Showing posts with label koxinga. Show all posts
Showing posts with label koxinga. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Come for the nudity, stay for the underpants: a book review of Lost Colony

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Come for the nudity. Stay for the underpants.


Drunken German traitors. Bum-waving Swiss farmers releasing streams of foul expletives. A missionary in dirty underpants. Naked swimmers, a Chinese general who (probably) had syphilis, slaps, mad rages, racist colonial caricatures getting all up in each others' grills, a two-timing translator/con-man, fire ships and booby traps (no actual boobies it seems, though). A war whose outcome may have been decided on the relative discipline and adaptability of each side's leaders, or on what technology and food supplies they had...or maybe it was just the weather.

These are the colorful details that illustrate Tonio Andrade's meticulous historical account of the defeat of the Dutch colony in Formosa by another kind of colonizer - Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga). Well, sort of - calling it "a meticulous historical account" is actually doing Lost Colony a disservice, although it could easily pass muster as an assigned text in an academic setting. It's also a rollicking good read.

Don't let that lull you into a belief that it's a light read, though. The book explores some heavy themes, ultimately challenging the old and, to be frank, kind of racist assertion that Western colonial powers won wars because they were more disciplined or had a technological or perhaps tactical edge. (Andrade doesn't call it racist; I'm calling it racist.) The central question is worth asking: if Western powers really had all of these advantages, and that's why they conquered so much of the world, how is it that they lost Taiwan?

Through the story, Andrade discusses and compares the relative merits of Dutch and Chinese warships, military technology (including artillery, weaponry and fortifications) and military strategy. He discusses the evolution of those ships, too, based on weather conditions sailing in the Atlantic and around Africa as opposed to Asia, with its monsoons. Don't think this means that Lost Colony is a boring military history though. It's got military elements - it kind of has to - but they don't slow down the story. Hell, I loved this book, and I'm just not that into military history.

This isn't because I'm a girl who doesn't like Big Manly Weapons because they're So Big and Manly, by the way. I grew up around guns and books on military history and have a healthy respect for firepower used intelligently.

Naw, it's because I'd rather we didn't need militaries at all. Too bad we don't live in that world. Anyway.



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I like...big...guns and I cannot lie
(me & a howitzer from our trip to the Matsu islands)



It's no wonder that writer Joyce Bergvelt chose to novelize it in Lord of Formosa (although Lost Colony was not available to her as a source when she did). I called that fictionalized account "cinematic in scope", and frankly, for a work of non-fiction, so is Lost Colony. Count me among those who say that this story should be made into a film as a way of exporting Taiwanese soft power abroad.

That's all well and good, you're saying, and I love a good story about conniving translator-businessmen and foul-mouthed bum-slappers, but how is historical account about something that happened in the 1600s relevant to my life? 

Well, it's a well-worn adage among those who know Taiwan that the coming-to-Taiwan stories of Koxinga and Chiang Kai-shek share many parallels, which invites consideration of the present day seeing as the Republic of China has still unfortunately not given way to the Republic of Taiwan. I'm not going to talk about that, though, because everyone does. I'm more interested in how Andrade's telling of what happened when the military apparatus of a Western country met an Eastern one, and what that has to tell us about Taiwan's biggest foe. 


The Art of War figures heavily in the narrative as well - and in fact, when hearing about the various axioms Koxinga was known to employ in practice, I could not help but think of the current tactics of the Chinese Communist Party in trying to convince the West that it is not an ideological foe - when it absolutely is - and bring Taiwan to heel. 

By the time I got to the end, Andrade seemed to agree with me:



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"Today, a Chinese regime rules Taiwan"...I think I officially have an intellectual crush on Tonio Andrade.
Freddy's still my guy in the end, though. 


After all, as Andrade notes, just because we think the West as a military advantage over China in terms of both technology and numbers - the US spends several times more on its military than China does - that doesn't necessarily mean we will win a potential future war. Frederick Coyet (the last colonial governor of Dutch Formosa who lost the war with Koxinga) had plenty of advantages - Renaissance fort architecture, big ships carrying heavy artillery that could sail at a closer tack against the wind than Chinese war junks, a potential alliance with Koxinga's enemy, the nascent Qing dynasty, and advice from Chinese defectors. For several potential reasons explored in the book, including a false belief in the superior discipline of his troops and his failure to listen and adapt, he lost anyway. We might too, and it's more than just Taiwan at stake.

Lost Colony tells its story with a remarkably clear-eyed look on the past. In much of Taiwan and parts of China, when Koxinga's conquest of Taiwan is discussed, there's an undertow of a sort of ethnic pride that one of their own (I suppose) kicked out the red-haired foreign colonizers. 


The Dutch are no longer hated in Taiwan, per se - their colonial rule was so short-lived, involved such a small slice of Taiwan, and happened so long ago that it would be odd if they were - but Koxinga is seen by many as a hero. To be frank, it's a way of thinking I also find common to the Western left: of course someone like Koxinga would be the "good guy", relatively speaking. He was Chinese, Taiwan is Chinese (it's in Asia, anyway - same diff to a lot of Westerners), and Western imperialists were, and are, evil.

Western imperialism was and is evil, of course. Imperialism sucks. But this doesn't make Koxinga a comparatively "good guy" or a "hero". He was a warlord too - a colorful, brilliant warlord, to be sure - but still a conquering colonizer. The Chinese in Taiwan at the time were immigrants, not native inhabitants, and Taiwan subsequently became a settler state. Of course, your average Westerner probably has no idea who Koxinga was, but the big-picture implications of this kind of thinking are troublesome. Andrade understands this, I wish more Westerners (and Asians) did, too. He tells the story without picking sides. He made a case that we shouldn't dismiss the history of Asian military technology, training and strategy, while pointing out objectively who seemed to have advantages in what areas. 


Andrade ends on an ominous note: the seventeenth century, when all of this took place, was one of the most tumultuous in human history, in part because of a spate of climate change that started wars, decimated populations and caused governments to be overthrown.

The climate change facing us in the twenty-first century, he notes, is likely to be several orders of magnitude worse than that. How will we face it? 


Don't let all that doom-and-gloom scare you off, though.

There's also the aforementioned cursing Swiss bum-shakers, drunkenness, nudity, a fair number of references to testicles (one person got a cannon-ball shot straight through his) and a missionary in dirty underpants. There was a surprisingly detailed account of exactly how and when the Dutch, holed up in Fort Zeelandia, could go to the bathroom, and how often body parts got blown off by enemy fire in the process.

Read it because it's serious, but also read it because it's fun. 

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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Review: Lord of Formosa

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It is a pleasure for a work of historical fiction to come out on an area of history I am particularly interested in (Taiwan, obviously). It is an even greater pleasure when that work of historical fiction is not only engaging, but generally accurate. Joyce Bergvelt's Lord of Formosa has earned both of these adjectives.

Lord of Formosa is essentially a biography of Koxinga (國姓爺 or 鄭成功), the 17th-century scholar/pirate/businessman/military leader/talented crazy dude, from his early life on the Japanese island of Hirado (off Nagasaki) with his Japanese mother, Tagawa Matsu to his upbringing at his father Zheng Zhilong's (鄭芝龍) estate in Fujian, followed by his rise as one of the most talented loyalist military leaders resisting the encroaching Manchu (Qing) conquerers to his conquest of the Dutch colony on Taiwan. It's interspersed with viewpoint chapters from the Dutch colonial officers as well as Koxinga's parents.

It tells the story, in short, of a man given the Imperial Surname (國姓爺) by a dying empire, a man given the title 'Success' (成功) who was, in the end, not all that successful.

The story itself is somewhat tragic: Koxinga fulfills what the novel depicts as his 'destiny' but pays for it dearly. He has to choose between remaining loyal to the collapsing Ming dynasty or to his father, and watches the devastation of his family at the hands of the Qing.

"He literally died of a broken heart," an acquaintance of mine noted.

But no, to hear historians tell it, he probably died of syphilis.

In this way, the thick novel is cinematic in scope, at times reading like a biopic. It would make an excellent film, and I can only hope someone will pick up the rights and do just that (as long as it's not a Chinese company hoping to use it as a propaganda vehicle for their government's aggressive territorial expansionism).

From the beginning, I was interested in how accurate Lord of Formosa really was. So, just after reading it, I picked up Tonio Andrade's Lost Colony, figuring it would be a good nonfiction counterpoint. I'm partway through that book now, and am surprised more by how much is accurate than the small details which are spun with more artistic license.

However, this isn't even the highlight of the book: the best part is simply how much fun it is to read. Despite being extremely busy, I read Lord of Formosa in three days, staying up late one evening to finish it. You know a book is good when it's 3am and you know you aren't going to get enough rest that night, but you just keep going because sleep won't happen anyway.

I also appreciated how forthright Bergvelt is with her characters' flaws. Zheng Zhilong is, to be frank, a total douchehole both in terms of his defection to the Qing and his treatment of his first wife. If his son Koxinga was any kind of hero, he was a deeply flawed one: often cruel and despotic, suffering from fits of uncontrollable rage which might have been brought about by the aforementioned syphilis. Of course, the syphilis would have been brought about by all the mostly-nonconsensual sex he was having.

What I'm trying to say is that Koxinga might have been brilliant, but he was also super rapey.

His regretting it later (in the novel's telling) doesn't change that. Oh, and like father, like son.

In fact, that Bergvelt successfully created a story that includes a variety of relevant, realistic female voices - not all of them kind, pure-hearted heroic martyrs - in a story and era that is so deeply, unrepentantly penis-driven (my masts are bigger than your masts - let us do naval warfare!) is a literary feat. While she could have done more with the housekeeper, Lady Yan and Koxinga's wife Cuiying, she does enough to show that behind every story of dueling dicks, there are women who also drive the plot. And yet, she doesn't shy away from exactly how those women are treated.

The Dutch, who are portrayed not entirely unsympathetically, still come across as stupid - not really understanding Asia or the goings-on in the colonies they ruled - as well as greedy and racist. This was historically accurate: they did consider Chinese men to be 'effeminate', not a fighting force that could vanquish their (smaller) military might. That's racist. They didn't care nearly as much about the welfare of the people on Formosa, be they indigenous or Hoklo, as they did their profits. This is not only historically accurate, but also racist. 

On the other hand, Koxinga was kind of racist too - believing he had the right to take Taiwan because most residents by that time were Chinese (mostly brought over as laborers by the Dutch, who worked them like serfs) and therefore Taiwan ought to be a part of China, is just a different way to be racist. He didn't 'liberate' Taiwan from colonizers - he was just another kind of colonizer.

If I have any criticism of Lord of Formosa, it's that that point could have been made more forcefully.

Bergvelt takes a few artistic liberties. There was a fortune-teller in Japan who was more of a plot device than real character. I'm not sure how many of the Hoklo characters on Formosa were real people (though at least two - Guo Huai-yi and He [Ting]-bin certainly are). It is not clear how Tagawa Matsu died, although Bergvelt's telling of it is plausible, or even likely. Koxinga is depicted as growing less rapey over time (but still, again, super rapey) due to the effect his mother's death has on him. I'm not sure this would have played out in quite that way in real life - more likely, he was incapable of comprehending that the sex he unilaterally decided to have with women who didn't resist per se but also didn't consent is just as rapey as what Qing soldiers were doing. In other words, he didn't stop being rapey - he was just another kind of rapist.

That said, Bergvelt is a talented writer, understanding seemingly innately where to hew to historical accuracy and where to apply a bit of soft focus or streamlining. The story moves forward when it needs to (although I would have liked to have seen more of Koxinga's childhood in China) and lingers where it needs to.

Whether you are into historical fiction, want an engaging read of a period of Taiwanese history in particular, or just like a good novel, I strongly recommend it.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Republic of Tayovan

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From Jerome Keating's book, The Mapping of Taiwan. p. 76-77.
I have seen (reprints of) maps that spell it as "Tayovan" but I don't have access to them right now. 

Let's say you have a beautiful island. It's so beautiful that some random Europeans sailing by one day named it "The Beautiful Island".

Let's say that since that time, your island has never quite been free of colonialism.

First, the Dutch came. They called your island Formosa, just as the Portuguese named it. They imported immigrants from China to work for them, who called it "Tai'ouan", a Hokkien rejiggering of the indigenous - Siraya - name for bit of land near present-day Tainan, which was established as the capital. This can also be written as 臺員, and I've seen it written as 代員. This is the foundation for the modern name "Taiwan". That name was "Tayovan", and it can be seen on maps from that era.

Taiwan has been known by a number of names. There's Tungning (東寧), Tungtu (東都), Taiwan, The Republic of Taiwan (also sometimes called the Republic of Formosa), Ryukyu, Takasago (高砂), Taiwan Prefecture, Taiwan Province, The Republic of China - not in that order. In all cases, Taiwan was treated as a colony: Koxinga, the Qing, the Japanese, the ROC. Every last one is a colonizing power, in that they came from a foreign land and claimed ownership of Taiwan, without the consent of the locals. It's not common to call the Qing or the ROC colonizers, at least not in English - some sort of deference to ethnic chauvinism there maybe - but they most certainly are.

Now, there is an ongoing social discussion of what to call Taiwan. Die-hard blues with roots in China cling to "the Republic of China", but nobody who is even nominally forward-thinking takes this idea seriously. One of the main points of this discussion is that Taiwan is not a part of China, and deserves its own name.

Taiwan? I know someone who refuses to use the word, and insists on being referred to as "Formosan", because "Taiwan" is a "Chinese" name and he is not Chinese. (Of course, the name is an indigenous borrowing, it's not originally Chinese...but, that's cool.) In any case, he's not wrong that China would love for everyone to call this island "Taiwan", as in "Taiwan, Province of China".

He is not young, but a lot of young politically-minded Taiwanese have also landed on "Formosa" as the ideal name for Taiwan. It seems like a nice choice - it was a name given by Portuguese explorers, and Portugal never colonized Taiwan. It's a compliment, a reminder that while Taiwanese cities are not particularly attractive, the island as a whole is very beautiful indeed.

But I'd like to make the case for "Tayovan" (or "Taivan", but "Tayovan" makes it clearer that this is a departure from "Taiwan"). The Republic of Tayovan. Has a nice ring to it, no?

First, although it was originally a name for only a small bit of land around Tainan, it was the basis for which "Taiwan" came to be.

Second, this idea is not unheard-of in Mandarin and Taiwanese language discourse. I searched and can't find any links, but I know I've heard it discussed. I don't hear anyone talking about it in English, though.

Next, it has indigenous roots. No colonization involved. No other name has that pedigree - the Portuguese never colonized Taiwan, but they did brutally colonize other parts of the world. They were not Taiwanese - it's still a name bestowed on this island by Europeans (just as 'Taiwan' was bestowed on this island by Chinese).

There are a number of indigenous tribes in Taiwan (don't let the 'officially recognized' number fool you), all with their unique history, language and culture. All might wish to be the group honored in the hypothetical choosing of a new name for the country in recognition of its first inhabitants. However, because this is the specific name that came to be used for the whole island, it makes the most sense. It also comes from a language that is no longer spoken natively, so it's harder to accuse the government of giving preferential treatment to a currently-used language.

Finally, wouldn't be a big change - just switch your pronunciation, a little adjustment to spelling, maybe change the characters - and honors a deeper history that is uniquely Taiwanese. The waves of colonizers - the Dutch, the Zhengs, the Qing, the Japanese, the ROC - cannot lay claim to this. It doesn't speak to their history, it speaks to the history of this island. It recalls an Austronesian history that is so often overlooked.

And, y'know, it just sounds super cool.

Somehow I doubt I'm going to convince the entire nation to get on board. But, if I'm ever allowed to cast a vote on this, count me in for Republic of Tayovan.

Come on guys - Tayovan!