A Chinese aircraft carrier paradox

Was the 17th century admiral whose name has reportedly been given to a Chinese naval vessel a traitor or a patriot? Or both?


Andrew Leonard
May 22, 2008 8:54PM (UTC)

While reading a superb book proposal about Chinese pirates and globalization by Emory University history professor Tonio Andrade, I was amused to learn that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has reportedly dubbed a Russian aircraft carrier purchased from Ukraine in 1998 with the moniker "Shi Lang."

Shi Lang was a 17th century Chinese admiral who first served with the legendary pirate king Koxinga, conquerer of Taiwan from the Dutch and defender of the doomed Ming dynasty against the Manchu Qing invaders. But Shi Lang defected to the Qing dynasty in 1646, whereupon Koxinga executed his father, brother and son.

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Shi Lang returned the favor by eventually conquering Taiwan for the Kangxi emperor in 1683.

Why would the PLAN name an aircraft carrier after an admiral who conquered Taiwan in the 17th century? Hmmmm...

The sourcing for the anecdote appears to be a report in Jane's Defence Weekly in January 2007, and a blog post at Strategy Page in January 2008 citing Chinese sailors working on the carrier's refurbishment. But the Wikipedia entry for Shi Lang considers the story unlikely, because "the PLAN does not name ships after people, and Shi Lang is a very controversial figure in Chinese history."

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Shi Lang is considered controversial because, while from the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party the admiral's conquest of Taiwan fits neatly into the political goal of reincorporating the "rebel province" into China, from the perspective of those who see the Manchus as non-Han invaders, Shi Lang was a traitor most foul.

Which, to me, offers a paradox most delicious: Shi Lang -- simultaneously revered by Chinese nationalists for conquering Taiwan and yet despised for betraying China. That's awesome.


Andrew Leonard

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

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