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A History of Pessimism in Taiwan

Like myself, most of my expat friends really love Taiwan. But every love affair has its tiffs. And since this is a culture blog, the focus today is the common complaints about ‘negative cultural traits’ of the Taiwanese. To wit, these are being closed-minded about new ideas, suspicious of outsiders, fatalistic, unsure of their identity, and with no grand vision of the future. My point is that these traits, however inappropriate they may seem in 2016, have evolved for a reason. For in my mind at least, history is the mother of culture.

The Dutch settlement of Fort Zeelandia

From 1624 to 1662, the colony of Dutch Formosa, whose capital was modern-day Tainan, was a base for the Dutch East India Company. Its height saw about 1,800 Dutch colonists administering approximately 30,000 Han Chinese settlers brought over from Fujian for farming. The Dutch also came into contact with around 50,000 Formosan Aborigines, who had to be pacified militarily before accepting Dutch rule.

However, fleeing advancing Qing armies, half-Japanese leader of the ruling Fuzhou-based family of Ming loyalists, Zheng Chenggong - aka Koxinga - led his pirate fleet to Taiwan and defeated the Dutch in 1662.


This was good news for the Han settlers. (Victory against the red haired barbarians! Now we can own our farms!) But the rule of Koxinga and heirs was short-lived. They were defeated in 1683 by the Qing, who repatriated most of the settlers back to Mainland China, leaving only about 7,000, who had married Aboriginal women. My wife’s family ancestor was one of them.

The Dutch planted the seed that was Taiwan, bringing large numbers of Han and Aboriginal people into contact with each other. They also introduced cattle to Taiwan! Koxinga’s legacy is as the first Han leader of an independent Taiwan, but one doomed to fail in the face of a powerful China!

Qing restrictions on immigration were relaxed around 1760, so by the early 19th century there were almost 2,000,000 Han in Taiwan: feuding amongst themselves, with the Aborigines, with the government, struggling in the heat, falling sick of diseases like malaria, putting up with earthquakes and typhoons - and all sporting the absolute height of fashion, the mandatory Manchurian queue! (The crap we have to put up with! Oh well!)

What’s more, each wave of history saw a similar pattern: outsiders coming in and messing things up. The Dutch and Dutch-brought Han conquering the Aboriginals, the Ming conquering the Dutch, the Qing conquering the Ming, then a constant influx of new immigrants to destabilize an already difficult situation.

Now here come the Westerners again! After the Opium Wars of the 19th century, hundreds of Western traders, officials, sailors, missionaries and others were allowed into Taiwan. They brought Christianity again, trade with the world, modern ideas, and new foods, like tomatoes! (OK, in small numbers, foreigners aren’t too bad!)

But there was a new sun rising in Asia, and it shone brightly on Taiwan. Beyond any doubt, the most significant cross-cultural infusion into Taiwan was from Imperial Japan, which ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. The empire brought soldiers and officials of course, but also teachers, architects, engineers, scientists, doctors and businessmen. Japanese colonization saw a stunning development of industry, education, medicine, and infrastructure that brought Taiwan into the modern world.

By the end of World War 2, there were about 500,000 Japanese and their families on the island. Most were forced to leave after the war. But they left behind a deep cultural footprint, the edges of which still exist today in food, music, and literary and artistic traditions. In a way, Japan – which modernized more quickly than China - was the Asian lens through which Taiwan received advancements from the Western world. That it is still loved as a ‘cleaner, better Taiwan’ is no surprise.

The defeat of Japan saw the arrival of two new major cultural influences. The first was the Republic of China in the form of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) soldiers and government officials. Corrupt and greedy, they took over the island and proceeded with a program of de-Japanization. They did not trust the Taiwanese, who had worked in relative harmony with enemy Japan. Their inept and brutal governance caused great suffering to the locals, culminating in the February 28 Incident of 1947, and energized the independence movement that had started quietly among Taiwanese students at Japanese universities.

However, democracy, let alone independence, was a long way off. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War, and about a million soldiers, officials and their families came over from Mainland China. (More meddlesome newcomers from China!) Reordering the world, they displaced the Taiwanese elite, and brought Chinese nationalism, the treasures of the National Palace Museum, a huge stash of gold, and new foods and traditions.

Chiang Kai-shek at the end of the Chinese Civil War

The second group were the American spies, soldiers and their families who came over after World War 2, and were also based in Taiwan for the Korean War. There were up to 10,000 of them in 1957. Among seven million residents, this is a small number. But for most local Taiwanese, and many Mainlanders, working with or for these Americans would be their first contact with Western people. And as representatives of a country that helped guard Taiwane against an invasion by Mao Zedong’s PLA, they were popular, if odd-looking. (A small group of useful foreigners: OK!) The ROC military also became modeled on the US armed forces.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were not on the agenda. This was the era of martial law, the White Terror. No Taiwanese was safe from the secret police, tens of thousands were detained, tortured and killed. The legacy of the KMT rule was of deep mutual distrust and hatred.

So seen through the eyes of history, pessimism has usually been realism for the Taiwanese, and outsiders with new ways often spelt trouble. There’s a brighter side of course, and I’ll get to that as the story continues in my next post, dear reader!

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