- Koxinga’s Conquest of Taiwan in Global History: Reflections on the Occasion of the 350th Anniversary
Three hundred and fifty years ago, the Chinese warlord Koxinga conquered the Dutch colony of Formosa, bringing Taiwan under Chinese rule for the first time. The anniversary is being celebrated widely throughout East Asia, but the event itself—Koxinga’s difficult conquest—is still misunderstood.
Koxinga is a legendary figure, the subject of movies, cartoons, plays, and novels. He is worshipped as a god in Taiwan, so it is inevitable that the public understanding of the event should be mythologized.1 But even some professional historians perpetuate misconceptions, particularly in mainland China, where the Sino-Dutch war is often portrayed as a clash between rapacious imperialists (the Dutch) and heroic nationalists (Koxinga). Historians are beginning to relax the dichotomies that have pervaded twentieth-century historiography—colonizer versus colonized, capitalist versus indigenous, east versus west—but errors persist because an alternate narrative has been slow to emerge.
This article suggests one alternative reading, inspired by the exciting historiography of the world history movement, which sees the seventeenth century as an age of unprecedented intercultural communication, when Europeans held no overwhelming advantage over most other Old World peoples. This new historiography does not deny the violence of the period, or the conflicts, fought with powerful new weapons like advanced cannons and handguns, that took so many lives. But it shows how the violence took place within a deep context of intercultural communication. The Europeans who sailed to Asia relied closely on Asians. Scholars have been noting this for decades, talking about an Age of Partnership rather than an Age of Expansion, but what is less well understood [End Page 122] is the extent to which non-Europeans—such as Koxinga and his allies—relied on cooperation with Europeans, even when holding back European incursions.2
In what follows I address some of the most important misconceptions about Koxinga’s conquest that still pervade the historiography of the Sino-Dutch War, particularly the historiography of mainland China. I am less interested in spelling out the metanarrative that informs these misconceptions (it is quite a simple one:Taiwan belonged to China and the Chinese were always itching to overthrow the Dutch and rejoin the motherland) than in using the rich documentation of the war (there are wonderful sources not just in Chinese and Dutch but also in German and Spanish) to correct errors and suggest a new and more accurate narrative: that Koxinga was an embodiment of the fascinating globalizing world of the seventeenth century and that he won the war partly because he was better at listening to people from the other side than were the Dutch. In a way, his style was more global—more modern—than the Dutch.
Koxinga’s invasion force reached Taiwan at the end of April, 1661: four hundred vessels carrying twenty-five thousand men, the largest Chinese overseas expedition since the Zheng He voyages two centuries before. The Dutch watched “in shock and wonder” as this “thick forest of masts” materialized out of the fog.3 Taiwan was one of their preeminent colonies. It had been established in 1624, originally intended to serve as a base similar to Portuguese Macau, a place to partake of the lucrative business of trading Chinese silk for Japanese silver. But whereas Macau was a tiny island, Taiwan was vast. Whereas the Portuguese were virtually under Chinese jurisdiction (when they misbehaved, Chinese officials could simply shut the gate and cut off food supplies), the Dutch had a relatively free hand. China had no claim to Taiwan in those days. It was “off the map.”4 [End Page 123]
One of the chief misconceptions of Koxinga’s conquest stems from the idea that Taiwan was already viewed as part of China during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and that Koxinga was thus righting a historical wrong by “reclaiming” it. In their published work, mainland historians sometimes conflate Taiwan and Penghu, using the term “Tai-Peng” (see glossary for Chinese characters) when discussing the early and mid-seventeenth-century period.5 At that time, although Penghu was certainly viewed by Ming authorities...