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

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. 


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

I just creamed my pants over this article in The Diplomat

No, really, this is excellent:

The Chinese Cult of Cairo

This is what people who have actually studied Taiwanese history have been saying for years. This is a truth that, while fairly well-known by those who know Taiwan, is rarely put in print for easy reference. It is a thing of beauty - clear, precise, accurate.

I quite literally gasped when I read it. I haven't seen something this clearly lay out the 1943-1952 history of the region...well, ever. Maybe I wasn't looking hard enough, but honestly, such work is hard to come by.

Even "Accidental State", which covers this period of history ending with Dulles' final agreement with Chiang Kai-shek, gives only one paragraph to this complex string of treaties which seem opaque to many (but actually aren't), and doesn't fully explain them.

It fully explains certain myths, like the idea that Cairo and Potsdam are legally binding (wrong), that the Treaties of San Francisco and Taipei unequivocally give Taiwan to China (wrong), that the ROC has been the sole legitimate government of Taiwan since 1945 (wrong), and that international law/ the UN / the United States / the goddamn Cookie Monster considers Taiwan to be Chinese, or even settled as "the ROC" with no other interpretation needed, that the ROC believed Taiwan to be "returned" to them (false) or that these powers intended for Taiwan to be a part of China (nope), that Taiwan was "returned" to China at all (wrong) or any other manner of stupid claims.

We need more work like this to drown out China's sound and fury which signifies nothing.

For once, I have nothing to add. That should tell you all you need to know.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I'm in The News Lens, punching you with history

My response to two opinion pieces on what to do about Chiang Kai-shek statues (and his memorial hall) appeared in The News Lens International Edition today - you can read it here.

A few key points:


His legacy ought to be studied and analyzed, if only to remember the horrors and agonies of the history of this island nation, and to educate ourselves on the importance of avoiding a backslide into totalitarianism. I do not believe anyone has suggested that he be deleted from history textbooks, nor would it be wise to do so.


This gets to the heart of why I wrote the response to begin with - the first article used the word "delete" in the title but never actually suggested he be erased from history, merely that his presence in statue form does not belong does not belong anywhere in the country, except perhaps at Cihu. I have no issue with a place like that existing, in the same way that one may visit other sites around the world that cause us to reflect on the tragedies of history. However, many people who defend Chiang's likenesses remaining intact equate removing the statues with 'deleting' him entirely from history. It must be clear that this is a straw man argument: no reasonable person would say we should forget Chiang existed, any more than we should forget that any other dictator existed.

Let's remember, as a friend pointed out, that one can appropriately remember and study history without keeping statues everywhere. The nations of the former USSR are quite able to learn about and understand what led to their 20th century circumstances without statues of Lenin still hanging about everywhere.

I also took issue with Adam Hatch (the original writer's) three key reasons for why the statues and memorial hall should remain. In short, he pointed to "economic development", "defense against the People's Republic" and "land reform", saying that all of these things make Chiang's legacy more complex than many would have you believe, and he tried to point out without apologizing for Chiang's crimes that, as a result, Chiang did some good in Taiwan too.

Why would I have an issue with this? Well...even if these points were historically accurate (spoiler: they are not), they do not adequately make a case for continuing to let Chiang's horrid face pop up around the country:


In short, there is no political, military or economic argument for continuing to allow Chiang statues to dot the Taiwanese landscape. Even if the economic and anti-Communist defenses were accurate, they would still not begin to contend with the pain his actions caused in Taiwan.


However, that's not why I wrote in.

One thing that really, really bothers me is the use of historical arguments to make one's case that are not actually historically accurate. I can tolerate it to some extent on the Internet because that place is full of crazies who don't know what they're talking about, but Hatch is a graduate student in the field. I don't want to be too mean, but I have to say, a grad student in this subject ought to know better. I'm a graduate student (or I will be soon) in an entirely different field, and simply because I care about Taiwan and read a lot, I knew his points were wrong. So where did he get these ideas? Who is teaching the postgrads at NCCU? What is up with the revisionist history? I do not believe that Hatch is attempting to push an agenda, and I do not mean to attack him personally, but whoever is teaching this version of history sure is.

What's more, these three arguments keep popping up in discussions of Taiwan affairs and their related history - this isn't the first time I've heard the "but economic development, land reform, and he kept the Commies away!" triad of arguments.

Frankly, I'm sick of it. It's time to beat these inaccurate arguments down - punch them with the fists of history.

A quick summary of why all three points are wrong - not wrong in my opinion, but factually wrong:

Regarding "Chiang Beat The Commies":



The change in Western attitudes to Taiwan came with the outbreak of the Korean War. The U.S. decided that Taiwan was an essential bulwark against the spread of Communism (and of China's navy into the Pacific). It was this change in Taiwan's strategic importance and the subsequent mutual defense agreements signed between the United States and the Republic of China, not any action of Chiang’s, which ensured that Taiwan did not fall to the People's Republic. Not only would this have likely happened without Chiang in power, it might have happened sooner under a leader more appealing to the United States, or with Taiwan hypothetically having gained independence as a former colonial territory of Japan.


Of course, we can't know what would have happened if the ROC had never come here, and Taiwan had been dealt with by the Allies as all former colonies of Japan had been, but the hypothetical seems reasonable given how things played out elsewhere.

In any case, Taiwan not falling to the PRC had nothing to do with Chiang himself.

And about "Chiang created economic development initiatives that made Taiwan an Asian Tiger", remember that this bit of revisionism asks you to believe that the KMT came to backwater Taiwan, and developed it, but that was not the case:


Before World War II, Taiwan was one of the most prosperous territories in Asia.
World War II certainly did its part to create economic turmoil in Taiwan, but for the most part, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) inherited a prosperous and well-run economy in 1945. This is not a defense of the Japanese colonial period: colonialism is, generally, indefensible. However, Taiwan's pre-ROC era economic prosperity is simply a fact. What destroyed the Taiwanese economy so much that the KMT eventually decided to "develop" it? The KMT themselves: as Hsiao-ting Lin (林孝庭) notes in “Accidental State”, under Chiang-appointed Chen Yi (陳儀), resources were so badly mismanaged, governance so high-handed and command economy and state monopoly enterprises so unsuited to local conditions that the economy, and the living standards of the Taiwanese, plummeted....
Chiang Kai-shek did not develop initiatives to turn Taiwan from a backwater into an Asian Tiger. He merely, and belatedly, sought to fix what he and his own party had broken to begin with. 

More could be said about this, and is included in the article, but the point is, you are not a hero when you wait a decade or so to fix what you yourself broke. And even if you were, it does not absolve you of other crimes: if you kill tens or hundreds of thousands, it does not matter if you made the trains run on time.

Finally, on "but land reform was really necessary, something Chiang realized led to his failure in China!" - yeah, not really, no:



Land reform is similarly a complicated issue: while breaking up large landholdings of an entrenched property-owning class is quite defensible, much of that land was ceded by Japanese owners leaving the former colony, and although some was redistributed, much of it was taken by the state directly, or given to KMT state-run monopolies. Make no mistake: land reform was enacted to enrich the ruling diaspora, including Chiang himself, just as much as it was meant to redistribute land to everyone else.


So please, make your arguments, mount your defenses, create your cases, but do so with an accurate view of history. Quit it with the "look at all the good Chiang did, too!" remarks. We know them to be inaccurate, because history tells us so. These are not secrets. These are not hidden stories. We know the story of the end of the Chinese Civil War. We know the story of the Taiwan Miracle. We know how land reform was handled. We know these things, so don't try to make a case by getting them wrong. These points keep popping up, and I'm done. Stop it.

Learn your history, and learn it well. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A short review: The Mapping of Taiwan



The Mapping of Taiwan
Jerome Keating
Available at eslite, Bookstore 1920s and elsewhere
(Photo coming soon)

I've had this book for awhile, but until recently had only really used it to peruse the gorgeous maps inside. That's really the main purpose of this slim, oversize book: to have large-size prints on hand of some of the most well-known maps of Taiwan through history. I'd go so far as to say that for that purpose, it is essentially a coffee table book.

And my, does it look good on a coffee table. The cover is gorgeous and the maps engaging. Years ago someone gave me a calendar of old maps of Taiwan (I saved the pages for later art projects), and was pleased to see many of the calendar reprints I'd lovingly découpaged to gift boxes, file folders and cards present in this book.

What this means is, if you're looking at this book as an academic resource, you will be disappointed. Will you learn something? Sure - I had not known, for example, that Koxinga was able to land his invasion thanks to a small inlet that would allow ships into the harbor near Tainan at high tide, for example. I had known that Taiwan was, at one point, portrayed on some maps as three islands but did not realize how common this was, or the plethora of other ways it was inaccurately drawn or placed. I had not been aware that cartographers used to regularly place Taiwan above or below, rather than directly situated on, the Tropic of Cancer where it belongs. All of this was engaging enough to keep me reading.

There isn't much to read though - which perhaps is appropriate for the The Mapping of Taiwan's ultimate purpose as a repository for, well, maps. The entire book, sans references, is perhaps 120 pages long. Of those, whole sections are devoted entirely to maps. You could read the text of the book in one ambitious morning. That's a good thing - the generous dimensions of the book make it an infeasible choice to bring to a cafe to read.

The text of The Mapping of Taiwan is ambitious and comprehensive in its breadth, covering the Dutch spice trade, the Spanish Asia-to-Acapulco route, Portuguese ambitions and even the colonization of the Philippines (in very broad strokes). The depth in these areas is perhaps lacking, but a deeper cut into such a wide swath of cartographic history would take volumes. Where I'd have liked to have seen more depth was in the portions of text devoted to Taiwan itself. For example, much of present-day Tainan is on reclaimed land: the littoral borders of the area have changed significantly since the Dutch colonial and Ming loyalist eras. Maps demonstrating this must exist, and would be a fascinating addition to this volume. The book is divided into sections by era: in one of the later sections, more in-depth text, with accompanying maps, of cities in Taiwan under the Japanese, or maps of indigenous areas by tribe would have also been worthy additions.

This, all in all, leads to my biggest criticism of the book: there are many, many maps of Taiwan as a whole, but very few of specific regions or cities. This makes sense in the early chapters when novbody who made maps knew enough about Taiwan to depict it in such detail (or even depict its overall shape correctly). Later, however, a great wealth of maps exist of growing Taiwanese cities and regions - several gorgeous maps of Taipei under the Japanese exist. I've seen them (one of my favorite bookshops, in a rambling shophouse near Longshan Temple, has a huge one framed in the main room). These ought to have been included and would have been more worthy additions than, say, a photograph of a Russian ship that is not related to the main narrative.

These might be more pointed criticisms for a more academic work, but, as a short narrative full of large illustrations with great aesthetic value, I would not say this is a fatal flaw. I would still recommend it as an engaging read, a personal collection of beautiful maps, a worthy addition to a tabletop, and certainly as a gift.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hailongtun



Stairs up Jingling Mountain on a foggy day, our goal forever elusive 

The weather today has inspired me to write about Hailongtun.

In 2002 and 2003 I lived in Zunyi, a small town (which meant that it had less than a million people) in Guizhou, southern central China.

While it got colder there than it does in Taipei – it even snowed twice - the weather, especially in winter, was generally about the same: overcast and dreary for days on end, cold, drizzly.  Although I lived on the refurbished “old street” (which was the newest part of town in terms of building age), the smoke from hundreds of coal stoves would fudge up the air as much as Taipei 101’s fireworks did last night. Leaving the New Old Street, other than the mountain park and the river and one memorable temple, the city became a mostly indistinct blur of white tiled, blue-glass windowed concrete monstrosities stretching down wide roads for miles.  Puncturing this was the train station, some thoroughly horrific public bathrooms, one so-so park, a “night market” that was put to shame by even the most humble Taiwanese night market, and a casino with a giant plastic Sphinx out front, topped off with a generous helping of neon. It wasn’t a classy enough place to warrant LEDs.
The giant medicine gourd in
Dragon Phoenix Park

 I found some escape in the mountainside park, which did have a network of fairly respectable hiking trails, and a giant cement medicine gourd, venturing pretty far out of town in that direction on several occasions – even in winter. Soon, I started to venture further into the countryside, renting a bike towards the end of the New Old Street  and riding out past Gaoqiao (the way I consistently mispronounced that neighborhood made it sound like “gaochao” or “orgasm”) and towards the rice fields to the west of town. Out past there was a park and pagoda where I’d stop to rest, looking at the 8 demigods’ symbols painted above (a medicine gourd, a flute…some other things) before riding back and returning the bike.

 With more than half a year gone by in Zunyi, I was starting to feel like I’d never figure the place out before I left. Not just Zunyi, but China, which I was starting to feel was a more exciting place in Western fantasy than in reality: the name “China”  conjures up temples, pagodas, a rich musical tradition, delicious food,  richly brocaded fabric, or at least some sort  of modern equivalent to these things (seeing as I knew that people generally did not live in pagoda’d and pavilion’d houses anymore, and not everyone sat around all day painting calligraphy or playing the zither). At least you expect scenery, historic sites that look vaguely authentic, food you can trust, maybe a lantern or two, and some adventure.

You’ll get the adventure – if  “ did this bus just drive up a flight of stairs FOR REAL?” is your idea of it (it is for me!) – and the food generally was fantastic, at least when it wasn’t bitter gourd, some other weird roots or things, or mostly bone, fat and sinew…but the food supply was (and is) so untrustworthy that eating was a risk unto itself. I survived…with three fewer teeth than I had going in.

I did learn how to cook some amazing dishes and I was introduced to the life-changing, or at least digestion-changing, concept of 花椒, or flower pepper, though.

But the historic sites are mostly gone or covered in bathroom tile, everything else is basically a concrete box (also covered in bathroom tile) and few really care about any of the traditional, well, anything. There was scenery, but views of it were so gummed up by pollution that even that was a let-down.

And yes, I was starting to wonder what on earth could possibly keep me in China. Wouldn’t I be better off returning to India or exploring some other part of the globe? One not covered in tile? What was I doing in China and was Zunyi a place I could really settle into for longer than my one year contract?

Ruminating on this and marinating in coal smoke, the other two foreigners and I decided to try and find Hailongtun: the ruins of a 13th century fortress with a bloody history about 30km outside of town. It was the site of a battle between Ming dynasty forces and a ruling clan in what is now Guizhou and part of Sichuan – it was build by the regional ruling clan, which by the end of the 16th century was in direct conflict with the Ming court. A bloody battle took place and thousands, if not tens of thousands, were massacred here. The head of the ruling Yang family killed himself along with two concubines. as he was outsmarted by the Ming soldiers.

We also knew that we were in for quite a climb if we attempted to get here, but then doing anything in China felt like quite a climb, if not physically, then mentally. I handled this feeling well in India, but for some reason getting into the groove of it was not working out in China. Where in India my memories  are sunny, colorful, occasionally mud-colored but always warm, when it comes to China my thoughts turn a cold, dingy gray, not unlike the side of a cement wall in winter.

Other than Fragrant Mountain Temple (香山寺) and the buildings in my neighborhood considered historic sites for their significance during the Long March (you could see the roof of the building where Mao Zedong was elected to the Communist Party Central Committee from my window), there wasn’t much of historical significance in Zunyi. I guess having even what it did was a feat: the town was mostly spared destruction of its culture and relics because of that  significance in Communist history. I thought seeing something of genuine historical significance would reaffirm my faith that my year was worth it, that I’d be amazed by something. That maybe I would be brought a little bit closer to the country I was living in by our shared values regarding the importance of history (Cultural Revolution notwithstanding, and leaving most of that history not standing).

It didn’t seem like it would be that hard - it was mentioned in a book published in English, which was a rare thing in itself, to find good tourism information on Guizhou in English. There even seemed to be a bus that would take us close by, followed by a short hike.

The first time Jenny and I tried to go was just before Chinese New Year – we stopped in a random town where the bus route ended, maybe 17 kilometers outside Zunyi. We asked around for “Hailongtun” in piss-poor Chinese, and were led up a street to a hiking trail. We were told it was a 5-hour walk each way. It was already 3pm. We turned back, after snapping some photos of New Year fireworks for sale.  As we were waiting for a bus, a guy with a van stopped and asked us where we were headed. I tried to say that we had wanted to go to Hailongtun. I don’t think he quite understood: he arranged for us to take a bus which we thought was heading back to Zunyi. Instead, the driver said, he’d take us to Hailongtun.

Great!

Oh, but from where he would drop us off it was a two-hour hike each way. We tried protesting but it wasn’t working. Finally we just let him drop us off, praying that wherever we ended up there, would be another bus back to Zunyi. He let us off in some other random town with one place to stay, one liquor store, a few street stands and a village atmosphere, and bid us a nice hike. It was already getting a little dark out.

We did catch a bus back to Zunyi, with the promise to try again in a few weeks. This time we brought Julian, whose Chinese was considerably better than ours but who, like me, wasn’t as fast a hiker as Jenny. We took the bus back to the second village and started out again. Villagers said that in fact it was a four hour hike, and to start from Jingling Mountain, “just over that way”.

Pagodas and farms on the way to Jingling Mountain
OK, misinformation was nothing new for me after life in China and India, so we rolled with the ever-changing time estimates of how long it would actually take to get there, and starting points that seemed to float around with no fixed center, as though the goal didn’t even exist. We grabbed some water and food and headed down the dirt road to the Jingling Mountain trailhead, passing rice fields and a few rustic pagodas on small hills.

Then the stairs began, and with them, fog.

“I hope this clears by afternoon,” Julian said dryly, knowing as well as we did that fog in the mountains of northern Guizhou, once settled in, basically never clears.  We trudged up stairs – miles and miles of stairs, not unlike hiking in Taiwan – into ever thicker fog and a bit of drizzle.

“Maybe it’ll look better in the fog, you know, more mysterious and otherworldly,” said Jenny hopefully. Ever the optimist.

More stairs. We passed a temple, and then another. Nobody had told us that Jingling Mountain was dotted all the way to the top with increasingly beautiful temples, many of them untouched by the scourge of white tile. Most appeared to be Dao/Chinese folk religion in affiliation rather than Buddhist, but it is sometimes hard to tell. We stopped at a few to admire the architecture, idols and incense and chat with the shrine-keepers, who walked up these miles of stairs every morning  and down them every evening.

 The stairs led on, sometimes sharp-edged concrete, sometimes rough-hewn stone, sometimes packed dirt, but they didn’t let up. At one point it felt like we were ascending to heaven. We passed a small turn-off with a shack down the way and asked again there if we were going the right way “no, no, don’t go this way, keep going up the mountain,” the woman told us.
Incense burner (photo by Julian) in one of the temples on Jingling Mountain

Well, alright then. I just hoped that we wouldn’t hit the top of Jinglingshan only to discover that we had to descend the whole thing and ascend the next mountain, and then go back and descend, ascend and descend again. We’d started early but there wasn’t enough time in the day for that.

About three quarters of the way up, Jenny got sick of our slow butts and decided to hike at her own pace. “I’ll meet you there,” she said.  It was true that she was reasonably fit while Julian and I sputtered up the stairs like the duo in Absolutely Fabulous.

We really didn’t have a choice, although I was filled with dread, because rather like my gut feeling that I would never really settle into China, I had an instinctive knowledge that we had approximately .00001% of a chance of making it to Hailongtun that day. So if not there, where would we meet her? Julian could speak Chinese, I could get by in Chinese, but Jenny couldn’t, although she could quite literally run circles around us athletically. She might make it to Hailongtun but would she make it back? We two probably wouldn’t make it to Hailongtun but we could get home just by asking nicely.

Julian and I trudged upward, hitting one final temple and being told that Jinglingshan’s summit was only about 10 minutes up some more stairs.

The temple had a dragon fountain into which you could throw tokens – one renminbi for five, or something like that. If the token landed on the dragon sculpture and not in the bowl, you could make a wish.

I bought the tokens and added something to the game – completely made-up, but I felt like a lot of rules of life and even courtesy in China were basically made-up, slapped together ad-hoc or sometimes not even as necessary but for the explicit purpose of being inconvenient, so it wouldn’t really matter if I made up my own fortune telling superstition it wouldn’t matter to anyone, man or god. I  asked a question each time a coin was thrown, and if it hit the dragon, a heads-up would mean “yes” and a tails-up would mean “no” (the heads were Mao Zedong and the tails were some kind of flower, the tokens were cheap aluminum).               

Two of my coins hit the dragon. I’m not using that as a narrative device – it actually happened. Ask Julian. I made two wishes and asked two questions.

It was now mid-afternoon, and the fog hadn’t let up. But we knew that it wouldn’t. We also knew that we had very little time to actually get there, because we absolutely needed to start heading back.

We decided to go for it. I don’t believe that a stone dragon in a fountain on a temple as a magical fortune-telling device, but I knew, I just knew, what was going to happen.

We walked the ten minutes – for once someone was accurate in their assessment of how long it would take – and hit the summit.
Without fog, the view would have been spectacular. You could feel it in the air. We were surrounded immediately by open space and further on by other mountains and valleys. It would have been stunning. Life-altering, even. Maybe enough to make me reconsider my fairly lackluster opinion of China.

There was fog, though. All-encompassing, all-engulfing white out. You couldn’t see past the stone fence surrounding the platform on the summit, not even down the mountain slope beyond. Nothing. I shouted into it. There was an echo, but that also told me nothing. I called Jenny’s name. Nothing. I screamed it. Nothing.

Of course, the trail ended there. There was no descent. There was only back the way we’d come. Dead end, no Hailongtun, not even a trail we could have taken if we’d had more time. I can’t help but see that as metaphorical.

We turned back, stopped partway down at the turn-off and asked again.

“Of course that is the way to Hailongtun”, the woman said.
“Why didn’t you tell us before? Why did you tell us not to go?”
“Because it’s another three hours’ walk from here. You’d never have made it.  If you go the other way at least you can go to the peak of this mountain.”
“Did another foreigner go that way?”
“Yes, but she came back awhile ago.”
“Did she make it to Hailongtun?”
“I don’t know, she couldn’t speak Chinese. Probably not. Are you hungry?”
“YES!”

She fed us some rice, tofu, cauliflower and carrot cooked in basic Sichuan seasoning. I wolfed, Julian, who doesn’t care for Sichuanese flavors, barely ate. We offered to pay her, but she’d have none of it, even after we offered three times.

This was one thing I liked about China – this and the bus that drove up a flight of stairs. Sometimes, when you least expected it, people were kind. Even people who led you down the wrong trail earlier.

We walked back to town and caught a bus back to Zunyi, fog-dampened and exhausted.  We warmed up a bit and then went to Jenny’s apartment, where she was also huddled in front of a space heater and not concerned about us. “I figured you’d make it back.”

“Did you make it to Hailongtun?”
“Nope. You?”
“No.”
“Oh well…next time?”
“Next time.”

Except I knew, without really knowing, that there wasn’t going to be a next time, not for Hailongtun and not for China. I knew that I wasn’t going to renew my contract, and that I wasn’t going to stay in China. I did not yet know that I’d end up in Taiwan, or that I’d find both the settled happiness and adventure here that I couldn’t find in China. I did not yet know that I was going to marry my best friend, or that despite having a few ugly facades and terrible winter weather that Taiwan would suit me  remarkably well. Not because it is easier – although it is – but because something about life here, the more laid-back attitudes, the fraternity and hospitality, the fact that it’s full of (often) pollution-free scenery and history unencumbered by concrete and tile, sits better with me.

I didn’t know a lot, but I did know, somewhere deep in some internal organ in my gut, that my failure to find Hailongtun represented my failure to feel at home in China, or to be able to say anything more complimentary than “it was an interesting and adventurous experience. You could say it changed my life. It certainly ruined my teeth and my respiratory system.” I will say that while, like not reaching Hailongtun, I never did feel at home in China, that rather like finding all the lovely temples dotting Jingling Mountain, I did have a lot of adventures along the way.

I guess that’s all you can ask of a year abroad, so I don’t feel gypped. My year in Taiwan opened me up to the possibility of Taiwan, and for that I am grateful. I have found many Hailongtuns here.

So as for my questions to the dragon fountain on the highest temple of Jingling Mountain.

For the first question, I asked “Will we ever make it to Hailongtun?”

For the second, “Will I ever see China as more than a brief adventure, a pit stop, a place to explore but not feel at home in?”

No.

And no.

I won’t tell you what I wished for on top of that, but both my questions and my wishes came true.