How Taiwan became Chinese

Once upon a time, the "beautiful island" was mainly populated by warlike aborigines. Then along came the Dutch

Published April 5, 2007 11:38PM (EDT)

One of the oddities of history is that although Taiwan is separated from mainland China by only about 100 miles, the first outside power to exert political control over the island was the Netherlands. Even more peculiar, and delightful, is the thesis articulated in Tonio Andrade's "How Taiwan Became Chinese": The Dutch are ultimately responsible for the Sinification of Taiwan; the transformation of an island populated predominantly by Austronesian aborigines into a culturally Chinese domain.

Here is how Andrade introduces the idea:

Intensive Chinese colonization began abruptly in the 1630s, shortly after the Dutch East India Company established a trading port on Taiwan. The Dutch realized that their port's hinterlands could produce rice and sugar for export, but they were unable to persuade Taiwan's aborigines to raise crops for sale -- most were content to plant just enough for themselves and their families. The colonists considered importing European settlers, but the idea was rejected by their superiors in the Netherlands. So they settled instead on a more unusual plan: encourage Chinese immigration. The Dutch offered tax breaks and free land to Chinese colonists, using their powerful military to protect pioneers from aboriginal assault... In this way the company created a calculable economic and social environment, making Taiwan a safe place for Chinese to move to and invest in, whether they were poor peasants or rich entrepreneurs. People from the province of Fujian, just across the Taiwan Strait, began pouring into the colony, which grew and prospered, becoming, in essence, a Chinese settlement under Dutch rule. The colony's revenues were drawn almost entirely from Chinese settlers, through taxes, tolls, and licenses. As one Dutch governor put it, "The Chinese are the only bees on Formosa that give honey."

Regular readers of How the World Works know that I have something of a Taiwan fetish, given my years spent there in the mid-80s, and my conviction that the country plays an extraordinarily important role in both the global economy and the emerging narrative of China's rise in world affairs. So I'm generally a sucker for well-written Taiwanese history. But Andrade hooked me with a lure glistening with more than just the promise of intriguing historical ironies. It is his contention that the late 16th and early 17th centuries in East Asia, a period in which the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese all operated in pursuit of trading riches and power, offers an early look at globalization -- that it was here where the first true era of global trade emerged.

Again, let's return to the source:

We can glimpse the structure of the new global trade by focusing on its most important commodity: silver. In 1637 a Spanish official wrote that "China... is the general center for the silver of Europe and Asia." Recent scholarship corroborates his view. During the sixteenth century, silver production and trade increased dramatically and, although the metal moved through a web of networks, most of it ended up in China. Indeed, China became a global "silver sink," drawing the metal from all over the world. So vast was China's demand that it may have affected major developments in Europe itself: "There would not have been a Spanish Empire in the absence of the transformation of the Chinese society to a silver base, nor would there have been the same sort of 'Price Revolution' (i.e., inflation) around the globe in the early modern period." China's thirst for silver shaped the pattern of global trade and colonialism and, what is most important for our inquiry, led to the colonization of Taiwan

Icing on the cake? A key player in this drama was Koxinga, a.k.a. "the pirate king of Taiwan," the never-say-die Ming dynasty loyalist who ruled the Taiwan straits and defeated both the Manchu invaders and the Dutch in a series of extraordinary battles. So even as I write these words, my printer is chugging away printing out PDF versions of the rest of the chapters of "How Taiwan Became Chinese." In my geeky world there's nothing better for bedtime reading than a little dose of 16th century Taiwanese globalization.

PDF files? Yes, what began as Andrade's dissertation is now an e-book published by the Columbia University Press and American Historical Association's' Gutenberg-e, an online-only imprint designed to highlight the best work of "junior scholars" in history, and in so doing, possibly rescue the historical monograph from a premature death. Subscription to Gutenberg-e for just one book costs a whopping $49, which strikes me as completely outrageous, but luckily, there is a one-week free trial available for anyone who is curious as to how the habits of aborigine headhunters in 16th century Taiwan were affected by Fujianese immigration.

One last thing: as Andrade notes in his preface, it would be easy to misinterpret his title in the framework of the current, highly politicized question of whether Taiwan should be an independent nation or is just a "rebel province" that must inevitably be folded back under the mainland's wing. That is not Andrade's intent.

He writes, in his preface:

... I worried that my title might help hawks in mainland China argue that Taiwan belongs to the People's Republic of China, and I strongly believe that Taiwan belongs to its people and should be whatever they decide. They're doing a great job ruling themselves.

Yet there is no doubt that Taiwan today is culturally Chinese... Indeed, in many ways Taiwan is more Chinese than its assertive neighbor. Three decades of Maoism stripped away parts of mainland China's traditional culture, but Taiwan preserves customs, festivals, and schools of thought that were extinguished across the strait....

When the story starts in the early seventeenth century, few Chinese lived on Taiwan, and China's officials so disdained the island that they urged the Dutch to establish a colony there rather than on the much smaller Penghu Islands in the Taiwan Strait. The Dutch reluctantly went to Taiwan, and it was, oddly, under their rule that Chinese immigration to the island began in earnest. By the end of the Dutch period, a self-sustaining and rapidly growing Chinese colony had been born, and thenceforth China's governments could not ignore Taiwan. Today, mainland China clamors loudly for reunification, and perhaps it will come. If so, let it be on Taiwan's terms, when and how the Taiwanese want.

UPDATE: Michael Turton, from The View from Taiwan, has a powerfully expressed critique of some of Andrade's points in the letters section.

SECOND UPDATE: Andrade responds to Turton.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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