Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Chinese invasion question should not be a binary


Regardless of what the future holds, preparedness is smarter than complacency.

There's been renewed interest recently in the question of whether China will invade Taiwan. That's not particularly interesting in itself; this debate pops up every few years, people duke it out, and we go back to living our lives. But what has caught my eye is how binary the whole conversation seems to be: either China will invade or it won't

I wince at this rhetoric, even if on that spectrum I fall closer to the will end than the won't. I also see that the wills are, in fact, talking more about likelihood and preparedness than actually beating the war drum. The wont's seem to think the situation is concerning but ultimately not dire, and more a projection of US fear than reality.

So, it also worries me that the won'ts seem to be getting more press and are painting the wills as warmongers who think Chinese boats are coming next week, when they're not and they don't. I don't think the two sides are equally problematic, to be honest.

Regardless, the whole debate is pointless.

Both sides seem to think the other is doing Beijing's work for it. "Stop fearmongering that an invasion is coming because Beijing's entire goal is to drum up just that fear" and "failing to take Beijing seriously just helps them prepare for an invasion while we're all on a picnic" lines are two sides of the same coin. 

But there are a whole host of more important issues that more people should be taking seriously outside that binary.

Worry more about the overall likelihood than the timeline

First, that China probably is intending to invade -- not tomorrow, next week or even next year, but someday and likely within our lifetimes. The reason why there's so much uncertainty is that not even they are sure when it will happen. There is active intentionality if not a clear timeline, and they'll do it whenever they feel they need to, and think they can.

It's likely that China is intending to subjugate Taiwan but is planning on mostly unconventional warfare: through cyber-attacks aimed at destabilizing the government and economy. The painful truth is that they're already behind most current attacks, so there's ample evidence they will continue and even escalate in the future.

The 'now' matters more than hypotheticals

It doesn't matter whether China is actively planning an invasion with a clear timeline and capacity agenda. They are engaged in massive military buildup, aggression in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan. Therefore the will they/won't they talk is pointless: we should take their current actions seriously in their own right. Their future plans matter less than the fact that they are a bully now, they are aggressive now, and they are trying to claim the world hegemony title now

And if you hate US hegemony, oh boy wait 'till you see what China as top dog would be like.

Therefore, whether China actually invades or not, Taiwan and its allies need to be very clear that any attempt to invade will be catastrophic. The only way we can be fairly sure they won't is through deterrence. This means not undermining Taiwan's confidence in itself -- for deterrence to be successful, there needs to be a clear willingness to fight back. It also means ensuring that Taiwan is valuable enough to the world that others will come to its assistance.

Military invasion may be a future issue, but the increase in military aggression, the cyberattacks noted above and some very serious espionage cases that in at least one instance posed a direct threat to President Tsai's life are all pressing issues now.

but China's ability to terrify enough Taiwanese voters and possible international allies into going against their own interests is an issue now. This is where you get weird outcomes like voting against asking the IOC to let Taiwan compete as "Taiwan" even though no one likes "Chinese Taipei", blaming Taiwan for the end of Chinese tourism even though that was Beijing's decision, or turning the whole issue around and pointing at the DPP as troublemakers "angering" China when in fact China's the one choosing to throw strategic fits.

Invasion or not, China is still a huge problem

The main issue isn't necessarily figuring out how active China's invasion plans are, but that we have no idea because nobody knows anything about China. The lack of transparency, in and of itself, is reason enough to be concerned. In countries with deep systemic issues (which is all of them) the key difference is whether we know about them or not. In more transparent societies, the issues are known, debated, protested, and although it's an agonizingly slow process with almost as many steps back as forward, the tools exist to shed light on problems and work to solve them. None of that exists in China, so rather than worry about "what they're going to do", we should simply be worried about the fact that we can't possibly know.

Incidentally, you can tell that this is the case because there are still ignorant people out there who deny the existence of the Uyghur genocide, but nobody denies the existence of the situation at the US border. The closest we get are Republicans who acknowledge the situation but don't think it's a problem. This is because we have the tools to quickly and accurately know what's happening at the US border; uncovering genocide in East Turkestan has required more digging.

Whether China 'can' invade is not the point

It doesn't matter whether an invasion of Taiwan is a good idea, or whether China has the capacity to follow through. 

As a friend said on Twitter, Xi Jinping is clearly high on his own supply, and that makes Supreme Leader Winnie the Pooh a bad news bear indeed. And when you get someone that cracked up at the top, with that much power, you get situations where subordinates who know better will still say and do what they need to (literally) keep their heads from rolling. That could mean an ill-advised invasion of Taiwan, and the "when" and "if" matter less than the fact that the conditions are there, and they are roiling. 

On a related, terrifying note: it may be currently to Taiwan's benefit that China keeps misjudging how its actions will be received, such as the pineapple import ban or the end of Chinese tourism in Taiwan. However, that China doesn't seem to be aware, or to care, how its actions reverberate -- they genuinely don't seem to understand how deep Taiwanese identity runs, for instance -- means that they don't care about international reactions and may be badly misjudging how quickly they can subjugate Taiwanese people. That's what happens when you smoke your own crack, and don't think this scenario hasn't played out before

Tellingly, China doesn't care what the world thinks. Its "wolf warriors" exist to pump up nationalist sentiment among Chinese citizens; they were never to convince anyone else of China's rightness. It makes deflated attempts at soft power, but they aren't very good because the people at the top don't care much if they fall flat. The shitty rap videos don't need to be good; the people who finance them just need to report that they exist. 

And if a country has a leader whose lackeys will do anything to please him and doesn't care what anyone else thinks, then the will they/won't they talk on invading Taiwan is completely pointless

Why? Because that situation is scary right now.

When someone tells you who they are...

What does all this mean? Frankly, whether or not China has concrete plans to invade matter less than their signaling a clear intention to do so at some point. That signal is being sent now, so we should take it

These are all things we should be more worried about than a will or a won't -- a binary question better suited to a sitcom romance. But the fact is that these simplified perspectives generate good headlines that publications love to run. 

I said in the beginning that I lean more on the will than the won't side, however. Let me offer an explanation. You know that old saying -- when someone tells you who they are, believe them?

China is telling us who they are. There is plenty of evidence that they're willing to fight a war to subjugate Taiwan; the CCP has literally said exactly that. There is nothing underpinning the claim that it's mostly hot air; the best one can do is show that it might not happen particularly soon. Yet even that is unclear. 

So it makes sense to take China at their word. It makes sense to talk about Taiwan's willingness to fight. We should be preparing for all of this -- and for any and all contingencies. Preparing sends a signal which may or may not act as a deterrent, and also ensures that, well, we are prepared. Whether China will or won't invade matters less than the fact that it's still a threat, and the answer to that is never complacency.

I'm not worried that a harder line will simply inflame them more. They're already planning for this. They won't attack because they've been provoked; they'll attack because they want to and think they can

And it's not necessary to be a will to believe Taiwan should be prepared. All you need to understand is that China is scary now, and that's a clear and present danger in its own right.

The wills hope they're wrong

I understand the desire not to buy any of this, however. One sleeps easier at night thinking it's not a real danger. It gives one room to say that we should focus entirely on domestic issues (a position I'd love to agree with, but cannot -- China isn't the only issue but right now, it's still the primary one). 

It allows one to ignore all of the ways listed above, short of outright invasion, in which China is still a threat. That means not having to deal with complexity. So tempting! It means not having to wrestle with the righteousness of fighting for Taiwan for its own sake, versus the fact that the world doesn't have a great track record of getting involved in virtuous fights and Taiwan will indeed need to make itself valuable to the world if the world is going to support it. That feels gross; it feels realpolitik. It's hard to merge it with one's ideals. I've struggled with it too

And, of course the won'ts have every reason to desire that their predictions be correct. The wills very much hope they are wrong. 

It doesn't matter, though. Will or won't matter less than intention, and I don't have to believe that China will invade to believe that we should understand their intentions. The future matters, but not as much as the present. They matter less than all of the horrible things the CCP stands for and the fact that Beijing is an enemy we don't and can't understand: they are intentionally opaque. 

The CCP is a threat now. They are engaging in aggression and espionage that threaten the core of Taiwan's democracy now, and their crackpottery and opacity are creating problems now. 

They've told us who they are. We should believe them.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Is Taiwan really the "most dangerous place on Earth"?

No, but this sensationalistic headline from The Economist would posit otherwise. 

The article is pretty bad, but not as bad as the completely preposterous header and sub-header. So, because it's bad but not so awful as to be irredeemable, I thought it would be a useful study in media literacy to see what it gets right and where it goes very wrong. 

Other than me completely losing my temper at the author, the interesting thing to note is how much it says by what it doesn't say: namely very much at all about what Taiwanese people think and want and how both war and annexation would affect them. He ends up sounding like Henry Kissinger and that is not a compliment, because I'd rather have hemorrhoids than listen to a single thing Kissinger says about anything.

Let's start with the subtitle: "America and China must work harder to avoid war over the future of Taiwan".

Okay, so, I suppose you also think the Sudetenland need not have been lost if Hitler and Chamberlain had just negotiated harder?

China is the actor actively threatening war on Taiwan. They don't care about any peace that would keep Taiwan from their grasp. They might not want a war right now, but it's utter foolishness to believe their priority is to prevent a future war. They want Taiwan, and are willing to fight a war someday to get it. Avoiding war is a "nice to have", but not a "need to have". So why would they work harder to prevent it? Their military buildup says they're actively working towards it. 

How could you possibly think they would want to work harder and be a part of an acceptable solution?


For decades just such an exercise of high-calibre ambiguity has kept the peace between America and China over Taiwan, an island of 24m people, 100 miles (160km) off China’s coast.

I suppose, but it's also given China time to expand its military and plan for an eventual war over Taiwan. If we're worried about China starting a war now, after decades of this supposedly "successful" policy of strategic ambiguity, does it not make sense that China has been using those decades not to keep the peace, but to strengthen its position?

Maybe if something had been done before things got to this point, China would have been forced to accept for these decades that Taiwan was about as likely to become part of their territory as Mongolia. Or as a friend put it, all these Western diplomats who thought they were doing the right thing by letting old conflicts simmer under an uneasy "peace" -- when they didn't have to live in the quagmires they created -- have mostly made situations worse, not better. 

The rest is not factually incorrect, but this makes it seem like Taiwan just...doesn't have a government or something? Does the writer think those 24 million people just sort of live as ungoverned nomads on this island? Can Taiwan be defined only in relation to its proximity to China? No. They have an elected government, currency, military and defined territory. Taiwan is a country. Please call it one. 

Leaders in Beijing say there is only one China, which they run, and that Taiwanis arebellious part of it.
Do you just not care about proofreading, The Economist?

America nods to the one China idea, but has spent 70 years ensuring there are two.
This is an interesting way to describe the US's policy. In fact, the US acknowledges that Beijing makes these claims, but does not go so far as to "nod" to them. At the time the policy was created, the colonial ROC government on Taiwan did claim to be part of China, and the US's acknowledgement reflects that. But that has changed, so the part about "Chinese people on both sides" is essentially null and void. 

The bigger reason is that Taiwan is an arena for the rivalry between China and America. 

Okay, but this makes it sound like Taiwan doesn't have any opinions of its own, it's just a rugby field on which China and the US beat each other up. If Taiwan still believed it was a part of China, then it could still placate China by adhering to the fabricated "1992 Consensus". The fact that Taiwanese have minds of their own and do not want to be a part of China is why there's a "problem" (a problem which exists entirely in CCP heads), not because two superpowers feel like duking it out. 

War would be a catastrophe, and not only because of the bloodshed in Taiwan and the risk of escalation between two nuclear powers. One reason is economic. The island lies at the heart of the semiconductor industry. tsmc, the world’s most valuable chipmaker, etches 84% of the most advanced chips. Were production at tsmc to stop, so would the global electronics industry, at incalculable cost. The firm’s technology and know-how are perhaps a decade ahead of its rivals’, and it will take many years of work before either America or China can hope to catch up.
It's interesting that the "catastrophe" is defined mainly in terms of semiconductors, not people. It would be a catastrophe, but you know what else would? The mass repression and murder of Taiwanese people. Maybe focus on that a little. 

Otherwise, this isn't exactly wrong, but it makes it sound like war would be the worst possible outcome. Indeed, it would be horrible. Catastrophic, even. But it's actually the second-worst possible outcome. 

The worst outcome would be Taiwan becoming a part of China. We'll look at what that would mean below.

Although the United States is not treaty-bound to defend Taiwan, a Chinese assault would be a test of America’s military might and its diplomatic and political resolve. If the Seventh Fleet failed to turn up, China would overnight become the dominant power in Asia. America’s allies around the world would know that they could not count on it. Pax Americana would collapse.

Again, it's not that this is factually incorrect, but pay attention to what it doesn't say. We've got the potential outcome of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in terms of how it would affect China and the US, but not a thought is spared for what it would mean for Taiwan. 

Here's what it would mean: an end to freedom and self-determination in one of the most free and competent democracies in Asia. It would mean genocide, as China would absolutely commit mass murder on a massive scale against those who identify as Taiwanese and those who do not want to be a part of China -- which is the vast majority of Taiwanese. The purpose would be to end all notion of a unique Taiwanese culture, identity and history. Opposition leaders would be executed, and collaborators would, at best, be shipped off to some mansion in the middle of nowhere, never to be heard from again (because the collaborators would still be Taiwanese with elite positions, see, and they can't have that). It would mean appropriating Taiwan's resources (such as semiconductor technology and manufacturing facilities) for their own gain, while ensuring Taiwan itself is plunged into poverty and exceedingly brutal repression.

If you thought Hong Kong was bad, just wait. 

This would happen even if Taiwan surrendered "peacefully" and allowed annexation to happen. This is in part because some Taiwanese would fight back regardless of what agreements the governments came to, and in part because China would be aware that a surrender would not mean that all pro-independence sentiment would be wiped away. So they'd need to brutally crush it. There is no option for a peaceful annexation. 

Anyone who thinks Taiwan could at least take advantage of China's thrumming economy is fooling themselves. China's ultimate goal is extractive. They do not want locals with resources fighting back. 

The Taiwanese, who used to agree that their island was part of China (albeit a non-Communist one), have taken to electing governments that stress its separateness, while stopping short of declaring independence.

I'm not so sure that's true, although I am aware polling data from years past, unreliable as it probably was, told a different story. Taiwanese people never had the chance to freely express what they really believed under Martial Law and the years of continuing repression immediately following it: to say you didn't think Taiwan was a part of China would at best land you on a watchlist. Of course people said they "agreed" with whatever they were supposed to (and I am sure many actually did, but not all who said it). So it's pretty rich to simplify that into "Taiwanese used to agree their island was a part of China". 

More accurately, the unelected KMT government used to agree that Taiwan was a part of China. That government never represented the people of Taiwan, and I don't think we'll ever know in any detail what "the Taiwanese" used to think.

It's useful to note that the first president elected after Lee Teng-hui was pro-independence, and identifying as solely Taiwanese, not Chinese, was a trend that began soon after gross unificationist Ma Ying-jeou's election. So, very soon after democratization, a pro-Taiwan sentiment began to emerge in politics. That it happened so fast makes one wonder how much "the Taiwanese" ever truly believed otherwise.

Oh yes, and do not mistake electing leaders who "stop short of declaring independence" for "not wanting independence". They elect leaders who promise not to allow Taiwan to become a part of China. If we define "independence" as "sovereign, not a part of China", most people do want that. But they're not stupid: they don't want war, so they vote for the leaders who will protect the sovereignty they already enjoy without taking too many semantic risks. That's just smart. 

Under that definition, there's no need to "declare independence". It would be like declaring the sun is hot or we breathe air. Taiwan is already independent -- if not from the ROC colonial structure, than at least from China. 

But hey, in one line in this entire piece, the writer bothers -- deigns -- from his elevated perch to recognize that Taiwanese citizens have opinions and ideas too. Thanks for the breadcrumbs.

And America has protected Taiwan from Chinese aggression, even though it recognises the government in Beijing.
Why wouldn't they? Awful as they are, the government in Beijing is the government of China. Recognizing Taiwan doesn't have to mean ending that, because Taiwan is Taiwan, not the government of China. The only reason not to recognize both is to avoid pissing off Beijing. It's not endemically an either/or proposition.

These opposing ideas are bundled into what Fitzgerald’s diplomatic inheritors blithely call the “status quo”. In fact, it is a roiling, seething source of neurosis and doubt.
A roiling, seething source of neurosis and doubt? 

Huh, I thought you said just above that it was successful at keeping the peace. Perhaps not so much? That sure doesn't sound like a success to me. 

What has changed of late is America’s perception of a tipping-point in China’s cross-strait military build-up, 25 years in the making.
I guess, but again you're making this only about America and China. The fact that Taiwanese not identifying as Chinese and seeing their country as the separate entity it is has also driven this change, and what's made it notable is the fact that it doesn't look like there's going to be a reversal of that trend. Taiwanese will almost certainly never believe they are Chinese again, regardless of what the CCP does. 

China has talked itself into believing that America wants to keep the Taiwan crisis boiling and may even want a war to contain China’s rise.
China may project that belief, but no: they're preparing for war because they can. They could stop the threat of war at any time by simply promising they will never start a war over Taiwan. It's entirely in their hands and they know it, but they're not going to stop, because they're pretty much convinced that a war will eventually be necessary and they've painted themselves into an impossible corner by insisting this is non-negotiable. They're not so dumb as to actually believe that Taiwan would be interested in "peaceful unification", if it ever was. So what's left?

This also makes it sound to uninformed readers that the US, not China, is driving the Taiwan conflict. It's not. China started it, China is continuing it, and China has the power to stop it. Everything else is a reaction to China's threats.

It has trampled the idea that Hong Kong has a separate system of government, devaluing a similar offer designed to win over the people of Taiwan to peaceful unification.
Again, this is not factually wrong. But it elides the question of whether it ever held traction in Taiwan. Does Broseph here think that the people of Taiwan were ever seriously interested in that offer? It's hard to tell because he seems so uninterested in what Taiwanese people think.

Perhaps years ago it looked a little more tempting to some thoughtless people, but I can't find any sort of proof that Taiwanese were ever enthusiastic about the idea, even when it seemed to be (sort of) working in Hong Kong. 

As for Macau, the territory seems obedient to China, but a friend from there once told me that if she could tell Taiwan one thing, it would be to never trust the CCP or any offer they made, including One Country, Two Systems. To never give in. I'm not so sure they've won over the people of Macau as much as they think.

Although China has clearly become more authoritarian and nationalistic, this analysis is too pessimistic—perhaps because hostility to China is becoming the default in America.
Um, no. It's not "too pessimistic". They are literally committing genocide. Christ alive. Do you even know things?

Looking at everything we think about China through an American lens is not a very smart mode of analysis. How about looking at what China is actually doing -- and that's fucking genocide. 

Xi Jinping, China’s president, has not even begun to prepare his people for a war likely to inflict mass casualties and economic pain on all sides.
So all that military build-up and simulations of an invasion of Taiwan are not a preparation for anything? All those speeches that China "will not renounce the use of force" are just air instead of being honest that they will not renounce the use of force? Okaaaay.

Also, Xi Jinping does not give one single solitary shit about any pain and casualties on the Taiwan or US side, so what's this "all sides" business you imply he might be considering?

In its 100th year the Communist Party is building its claim to power on prosperity, stability and China’s status in its region and growing role in the world. All that would be jeopardised by an attack whose result, whatever the us Navy says, comes with lots of uncertainty attached, not least over how to govern a rebellious Taiwan. Why would Mr Xi risk it all now, when China could wait until the odds are even better?
Good, so we actually do agree that Xi's ultimate objective is indeed to invade Taiwan. Perhaps not next week, but someday, and sooner than we'd like. Glad we cleared that up. 

Perhaps you also see that "strategic ambiguity" merely gives Xi more time to ensure that the odds are better? Maybe? Hmmm?

Yet that brings only some comfort. Nobody in America can really know what Mr Xi intends today, let alone what he or his successor may want in the future.
Oh shut the fuck up. Just shut up. No it doesn't. Shut up. We know what he intends today, which is an eventual invasion of Taiwan, because he keeps saying so. When does he not say that? 

When someone tells you who they are, J-dog, believe them. 

Also, what successor? I thought The Economist agreed he was emperor for life.

China’s impatience is likely to grow. Mr Xi’s appetite for risk may sharpen, especially if he wants unification with Taiwan to crown his legacy.
You just negated your previous statement by accurately describing what Xi wants today and in the future. I hope you realize that.

If they are to ensure that war remains too much of a gamble for China, America and Taiwan need to think ahead. Work to re-establish an equilibrium across the Taiwan Strait will take years. Taiwan must start to devote fewer resources to big, expensive weapons systems that are vulnerable to Chinese missiles and more to tactics and technologies that would frustrate an invasion.
This part is surprisingly fine and actually acknowledges that Taiwan has people, and those people have desires and thoughts. Like swallowing a diamond and crapping it out, there is one valuable takeaway in this sea of feces. Though if the writer thinks Taiwan doesn't already devote a lot of energy to considering asymmetric warfare, perhaps he should read some Ian Easton.

America requires weapons to deter China from launching an amphibious invasion; it must prepare its allies, including Japan and South Korea; and it needs to communicate to China that its battle plans are credible. This will be a tricky balance to strike. Deterrence usually strives to be crystal-clear about retaliation. The message here is more subtle. China must be discouraged from trying to change Taiwan’s status by force even as it is reassured thatAmerica will not support a dash for formal independence by Taiwan. The risk of a superpower arms race is high.
Okay, sure. 

Good thing Taiwan doesn't need to declare formal independence as it is already independent. 

Be under no illusions how hard it is to sustain ambiguity. Hawks in Washington and Beijing will always be able to portray it as weakness.
You're gonna have to tell me who those non-hawks are in Beijing, because you sure do imply they exist. 

And yet, seemingly useful shows of support for Taiwan, such as American warships making port calls on the island, could be misread as a dangerous shift in intentions.
I'm too classy to react to this in GIF form on my blog but you know that one where Sideshow Bob just keeps stepping on rakes?

This is a rake.

Most disputes are best put to rest.
Cool. Tell China that. 

Those that can be resolved only in war can often be put off and, as China’s late leader Deng Xiaoping said, left to wiser generations. 
This makes no sense. So, you think war is fine as long as it's later on? When you just said China would be smart to wait "until the odds were better"? Do you want China to win? Because this is how you let China win.

Besides, the current generation of Taiwanese are already pretty wise. Wise enough to know China is full of shit. If they're sharp enough to realize this, why on Earth do you think China can be a part of the solution to a problem it is actively continuing to create?

Deng Xiaoping, by the way, did not envision a solution that involved an independent Taiwan. So are you saying that unification is the best outcome? Because Deng wasn't exactly a great statesman as far as Taiwan was concerned, and do you really want to quote the guy who let Tiananmen happen?

Nowhere presents such a test of statesmanship as the most dangerous place on Earth.
First, no, it is not dangerous in its own right. China is dangerous. China is the threat. Taiwan is just the victim of a bully. In the meantime, I'm not at risk of COVID and also I have better healthcare than you. From my perspective, Taiwan is pretty safe and the US looks like the goddamn Thunderdome. 

Secondly, statesmanship by whom? The US? Because that's what got us into this mess. China? LOL. Taiwan? They're already doing a good job asserting their independence without being overly provocative. So who. Tell me who. GIVE ME A NAME. Because right now you sound like Henry "Shitsnack" Kissinger and I cannot wait until that asshole kicks it. 

In the meantime, maybe spend more time considering what Taiwanese lives are worth and that the people who live in the country you are talking about have their own ideas, too. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Temples, Rebuilt and Abandoned: A Luermen (鹿耳門) Day Trip


When I was young, my parents would take long Sunday drives, often stopping off at areas of historical significance. Dad was interested in wars and their associated geography; Mom, old houses and mansions. I was bored witless. I had no appreciation for that kind of history in my youth, and while the old houses could sometimes be intriguing — I’ve always been into cool structures and antique objects — the geographical locations themselves were generally quite bland. It honestly did not matter to me that “George Washington had a meeting here”. 

Taiwan, however, has kindled some interest in historical locations for their own sake. 

Enter Luermen (鹿耳門), where Cheng Cheng-kung/Koxinga (鄭成功/國姓爺) first landed in Taiwan. I’d been interested in the area since reading Tonio Andrade’s Lost Colony despite knowing that there was no longer a “landing site” per se, as the entire area had silted in through the intervening three centuries. 

I hadn’t prioritized a trip to the area in part because bus service is spotty: you can take a bus out to the park at the Koxinga landing site from Tainan City, but there isn’t much there other than a decrepit park, and the trip will take you between 1.5-3.5 hours despite it being just 15 kilometers northwest of central Tainan — about a half-hour drive. There are other things to see but they either require walking, or are simply too far away. I’d also heard that there just wasn’t a lot going on there, hardly worth organizing an excursion. 

We went with a local friend from Tainan, whose ancestors came to China with Cheng Cheng-kung and, having recently moved back to Tainan, was interested in finding the spot for her own heritage-related reasons. It certainly helped that she speaks fluent Taiwanese as you won’t find many people who prefer Mandarin in these parts. 

While it’s true that there’s “not a lot going on” in this corner of Tainan, if you have access to a car and some free time, I actually recommend taking a trip out that way. From temples of historical significance to a truly isolated beach and some cool old houses within driving distance, you can easily fill up a day out here. 

Oh yes, and you can visit what I believe to be Taiwan’s most scenic bathroom.

We began our journey at La Belle Maison in the back lanes of Anping, in a building that I’d rather confidently place as Art Deco/Streamline, though I didn’t ask. La Belle Maison is run by a friendly Frenchman and has excellent meals and coffee, luscious desserts (the tiramisu is the size of a baby’s head!) and is decorated in a sort of botanical-vintage style. See if you can find the partially-hidden Chiang Kai-shek bust. Then it was time to hit the road. 

Beishanwei Matsu Temple / Luermen Tianhou Palace (北汕尾媽祖宮/鹿耳門天后宮)

This temple was our first stop. At first I was impressed by the size of the place, but aesthetically it isn’t particularly unique: it has that late-70s red granite and orange roof look common to many temples across Taiwan. This rather boring facade hides a fair amount of history, however. 

Although it’s impossible to tell from the current structure, Beishanwei Matsu Temple was founded in 1661; the temple’s website states that this was done by Koxinga himself, as he had prayed to Matsu at that spot for a successful siege against the Dutch at his first arrival. Over time, the temple expanded with added gates and banyan trees, and in 1719, funds were donated to turn it into “Tianhou Palace” (天后宮). A flash flood in 1871 destroyed the temple, although the Matsu idol was saved. The idol itself is still ensconced in this temple and according to the website, is in fact the original, made of fine wood with emeralds set in her robe — not that one can get close enough to admire all this. 

The temple was rebuilt in 1977, which is why it looks as it does now. Nearby, attractive Luermen Mansion (鹿耳門公館) is a restored heritage building, though it appeared closed when we popped by. 

At the time Beishanwei Temple was located at the south end of Luermen Harbor, on a bit of land that sure does look like it was once a tail () stretching into the water. I'm not sure of the reason for using "shan" (汕) in the place name, but this post names the area Bexianwei 北線尾 or "north thread tail", which makes sense if you look at the included map. Don't quote me on any etymology, though. I also think this is the island Andrade calls "Baxemboy", as that sounds like it would be about right in Minnanyu -- but don't quote me on that either. 

There had been a small Dutch fort on Beishanwei guarding Luermen (鹿耳門 the Deers' Ear Gap), but it had been destroyed in a massive 1656 typhoon. I don't know exactly where it was, but it couldn't have been far from where the Matsu temple now stands. The destruction of that fort is one reason Koxinga was able to sail through.

In addition to slow sedimentation in the years after Koxinga drove out the Dutch, a flash flood caused by a typhoon in 1823 silted in much of the Taijiang “Inner Sea” (台江內海). This was the wide, shallow body of water separated from the Taiwan Strait by a series of sandbars, called the seven "kunshen" (鯤鯓) which now form several place names along the coast. That sea once stretched from the front of Chikan Tower in central Tainan to Xigang 西港 in the north, down to the northern edge of Kaohsiung County. Roughly, anyway: the sandbars and edges of the inland bay shifted frequently due to storms, floods and sedimentation.

I haven't seen a place name like this before and thought it might perhaps be derived from an Indigenous language, as with Chikan Tower (赤崁樓), named after the Siraya village of Saccam that once existed in the area, and some people are quite upset by the characters chosen to depict it. It's not, however: a kun 鯤 is a mythical sea monster or massive fish, like a whale, and a shen 鯓 is its back rising out of the sea.

Due to these geographical changes, the Taijiang area went from being navigable -- albeit dangerous -- by sea to being slowly silted up, with the old "sea monster's back" forming the coast. Now Beishanwei Matsu Temple is surrounded by dry land, shallow waterways and fish farms. 

There is another reason to stop at Beishanwei Matsu Temple: if you want to make a wish on a wooden plaque as close as possible to an area of great historical significance, this is the closest you’re going to get as the other nearby Matsu temple doesn’t have wishing plaques. I always wish for Taiwan independence (台灣獨立) and although I’m an atheist, it felt significant to make that particular wish at a temple founded by a man who was not the “hero” the ROC wants to portray him as, but still historically important to Taiwan. 

Luermen Matsu Temple (正統鹿耳門聖母廟)

This “orthodox” (正統) Matsu temple a few kilometers north of the Beishanwei Matsu Temple has a confusingly similar name, but the Chinese names help differentiate them. This is the closest temple to the actual Koxinga landing site.

People working/hanging out there (it’s hard to tell with temples sometimes) told us that Koxinga had passed by this spot on the way to the site of his first proper ‘landing’ and again prayed to Matsu. A related website also states that in 1661, Koxinga funded the reconstruction of the temple that once stood here as he prayed in this spot as well.

Temple rivalries are fairly common, so it could be that these temples disagree on which one the story relates to. However, it’s not inconceivable that he prayed at both places and ordered the founding of two Matsu temples in the same year to thank the sea goddess for her help in his victory over the Dutch. 

This temple was destroyed in 1831 by yet another Zengwen River flood, and its Matsu idols relocated to the Sanjiao Hai’an Temple (三郊海安宮) and Water Fairy Temple (水仙宮), both still in existence (the former seems to have undergone its own 20th century renovation, the latter still boasts an older structure, in the middle of a bustling market). It’s not clear if the idols are still in those temples or have been re-ensconced in the rebuilt Luermen Matsu Temple.

The site lay dormant until 1913, when a King Boat from Quanzhou’s Fumei Temple — the same type as the one they burn to Wang Ye in Donggang every three years — was found drifting near the site. Apparently, was pushed out to sea several times and floated back each time. People felt this was a good reason to rebuild the temple, although that structure doesn't seem to exist anymore, either. The current structure dates from 1981. 

According to this blog, that same boat can be found on display at the temple, but we didn't see it (that place is huge and we didn't know it was there).

So why visit? In addition to having reported historical ties to Koxinga, this temple boasts of being the “largest Matsu temple in the world”, though other sources merely state it's the largest in Taiwan. It is indeed massive, dwarfing the Beishanwei Matsu Temple, which is itself quite large. There’s also a bustling night market that sets up here, and two massive statues of Matsu’s guardians, Thousand Mile Eyes (千里眼) and Ears Hearing on the Wind (順風耳), which are apparently the largest statues of their type in the world.

Cheng Cheng-kung Memorial Park (鄭成功紀念公園)

A short drive from the Luermen Matsu Temple, you’ll come to what might well be the most underwhelming part of a day driving around the area: the actual landing site of Cheng Chenggong. There is a park here, with a cute vintage-y arch and a stone monolith. It’s poorly-maintained and usually empty; the only people you’re likely to encounter in the park itself are the folks watering the plants. There is a restroom here, but no promises on how well it actually works. 

It's worth revisiting the story of Koxinga's landing, as most summaries don't do it justice. 
To face the Dutch, Koxinga needed to get into Taijiang. But with Fort Zeelandia guarding the deeper channel into the Taijiang Inner Sea, Luermen was the only suitable alternative. The channel was far more shallow and full of shifting sandbars. Andrade notes that maps differed quite a bit, in part because the geography kept changing, but some clearly show a set of islands in this area that do indeed look like two deers' ears

Koxinga did not just successfully navigate this treacherous channel, he used strategy to do it. He braved foggy rain on the way from Penghu in order to reach the area by the new moon, when tides would be high. That higher tide allowed his deep-cutting ships to pass through an area that would have otherwise destroyed his fleet.

Anyway, back to the park.



Enjoy the middle-of-nowhere decrepitude for awhile, and meditate on how this spot used to be on the water — now completely silted in and well inland. Then, poke around behind the park, where a small road (which turns off just before you reach the park and runs behind it as a country lane) reveals a few rundown houses on the edge of yet another milkfish farm. A friendly guy who once trained in Hawai’i as an athlete for Taiwan — I think he said he’d played rugby — owns the small house back here, inherited from his parents. He doesn’t live there full time (honestly nobody would want to), but he sometimes pops around on the weekends to hang out and tend to his garden. He told us he always enjoys making new friends, and gave us some passionfruit from his garden. 

He also let us know about Luermen’s best-kept secret, a wide, clean beach at the end of a mangrove estuary, which you’ll probably have all to yourself. While you can take a bus out to the temples and park above, at this point driving is necessary.

The quiet beach


Here’s how to get there: drive towards the coast on the main road (Chengxi Street 城西街) that passes by the Memorial Park, to the very end. When you hit the T-junction, turn left. Keep going along the Zengwen River, do not turn back inland. Stop and walk up the concrete embankment to get a view of the river if you feel like it, though we didn’t. Take this embankment road all the way to the end, where there’s a small parking lot. In fact, it is possible to continue driving as the road you’ll be walking to the very end is passable by car and scooter, but it’s a pleasant walk through woods and mangroves. 

It’s perhaps another ten-minute walk to the beach; you’ll know it when you see it. You can continue along the path away from the beach, but we didn’t. 

When we went, the area was completely deserted and peaceful. We weren’t dressed for swimming or even going barefoot — I had socks and sneakers on — so we didn’t go in the water, but you absolutely could. Just be careful as there is literally no one around to save you if you get into trouble. It’s just you, the sand, the sun, the sea and lots of oyster shells. Perhaps a fisherman, but likely not even that. 

Nanching/Lady Tsai Temple (南清宮/蔡姑娘廟) and Taiwan’s most scenic bathroom

After the beach, it was time to take a pit stop. I have no idea how our friend found this small temple in the middle of miles of fish farms, but she did. We pulled up, asked about a bathroom — most temples have them — and were directed out back. 

I wish I’d stopped to ask the locals hanging out what the history of this temple was, but we were so focused on a bathroom that it slipped our minds. This website says that Lady Tsai would sail between Taiwan and Fujian in the jewelry business, and seeing all the corpses from shipwrecks in this area — remember, it was once a shallow harbor full of deadly sandbars — had a temple founded there, though it’s obviously been rebuilt many times since, and the current structure has a 1980s look to it. 

Anyway, I didn’t get a picture, but climb the stairs from the big metal structure in front of the temple to the raised dirt path out back, and enjoy the view across the fish farms! There’s even a picturesque palm tree swaying in the wind coming off the flat land transformed into a series of ponds and farms. The actual toilet is in a building with no view, but if you have the right parts, the open-air urinal will allow you to feel the country breeze on your cheeks (your other cheeks) as you relieve yourself. 

You're welcome! 

Abandoned Ji Gong Temple (Wansheng Temple) (萬聖宮/濟公廟)


On the road to the deserted beach, you’ll pass by an oddly-shaped temple structure topped with a huge Ji Gong statue. Ji Gong was a 12th century monk known for his tattered robes and proclivity for meat and wine, which got him kicked out of the monastery. He is commonly said to appear to spirit mediums, and has a strong presence in Yi Guan Dao (一貫道), a modern religious group with some fairly conservative strictures on practice. 


Curious, we pulled in just to see what the place was like. Though it’s not obvious from the road, it is indeed abandoned and locked tight, although one of the automatic lights at the entrance blinked on while we were there. I don’t know why this temple was abandoned, nor anything about it, but whatever happened, it occurred sometime after 2013, when a blogger was able to go inside and the temple still seemed to be active. 

The spot is quiet and slightly creepy, as the building itself appears to be in good condition but there’s nobody around. 

Heritage Houses (古厝)

From here, we looked into stopping at the black-faced spoonbill sanctuary, but the viewing platform closes in the late afternoon, and we wouldn’t have made it.

Instead, I keyed  “heritage homes” (古厝) into Google Maps and found a few that, while not in Luermen exactly, were within driving distance. My best guess for why Luermen lacks historic buildings? For the same reason the temples keep getting rebuilt: the area had once been a bay and was prone to rapid geographical change, flash flood, and sedimentation. I wouldn't have built a house there, either. 

I’ve gone "old house hunting" before; this is how I found the Liu Family House in Liucuo (the town’s name is literally Liu House, so it’s kind of a big deal), itself not far from Luermen. 

However, unlike the Liu Family House, which isn’t inhabited full-time, some of these other houses are, or at least the owners tend to be home on the weekend. The Liu house can be viewed from the road, so it’s worth stopping even if you can’t enter, whereas the houses we visited are set back from the road; to see them, you have to trespass on private property. 

The good news is that the owners of both houses we visited are friendly people all too willing to let some random historic house enthusiasts take a look at their courtyard (one even invited us into the family shrine). One family included a centenarian grandmother who was married in that same house at age 18 and her son — himself grandfather-age — watering the beautiful garden, and told us the inscription on the entranceway referenced the family’s original hometown in China some centuries ago. The other boasted gorgeous original paintings on wood; the ones on the outer doors are in dire need of restoration but it’s an expensive proposition. The painted panels in the family shrine are in far better condition, and the shrine itself boasts pristine original Majolica tiles. 

But, because people actually live in these residences, I don’t feel comfortable sharing exactly which ones I visited. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a trickle of visitors to people who will be hospitable if you drop by, but probably don’t want their lives interrupted that much. In any case, there are lots of options in the area: just find some near your chosen day trip route and go hunting. You don’t need me. 

I will, however, offer some photos: 







There is a lot we didn’t see on this trip. Historic houses and nature sanctuaries we didn’t get to and at least one seafood restaurant that looks excellent. There’s plenty to do in the area if you’re willing to go hunting. 

Because night fell while visiting the second historic house, we decided it was time to head back to Tainan. Our friend knew a good place in the East District near National Cheng-kung University called 鯤島xSoshow.


There's that sea monster 鯤 again: this should be a clue that KundaoxSoshow takes an interest in Taiwanese history, geography and agricultural products.

This restaurant specializes in traditional Taiwanese ingredients are used to make entirely new fusion-style dishes and boasts an excellent cocktail bar. I had a drink made with pomelo, tea, flower petals and gin, and another topped with egg white and served in a traditional steamed rice cake (碗粿) bowl — white with a cerulean rim, which could have passed for a steamed rice cake itself. It was delicious!