Lee Teng-hui, one of Asia’s democracy icons, died last week at the age of 97. As president of Taiwan, he steered the island faithfully and unswervingly toward democracy, promoting Taiwanese identity and, later in life, independence. In stark contrast to that singular focus and mission, his life was an extraordinary meander, a journey that spanned the political spectrum and during which he delighted in provoking all who challenged him.

Lee was born in 1923 to a well-off family in a farming community in northern Taiwan, several decades into the Japanese rule of the island. His father worked for the colonial rulers as part of the police. Lee earned a scholarship to study agronomy at Kyoto Imperial University. While there, he enlisted in the Japanese Imperial Army, rising to the rank of second lieutenant, although he never saw action during World War II.

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