China and East Asia

Pirates in Taiwan

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Koxinga, 1624-1662, known in China as Zheng Chenggong, was a Ming loyalist who fought against the Manchus who after 1644 had begun to establish themselves as the rulers of all of China. Koxinga was born in Japan, the son of a Chinese pirate and a Japanese woman, but at the age of seven he moved to southern China and sat successfully for the imperial exams. In 1647, although the Ming emperor was dead and his successor on the run, Koxinga continued to fight for the Ming cause in the south of the country. He made several successful raids on Manchu-occupied territory in Fujian, but the land he took was difficult to hold. After protracted, and fruitless, negotiations with the Qing, war broke out again and in a battle in 1656 Koxinga destroyed the Qing navy. He continued on to Taiwan, the island which the Portuguese called Formosa, “the beautiful.” Taiwan was originally populated by aboriginal peoples of Australasian descent, but in the early part of the 17th century it was controlled by Dutch traders, the Dutch East India Company. In 1661 Koxinga laid a successful siege on Fort Zeelandia, in the city of Tainan, where he captured and killed the commander and took the teenage daughter of a missionary as his concubine. In 1662 Koxinga established, for the first time, Chinese rule on the island. He continued onto the Philippines, which at the time was controlled by Spain, and demanded that the Spaniards pay tribute to him or he would destroy their fortresses. Spain refused, but the planned attacked never took place since Koxinga suddenly died of malaria, only 37 years old. In 1683, the Qing army finally defeated Koxinga’s descendants, claiming Taiwan as a part of Mainland China.

In today’s Taiwan there are temples dedicated to Koxinga, and he is remembered as a hero and a saint. After 1949, when the nationalist Chinese government was defeated by Mao’s Communist armies, they, just as Koxinga, took refuge in Taiwan, and just like him they regarded the island as a staging-post for an attempt to reconquer all of China. Taiwanese who want independence from mainland China, on the other hand, emphasize Koxinga’s non-Chinese heritage and the fact that he successfully fought for independence from the rulers on the mainland. Yet Koxinga is regarded as a hero in Mainland China too. Here the emphasis is on his loyalty to the Ming emperors, his struggle against foreign occupiers, and the way he made Taiwan a part of imperial China. Only the aboriginal population of Taiwan refuse to acknowledge Koxinga’s memory. As a result of the Chinese occupation the aborigines were pushed off the best agricultural land and the lucrative trade with the Dutch came to a halt. Today people of Chinese descent make up 98% of Taiwan’s population.