Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Chiang Kai-shek did not save Taiwan from the CCP: Part 2 - what did stop China from taking Taiwan?

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This is from a post for some movie I've long forgotten the title of.


This is Part 2 of a longer post. For Part 1, which discusses the ways in which Chiang Kai-shek is actually to blame for CCP interest in Taiwan, click here

Because it explores historical factors that I don't think many people are aware of, that post didn't address the core of the bad argument I keep hearing -- that sure the KMT wasn't great, but it's thanks to them that Taiwan isn't a part of the People's Republic of China! 

The belief here actually comes from something else: an interpretation of historical events between approximately 1949 and 1955, which places the ROC as the main bulwark against CCP designs on Taiwan. There's even a pretty terrible News Lens op-ed from a few years ago -- it's so bad that I won't link to it, but I did respond at the time -- that called Chiang "the greatest single fighter of the Chinese Communist Party, bar none", which is funny to me, because they thoroughly defeated him, and in order to hold Taiwan against them, he needed US assistance. 

My main source, once again, is Hsiao-Ting Lin's Accidental State, but I'll also be drawing on other sources, including this article from the Journal of Northeast Asian Studies. I'll try to quote frequently from it for those who don't have access.

I also want to say here that anyone who really knows Taiwanese history is likely already aware of everything I'm about to say; nothing here will surprise you. Instead, this is a sort of self-service: instead of writing the same reply to such comments over and over again, I'm putting it all in one handy blog post that I (and you!) can just link to whenever it inevitably comes up. Again

Here's the summary: despite some victories by the Nationalists, we don't have Chiang or his government to thank for Taiwan being saved from incorporation into the People's Republic of China. In fact, it was mostly the US's efforts to contain the CCP that led to Taiwan staying out of PRC hands. This had nothing to do with any sort of sincere care for the ROC on the part of the US, and certainly had nothing at all to do with any sort of goodwill toward Taiwan. Although the Nationalists did score some victories toward the end of the civil war, the lasting repellent that kept the PRC out of Taiwan was (somewhat grudging) American assistance to the ROC, due to a US desire to secure a defense perimeter around the PRC and renewed desire to include Taiwan in that defensive corridor due to the outbreak of the Korean War. 

From the link (all emphasis mine):

If there had not been a Korean War, the Chinese Communists would probably have invaded Taiwan in 1950. After the outbreak of the Korean War, the United States began to reverse its hands-off policy toward the Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan. The Korean War first compelled the United States to grant military aid to Taiwan and then put the island under U.S. protection. The war forestalled the deterioration of the ROC' s international status, but the legal status of Taiwan became undetermined in the eyes of U.S. policymakers....

Both attacks compelled the United States to go to war, and on both occasions this simultaneously saved the Kuomintang (KMT) from total defeat. One high-ranking KMT official even described the Korean War as the Sian incident in reverse - an unexpected twist of fate that saved the KMT from total annihilation. 2 Before the outbreak of the Korean War, KMT-controlled Taiwan (then called Formosa) fell outside the U.S. defense perimeter, and the Truman administration had assumed the final defeat of the KMT to be only a matter of time. Immediately after the outbreak of the war, President Harry S. Truman decided to neutralize Taiwan, both to protect it from communist invasion and to prevent the KMT from using it as a base to mount an assault on the mainland. The Korean War also forced President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson to resume their entanglement with the KMT. 


The details of how all this happened are a bit muddier. Accidental State asserts that the Allies considered many options at different points, including simply allowing the PRC to take Taiwan, a United Nations trusteeship that would help Taiwan transition from Japanese colonial rule and backing of Formosan home rule groups; in other words, post-war US support for the ROC was far shakier and more ambivalent than people seem to believe. Lin (Accidental State) agrees with Lin (article quoted above) that there was a period when Communist takeover of Taiwan was considered "inevitable", and the US was, for a time, prepared to just let that happen. Around 1949-1950, the US made it clear that it would not interfere in the Chinese civil war and that it considered Taiwan to be a part of China. To me, it seems US support was more ambivalent rather than outright dismissive in those years, an ambivalence which remained through 1952, but that might be a topic for a later post.

In Untying the Knot, Richard Bush dismisses this idea that the US ever seriously considered a "trusteeship": 

FDR had his own plans for the island, and allowing international trusteeship of the island and a plebiscite to elicit the wishes of its people was not one of them. In his vision for postwar peace and security, "four policemen" -- the United Sates, Britain, the Soviet Union and China -- would insist on disarmament by most other countries and enforce it through a system of military bases. 

In fact, the idea of UN trusteeship, while it was never of interest to FDR, was of great interest to others, including several Senators and Dean Rusk (who would eventually become Secretary of State) recommended removing Chiang and UN trusteeship for Taiwan to then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Acheson seems to have completely ignored Rusk's letter, and was planning to enlist Sun Liren in a plot to remove Chiang and put Taiwan under new administration, but it never came to be. By 1950 it was considered a bad idea to support an independent Taiwan for a variety of reasons that I mostly disagree with, including a lack of US control over the outcome. 

That whole thing makes the pro-democracy, pro-self-determination, anti-war, anti-Big Power military-enforced imperialism liberal in me want to barf, but hey, that's history for you. It also clarifies that the US has never, at any point, held a sincere interest in the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan. It was always about power. The only way in which I can sign onto that as acceptable is my belief that the PRC did need to be stopped, and still needs to be stopped today, and wagged fingers and disapproving looks were never (and are never) going to accomplish that. Sometimes that entails accepting realities that I really wish weren't...real. 

On everything else, though, he agrees with Lin and Lin: 

In the Truman administration in 1949, there was a consensus that a Communist takeover was both likely -- again because of the Nationalists' political and military ineptitude -- and detrimental to U.S. security interests....

North Korea's invasion of South Korea in June 1950 saved Taiwan and the ROC. Washington -- afraid that the invasion of South Korea was part of a larger campaign by the communists to extend their control and wanting to end the ROC's continuing minor attacks against the mainland -- deployed the 7th fleet to the Taiwan Strait to prevent the PRC and ROC from attacking each other. The net effect, however, was to ensure Chiang's survival. The ROC is was able to retain its seat in the United Nations and diplomatic relations with a majority of the world's countries 
[for the time being]. The Truman administration justified its policy reversal by saying that because there had been no peace treaty with Japan to dispose of "ownership" of Taiwan, its legal status (whether it was indeed part of China) had not been determined; thus its security was an international issue, not a purely domestic one.


You don't actually care about Taiwan for Taiwan's sake just as you've never cared about any other country for its own sake, and you never did, but Taiwan still needed the PRC stopped. So thanks, America! 

But also no thanks, because your previous ambivalence and lack of interest in home rule or international trusteeship is what precipitated the KMT occupation and subsequent military dictatorship and campaign of mass murder in the following decades. Yet you seemed fine with that. Yikes, America! 

Some might use that information to argue that for the brief period that it lacked strong US support, that the ROC did, in fact, "save" Taiwan by staving off the Communists without US help. 

And I can't deny that they won a few victories (Guningtou being the most prominent one that I'm aware of) in that time period. They were, according to Accidental State, "at least able to stop and search ships flying the flags of either Nationalist China or the PRC in the territorial waters surrounding Taiwan and the other Nationals-controlled isles to prevent military supplies from reaching Communist-held ports" and they had a "weak but still-functional naval capacity". (Why they would also search ships flying the Nationalist flag is unclear to me, but also irrelevant here.) 

But, the Communists were exhausted -- I can't find the source but I've read somewhere that the PRC attack on Guningtou was carried out by a rather ragtag group of falling-apart junks, they had insufficient supplies, and the main reason the ROC won was because one of their ships was in Kinmen awaiting a delivery of foodstuffs that they were going to smuggle to China. Indeed, they were still putting down "bandits" across China, and not only is the Taiwan Strait in fact ridiculously hard to navigate but also Taiwan itself is difficult to land on as an invading force. So, sure, we can give some credit where it's due, but there was a lot of luck involved, too. 

Let's not forget, however, that not only did the ROC's claim to Taiwan precipitate the Communists' interest in the first place, but their landing here also likely redoubled CCP desire to take Taiwan. From Bush:

Ever since the Cairo Declaration of December 1943, Mao Zedong and his revolutionary colleagues had set their sights on seizing the island as well as the mainland, and Taiwan became part of their mission of national recovery and unification. That their civil war rivals, whom they termed the "Chiang Kai-shek reactionary clique" planned to mount a last ditch stand on Taiwan was all the more reason to take the island. 


In fact, those years when one might argue that the KMT bravely and successfully fought off the PRC looked very different from the perspective of Chiang and his minions. Accidental State describes Chiang's attitude at this time as: 

so disheartened that, at one point in early June [1950], he seemed to truly believe it was no longer possible for him to find a living space in this world. In his personal diary around this time, Chiang, despite a despairing situation, still hoped against hope to fight against the "dark forces" for his very survival to the last...Adopting the posture of apparent self-abegnation that he had taken with President Truman, on June 15 Chiang passed the following message to MacArthur..."The Generalissimo, aware of teh danger of his position, is agreeable to accept American high command in every category and hopes to interest General MacArthur to accept this responsibility...soliciting his advice, guidance and direction."


Ha ha.

Sorry, I just hate Chiang Kai-shek so much that any despair of his, no matter how far in the past and even though he's dead and rotting at Cihu, gives me great joy.

Given that, what honestly matters more from a historical perspective is what forces helped keep the PRC away long-term. And, again, the answer to that is US strategic interests, not any sort of military genius or salvation by the ROC.

Lin goes on to call Chiang's solicitation of a mutual defense treaty with the US in the early 1950s as "desperate", and discusses in detail how Taipei anticipated that the outbreak of war in Korea would need to a US need to engage with them more proactively, and might even give them the necessary "in" to get the US involved in their desire to re-take China. They wanted nothing more than to be included in the US defense perimeter, their initial exclusion evoking the terror in Chiang outlined above. In 1950, Chiang even offered to send 33,000 troops to the Korean war effort, which the US rejected. From the linked article: 

President Truman objected to MacArthur's suggestion of a "military policy of aggression" and he had deliberately rejected President Chiang Kaishek's offer to send 33,000 Nationalist troops to assist South Korea because "it would be a little inconsistent to spend American money to protect an island while its natural defenders were somewhere else."


They did eventually get their wish: 

The People's Republic of China's (PRC) intervention in the Korean War struck the U.S. Eighth Army and X Corps a heavy blow in November 1950, and the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] began to question President Truman's military neutralization of Formosa. On November 20, 1950, the JCS sent the Department of Defense a memorandum, to which acting Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett concurred....

The JCS then emphasized "the strategic importance of Formosa" and suggested that "it would be desirable to have port facilities and airfield on Formosa available to the United States," if a full-scale war should develop against Communist China and the Soviet Union. The new Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall, who was not as supportive of the KMT as his predecessor Louis Johnson, argued that Taiwan was "of no particular strategic importance" in U.S. hands, but it "would be of disastrous importance if it were held by an enemy."  In December 1950, Truman indicated to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee that Chiang Kai-shek intended to get the United States involved militarily on the Chinese mainland. Under pressure from the U.S. Senate, Truman stated the United States would not allow Formosa to fall into Communist hands. 

By January 1951, Taiwan had received military hardware worth US $29 million....Later that same month, the State Department instructed the U.S. embassy in Taipei to exchange notes with the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which led to a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement (MDAA) between the two governments.  The MDAA was designed to legitimize the use of incoming U.S. military aid to Formosa for the island's internal security and self-defense.


The Korean War was so central to the continued existence of Taiwan that its end was considered a potential problem by the ROC:

If the Korean War was the salvation of the ROC, an armistice in Korea could naturally complicate the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship. On March 19, 1953, ROC Ambassador Wellington Koo explored the question of a U.S.- ROC mutual security pact, but received a cold response from Secretary of State Dulles. 4n In June 1953, Chiang Kai-shek wrote at least two letters to President Eisenhower probing the possibility of U.S.-initiated Asian multilateral mutual security pacts. 45 Although Eisenhower believed that a mutual security arrangement must come from the Asian nations themselves, by August 1953 the United States had concluded mutual defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. 

The ROC government took the initiative and handed a draft U.S.-ROC mutual security pact to U.S. Ambassador Rankin on December 18, 1953. 


And if it wasn't clear that US aid to Taiwan at that time was aimed at helping the Nationalists defend an island they honestly could not hold on their own: 

On October 7, 1954, President Eisenhower revealed to Dulles that he had decided to conclude a security treaty with the ROC provided that Generalissimo Chiang was prepared to assume a defensive posture on Taiwan....

In January 1955 when the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the ROC was pending ratification by the U.S. Congress, PRC forces attacked some small offshore positions, including the I-chiang and Tachen islands. At a NSC meeting on January 20, Dulles suggested the United States grant logistical support to the ROC to evaluate the Ta-chen islands and that President Eisenhower be authorized by Congress to use forces in the Taiwan Strait if necessary. On January 29, Congress voted favorably on the so-called Formosa Resolution authorizing Eisenhower to "employ the Armed Forces of the United States for protecting the security of Formosa, the Pescadores and related positions and territories of that area." The Formosa Resolution implicitly granted protection to Quemoy and Matsu.  


I reiterate: without US help, the Communists would have taken Taiwan -- and sooner rather than later -- an interest the CCP only cultivated in the first place because the ROC claimed it and then retreated there. Chiang Kai-shek was desperate and despondent.

He is not the hero of staving off the Communists that you think he is. He is not the hero of anything unless you think mass murder is great. 

This is also the situation which led to Taiwan's status being undetermined rather than agreed-upon as a part of China, a topic that also deserves its own post. It's worth remembering that even then-foreign minister to the ROC George Kung-chao Yeh knew that. The KMT later playing at Taiwan's status being clear in an attempt to close the door to independence is an absolute joke at odds with their own history.

In these and the following years, US aid to Taiwan spiked dramatically. Jacoby (U.S. Aid to Taiwan) first says military assistance between 1952 and 1965 reached a total of US$2.5 billion, but his later chart says $368 million. Though I'm not sure where the first number comes from, the exact number is less important than the fact that it was a lot. From Lin (the article, not the Accidental State author):

 

Without U.S. economic assistance in the early 1950s, Taiwan's economy might possibly have collapsed. In 1950 alone, retail prices in Taiwan rose 58 percent, from mid-1949 to 1951 wholesale prices rose 400 percent, and by early 1951, ROC-held gold and foreign exchange reserves were nearly exhausted....Approximately 80 percent of the national budget went to the military, so the island's economy could be sustained only with external assistance. An NSC report pointed out that "had it not been for increased MSA [Mutual Security Agency] aid during the fiscal years 1951 and 1952, a serious inflationary situation would have developed which might have well led to complete economic collapse.”


All of this aid was not meant just to bolster Taiwan's defense capability, but also to make the island more self-sufficient, a goal which was eventually reached.

Also -- oops, it looks like I just made an argument that US strategic interests, not brilliant economic planning on the part of the KMT, is what kickstarted the Taiwan Miracle. 

Let's not forget, however, that 1952-1965 more or less correlated with the White Terror years. So...thanks, America. But also yikes, America! 

I'm not trying to convince you here that the US is Taiwan's good friend. It's not -- yet again, a topic for an entirely different post. What I am trying to convince you of is simple: 

Like them, hate them or grudgingly tolerate them as the devil we can make a deal with because they're not the ones pointing missiles at us, the US had more to do with repelling a PRC takeover of this country than Chiang Kai-shek and his merry band of murderers ever did. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Chiang Kai-shek did not save Taiwan from the CCP: Part 1 - the origins of CCP interest in Taiwan

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I took this photo years ago and it seemed appropriate to finally use it here.


I had thought I'd written about this before, but couldn't find an appropriate post. So, because it seems like I address this opinion frequently and I'm sick of repeating myself, it's time to write it all out here so I can link it next time someone comes out with a wacky historical interpretation of what actually happened after the Chinese Civil War. 

Also, Dictatorship Day is tomorrow (that's 10/10 for those of you who are still sleeping), so this feels like a good time to write such a post. 

So, what am I on about? Every few weeks, either wild-caught or while I'm talking about one of my favorite subjects (what an absolute sack of wankers the KMT is), someone seems to pop into one of my feeds with a comment along the lines of "yes but without Chiang Kai-shek/the KMT/the ROC army Taiwan would be a part of Communist China now".

These include comments by good people -- it's not personal. I've been wrong about history too. It's okay. But we need to deal with it.

This needs to be tackled in a few parts, in fact. First, I think it's important to clarify what exactly the KMT and CCP each thought of Taiwan in the years leading up to the Taiwan conflict. Only then do I think we'll have a good basis for discussing the degree to which Chiang and the KMT are not responsible for keeping Taiwan CCP free.

So first, let me make the case that Chiang Kai-shek is to blame for the CCP's interest in Taiwan in the first place. 

You read that right. It's all his (and the KMT's) fault that this is a problem to begin with.

I don't have many links for you because my biggest source is one of my favorite books, 
Accidental State by Hsiao-ting Lin, but I will link where I can. 

In 1924, Sun Yat-sen did include Taiwan in his Three Principles of the People, and it's likely Chiang got the idea to include Taiwan in the territories claimed by the Nationalists at the summit in Cairo in 1943 from this, according to Lin. Here's the thing though: Sun also included all sorts of places that no reasonable person believes "China" should control, including parts of Korea, Burma, Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan etc. It also is not clear from Sun's other writing that when visiting Taiwan (he visited twice, I believe) he considered it to be anything other than Japanese territory.

What does matter is this: it was not clear until right before the meeting at Cairo that Taiwan would be included in Nationalist territorial claims the way, say, Manchuria certainly would be, as Taiwan had been ceded legally under the Treaty of Shimonoseki whereas the Nationalists had never accepted Japan's conquest of Manchuria. Before that, the ROC, its officials and Chiang himself had more or less treated Taiwan as a part of Japan, including opening a consular office in Taipei "under the jurisdiction of its legation in Tokyo". Chiang even spoke to Japanese politicians about how ending colonial rule in Taiwan and Korea could help bolster relations between China and Japan! To say the least, before 1941, Nationalist views of Taiwan and clear ideas about what Taiwan should be were, to use Lin's words, "murky", "cautious", uncertain" and "undetermined". 

The change in rhetoric to seriously consider claiming Taiwan happened after Pearl Harbor, when the ROC more or less saw an opportunity and decided to grab it. It was around that time that a definition of what constituted "lost" territories to be recovered was created by Chiang, and the top concerns regarding what should be included and what shouldn't were more geo-strategic than ideological.

In fact, according to Lin, the decision to include Taiwan as a claimed territory wasn't even finalized until after Chiang had received the invitation to Cairo! Until then it had been a matter of debate and exactly which "lost" territories ought to be "recovered" was very much a matter of debate.

George Kerr also notes in Formosa Betrayed that Allied attempts to gain intelligence on Taiwan from their Chinese allies showed how little interest the Nationalists actually had in Taiwan, as most of it was lazily thrown together at best, or outright fabricated at worst (to be fair, Lin finds Kerr's accounts to be generally exaggerated). 

The inclusion of Taiwan didn't start gaining truly serious ROC domestic or international traction until the Allies signed onto it at Cairo, and even then, to quote Kerr, the only reason the West was willing to prop up Chiang's claims was to help him save face as the self-proclaimed greatest leader and bringer of "democracy" to Asia (again, to be fair, no-one else in Asia at that time could reasonably claim the title of supreme democratic reformer, either). They knew perfectly well that his regime would require massive support from the West.

(It's worth taking a brief side-note here to point out that the result of Cairo was a declaration, not a treaty. The actual series of treaties that followed the Japanese surrender do not clarify to whom Taiwan was ceded nor what its status is.)

At the same time, the Communists seemed to hold a very different view of Taiwan. Mao's rhetoric on the topic somewhat implied that Taiwan had the right to some, if not total, sovereignty, and the CCP listed "Taiwanese" among the "minority nationalities" that had "equal rights" in "Soviet China", but were considered to be a distinct group or race from Chinese with their own homeland. 

I'm going to quote from the link above at length, because unlike Accidental State and Formosa Betrayed, two books you absolutely should spend your money on, this is a journal article and not everyone will have access. I've emphasized important points:

This position of the Sixth Congress was reiterated in the same year by the Fifth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Youth League, which in its regulations noted that the "minority na- tionalities" in China included "Mongols, Koreans, Taiwanese, Annamese, etc.," and urged that local organs form national minority committes.5 Two years later in Kiangsi, the "Draft Constitution of the China Soviet Republic," adopted by the First All-China Soviet Congress (November 7, 1931), extended constitutional rights to these same minority nationalities.6 According to Item 4 of this document, all races, that is the "Han, Manchu, Mongol, Mohammedan, Tibetan, Miao, Li and also the Taiwanese, Koreans, and Annamese who reside in China, are equal under the laws of Soviet China [emphasis added]." Taiwanese were seen not as Han but as a different "nationality" and even "race," who like the Koreans and the Annamese, but unlike the other minorities, came from a homeland separate from China.8 This view is strengthened by the fact that the CCP never referred to the Taiwanese as "brethren" (dixiong), or "the offspring of the Yellow Emperor," or "compatriots" (tongbao), who would de facto belong to the Han after they return to China. Indeed, a 1928 Central Committee Notice, while calling for the recovery from Japan of sovereignty over Shantung and Manchuria, failed to mention a similar goal for Taiwan in its seventeen "general goals of the present mass movement."9 Since the ideological perspectives of the early Chinese Communist elite were heavily influenced by an anti-Japanese (as well as an anti-Western) nationalism born out of the May Fourth Movement, this exclusion of Taiwan from recoverable sovereign territory of China is revealing.

 



(Yes, that is one long paragraph.)

It gets better, though: 


Mao Tse-tung's earliest comments on the Taiwanese came in his January 1934 "Report of the China Soviet Republic Central Executive Committee and the People's Committee to the Second All-China Soviet Congress." Commenting on various provisions in the 1931 Constitution, he said: Item 15 of the Draft Constitution of Soviet China has the following statement: 

To every nationality in China who is persecuted because of revolutionary acts and to the revolutionary warriors of the whole world, the Chinese Soviet Government grants the right of their being protected in Soviet areas, and assists them in renewing their struggle until a total victory of the revolutionary movement for their nationality and nation has been achieved. In the Soviet areas, many revolutionary comrades from Korea, Taiwan, and Annam are residing. In the First All-China Soviet Congress, representatives of Korea had attended. In the present Congress, there are a few representatives from Korea, Taiwan, and Annam. This proves that this Declaration of the Soviet is a correct one.’


Mao not only reaffirmed the Chinese Communist position that Taiwanese residing outside Taiwan and in China were a "minority nationality," but also implied CCP recognition and support of an independent Taiwan national liberation movement, which would be united in a joint effort with the Chinese movement, but with a different purpose, i.e., the establishment of an independent state similar to other Japanese colonies, such as Korea. 

A year later, Mao and P'eng Teh-huai manifestly dissociated Taiwan's political movement from China by incorporating it into the anti-imperialist revolution led by the Japanese Communist Party. According to the "Resolution on the Current Political Situation and the Party's Responsibility," passed at a meeting of the CCP Central Political Bureau on 25 December, 1935, and signed by P'eng and Mao: 

Under the powerful leadership of the Japanese Communist Party, the Japanese workers and peasants and the oppressed nationalities (Korea, Taiwan) are preparing great efforts in struggling to defeat Japanese Imperialism and to establish a Soviet Japan. This is to unite the Chinese revolution and Japanese revolution on the basis of the common targets of "defeating Japanese imperialism." The Japanese revolutionary people are a powerful helper of the Chinese revolutionary people." 


Here Taiwanese were not considered an integral part of the "Chinese revolutionary people," but were treated as a people whose natural political role was to fight alongside the "Japanese workers and peasants" in establishing a Soviet Japan. Whether Mao and P'eng expected the Taiwanese (and Koreans) formally to join a newly-created Soviet Japan is unclear from this resolution. But nowhere in this or other documents examined by the authors did CCP leaders suggest that the Taiwanese should fight to return to their "motherland" and join Soviet China - a point they would not make until after 1943.


That's my underline, so let me reiterate:

...a point they would not make until after 1943.

What changed between when these statements were made and 1943?

Oh yeah! All that stuff the Nationalists did, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, to change China's perspective on Taiwan toward claiming it as an integral territory and 'lost' province. 

It is not unreasonable to assert that the CCP changed its stance on Taiwan because the Nationalists had done so first

Guess what - it gets even better. Please enjoy:

As to explicit CCP support for an independent state on Taiwan, the most notable documentary evidence is Mao's personal statement made to Edgar Snow on July 16, 1936. Responding to Snow's question, "Is it the immediate task of the Chinese people to regain all the territories lost to Japanese imperialism, or only to drive Japan from North China, and all Chinese territory above the Great Wall?," Mao answered: 

It is the immediate task of China to regain all our lost territories, not merely to defend our sovereignty below the Great Wall. This means that Manchuria must be regained. We do not, however, include Korea, formerly a Chinese colony, but when we have re-established the independence of the lost territories of China, and if the Koreans wish to break away from the chains of Japanese imperialism, we will extend them our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same thing applies for Formosa. As for Inner Mongolia, which is populated by both Chinese and Mongolians, we will struggle to drive Japan from there and help Inner Mongolia to establish an autonomous State. 

The support for independence of Korea and Taiwan, both of which were formerly linked to China, is clearly stated.


There is some solid analysis in this otherwise older source about why the CCP policy was able to shift, and an interesting discussion of what constitutes "Chineseness" in the eyes of the CCP -- at least, the best possible analysis of it in 1979.

The authors also go on to provide more source material for Lin's analysis of the shifting Nationalist position on Taiwan pre-1943, pointing out that Taiwan was of minor importance before Cairo, belying the massive importance placed on it by the Nationalists after the conference. They go on to posit that Chiang's original goal was quite possibly very similar to the CCP's: to "liberate" Korea and Taiwan so as to create buffer states between China and Japan! 

Because I believe in free access to academic work, here's another quote:

What is important here is that Chiang, like Sun, was more concerned with "restoring" (hufifu) the independence and freedom of Taiwan and Korea so as to create buffer states against Japan, while China would assume traditional protection, but not necessarily sovereignty, over Taiwan and Korea. Moreover, throughout Chiang's pre-1942 collected works and speeches nowhere does he make a claim to “recover" (shoufu, guangfu or shouhut) Taiwan. The island was mentioned occasionally, along with Korea, but only in the sense that both nations were enslaved by the Japanese. No mention of the Taiwanese appeared in such strong nationalist tracts as "Prepare For Victory," nor in his message on "Resistance in the Enemy's Rear."


Although the ability of the CCP to shift so easily to a "Taiwan is an inseparable part of China" stance is of interest, the reason why they chose to do so at all is of more interest to me. Again, it all points back to Cairo, and we have Chiang Kai-shek and his minions to thank for that.

Hsiao and Sullivan (the heroes of this heavily-quoted article) reached the same (hedged) conclusion in 1979:

This tentatively suggests that the Chinese Communist position on the Taiwan question became most politically expedient after the 1943 Cairo Declaration when, still out of power, and in a subordinate position vis-a-vis the KMT, the CCP dropped its support for Taiwan's independent status and embraced Chiang Kai-shek's then very recent policy of full political reintegration of Taiwan into the Chinese polity.


!!!

I emphasized that in three different ways to draw your attention to it. It's analysis, not fact, but I happen to think it's right on the money. 

In other words, Chiang didn't "save" Taiwan from the Communists. He led them right into claiming Taiwan as a territory. If Chiang and the Nationalists had never fed that fire, it's entirely possible (though far from assured, to be fair yet again) that the CCP would have never become as interested in Taiwan as an integral part of China as they did. They might have had designs on it, after all they got involved in conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, but note that Korea and Vietnam don't suffer from the lack of diplomatic recognition or the same territorial claims by China (or at least, in Vietnam's case, not to the same extent) that Taiwan does.

And yet, there are still people who believe that Chiang deserves some sort of credit for keeping the Communists away from Taiwan. I would ask -- why? He's responsible for their claims on Taiwan in the first place!

At this point we veer into speculative history: if the Nationalists had never decided to claim Taiwan, would they have occupied Taiwan at the behest of the Allies in 1945, for convenience's sake? I don't know, as occupying Taiwan as a proxy of the Allies is not the same as occupying it as a claimed territory, but it seems at least somewhat less likely. In any case, it is less likely to have become the location of their retreat upon losing the civil war a few years later. This means that perhaps (?) the Nationalists might have been wiped out completely -- not a bad outcome, in my estimation, though the CCP disappearing would be even better.

If the KMT had not retreated to Taiwan, would the CCP have ever set its sights on the island? Possibly. There would have been so-called "justification" for it in Sun's writing, and they certainly were (and are) expansionist.

But their own writings indicate that it might not have rolled out that way, and Taiwan would have gained its independence in the same era as many other former colonies across Asia: Korea, most of Southeast Asia, India and more. 

Some of those former colonies have struggled (the Philippines, Myanmar, India, Indonesia), in part due to local issues and in part thanks to everything that was stolen from them or forced upon them by their colonizers. Others (Korea, Singapore) eventually succeeded -- if we take democracy and freedom as important markers of success, Korea even more than Singapore. As a relatively prosperous colony under the Japanese with much of its infrastructure already built (and built well), how might Taiwan have fared? We'll never know, but it's not a given that it would have been worse than under KMT rule. 

Importantly, if this is how it had played out, there might not have been any question now of whether Taiwan was a 'part of China', any more than that question is being asked of those other countries. All the missiles, all the threats, all the fighter jets -- none of it would be dangled over our heads by an angry CCP. 

All because they slobbered after the Nationalists and that led their sights right to Taiwan.

Blame the CCP, yes, but also...blame the KMT. They literally created this mess. They literally wrote the paper on how to screw Taiwan.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

You don't read every history book for history: a review of Su Beng's "Taiwan's 400-Year History"

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I bought the anniversary edition of Taiwan's 400-Year History at Su Beng's 100th birthday celebration on Ketagalan Boulevard a few years ago, but having already read up on Taiwanese history, I hadn't actually read it. I knew Su Beng's life story - the whole Taiwan-Japan-China-Taiwan-Japan-Taiwan saga of it. I knew that he was not only beloved almost universally among active supporters of Taiwanese independence, but that he'd been much 'redder' in his youth (that is, Marxist/leftist, not pro-CCP).

So, of course I knew the story of the writing of this book: penning it after work in his Tokyo noodle shop, with the sense that Taiwanese should know their history. They should have access to a historical narrative that the KMT was trying to eradicate in Taiwan itself.  I was aware copies were banned in Taiwan itself, and it had to be smuggled in (I had not known, however, that Nylon Deng had been the one to do the smuggling, according to one of the prefaces of the book).

When he died earlier this year, I regretted not reading it earlier, and picked it up as a tribute to one of the greats. The English edition is heavily abridged from the Chinese - one slim volume instead of several fat ones - so it didn't take long.

Having finished it, I'm not sure what to say exactly. I guess I'd say this: this may be a history book, but these days, you don't read it to learn history. You read it to understand Su Beng's perspective on Taiwan's history.

That wasn't always true: when the text first became available to Taiwanese, it was so different from the China-centric narratives peddled by the KMT that it must have felt like after years of gaslighting, Taiwan was finally charged with electricity.


For those who felt no connection to China and had been bored in school learning about "other provinces", learning about their national history as one of colonialism - including calling the current regime "colonizers" - I cannot imagine how empowering and enlightening it must have been. Even though 'Taiwanese history' is more broadly accessible now and covered from a range of perspectives, we still read it now to understand more deeply what that initial rush of Aha! This is who we are! would have been like. 

A few things stand out in this book: the first is that Su Beng structures his narrative not strictly linearly (though the sections are ordered in a broadly linear way), but rather telling history as a way to make points about class warfare: the KMT and other colonial oppressors such as Japan, the Qing, the Zhengs and the Dutch and the wealthy Taiwanese who backed them, and the oppressed. That is, the proletariat, or working Taiwanese, with a focus on Hoklo Taiwanese. Although indigenous people are mentioned and, to put it charitably, Hakka people are not 'excluded' so much as not differentiated from Hoklo. Hey, I told you he'd been more Marxist in his youth. 

That's why you read it, to be honest. Using words like "vile" and "evil" to describe the oppressors (and I agree, they were oppressors and in many cases still are), and "hardworking" and "from their blood and sweat" to describe the indigenous and working-class Taiwanese farmers, you aren't reading straight history so much as an extended editorial on Su Beng's particular perspective on it.

Is that such a bad thing, though? While it's perhaps not ideal for the first 'history of Taiwan' that Taiwanese might read to 'know their own history' to be so ideological, is anything non-ideological? Would a straight history, without emotionality and strongly connotative adjectives, have been as engaging as Su Beng's editorial style? Would a text that aimed to be more objective have simply hidden its ideological bias better? At least Su Beng didn't pretend to believe anything other than what he truly believed in order to seem 'neutral'. That sort of honest critical perspective is actually kind of refreshing. 


The second, to me, is a bigger problem: the English edition is so abridged as to make you wonder what was left out. This is exacerbated by the fact that several parts are highly repetitive. Thanks to the semi-non-linear structure, sometimes that repetition occurs across chapters. I understand that this is a stylistic feature of Mandarin and was surely present in the Mandarin edition (I think the Japanese edition, however, was the original), but for an abridged English edition, it might have been smart to cut it in favor of more content.

Here's an example. Towards the beginning, the chapter on Dutch colonialism in Taiwan includes several paragraphs that state, in different ways, that the wealth the Dutch extracted from Taiwan was created by the hard work of Taiwanese laborers. That theme is repeated - with the same wording - in the chapter on Qing colonialism, when discussing how it was hard-working Taiwanese farmers who opened the land to agriculture. Then, later in the book, there's a throwaway line about how Lin Shaomao "gave his life for his nation", with absolutely no backstory. Now, I know who Lin Shaomao was, but someone who didn't wouldn't learn his story from this book.

In several places, this or that specific person, or group, is accused of being evil, thieving, bourgeois...whatever. Some names were familiar to me; others I had to look up. They probably were, and I love that Su Beng pointed fingers and named names, but no background is provided. No buttressing of the argument. No support. They're evil, these other people are good, and that's it. I don't know if those details are present in the longer original, but the academic in me wants to scream at its absence in English.

Of course, early Taiwanese readers would probably already know who those people were, and reading the names of people who had probably been portrayed as wealthy community leaders and scions of industry being called thieving  compradore collaborators and oppressors must have felt like the surge of a new zeitgeist.

This makes me wonder - why was it cut down so much? Was the original so repetitive that you basically get the point from the abridged English edition, or do they think foreigners don't care and don't need the details? I'm not sure. It doesn't help that the English has several typos and at least one wrong fact (saying Magellan died in Manila, when in fact he died in Cebu) that I hope are corrected in a future edition.


This leads to the deepest problem of all: sometimes Su Beng's ideology gets in the way of good history. I'm sorry, you old hero, but it's true (and I think Su Beng as an older man who was more pink than red might actually have agreed).

Towards the beginning, though the theme also echoes later in the book, Su Beng characterizes the class struggle as indigenous Taiwanese and Hoklo (and Hakka) farmers and laborers as 'the oppressed', who struggled against consecutive foreign governments and wealthy local 'oppressors'. Without using these words explicitly, he implied strongly that these oppressed groups made common cause in fighting against their aristocratic and bourgeois oppressors.

And I'm sorry, Su Beng, I don't care how 'Marxist' or 'revolutionary' such a reading of history sounds. It's just not true. Hoklo farmers and laborers treated indigenous Taiwanese just as badly as the wealthy ruling classes and landlords. They were just as oppressive and, frankly, racist. What those wealthy oppressors said about indigenous people, laboring Hoklo bought and upheld. They weren't very kind to the Hakka either.

It does no favors to anyone to pretend that wasn't the case.

Later in the book, he goes so far as to say that wealthy Taiwanese 'compradore' families could not be considered 'Taiwanese', as they were in the pockets of the wealthy KMT diaspora. While the latter is true, the accusation of not being Taiwanese reeks of a 'No True Scotsman' fallacy. If you decide that Taiwanese bad guys aren't Taiwanese, implying that all Taiwanese are noble-hearted and support a certain vision of Taiwanese identity, you take away the chance for Taiwan to reckon with the fact that as a nation and society, it has assholes just like everywhere else. And if you don't reckon with it, you can't do anything about it.

That's not to say that the book is a total failure. I appreciated that unlike Ong Iok-tek in Taiwan: A History of Agonies, Su Beng never uses derogatory language to describe indigenous people. Understanding the mid-life thinking of one of the greatest Taiwan independence activists is a worthwhile activity, and it does help one understand how Taiwanese identity has such a strong leftist/Marxist component (when you'd think those who support a free and independent Taiwan would be wary of anything that had even a whiff of Communism about it). The prefaces and postscripts are interesting as well.

In other words, do read it. But don't think you're reading it to "learn history" - anyone who has a general concept of Taiwanese history already isn't going to learn anything new from it, and in any case it's not so much a history as a very long op-ed. As a narrative of the past 400 years, it leaves a lot to be desired, and yet it was a powerful touchstone at the time - a piece of literature more than an academic work. As a cultural artifact, it's fascinating.

Read it so you can get a sense, even if it's hard to recapture in 2019, that sense of the first lamps of Taiwanese consciousness being lit. 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The ROC is erasing the history of comfort women's sexual slavery by romanticizing it

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I am reasonably sure that not one of these women is real


Once a year or so, we go to Kinmen for work and then plan an extra day to relax, drive around and do whatever, usually booking a traditional 洋樓 (yánglóu, or 'foreign style mansion', though they don't look terribly 'foreign') for a few nights.

This year, our first stop was the Military Brothel Exhibition Hall in Jinhu township along Qiongjing Road (瓊徑路) - if you want to go there, it's easiest to just plug it into Google Maps. I've been aware of ROC military comfort women for some time (yes, quite a bit like comfort women forced to service the Japanese military in World War II), and that the practice was particularly predominant on Kinmen as it was a major military outpost.

Having felt for some time that the issue of Japanese comfort women, while also important, has been given priority over ROC comfort women with the issue manipulated for political purposes, I wanted to see how this museum portrayed the issue. Did it get anywhere near actually tell the story of women forced into prostitution to 'meet the needs' of ROC soldiers?



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No.

I learned more about the soldiers who went to the brothels, and how the brothels operated on a bureaucratic level, than the women who actually worked in them.

The exhibit, which is in English and Mandarin, hemorrhaged copious reams of verbiage justifying the 'needs' of the soldiers (as above - and this wasn't the only culprit). A huge percentage of the words on the wallboards attempted to convince visitors that these 'teahouses' were necessities of war, because how could our boys on the front line continue to fight without getting their sexual requirements met?

I don't really need convincing that any given group of people (except ace folks) spend a large percentage of their time thinking about, wanting to and trying to get nasty. That's just human. Just about everyone likes to bone down. Fine. And I don't need convincing that sex work is important or necessary - I'm in favor of legalized prostitution, in a system in which the sex workers themselves have power over their work - not a pimp and certainly not a government.

But the exhibit also spent a great deal of time telling you about the different 'tea houses' all over Kinmen and why they existed or how successful they were. You even got to learn about the quality of 'service' at each one and what 'grade' each teahouse was given (which...let me tell you. Forget wanting to work at a 'Grade D' brothel - can you imagine how insulting - and terrifying - it would be for a woman to be assigned to one?)



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Every single thing gets its moment in this exhibit - except for the women. The men and their needs are centered, and there's a lot of description of the humdrum bureaucracy of the brothels. You get to see a replica of the tickets that servicemen were issued, and the rules and regulations they had to follow. There are a lot of pink and purple shades and soft floral patterns - you know, because it's women's stuff - which is an attempt to soften the truth, and was hardly the reality of the matter. The attempted romanticization is more than a little off-putting.

You heard about the women's health checks and other rules concerning their lives - including that they weren't allowed to leave, yeesh - and that they were 'recruited' as 'waiters', are expected to get the impression from this that they chose to ply their trade in Kinmen and that the military took good care of them. You could read - briefly - about how 'bitter' and miserable their lives were in Taiwan proper, trying to convince you yet again that this was a good thing for the women, and everyone was consenting. After reading that, you'll learn how often the women had pap smears, but still nothing at all about who they were as people.

The very brief text that actually discusses the women and their lives uses the phrase 'finding their way to the frontline', as though they journeyed to Kinmen of their own volition.

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Of course, they did not.

In the famous case that caused the 'teahouses' of Kinmen to finally close in the late 1980s, an underaged woman (16) was tricked/forced to go to Kinmen and then, after refusing to engage in sex work, was told she had to do so for several months before she could return to Taiwan (link in Chinese).

I also have it on good authority (and the Taipei Times backs up) that most of these comfort women were not consenting and not taken care of well. Most of them were prostitutes working illegally  (only 'municipal brothel' prostitution was legal) who were caught and essentially forced to work in these 'teahouses', often - as the link above mentions - made to have sex with 60-70 soldiers a day. As I highly doubt they agreed to that many clients, that essentially means they were raped 60-70 times a day.

And someone on the committee that designed this exhibit is aware of this, as you can see:


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Sure, the women were not forced into prostitution as a trade, but if you write 'nor did they willingly go to support one side in a war', you are implicitly sending the message that someone forced them to do so.

That's not consenting - it doesn't matter that they were prostitutes before. You can't force someone to work for you, even if you pay them. That's slavery. The government can't knock on my door and tell me I must teach in a particular government school and then frog-march me to a classroom. This is no different just because it's sex work.

And yet, that one line in one (rather terrible) poem is the only clue that these women were essentially forced to be raped by soldiers six days a week. What's worse, the NewTalk link above describes the attempts of Kinmen-born writer (and I guess politician? It's not clear) Chen Changqing to retcon the history of military prostitution into a consensual industry in which the women were well-cared for despite the preponderance of historical evidence to the contrary.

Beyond that, the exhibition hall does not tell the stories of any of the individual women who worked as military prostitutes, even though many are still alive. One could easily ask them, and many of them would likely want their stories told.

You don't even see pictures - just stylized anime-like airbrushed cartoons of generic beautiful women. They don't actually exist. Even though surely photos of the actual women who worked in these teahouses could be found, and photographs of still-living ones could be taken. I'm sure some of them (though surely not all) would give consent for their images to be used, if exhibited as a part of a well-designed and impactful exhibit. But, of course, nobody asked them.

Much easier to write a few platitudes about 'bitter lives' and place them next to soft-focus cartoon women than to face what your government did to real, actual women.



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I have to wonder why they did it this way. Was it because whoever was in charge of this didn't want to make the ROC government look bad (especially on Kinmen, where the KMT remain popular)? Was it because they - though possibly not the women themselves, given the activism of the women who worked in municipal brothels in Taipei - regard the actual work of such women so shameful that they felt they were doing these women a favor by romanticizing it while keeping the women's actual stories quiet? Was it because the moment you tell the truth of what the government did to these women, it raises the question of compensation? Or was it straight up sexism: did whoever was put in charge of designing this just not even consider that the women's stories mattered?

The government has been much more forthright about the work of Japanese-era comfort women from Taiwan. A museum was created for them, while quietly trying to squash the attempts of ROC-era comfort women to do the same thing, as the links above show. Is this because the Japanese era is in the more distant past, and most of those women have died? Is it because it allows them to blame  Japan, not themselves - blame which can be strategically trotted out for political purposes? Don't forget that the previous administration made a point of souring Taiwan's relations with Japan as much as possible, in order to garner favor with China. Is it because the women forced into sex work in the Japanese era often weren't prostitutes to begin with, so it's less 'shameful'? Or is it perhaps all of these?

In the end, it bothers me not just that this story was told badly, but that politics seems to determine who gets their stories told at all - and it never seems to actually be about the women.




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I want to be pleased that the government isn't trying to pretend this part of Taiwan's history never happened. I want to rejoice that they're not trying to bury it as so many governments do to the more unsavory stories of their past.

But I can't - I just can't believe someone thought it was a good idea to set up a 'military brothel exhibition hall' and then spend the whole time justifying the brothels' existence, without even trying to tell any of the honest, true, detailed, human stories of the actual women who worked there.

If nobody is willing to have their story included - which is possible, but I doubt would be the case - then you can at least tell the absolute truth of how the women came to work there and what their lives were actually like beyond a list of 'rules and regulations'.

If there's one thing this exhibit can learn from museums cataloguing horrible things which exist around the world, it's that you don't need to justify the past. You're not fooling anyone. We know that romanticization is just one step removed from erasure. 

It happened, and what matters now is that we look at it squarely and honestly, and whenever possible we try to make it right. The Military Brothel Exhibition Hall does not do that, and all I can suggest is that they take a good, hard look at their first attempt and try to do better. 



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Saturday, July 14, 2018

My latest for Ketagalan Media: an interview with Lord of Formosa author Joyce Bergvelt

When I do interviews, I don't just decide which items to include and edit responses for length. I don't even just shift topics around, although doing so is important to bring out something 'more' than just questions and answers. I also sit back and think about the responses and, in whole or at least in great part, what story they come together to tell.

This was relatively easy to do in my recent interview with Lord of Formosa author Joyce Bergvelt for Ketagalan Media.

In this case, they tell an entwined tale of the dangers of not knowing the history of one's own country and those who would seek to use that history to further their own political ends: in the case of the Dutch, a history of colonization (important now more than ever as right-wing nationalism creeps further into European politics, if it ever really left). In Taiwan, a history that includes invading forces from China.

So, while it might seem out-of-place to start with a narrative about the KMT's 12-point sun at the gate of Tainan's Koxinga shrine in an interview that has nothing to do with the KMT, if you read to the end, you'll see why it makes sense.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Review: From Far Formosa

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Loyal readers of Lao Ren Cha might think it impossible that I would have had the time to read From Far Formosa while I've been working on my final paper for my first term at Exeter. These astute fans are correct! However, I would like to share a few impressions of George Mackay's classic of writings about Taiwan, in which he describes life, people and missionary work in Taiwan from his experience living there for over twenty years. First published in 1896, it is one of the most fascinating accounts of what life was like in Formosa at the very end of Qing colonial rule in Taiwan, and my 2002 SMC edition includes a number of interesting photographs and maps. Unfortunately, the pleasure of reading it is somewhat hampered by Mackay's failure to mention the most pivotal Taiwanese cultural institution of his - and our - time.

That said, From Far Formosa is a brilliant read - I was especially struck by the way Mackay describes his "first views of Formosa" and how they were later echoed by Janet Montgomery McGovern in Among The Headhunters of Formosa about two decades later, when the island was firmly under Japanese control. Mackay writes:


Beautiful indeed was that first view of North Formosa, as seen from the deck of the steamer in the harbor at Tamsui. We all stood and gazed, deeply impressed. In the evening we wandered out over the broad table-land and the downs toward the sea. The fine large fir-trees, not found near Ta-kow, attracted Richie's eye and reminded him of his Scottish home. But when he saw the situation of Tamsui, standing over against a solitary mountain peak that rose seventeen hundred feet, and backed on the east and south by range after range climbing two thousand, three thousand, and four thousand feet high, his soul was stirred to its depth, and sweeping the horizon with his hand he exclaimed: 
"Mackay, this is your parish."


A stirring way to introduce Taiwan - anyone who has come to understand why this is called Ilha Formosa (the beautiful island) will understand how that moment must have felt. This is why it's befuddling that this heartfelt rendering of the first views doesn't include his first impression of what must have been a visceral, soul-illuminating experience. What I'm trying to say is - how could Mackay not have written about the toilet restaurant in From Far Formosa? What could be his motivations for such a glaring error?

In fact, how can anyone claim to have visited Taiwan if they never went to the toilet restaurant?

So, while I enjoyed the book, this was the one thing I just couldn't shake - how is it that Mackay catalogued everything he had learned about Taiwan in such meticulous and loving detail, and yet never once mentioned the most distinctive feature on the island, the one thing any visitor to Taiwan would immediately become aware of and be drawn to? The one thing that wave after wave of foreigners who once came to Taiwan by boat and now arrive by plane have been compelled to write about?

Was his omission deliberate, perhaps a consideration brought about by his religious faith? I considered this as I read on, not believing that he'd leave such a crucial facet of traditional Formosan culture out of his masterwork. That didn't make a lot of sense, though: as far as I'm aware, Christians have massive and inexplicable hangups about sex, gender and sexual orientation, but aren't particularly bothered by bowel movements. What about a toilet restaurant might be such a taboo for them - after all, surely even Jesus relieved himself in the usual way (though perhaps not in a Modern Toilet as we envision them). However, although I was raised Christian, I was never particularly interested in it as a belief system or philosophy, and as such don't know much about it beyond some core beliefs of the church I was raised in. Scripture and catechism and all other matters ecumenical are not my purview - perhaps someone better-versed in these areas can weigh on in the late 19th century view of Mackay's particular strain of Christian faith on this matter.

What is further confounding is that Mackay declines to mention the toilet restaurant when talking about both Formosans of Chinese and indigenous descent (this is true across all tribes discussed in the book). When it comes to Chinese, he neglects entirely to discuss the careful placement of toilet bowl seats according to the ancient precepts of feng shui, or to compare Taiwanese toilet-restaurant seating feng shui to its slightly different accepted interpretation in China at the time - in China, toilet seats made of plastic with embedded glitter were typically placed facing the till, in order to facilitate the flow of money according to the movement of qi around the restaurant. In Taiwanese feng shui, rules about glitter or non-glitter plastic toilet seat covers are not stressed as much, but the north-south placement of miniature squat-toilet bowls filled with spirals of chocolate ice cream when served to customers is of the utmost importance. After more than twenty years in Taiwan, surely Mackay - who observed religious customs closely - noticed this small but important difference.

Mackay's toilet-restaurant-related blind spots are no better when discussing his travels among the indigenous. One memorable passage, he describes a trek into the mountains with a group of "savages" (in a chapter titled "Savage Life and Customs"), writing:


Higher and higher we wound and cut and climbed. Far up we reached a little open space among the tangle, and could see that the next day would take us to the topmost peak. Below could be seen all the ranges, with their intervening valleys, All around was the wild luxuriance of cypress and camphor, orange, plum and apple, chestnut, oak and palm, while the umbrella-like tree fern rose majestically some thirty feet high, with its spreading fronds fully twenty feet long.


After such a luxurious description of wild mountain nature in late 19th-century Taiwan, how was Mackay not immediately inspired to compare the natural wonders around him with the man-made wonders of the toilet restaurant? The two bring to mind a dichotomy of images so similar that it is difficult to comprehend how an astute observer such as Mackay would not have made the connection. He continues, describing the trek being unexpectedly pinched off before it was completed:


But after that night of ecstasy came the morning of disappointment. With the snow-capped heights of Sylvia almost within reach, the chief announced his decision to return to the "Huts." He had been out interviewing the birds, and their flight warned him back. There was nothing for it but to fall into line and retrace our steps. Reluctantly, bit with much more rapidity, the descent was made, and we arrived at the village in time for the braves to participate in the devilish jubilation over a head brought in during our absence. One ugly old chief, wild with the excitement of the dance, put his arm around my neck and pressed me to drink with him from his bamboo, mouth to mouth. I refused, stepped back, looked him sternly square in the face, and he was cowed and made apologies. When we left then they were urgent in their invitations to their "black-bearded kinsman" to visit them again.


While I find it a bit unsettling that Mackay was so openly rude to a tribal elder - intoxicated or not - I am even more flummoxed by his complete failure to mention the importance to indigenous Formosan societies of the toilet restaurant. A traditional sharing from the urinal-shaped glass out of which Taiwan Beer is sold can help make amends for any social gaffes that occur, and Mackay and the chief might have entertained themselves more amicable in this fashion. (A portable urine container also filled with Taiwan Beer is a second acceptable option among most indigenous tribes, but not all - a visitor to these areas is well-advised to note the differences in local customs.)

All in all, From Far Formosa is an interesting read and valuable time capsule. However, it doesn't escape the flaws of other books about specific periods in Taiwanese history in its baffling omission of the toilet restaurant as central to Taiwanese culture. Some observant writers are wise to include this critical cultural touchstone: in Lost Colony, Tonio Andrade, for example, is wise to include the importance of the toilet restaurant in the series of events that led to Koxinga's taking Taiwan from the Dutch, and George H. Kerr notably discusses the pivotal role the toilet restaurant played at length when describing the horrors of the aftermath of the 228 Incident in Formosa Betrayed. Manthorpe only includes six paragraphs on the toilet restaurant in Forbidden Nation, but his brevity on the subject can be forgiven, considering the sheer amount of Taiwanese history he covers. From Far Formosa, too, would have benefited from the understanding of the key cultural role of the toilet restaurant in Taiwanese history and modern political economy that these other writers have displayed.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Taiwan: A History of Agonies - a review


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A History of Agonies alongside symbols of some Taiwanese social movements I have been here to witness
and participate in. It all ties together. 


Anyone who truly loves reading has become so emotionally engaged with a book that it makes them cry, often at the most inconvenient times. It stays with them and affects how they feel, think and interact with the world for some time after the reader has finished with it. Occasionally, this effect is permanent.

This happened with Green Island, a book I highly recommend to everyone and which made me Ugly Cry in my favorite coffee shop, and would say is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand 20th century Taiwan. I expected it would happen with Taiwan: A History of Agonies as well - I mean, the agony is right there in the title. Taiwanese history certainly contains enough tragedy to make anyone with a heart sob for hours.

So, I was surprised when that ended up not being the case.

Please don't misunderstand - it's not that it left me cold, or I found it uninteresting. I certainly had an emotional reaction to reading the words of a Taiwanese person describing what to him was not always "history": Ong Iok-tek lived through much of the events of the later chapters of the book. I was also intellectually engaged in reading history from a decidedly Taiwanese Hoklo nationalist perspective, especially in a book written in the mid-to-late 20th century. A lot has changed vis-a-vis Taiwanese identity since then, and comparing the two was an illuminating exercise. 

I will say that I learned quite a bit. Ong was especially interested in providing as much detail as possible about the various rebellions during the Qing and Japanese eras, because they proved his point that the Taiwanese never took being colonized lying down. I learned a few interesting details about the Zheng era, and quite a few famous names from history whose contributions I hadn't been clear on were discussed. Ong also spends a fair amount of time on every home-rule movement of note, which makes this a good source of knowledge for anyone hoping to refute the ridiculous yet oddly common notion that "Taiwanese identity" did not exist before the 1970s.

It was also interesting to read from that mid-century nationalist perspective. I'm aware of its existence and the general worldview of that generation of pro-Taiwan activists, as well as the generation after them which pushed through to democratization. I am aware of some of the problematic beliefs they often held, from thinking indigenous people were inferior to believing that nobody who came over from China in the 1940s could ever really be Taiwanese (and extending to views on women and homosexuality as well, although these aren't issues that come to the fore in this book - the only thing I remember being striking in that regard was Ong's reference to the "men" who fought and died for Taiwan.) It was quite another thing, however, to read from that perspective in the words of someone who was one of them.

It's not that Ong said much in this vein that I found new or surprising - for example, along with his focus on rebellions and home-rule movements above, he was dismissive of indigenous (mentioned above and to be mentioned again), focused almost exclusively on male luminaries (with a few exceptions), was critical of the Qing but not so much of the Japanese, and wrote from a clearly - but I think entirely deserved - anti-KMT perspective.  I don't recall Taiwanese Hakka being mentioned at all - if they were, it was too brief a reference for me to catch.

I was surprised, however, at his criticism of the 1895 republic, a blip in history that is interesting to me for no particular reason - I think it may be because I just like the flag. It's not that I think the Republic of Formosa deserves effusive praise, but I would have expected a Hoklo nationalist to give it just that. I recall reading that there was a concerted effort to bring back the symbols of that time - particularly the tiger flag - as symbols of the Taiwanese independence movement later. But, instead, he said that the republic's foundation day declaration "lacks style and refinement for a declaration of independence", was pointedly critical of their kowtowing to the Qing emperor, and of the scrambling of many of its leaders to evacuate to China when the whole thing fell apart later that year.

I did enjoy comparing Ong's views to the views of the young "naturally independent" pro-Taiwan generation of today. They have people like him to thank for giving them shoulders to stand on, and they are aware that they are connected to the luminaries of the pro-Taiwan social movements of history, but it is clear they'd find a lot to criticize in his words, especially in his love for Japan and derision of indigenous people.


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I really love this tiger flag, it's the best flag



And, finally, I have to admit that this is the first comprehensive history of Taiwan book I've ever read. I've devoured others such as Taiwan's Imagined Geography and Accidental State, but they focus on certain periods. Reading one author bringing it all together was a positive experience.

I didn't cry, however. There is no single reason why. In some places, the writing was a little wooden, which I blame on the translation (I got the distinct feeling that it flowed better in Chinese). How does one start sobbing at lines like this?

Thus, China's relationship with the Kuomintang transfigured itself from a hostile contradiction to a non-hostile contradiction.


Areas where Ong editorialized, even when I agreed, didn't make me stand up and cheer as I thought they might - perhaps because I like my history as un-editorialized as possible. "We Taiwanese are seeking the helping hands from the free camp to rid ourselves of the oppressive rule of the Kuomintang" and similar wording, while I agree with it as an accurate sentiment stemming from the state of affairs when this book was written in the 1970s and to some extent of more modern eras as well, doesn't do anything for the nerdy historian in me. It would have been more powerful to simply present history as it was and let it make the oppression of the KMT very clear.

It could be that the translation was clearly not copyedited by a native-like user of English, as small grammatical mistakes, as well as issues with register and collocation, abounded. A personal favorite:

"The Tai-kang fallen, the fortress was totally isolated. Cheng Ch'eng-kung summoned the Dutch to surrender: 
'
My Dad opened up this island, Taiwan. Now that I need it, kindly get out!'

That was rather an odd message."

Gee, ya think? 

And, the all-time most amazing phrasing in the world:

"Everything began when the Cairo Declaration made Taiwan a booty for the Kuomintang to claim."

That sort of thing tends to jolt one's mind out of the narrative and back into the real world. 

My lack of emotional outburst might also have been because, although I have sympathy for any person who lived through that period of history in Taiwan, I lost some sympathy for Ong after his derogatory marks about indigenous people (which the editors acknowledged in a preface, but ultimately left in the work so as to preserve it as authentically as possible). To wit:

"When the Taiwanese say that Taiwan belongs to the Taiwanese, some Chinese quibble that Taiwan belongs to the indigenous people and they alone have the right to their land. Behind this line of argument by the Chinese are seen glimpses of their scheming design to label the Taiwanese "aggressors" and shamelessly enjoy their share of the spoils..."

Yo, Ong, I know you're dead and Imma let you finish, but...I think this, or at least I think the country belongs to the "Taiwanese" who are of all different backgrounds including indigenous, and indigenous people have earned certain rights and reparations due to the historical wrongs done to them. And I absolutely detest the Chinese government and see Taiwan as fully independent.

Also, insisting that Taiwan's history is a Hoklo history rather than an indigenous one into which others later entered is actually closer to China's current rhetoric that you are "all Chinese". 

"The indigenes in Taiwan made their living mainly by fishing and hunting and occasionally engaged in farming, though of a rather primitive style." (Ong goes on to quote Georgius Candidius' super racist take on indigenous people, calling the women "complete drudges" and the men "idle by nature"). 

So, no mention of the complex trade networks that the indigenous took part in?  No mention that women often enjoyed higher status in indigenous societies? None of that? Just drudges and idlers?

And worst of all - it makes me want to puke in my mouth a little bit even typing this out:

Those of us who are used to the scenes of American Indians shot and killed in Western movies are liable to wrongly assume that primitive (ed: UGH) aborigines are doomed to fall in number at gunpoint. In reality, however, massacre is not necessarily the main cause of population decline (ed: yes, it was, along with other forms of overt oppression) A decadent sex life may be one of the causes; unsanitary lifestyle another (ed: **** you). Unpreparedness against hunger and contagious diseases also triggered population decline (ed: hunger and contagious diseases wrought by the way in which indigenous were treated by every colonial wave to enter Taiwan, perhaps?

In short, I have nothing good to say about Ong's view of indigenous people, and it was certainly a big part of what hardened me to the rest of the book a bit.

It is telling that he begins the book not with a brief recap of what we know of indigenous life before colonization, but with the Chinese knowledge of the island and then, the Dutch. 

The editors included an explanatory note to essentially apologize for this, and I understand keeping it for reasons of portraying Ong's voice historically accurately, but...this is not the sort of book that is going to deliver an emotional gut-punch, with nonsense like that.

Finally, I found A History of Agonies hard to follow, because names popped up and disappeared regularly, sometimes with scant biographical info, other times just dropped into the narrative. I did not necessarily know who every person was (although to my credit, I had heard of quite a few). It was also difficult to figure out what Ong was talking about sometimes: he spent quite a bit of time talking about the "Ch'ao-chou", "Chu'an-chou" and "Chang-chou" "gangs", and it took me some time to realize that he was talking about people who themselves or whose ancestors had immigrated to Taiwan from Quanzhou or Chaozhou in Fujian (he also mentions "Chang-chou" (Zhangzhou). Perhaps he needn't have used Pinyin, I know that system has its detractors, but the Wade-Giles - as it usually does - makes it difficult for me to figure out how to pronounce certain things and makes a lot of words, to be honest, all look kind of the same. I know my opinion is not universally accepted, but we can all agree that including characters after any words rendered in Chinese or Taiwanese would have been a good, and helpful, idea.

Of course, I knew this because I know a fair bit about Taiwan. Can you imagine how someone reading this as a beginning text on Taiwanese history would even begin to decipher what Ong meant by the "Ch'ao-chou and Chu'an-chou gangs"? Such a reader might think these are gang names rather than the cities of origin of rival groups of Taiwanese immigrants.

This really cemented my overall impression of the book: this is not something to read as a primer or basic history of Taiwan. There must be better options - it will be confusing for neophytes, and overly simplistic for those with background knowledge.

Instead, I would say, by all means read this book, but do so knowing what you're getting into. Read it as a personal perspective, as a specific take on the events of Taiwanese history from the point of view of a certain kind of Taiwanese nationalist of a certain era. In that sense, it is illuminating, but a clear and readable history, I am sorry to say, it is not.