Textbook ‘tweaks’ sow confusion

By Lee Hsiao-feng 李筱峰  / 

Wed, Feb 05, 2014 - Page 8

During the authoritarian rule of former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and, to a lesser extent, under his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), history textbooks were full of political rhetoric and fabrication.

During the tenures of former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), schools started to teach more about Taiwanese history, with more politically neutral language and, although it was not completely satisfactory, students were at least encouraged to note that progress was being made.

However, since taking office in 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has pandered more to Beijing and allowed the “Greater China” ideology to color how he has governed the country. To this end, he has set his administration to revising history textbooks.

These changes, which affect a full third or more of the school curriculum, are being described as “minor tweaks.” That is like saying Emperor Wudi (漢武帝) of the Han Dynasty ordering the historian Sima Qian (司馬遷) to be castrated and cast into prison was a “minor tweak” — after all, both involve an emasculation of sorts, the removal of vital parts.

Even worse, despite all the academics with backgrounds in history in this country, Ma decided to choose a professor with no such training to oversee these “minor tweaks,” a Chinese who receives the full backing of the authorities in Beijing and who stands firmly in their corner when it comes to interpreting history.

Further, Ma insists that these “tweaks” are designed to address historical inaccuracies and “bring order to the confusion.”

Who exactly is it that is introducing historical inaccuracies, or contributing to the confusion?

Let us take a look at one example: How the task force responsible for these revisions wants to change references to the Ming Dynasty loyalist Cheng Cheng-kung (鄭成功) — also known as Koxinga — and his successors from the Cheng Family Dynasty to the “Ming House of Cheng.”

The reason the Ma administration wants this change to be made is because it suggests that when Cheng Cheng-kung established control over part of Taiwan, he did so as a representative of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, taking this territory for the embattled Ming court.

Such a change is more in keeping with Ma’s “Greater China” ideology.

When Cheng Cheng-kung came to Taiwan, he established a new kingdom in the southwest of the island, calling it Dongdu (Eastern Capital). He was succeeded by his son Cheng Ching (鄭經), who changed the name to the Kingdom of Dongning and who was, in turn, succeeded by his.

So is it historically more accurate to say that this kingdom was ruled by the Cheng Family Dynasty or by the Ming House of Cheng?

Of course, Cheng Cheng-kung was associated with the Ming dynasty when he first started fighting for the return of the Ming emperor to the throne. However, later developments changed this radically.

When he was based in Fujian Province, he made known on several occasions his intent to negotiate with the Manchus who had established themselves in the north of the country, deposing the Ming and establishing their own Qing Dynasty.

These negotiations were neither sanctioned nor approved by the Yongli (永曆) Emperor, the last claimant to the Ming throne, who was resisting the Qing from southwest China as head of the newly named Southern Ming.

At one point, the Yongli Emperor even asked Cheng Cheng-kung to mount an attack on Qing forces during Cheng’s negotiations with them. Cheng declined, abandoning the last Ming emperor to his fate.

Further, when Cheng Cheng-kung retreated to Kinmen and Xiamen following his failed attacks on Nanjing and Zhenjiang, he secretly dispatched his officer Cai Zheng (蔡政) to Beijing to negotiate peace.

Cheng Cheng-kung said that he would contemplate transferring his loyalty to the Qing court. Given this, is it really accurate to refer to the dynasty he would later establish on Taiwan as the Ming House of Cheng?

Cheng Cheng-kung arrived in Taiwan in 1661. He died the following year. His son Cheng Ching came over to Taiwan in 1664 and, as recorded in the biography of Cheng Ching in the Draft History of the Qing Dynasty, he changed the name of the kingdom from Dongdu to Dongning. There are numerous references to the Kingdom of Dongning as the name of Taiwan in official Qing documents.

Cheng Ching said he established the kingdom of Dongning as a separate regime, and proudly announced that “Dongning is far out in the sea, it is not part of the territory [of China]. We have our own aristocracy, we have our own culture and these compare favorably with those of China.”

At the time, the Spanish and the British used the title “king” when referring to Cheng Ching and in 1670, in a letter from the representative of the British East India Company, he was addressed as “Your Majesty.”

Not only did Cheng Ching upgrade Tiansing and Wannian from counties to prefectures, he also brought in changes to the official ranking system in 1674, calling all subordinate officials chen (臣), or minister, a term reserved for state-level officials serving a king or emperor.

Both changes reflect the idea that he viewed the territory he controlled as a kingdom, and not simply as a state preserving the legacy of the Ming, ready to return to it should the Ming regain power in China.

Cheng Ching even stopped deferential treatment for the remaining members of the Ming dynastic lineage, taking away their state stipends. The Prince of Ningjing, of the Ming imperial line, who came to Taiwan on Cheng Ching’s invitation, was obliged to move out to new premises in the present-day Gangshan District (岡山) of Greater Kaohsiung.

None of the above historical facts conflict with the more neutral term “Cheng Family Dynasty,” whereas to use the term “Ming House of Cheng” is a distortion of history. The government seems to want to use distortions like this to “bring order to the confusion.” The “tweaks” it seeks to introduce will, instead, bring nothing more than confusion itself.

Lee Hsiao-feng is a professor at National Taipei University’s Graduate School of Taiwanese Culture.

Translated by Paul Cooper