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This Date in History: Koxinga and the liberation of Taiwan

Today marks the 345th anniversary of the liberation of Taiwan from the Dutch by the Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong, better known in the West as Koxinga. (The latter name derived from the Hokkien pronunciation of his title, “Bearer of the Imperial Surname” 国性爷: guo xing ye in Mandarin and approximately kok-xing-ah in Hokkien/Min Nan hua.)

Born in Nagasaki, Zheng was the son of a Chinese merchant (and occasional pirate) Zheng Zhilong and a Japanese woman named Tagawa. The younger Zheng moved to Quanzhou in Fujian when he was a child and spent his youth preparing to enter the official service of the Ming.

All that would change in 1644. After the fall of Beijing to the Manchu invaders, Zheng Zhilong came to the aid of one of the Ming pretenders/contenders to the throne, Prince Tang, who at the time was in Fujian. After the Prince was captured by the Qing armies, Zheng Zhilong, despite his son’s pleas, went over to the Qing side. Zheng Chenggong, however, continued to resist the Qing. After a series of defeats by the Qing banner troops fighting to consolidate Manchu rule, Zheng Chenggong fled across the Taiwan straits to Formosa, then under the control of the Dutch.

On April 30, 1661, Zheng Chenggong besieged the Dutch at Fort Zeelandia (near present day Tainan) with a force estimated at 900 ships and 25,000 men. The Dutch held out for one year, waiting for reinforcements and provisions from Batavia. None came and on February 1, 1662, with the fort parched for a lack of fresh drinking water, the Dutch governor of Formosa, Frederik Coyett, surrendered to Zheng Chenggong. Under the terms of the surrender, the Dutch were free to leave with their personal belongings so long as the goods and supplies of the Dutch East India Company were left behind. Coyett’s surrender ended 38 years of Dutch rule on Formosa.

Unfortunately, Zheng Chenggong died a year later, some say of malaria but other reports claim he committed suicide after a series of personal setbacks. (Several of his generals defected and his son was caught dallying with one of Zheng’s nurses.) Zheng’s son and grandson would succeed him as “Kings of Taiwan” with their capital at Tainan. Their forces attacked shipping along China’s southeast coast and occasionally raided the mainland to harass Qing forces in an attempt to recover the mainland. To stop the depradations of the Zheng family, the Qing instituted severe measures including the forcible removal of all coastal populations from Shandong in the north to Guangdong in the south. Beginning in 1662, the Qing court ordered inhabitants of coastline villages moved inland by about 20 miles. The effects of this policy were probably more devastating to those communities than the Zhengs’ piratical raids could ever have been and the policy was finally abandoned in 1681.

The Zheng family ruled Taiwan until 1683, when an armada led by Admiral Shi Lang, a former brother in arms of Zheng Chenggong, crushed the forces led by Feng Xifan and Zheng’s grandson, Zheng Guoxuan. Both Feng and the youngest Zheng surrendered and were shipped off to Beijing and enfeoffed (some of the followers were not so lucky and were exiled to Ili). Shi Lang then formally annexed the island for the Qing dynasty.

The Qing court made Taiwan a prefecture of Fujian province under whose administrative control the island would remain until 1887 (when Taiwan became its own province). 1683 marked the first time that the island of Taiwan would come under the direct administrative control of any dynasty. Nevertheless, for much of the 18th and even 19th centuries Taiwan was still a rough and ready place of frontier settlers, pirates, native peoples and foreign traders that was never easy to administer.

Zheng Chenggong left a complicated legacy. He is claimed as a ‘national’ hero by the PRC, the ROC, and in Japan and is the subject of many plays, stories, movies, and television shows. Perhaps his most notable representation was by the celebrated Japanese playwright and master of the bunraku form of puppet theater, Chikamatsu Monzaemon whose Battles of Koxinga (Kokusen’ya kassen 国性爺合戦) first appeared in 1715.

During the period of Japanese colonial rule on Taiwan, Zheng, with his mixed heritage, was held up as a symbol of the connections between Japan and the island. Following the KMT takeover of Taiwan, the story of Zheng’s resistance to the Qing, and his use of the island as a base for a future attack on the mainland, was a source of inspiration to the early ROC who would sometimes speak of Chiang Kai-shek as a latter-day Zheng. To the PRC, Zheng is an anti-imperialist hero whose defeat of the Dutch has been the subject of not a few teledramas and films.

Much of Zheng’s life is clouded by mystery and myth but he certainly remains one of the most colorful figures in China’s long history.
Source: Arthur W. Hummel, Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period. Vol. 1, (Taipei: SMC Publishing, Inc., 1991) Original edition published by the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1943.