EARLIER this month China’s first aircraft-carrier set out from the port city of Dalian to begin her longest sea trial to date, one that is likely to include J-15 fighters performing take-off and landing exercises. While China’s state media still officially refer to the ship by its original Russian name, Varyag, it has long been rumoured that when the new carrier is finally commissioned she will acquire a new name: the Shi Lang.
It is an interesting choice, if not especially subtle. In 1683 Admiral Shi Lang led an invasion force across the Taiwan Straits to dislodge an independent kingdom that had been established by rebels who fled the mainland. They had chosen autonomy in favour of submission to a new regime.
Should the carrier be commissioned this year, it would be an equally significant choice of dates. In the contemporary calendar, 2012 marks the 350th anniversary since that breakaway kingdom was founded, by Zheng Chenggong, who is better known outside China as Koxinga.
He came from a storied family. Part merchant, part pirate, Koxinga’s father was the head of a sprawling maritime empire which stretched from Fujian to Japan. Koxinga was born into a world of busy commerce and conflict, where goods flowed among the ports of the western Pacific in a trade so lucrative it created its own economic centre of gravity. It pulled in silver from the mines of Mexico and Peru and investment and ships from as a far away as Lisbon, Madrid, Amsterdam and London.
Koxinga’s life changed when the Ming dynasty fell in 1644. His father at first supported the Ming cause against the Manchu invasion but soon turned coats, betraying his imperial patron to the new dynasty. Koxinga took his loyalties more seriously, and continued to resist the new rulers. (The name Koxinga actually comes from a southern Chinese pronunciation of a title, Lord of the Imperial Surname, given to him by a grateful Ming prince.) Forced off of the mainland in 1661, Koxinga and his fleet fled to Taiwan, which was then nominally under the control of the Dutch. His forces lay siege to their garrison for nearly a year, finally forcing the Dutch commander to surrender in February 1662.
At the time, Taiwan was an inhospitable place. It had never been under the administrative control of any mainland government, and its position at the heart of the Pacific trade routes made it a natural haven for smugglers, pirates, outlaws, foreign adventurers and a few hardy settlers from China’s coastal provinces. First the Portuguese and later the Dutch claimed the island for themselves, but only the bravest souls ventured inland. The island’s aboriginal inhabitants had already developed a fearsome reputation for hostility to outsiders. And even after Shi Lang’s eventual conquest, when Taiwan for the first time came under direct rule from the mainland, it remained a wild and lawless place and a difficult—often dangerous—posting for Chinese officials.
Koxinga remains a controversial figure not least because he is claimed as a “national hero” in three places: China, Taiwan and Japan.
Japan has always treated him as a native son. He was born in Nagasaki and his mother was the daughter of a Japanese lord. Just decades after Koxinga’s death, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, a master of the bunraku form of puppet theatre, made him the subject of one his most famous works. In Chikamatsu’s play, Koxinga is a great warrior who used the martial spirit and courage endowed to him by his Japanese blood to fight battles on exotic Chinese shores. During the period when Japan occupied Taiwan, from 1895 to 1945, Koxinga’s mixed heritage was used in propaganda that sought to prove a deep connection between the people of Japan and Taiwan.
After the Chinese nationalists took their refuge in Taiwan, at the end of the civil war, Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China drew inspiration from stories of Koxinga’s resistance against hostile forces on the mainland—and his desire to reclaim lost territory across the straits. The Generalissimo Chiang himself was sometimes spoken of as a latter-day Koxinga, though clearly Taiwan would like to avoid the fate of the Zheng family.
Back in the People’s Republic of China, textbooks remember Koxinga as a patriotic Chinese hero who boldly “recovered Taiwan” from imperialist Dutch interlopers. His exploits are a key part of the “Patriotic History” narrative, which bolsters Koxinga’s anti-imperialist credentials while glossing over the condition of Taiwan before the Dutch arrived. To say nothing of his mixed parentage, or the fact that this Chinese hero was raised, in the words of Tonio Andrade, an historian, “with a samurai sword in his hand.”
In a recent article, Mr Andrade, who has written extensively on Taiwan and its colonial past, described the frustration he faced in trying to get his book, Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West, translated and published on the mainland:
My erstwhile publisher asked whether I would acquiesce to omitting some “sensitive material” and changing some wording. It sounded like an innocuous request until I got to the details. Since Koxinga is considered a “positive figure in China,” my publisher informed me that the text would have to omit any discussion of torture by him and his soldiers. (Descriptions of Dutch atrocities were acceptable, though.) The book couldn’t refer to Koxinga as a “conqueror” or a “warlord,” and his “restoration of Taiwan” couldn’t be referred to as an invasion or an attack. Similarly, any mention of resistance by Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples (who, historical sources make clear, rose up and killed thousands of his soldiers), would also have to be excised, on the grounds that such episodes hint at “some sort of consciousness of Taiwanese independence”. The Chinese publisher said that if I refused to make such changes, the translation wouldn’t proceed. “Abridgement,” I was told, “is unavoidable.”
Given this legacy, it is little wonder that Chinese military officials should consider naming their new carrier the Shi Lang and not the Zheng Chenggong. Koxinga may have claimed or reclaimed Taiwan, but there is too much disagreement still over who can lay claim to his complicated legacy.
The Economist Jul 27th 2012
You can read about another biography of Zheng Chenggong at Mew World Encyclopedia
or this article “Zheng Chenggong“at Epic World History.