Relation To History In The Sunflower Movement

Relation To History In The Sunflower Movement

The relation of the Sunflower Movement to prior social movements in Taiwan went both ways

The participation of individuals ranging from veterans of the Wild Lily Movement (野百合運動) in 1990 to Su Beng (史明), the “grandfather of Taiwanese independence” born in 1918, and invocations of heroes of the Taiwanese democracy movement such as Chen Nan-Jung (鄭南榕) or figures who lived through the White Terror (白色恐怖) as Fu Sinian (傅斯年), illustrates in part how participants in the Sunflower Movement sometimes saw themselves as standing as part of a longer history of social movements in Taiwan against KMT authoritarianism.

As student movements as the Wild Lily Movement have played a major historical role in the process of democratization, it is not surprising that students movements continued to be seen an effective means of mobilizing Taiwanese society writ large to demonstrate. Likewise, as one of many occupation-style movements in Taiwanese history, the most prominent of which was the Wild Lily Movement’s occupation of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial (中正紀念館) in Taipei (台北), the Sunflower Movement was following pre-established precedents in terms of tactics, something which the Wild Strawberry Movement before it did. Yet it may also have been that this was limiting, insofar as new tactics apart from an occupation were not considered, and attempts to escalate the movement such as with the attempted Executive Yuan occupation on 324, took the form of attempting to widen the scope of the occupation.

Wild Lily Movement occupation on March 18th, 1990. Photo credit: CC

However, the Sunflower Movement differed from the Wild Lily Movement in that it was significantly larger, seeing as the Wild Lily Movement occupation involved approximately 5,000 people. And the central decision-making body of the Wild Lily Movement consisted primarily of students, without NGO participation in the way of the Sunflower Movement. Given the fact that freedom of assembly was restricted in the conditions preceding the Wild Lily Movement, Sunflower Movement organizers may have had more experience organizing when compared to participants of the Wild Lily Movement. Yet, like the Sunflower Movement, the Wild Lily Movement was heavily centered around several leader figures, perhaps again gesturing towards the strong place personalism has in Taiwanese politics. However, the Untouchables’ Liberation Area notably drew on the Wild Lily Movement to criticize the leadership of the Sunflower Movement, screening footage from the movement and arguing that the movement had nonetheless been more democratic than the Sunflower Movement.

Likewise, as many of the single issue movements embraced by Taiwanese youth activists emphasized appealing to the central government to intervene in or back down due to public pressure, this was what the Sunflower Movement also did. But this actually made the movement in many ways fundamentally reliant on the actions of the state and perhaps did not seize the ability to set the political agenda of society away from the state in any truly substantive manner.

Nylon Cheng’s occupation of Longshan Temple. Photo credit: 宋隆泉

In this way, some have criticized the Sunflower Movement for “path dependency” in sticking to a small set of tactics which had been successful to the past. And, in fact, through seeing itself as part of a broader historical continuum rather than seeking to radically break from the past, the Sunflower Movement may have in fact failed to learn the lessons of past Taiwanese history.

This tendency may have continued after the movement as well, with various movements attempting to imitate the occupation-style tactics of the Sunflower Movement in a way to replicate its success, as most dramatically seen with the occupation of the Ministry of Education in August 2015. Occupation-style tactics were also carried out by individuals such as democracy movement Nylon Cheng, who famously led an occupation of Longshan Temple (龍山寺) in 1986. Pan-Blue movements which tried to imitate the Sunflower Movement have also undertaken attempts at Sunflower-style occupations as a result.


Photo credit: Public Domain