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    Greater China
     Mar 16, 2012

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Bridging East-West historical divides

Has China's rising economic power unsettled the proud West? Tonio Andrade further rattles the cage. This historian at Emory University argues that imperial China was stronger earlier - and for longer - than most Westerners realize. In this interview with Asia Times Online contributor Victor Fic, this researcher explains big ideas that might revolutionize our understanding of world history.

Andrade is the author of How Taiwan Became Chinese and Lost Colony: The Untold Story of Europe's First War with China. He holds a MA from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and an MA, MPhil, and PhD from Yale University (1997, 1998, and 2000).

Victor Fic: Why is the Sino-Dutch War (1661-1668) neglected in the West?

Tonio Andrade: The war and the Chinese warlord Zheng Chenggong - called Koxinga in English - are famous throughout


East Asia, but both are barely known in the West probably because it was a war that European powers lost. I became interested because it is extremely important - the first major conflict between Chinese and Western European forces, the only such conflict until the famous first Opium War of 1839-42. And whereas China lost that, Zheng Chenggong defeated Europe's most dynamic colonial power, the Dutch East India Company. I tell the story in Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory Over the West.

VF: What sources did you study?

TA: The war is richly documented. Dutch manuscripts are tremendously detailed, giving a daily or hourly account, often from various perspectives. The Chinese sources are less detailed, but they offer a fascinating glimpse into Ming Dynasty military history, when Chinese forces were modernizing quickly, showing many of the developments that historians believed were then unique to Europe.

Tonio Andrade at his home in Decatur, Georgia, USA.

We'll return to modernization theory. Lets first zoom in on the war. Why do you depict the main warrior, Koxinga, as a larger-than-life character?

TA: Koxinga is famous throughout East Asia for defeating the Dutch and his decade-long fight against the ethnically Manchu forces that founded the Qing Dynasty in 1644. The Chinese hail this national hero who bravely, selflessly, and loyally resisted foreigners and hoped to reinstate the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Yet he was born and raised in Japan, probably spoke Japanese as his first language. His father - a Chinese pirate - wasn't present for his birth. He was pillaging and smuggling as the world's most powerful pirate with 20,000 adherents.

VF: How is Koxinga fabled?

TA: His birth is described in some sources as miraculous: seeing omens and prophecies, a light shining down from heaven at the moment of parturition, an auspicious sea creature thrashing in the bay near his mother's house. It was a fun challenge to try to weave stories like this into the text even as I kept the emphasis on firm historical grounding. 

Statue of Koxinga on Gulang Island near Xiamen City, China.

VF: The glowing omens seemed to come true when he inherited wealth ... .

TA: When a young Zheng Chenggong went to China to begin his Chinese education, his father had "gone legit" and become one of the richest men in the imperium. Koxinga inherited his father's empire and used it to fund one of the globe's most powerful armies inspired by his Japanese background. Some units wore samurai-style masks and carried samurai-style swords. He was an effective commander, fighting up and down the Chinese coast against the mighty Manchus, founders of a new dynasty, the Qing (1644 AD - 1911 AD), which sought to take over all of China.

VF: Who was his Dutch nemesis or team of adversaries?

TA: He was the irascible Frederick Coyet, Taiwan's governor. Coyet had acrimonious disagreements with his subordinates and superiors. In general, the Chinese continually out thought and out fought the less-skilled Dutch.

VF: Summarize the context and cause of the fracas.

TA: The Dutch had settled Taiwan in 1624 and began inviting Chinese colonists there who established rice paddies and sugar plantations, taking over the hunting fields of the native head-hunters. The Dutch levied taxes on the colonists and both sides benefitted, albeit with some abuses and distrust. But in 1661, Koxinga wanted Taiwan as a base to fight the Manchu Qing (1644 AD - 1911 AD). They increasingly encroached on his mainland bases. So he invaded Taiwan with the largest Chinese ocean-going fleet since Zheng He's famous voyages of the early 1400s.

VF: What were the war's cardinal events?

TA: Koxinga sailed past the main Dutch defenses near today's Tainan City, entering Taiwan through the little used "Dear's Ear" channel. Usually it was too shallow for large oceangoing vessels, but Koxinga timed his approach with a high tide, and Dutch guns pointed at empty space as Dutch sentinels watched hundreds of Chinese vessels safely land his troops. They quickly overcame most Dutch positions. Within days the only tenable Dutch defense was the main, powerful fortress called Zeelandia Castle. Today you can visit the ruins.

Painting showing the Dutch Fort Zeeland on the colony of Taiwan round 1660 or so.

What is your conclusion on the balance of power between them?

TA: The Chinese exceeded the Dutch in leadership, in drill, and in cannons, but the latter had two cardinal advantages that I did not expect to find. First, Dutch ships were overwhelmingly superior to Chinese vessels in deepwater combat. I found many passages in Chinese sources about how formidable Dutch ships were. Each Dutch ship could take on 20 or so Chinese vessels, although Chinese commanders often won through superior leadership. No vessel can sail directly windward or into the wind, but the Dutch were far better at sailing at a closer angle, several times helping the Dutch.

VF: What was the second Dutch plus?

TA: It was the European artillery fortress design developed in the Renaissance and which spread throughout the continent. It had large, protruding bastions at the four corners with mounted cannon that could fire at almost any angle. The forts were nearly impossible to storm. Fort Zeelandia was one. It stymied Koxinga several times, to his surprise because it was considerably smaller than most Chinese walled cities he had overcome. Its lethal cannonfire shredded his powerful army. It took him nine months to finally force a surrender aided by a high-ranking commander who defected, the drunkard Hans Radij. So I agree with historian Geoffrey Parker that the fort was a vital tool for European expansion. The other perspective, from historian Jeremy Black, too hastily dismisses the artillery fort here.

VF: Prove your claim that the generally more powerful Dutch erred but Koxinga was a matchless leader and that was the true margin of victory for the Chinese.

TA: Often, Koxinga and his officers outsmarted the Dutch. In the first significant land battle, Chinese commander Chen Ze defeated Dutch musketeers by secretly surrounding them. Later the Dutch managed to receive a huge relief fleet that brought supplies and soldiers. The Chinese were terrified. But when the Dutch fleet attacked instead of blockading Koxinga, Chen Ze again outwitted the Dutch, luring their ships into an ambush.

VF: Underscore how Koxinga often drew upon traditional Chinese ways of war.

TA: My research revealed this intriguing factor. Koxinga and his generals drew on a rich, useful tradition of Chinese military thought. It goes back to Sun Tzu's "Art of War" and beyond. Some Chinese scholars have even argued that his use of traditional strategies was key to his victory. I think that is somewhat true. Westerners are largely unaware of this military tradition. It is worth studying intently. I am doing so by immersing myself in late Ming - 1500s and early 1600s - military treatises and manuals. It will change how we think about military history and global history because it dispels myths.

VF: Some claim that as Koxinga died in howling, contorting agony - steam rose from his head. Do you believe it?

TA: It's impossible to know. Some claim he did because of his fury over what he perceived as incest committed by his son, gnashing his own teeth and clawing at his own face. So many sources offer colorful but not entirely trustworthy stories. He was a legend even when living. He enjoyed his fame and encouraged people to tell tales about him, particularly emphasizing his samurai sense of loyalty, righteousness, and the favor of Heaven. Many suggest that his death was imbued with madness, so I do think the there's some truth to that. I don't know about the steam, though.

VF: Let us pull back and examine the medium-level issue about military affairs ... explain the theories.

TA: Scholars are presently vigorously debating a basic question of world history: when did Europe begin its ascendancy over the world? The traditionalists such as Joseph Bryant and Niall Ferguson argue Europe was on a separate path from Asia as early as the Renaissance. But the revisionists, such as Kenneth Pomeranz and Jack Goldstone, believe that until 1800 or so, developed parts of Asia were undergoing processes remarkably similar to those found n Europe. 

Continued 1 2  

Power grew out of Zheng He's gunboats (Jan 26, '12)

Ming Dynasty admiral spooks Taiwan (Apr 13, '11)

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