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Of Chinese pirate kings and Dutch traders
Pirate King: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty by Jonathan Clements, and The Dutch Encounter with Asia: 1600-1950 by Kees Zandvliet

Reviewed by Macabe Keliher

The 17th century was a monumental time for Asia. The Dutch had just arrived, and began to extend a broad and profitable trading empire; China's Qing Dynasty arose and brought the Ming to a violent and catastrophic end; and Taiwan was first absorbed into Chinese rule. These events, while regionally limited, have had continuous impact right through our present day. The Dutch, for example, stayed on as colonizers for 350 years, writing the rules of Southeast Asia's nation-states in the 20th century. And the cataclysm in China sparked the battle for Taiwan, a battle that has yet to be resolved.

In fact, global trade first took root at this time. European merchants established trading bases throughout Asia, hoping to capitalize on the European demand for Asian goods, as well as partake of and profit from the intra-Asian trade in silk, deerskin and porcelain - the Spanish took the Philippines, the Portuguese Macau, and the Dutch Java (in modern-day Indonesia), as well as Taiwan and Japan. Likewise, Chinese traders, while not circumnavigating the globe to take goods to market, did monopolize the middleman market at one point.

And yet so little has been written about the period; so little is understood about the complexity of the day and its carcinogenic growth into the contemporary era. True, general sweeps like John Wills' 1688: A Global History and Jonathan Spence's work on the era have touched on the times, while academic studies have filled us in on the specifics of, say, the rise of the Qing Dynasty, but none of these has been enough to frame the era.

Most important, myths are perpetuated, and governments today have rewritten the history for political motives. Beijing, and Chinese scholars, spare no ink in demonizing the Dutch of the mid-17th century who "illegally took part of China". Or Taiwan nationalists who belt out at every opportunity the 17th-century beginnings of Taiwan's 400-year independent history.

Koxinga exposed
The Chinese general Koxinga is one of the most politically charged and misunderstood characters of history today. Known as Zheng Chenggong to the Chinese (Koxinga, also spelled Coxinga, is a European bastardization of Zheng's nickname in the Fujian dialect), he has been used by both Beijing and Taipei in their battles of propaganda in the war over the identity of Taiwan. For Beijing, Zheng, or Koxinga, is the hero who took back Taiwan from the Westerners; he is the Chinese loyalist who "reunified" Taiwan with the mainland. His name is evoked for historical legitimacy in the contemporary conflict across the Taiwan Strait, and his tactics studied by the People's Liberation Army. For Taipei Zheng is, in the words of Vice President Annette Lu, "Moses who led his people to the land of milk and honey". He is a savior who fled China and established a new land for the Taiwanese.

With such propaganda rife and distorting public knowledge of history, Jonathan Clements has done us a great service in breaking through these political myths and offering the most complete biography of the man and his deeds. Through detailed research in primary Chinese and Japanese sources, Clements destroys the illusions of Zheng as a Chinese loyalist or biblical character, and refashions the man as a self-interested military commander bent on power, a man whose "pride and vanity threatened to ruin him", as Clements writes.

When defeated by the Qing in the epic battle for Nanjing in the mid-17th century, Zheng had little choice but to flee China and re-establish his base "overseas". Enter Taiwan, which the Dutch had occupied since 1624, and whom Zheng expelled after a lengthy war. Zheng was not a pre-modern Chiang Kai-shek, however, who was preparing to retake China; rather he aimed to invade the Philippines. As for the milk and honey, well, the "Taiwanese natives were less pleased, since their island was merely swapping one set of conquerors for another," Clements writes.

Pirate King: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty goes beyond just the biographical details of the legendary warrior. As its subtitle indicates, the book begins with the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in 1644 and recounts in an engaging narrative the pivotal events of China's dynastic upheaval: The fall of the Ming; the invasion of the Manchus from the north and the establishment of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing; and the fight for the south that would not be complete until Taiwan was conquered in 1683.

The story is woven around the Zheng family, not just Koxinga; thus Clements gets us intimately acquainted with Koxinga's father, Zheng Zhilong, or Iquan as the Europeans called him. The elder Zheng ruled the seas as a pirate and then a merchant, then as the naval authority for the Ming Dynasty. This fascinating and charismatic character controlled all trade going in and out of China in the mid-17th century, forcing the Europeans hoping to peddle goods to and from the Middle Kingdom to go through him.

The Dutch
Such an engineering of East Asian trade was not, however, solely the masterminding of the elder Zheng; the Dutch had a role in setting it up this way. Having arrived in Asia at the turn of the century, the Dutch were, as Kees Zandvliet writes in The Dutch Encounter with Asia: 1600-1950, "keen to stick to what it did best: commerce". They did not want to become colonizers - although they sometimes did, as in the case of Taiwan - and so hoped to maintain strong relations with regional kings or strongmen who would aid the Europeans in their commercial exploits.

"Better to have contact with one Chinese captain than to exercise direct control over Batavia's large Chinese population; better to have a good relationship with the sultan of the island of Ternate (in what is now Indonesia) than govern the area directly," writes Zandvliet.

In this way the Dutch exercised indirect control of their commerce centers, so that not one island of the East Indian archipelago fell under direct Dutch rule until the 20th century. And this was where the Dutch trading company VOC had established its Asian headquarters.

Such a strategy was for the most part successful. The Dutch were the most profitable European traders in Asia for a century and a half. But beyond that, the Dutch headquarters in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) "became an important center of Asian diplomacy - local representatives of the VOC acted as both mercantile agents and ambassadors at royal courts, their mission being both to supervise trade and to report on political developments in the region", writes Zandvliet. This won the Hollanders the only European trading rights with Japan in the 17th century, and allowed them to hold more swaths of territory for a longer period of time than any other European power.

Zandvliet chronicles this Dutch "encounter" with the Eastern Hemisphere in an innovative and successfully creative way: through the objects of the day. This four-centimeter-thick volume uses the artwork, pictures and objects from the Hollanders' 350 years in Asia to tell the story of their trade, their administrators, and their interactions with the local populations. What one finds is not an illustrated history book, but rather the illustrations of the day used to narrate the history.

The gifts presented and those received from Dutch missions to emperors and kings are presented here in rich color and detail, as are the paintings of Dutch forts and battles against discontented local populations. European life in Batavia is laid out in detail with all its trimmings, including slaves - the product of a prosperous trade that has largely been ignored by historians in favor of focusing on the African-North American slave trade. One of the most powerful images is a sculpture of a cross-legged Indonesian boy with a diesel engine block cradled in his hands, accompanied by a two-page caption of the history of Dutch engines in the East Indies. It demonstrates a clash between Eastern mysticism and Western technology, stands as an example of industry in the start of the 20th century, "and the paternalistic and sometimes openly racist attitudes", Zandvliet writes.

Indeed, never before have we been so intimately acquainted, outside of a museum, with the period.

History proffered
As the director of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, and having more than 20 years of research experience in the national archives at The Hague, Zandvliet is well credentialed to produce such a book. Each chapter is like a guided tour through a museum, taking a theme of objects and art to create a narrative of the period. Thus Chapter 2, for example, is the "Governor-General Portraits, 1609-1945", which, strung together (they adorned the walls of main VOC and government chambers in and around Batavia) represent the continuity of Dutch influence.

While The Dutch Encounter with Asia is confined in its scope to the Dutch in Asia, Pirate King at times becomes too broad and loses focus, digressing, for example, on page after page about the Jesuits' relationship with a Chinese emperor; or losing the Zheng narrative to whole chapters on the battles between the Dutch and the Portuguese. And Clements oversteps his bounds as a historian at times to interject thoughts and feelings of historical persons when no historical material exists to tell us as much. It was not the case, for example, that the Chinese "intended to wipe the Dutch off the face of the earth" in 1623 when the Europeans came to force themselves into the China market - they only wanted to drive the Dutch out of Chinese waters, and subsequently offered them Taiwan.

Fortunately, none of this detracts from the importance of either of these books. Not only do they take us one step closer to demystifying the history and dispelling the myths and misconceptions about the period, but they also give us greater insight into the region as it is today.

Pirate King: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty by Jonathan Clements. Sutton Publishing. ISBN: 0750932694, 275 pages, illustrations, price 19.99 pounds sterling (US$36).

The Dutch Encounter with Asia: 1600-1950 by Kees Zandvliet. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. ISBN: 9040087172, 462 pages, illustrations, price $50.

Macabe Keliher is the author of Out of China: A History of Seventeenth-Century Taiwan. His most recent book, Small Sea Travel Diaries, will be released this month. His website is

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Aug 28, 2004


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