Tensions Between China and Taiwan Go Back Further Than You Think

Tensions Between China and Taiwan Go Back Further Than You Think

"Koxinga Hunting the Tiger" (Watonai tora-gari no zu), circa 1846. Private collection. Artist: Kuniyoshi, Utagawa (1797–1861).

SourceFine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty

Why you should care

General Koxinga’s claims to Taiwan were groundbreaking … and now everyone uses his legacy for their own ends.

Chinese general Koxinga landed in Taiwan in 1661, when it was known as Formosa and controlled by the Dutch East India Company. Historian Xing Hang describes him standing outside a Dutch fortress, shouting: “Taiwan belongs to the government of China!” Fast-forward 358 years to this January, when Chinese President Xi Jinping stood in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and proclaimed, “It’s a legal fact that both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait belong to one China and cannot be changed by anyone or any force.”

Xi has repeatedly vowed to reunite Taiwan with China and is rapidly building a military capable of delivering on that promise. The modern conflict over Taiwan is the legacy of a civil war between the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC), which today rules mainland China, and the nationalist Republic of China (ROC), which rules Taiwan and a few islands off the southeast coast of China. By some reckonings, that conflict began in 1949 when the ROC government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan with the intention of one day expelling the communists and unifying China.

But they were far from the first. In his forthcoming book, The Making of the Chinese Navy, Bruce Elleman argues that “Taiwan has repeatedly been used as a sanctuary for the losing side in Chinese civil wars.” The story of the first such instance centers on Koxinga, a legendary ruler described in Chinese textbooks as a national hero for expelling Western powers from Taiwan.

When Koxinga claimed Taiwan had been Chinese territory since “ancient times,” he was the first of many who would make that claim.

In the mid-17th century, the Manchu invaded China from the north, defeating the Ming dynasty to establish the Qing dynasty. Loyalists of the old regime were forced to consider their dwindling options. Koxinga, or Zheng Chenggong, was a Ming loyalist with deep hatred for the Manchu invaders from the north, who had executed his father and driven his mother to suicide. Koxinga assembled a massive force to invade Taiwan, then only inhabited by the Dutch East India Company and aboriginal groups, with the intention of eventually restoring ethnic-Chinese control of China.

Despite being a Chinese nationalist, Koxinga himself was half-Japanese on his mother’s side. He was born in Japan and spent much of his childhood there. His father came from a family of powerful pirates with connections throughout the Western Pacific. Arriving in Taiwan in 1661, Koxinga defeated and expelled the Dutch East India Company, an act for which he is revered today. When Koxinga, railing against the Dutch, claimed Taiwan had been Chinese territory since “ancient times,” he was the first of many who would make that claim over the next three centuries.

Koxinga ultimately prevailed in what is regarded as China’s first major victory against the West. Under his leadership, Taiwan — known as the Kingdom of Tungning — was a melting pot of Japanese, Chinese and aboriginal culture, with influxes of people from as far away as Africa.

It didn’t last long: Koxinga died within a year of his invasion. Koxinga’s son Zheng Jing inherited the kingdom, overseeing a major shift in its orientation. While Koxinga probably intended to expel the Manchu from China and unite Taiwan with the mainland, his son Zheng Jing sought coexistence with the Manchu government, hoping for a tributary relationship and a divided China. Still, when a rebellion broke out on the mainland, Zheng Jing shifted his attention back toward fighting the Manchu. In 1680, he lost and fled back to Taiwan, where he died shortly thereafter. A succession struggle broke out, and the kingdom’s leaders faced pressure from the Qing to give up their kingdom on Taiwan. Barely putting up a fight, they shaved their heads in traditional Manchu fashion and surrendered.

Today, many see parallels between Koxinga’s story and Gen. Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat to Taiwan with his Kuomintang (KMT) party in 1949. “Both were beaten on the continent and on the run,” says Jerome Keating, a retired professor at National Taipei University. “They both had inflated beliefs in their destiny to be the hero to restore China’s greatness.” Tonio Andrade, author of The Gunpowder Age, points out that the names of their capital cities reflected this belief. “The Zheng [Koxinga] regime called their capital the Eastern Ming Capital, making clear that they felt it was the only legitimate capital of all of China,” says Andrade. “The KMT named Taipei the capital of the Republic of China, making clear that they thought of it as the only legitimate capital for China.”

From the fall of Koxinga’s kingdom until the present day, groups on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have jostled over Koxinga’s legacy, appropriating his legend for political purposes. “The interesting thing is the rhetorical utility — the way actors in the present have seen narratives about Koxinga as politically useful or resonant,” explains Michael Szonyi, director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. In 1950s Taiwan, Chiang Kai-Shek’s anti-Communist regime used the Koxinga myth as a morale-boosting device and source of regime legitimacy, according to Szonyi.

“Myths die hard,” says Keating. “The Chinese and some Taiwanese see Koxinga as a hero since he defeated the ‘foreign devils.’” The mainland Chinese Community Party (CCP) embraces the general emphasizing his Chinese nationalism and victory against the Dutch … even though he spent most of his life opposing a centralized Chinese government. Koxinga’s tactics for capturing Taiwan are currently being studied by the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army, Elleman says in his forthcoming book.

For China, the story of Koxinga is one of Chinese civilization prevailing against the West. But rather than expelling such powers, as Koxinga did, Taiwan today is growing closer to Western countries — particularly the U.S. — as it attempts to ensure a different fate for itself than that of Koxinga’s kingdom.

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