fact that Tyranny Must Perish’ (從米格機投誠看暴政必亡, Cong Migeji toucheng kan baozheng bi wang), and for young women the question, ‘What Revelation Has the MiG Surrender Brought?’ (米格機投誠的啟示, Migeji toucheng de qishi) (Chinese Class Online, n.d.).

Many students, their heads stuck in their studies just two days before when Fan’s plane arrived in Tainan, had no idea of what to make of these questions (and what a ‘Mi-ge machine’ was). In recent Facebook posts and discussion boards, these former students, now in their fifties, still reminisce about this odd event, from their ‘dumbfounded’ (傻眼, shayan) reactions to the strange questions, to their desperate guesses about what these obscure terms could have meant (Wang, 2014). But the young man quoted in the epigraph above most likely earned a very high score, especially with his politically shrewd condemnation of Western procommunist ‘appeasers’ like Jimmy Carter.

Fan’s dramatic defection to Taiwan on 7 July 1977 was a massive political and media event in Taiwan, with many implications for roc citizens all across the political spectrum. On this historically significant date, it seemed to open up possibilities for a restored Nationalist China, various news reports referring to it as ‘a new revelation to the people of the free world’, ‘just as shocking as the news of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, just as exciting as the announcement of victory over the Japanese military’, and ‘a huge nuclear bomb destroying the lies of the communists and their fellow travellers around the world and exploding the pipe dreams and fantastic illusions of these same people’ (Li, 1977b: 91, 119, 127).

Fan’s down-home Sichuan authenticity galvanised many in Taiwan about their mainland compatriots’ desire for a long-overdue regime change. Fan seems truly to have been troubled, traumatised, and disgusted by his experiences and prospects under Maoism, his journey reminiscent of Polish author Czeslaw Milosz, who called his turn away from Stalinism ‘a revolt of the stomach … the resistance of my whole nature’ (Milosz, 1990: xii–xiii). Fan’s courage to turn against the Communist party-state in which he had earned elite status as a plaaf pilot came as a rousing shock to the alienation and anomie that seemed to be spreading in materially prosperous Taiwan.

Fan spoke eloquently of the errors, suppressions, and hatreds that flourished under Maoist rule. His expectations of the roc ‘free motherland’ on Taiwan were not realistic, though. Fan had misgivings about the ways that civil society was developing under a liberalising capitalist system in the 1970s. Observers in the Taiwan media, convinced of the virtues of the Nationalist regime under which such materialist plenty had been created, celebrated Fan with an anticommunist hubris that blinded them to more authentic democratic and egalitarian longings. But the drama of Fan’s flight does also remind us of the Nationalist and Communist Parties’ shared notions of social revolution, unification under a modern state, and a China that would be respected as an equal by all nations.

Finally, the joy that Fan’s defection brought to so many people in Taiwan also reveals the distinct trauma experienced by mainlanders in Taiwan, who by this time had been away from their homes for three decades. A United Daily News reporter celebrated Fan’s defection by citing two lines from sixteenth-century Buddhist poet Luo Hongxian’s (羅洪先) ‘Poems to Wake the World’ (醒世歌, Xingshi ge):

How many times does a cluster of white clouds, blocking the pathway to a valley,

Hinder the birds, going back to their nests, from finding them?

His exegesis was brief but significant: ‘Now, Fan is like a great gust of wind, blowing away the white clouds, and allowing those lost little birds to return to their nests—this is all so exciting!’ (Li, 1977b: 206–207).

Three decades in this former Japanese colony had turned millions of once proud mainlanders into ‘lost little birds’; desperation was palpable in those who imagined in Fan’s flight their own chance to snap their fingers and end up back on the mainland 27 minutes later. The freedoms and human rights officially celebrated in the roc on Taiwan were a source of pride but seemingly no substitute for so many mainlanders’ dreams of returning home. Forty years after Fan’s flight, and seventy years after the roc’s own flight from the mainland, this tension and trauma over a true Chinese home continues to define Taiwan’s political landscape and cross-Strait relations.


I would like to thank the Chun and Jane Chiu Family Foundation for funding this research project, and also Professor Hung-Yok Ip of Oregon State University for coordinating that award process. I would also like to thank the roc Ministry of Education, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and its College of Liberal Arts for their support of this project. Also, many thanks to this journal’s Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley, and two anonymous reviewers, whose comments and suggestions helped me greatly in strengthening and clarifying my arguments here.

Andrew D. Morris

is Professor of History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and studies the modern histories of Taiwan and China. He is the author of Colonial Project, National Game: A History of Baseball in Taiwan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010) and Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China (University of California Press, 2004). He edited the volume Japanese Taiwan: Colonial Rule and Its Contested Legacy (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), and co-edited the volume The Minor Arts of Daily Life: Popular Culture in Taiwan (University of Hawai’i Press, 2004, with David K. Jordan and Marc L. Moskowitz).


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The best work on this earlier topic is by Cheng David Chang, who has used dozens of interviews with Chinese veterans of the Korean War to better understand the ways that they were manipulated by both the prc and roc governments for political purposes, and how their choices—after being captured as pows—to return to the Communist mainland or to move instead to the ‘Free China’ of Taiwan affected the rest of their and their families’ lives (Chang, in press).


This usage of the terms ‘motherland’ or ‘free motherland’ to describe the territory ruled by the roc, as opposed to the ‘bandit’ or ‘[Soviet] puppet’ nature of the 28-year-old Communist regime on the mainland which disqualified it from authentic ‘motherland’ status, was de rigueur in describing Fan’s defection.


Nyctereutes procyonoides, or tanuki.


This series of propaganda leaflets is reproduced in Yang, Gao, and Wu (2010: 99).


Indeed, we know that the roc rewards actually discouraged some principled defectors. One was pla pilot Wang Baoyu (王寶玉), who chose to try to escape in 1990 to the Soviet Union instead of Taiwan, fearing that his protest against the previous year’s June 4th massacre in Beijing would not seem genuine if he was rewarded with a fortune in Taiwan (Wu, 2009).

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