Asia Times: One hero, two interpretations
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  March 14, 2002  

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One hero, two interpretations
By Wong Kwok Wah

TAINAN, Taiwan - "Anping remembers Koxinga capturing Zeelandia." That is the theme of an exhibition at the Anping Museum in Tainan honoring the island's most respected patron saint.

Across the Taiwan Strait, the same man is also honored, but not as Koxinga, and without any religious overtones. To the mainland Chinese, Zheng Chenggong was a military hero who wrested away the last bastion of the Dutch usurpers and restored Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty 340 years ago.

This difference in interpretation of the Koxinga/Zheng story illustrates like nothing else the wide difference in attitudes on either side of the Strait on the issue of Taiwan sovereignty, and the best means of achieving Chinese unity.

Koxinga is the name that was given Zheng Chenggong (or Cheng Cheng-kung, as the name is rendered by the transliteration system preferred in Taiwan) by the Dutch. It was how they romanized "Lord of the Royal Surname" as it was pronounced in the dialect of Fujian. While the name "Koxinga" is almost unknown on the mainland, few in Taiwan would dare to refer to their saint by his worldly name.

For while on the mainland Zheng Chenggong is only a historical human figure, in Taiwan Koxinga is a deity worshipped in more than a hundred temples and shrines throughout the island.

Chinese historians say that when Zheng Chenggong led a strong navy to fight the Dutch garrison at what is now Anping, he intended to restore Chinese sovereign rights. When Zheng is commemorated, it is with the mindset of once again bringing Taiwan under mainland rule. "Nan'an is willing to make the Zheng Chenggong culture a bridge to strengthen exchanges and cooperation with Taiwan, so as to be the pioneer region of economic and cultural exchanges towards Taiwan," announced Chen Qingzhong, mayor of Nan'an, Zheng's home town, during a memorial ceremony in early February.

"Towards Taiwan" is the standard phrase adopted nationwide. It underlines a more aggressive tone than the amicable term "with Taiwan".

But according to Tai Pao-tsun, professor of the History Department at National Central University in Taiwan, Taiwanese people see Koxinga as the original ancestor of a free Taiwan, which is why he is known as Kaishan Shengwang, or "the Sage King who Opened up Taiwan", and worshipped as a deity. Koxinga was the pioneer rather than a restorer.

Even the siege of the Dutch Zeelandia Fort was not premeditated, said Tai. Koxinga's naval fleet sailed all the way from Ilha Pescadores (Penghu today) to look for food. They were brought ashore by the rising tide while stationed off Zeelandia saying prayers to the Empress of Heaven. The battle for Taiwan was more or less accidental. If the Dutch garrison had been more friendly and generous with the food and water Koxinga's navy wanted, they might have remained there for many more years.

Mainlanders would dispute that version of events. Military publications on the mainland today assert that Zheng used the tide to help him land in a calculated manner. The strategy is often remembered as a morale booster for People's Liberation Army marines, as a model for them to follow one day.

Koxinga declared victory on February 1, 1662, the day the last batch of surrendering Dutch soldiers left the island for Indonesia. He died the same year of illness. His son and grandson ruled until their defeat by Qing armies in 1683. Despite this short rule, relics pertaining to Koxinga are found today throughout the island. There are even animals named after the sage, including fish, snails and lizards. In stark contrast, the 200-year rule of Taiwan by the Qing empire (until the 1895 secession to Japan) left behind few items of folklore.

Qing officials did contribute to the development of Taiwan, mainly at Tainan city, which was made the seat of the magistrate. They left behind stout city walls and a grand Confucian temple. But most meaningful was a big shrine to Koxinga, which was torn down 40 years ago and replaced by a concrete replica, thanks to stupid Kuomintang officials who lacked respect for antiques.

The Qing emperor obviously hoped to comfort the Taiwanese populace by agreeing to build an official shrine to their once dire enemy. The ruling class in the Forbidden City might not have realized that local officials quietly vented their disapproval of the Manchu dynasty through the shrine.

Not far away from the shrine, about a hundred stone tablets registering part of the history of the Qing rule of Taiwan are on display to the public. One of the tablets, recording an order made by the governor of Fujian, whose jurisdiction included Taiwan, was to forbid Taiwan residents from committing suicide as a means of evading repayment of debts. Tablets of the same governor's order were found in all populated places in Taiwan, according to descriptions. It could not be more telling of the hardship that struck the general populace under Qing rule. No wonder the imperial dynasty found no place in folk legends.

The only official memorial hall for Zheng Chenggong on the mainland is at Gulang Island of Xiamen, right across from Taiwan's Kinmen. The statute of Zheng portrays a clean-shaven young general in armor.

In Taiwan, Koxinga seldom appears as a warrior. His portraits show him as a Ming noble in civilian robes - and wearing a small beard, a symbol of seniority and sobriety.

The difference is far more than superficial. Beijing wishes to honor only a soldier who did, or will, retake Taiwan by strategy. The common Taiwanese folk wish to embrace a patron saint who endows them with refuge, a new chapter of history and blessings in their daily lives.

Beijing's cadres working for reunification with Taiwan would do well to take a tour of Tainan. That might help them narrow their gap of understanding of the minds of Taiwanese, if they really believe force is not the only means.

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