February 1, 1662: Koxinga takes Taiwan

Today marks the 356th anniversary of the liberation of Taiwan from the Dutch by the Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong (1624-1662), better known in the West as Koxinga.*

Zheng Chenggong was born in Nagasaki, the son of Zheng Zhilong -- a Chinese merchant and occasional pirate -- and a Japanese woman named Tagawa. Zheng Chenggong moved to Quanzhou in Fujian as a child, and he spent his youth there preparing to enter official service under the Ming.

After the fall of Beijing to the Manchus in 1644, his father Zheng Zhilong joined the Ming resistance and served one of the many pretenders/contenders to the Ming throne, Prince Tang, who at the time was ensconced in Fujian. After the Prince was captured, Zheng Zhilong--ignoring his son's pleas--went over to the Qing side, but Zheng Chenggong continued his struggle against the Manchu invaders. After a series of defeats at the hands of Qing banner troops, the younger Zheng was forced to flee 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 an estimated 900 ships and 25,000 men. The Dutch held out for a year, waiting for reinforcements and provisions from Batavia that never came.

On February 1, 1662, with the fort parched for a lack of fresh drinking water, the Dutch governor of Formosa, Frederik Coyett, finally surrendered. Under the terms negotiated, 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 for the cause, within a year Zheng Chenggong was dead, apparently of malaria, although 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.)

His descendants succeeded him as "Kings of Taiwan" with the capital at Tainan, and their fleets attacked shipping and occasionally raided the coastline, harassing Qing forces in an attempt to recover the mainland. To stop the depredations of the Zheng family, the Qing government instituted severe measures including the forcible removal of all coastal populations from Shandong in the north to Guangdong in the south, beginning in 1662, inhabitants of coastline villages were moved inland by about 20 miles. The effects of this forced relocation were probably more devastating to those communities than the piratical raids, and the Qing government finally abandoned the policy in 1681.

The Zheng family would rule Taiwan until 1683 when an armada led by Admiral Shi Lang, a former comrade of Zheng Chenggong, defeated a Taiwanese fleet under the command of Feng Xifan and Zheng Chenggong's grandson, Zheng Guoxuan. Both Feng and the youngest Zheng surrendered and were shipped off to Beijing to be enfeoffed. (Some of their followers were not so lucky and were instead exiled to Xinjiang). Shi Lang then formally annexed the island for the Qing dynasty.

The Qing court made Taiwan a prefecture of Fujian province, under whose jurisdiction the island would remain until 1887 when Taiwan became its own province.

1683 marked the first time that Taiwan came under the direct administrative control of any dynasty. Even then, for much of the 18th and even 19th centuries, the island was still a rough and ready frontier of settlers, pirates, native peoples and foreign traders. It was feared by Qing officials as an exotic, difficult, and dangerous post, and the island was never an easy place to manage.

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

During the period of Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945), Zheng, with his mixed heritage, was held up as a symbol of the connections between Japan and Taiwan. Following the KMT takeover, 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 ROC on Taiwan, who would sometimes speak of Chiang Kai-shek as a latter-day Koxinga. To Communist historians in the PRC, Zheng is an anti-imperialist hero whose defeat of the Dutch has been the subject of many teledramas and films in mainland China.

While much of Zheng's life is clouded by mystery and myth, he remains one of the most colorful figures in China's long history.

*Derived from the Hokkien pronunciation of his title, "Bearer of the Imperial Surname" 国姓爷: guo xing ye in Mandarin and approximately kok-xing-ah in Hokkien/Minnan Dialect.

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.

This post was originally published on February 1, 2007.