Tue, Dec 18, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Book review: Notes of Travel in Formosa

‘Notes of Travel in Formosa,’ a monumental work published by Tainan’s National Museum of Taiwan History, provides much needed insight into the life of Charles W. Le Gendre and the larger mosaic of Taiwan history being shaped in the mid to late nineteenth century

By Jerome Keating  /  Contributing reporter

Notes further includes some 170 photographs, and a series of illustrative paintings by the Japanese artist, Kobayshi Eitaku (1843—1890) all commissioned and collected by Le Gendre, as well as maps that he composed. The maps would be extremely helpful in the upcoming Japanese Mudan punitive expedition (1874), which Le Gendre helped plan. Fix further adds an almost day-by-day itinerary of Le Gendre’s eight trips and Huang Chi-wei (黃智偉) provides a “placename” reference map.

In Notes we see a Le Gendre who is a capable and pragmatic player that lives and functions where the proverbial rubber meets the road. There is little “gushy” admiration of “5000 years” of Chinese culture that some travelogue writers might present. Instead Le Gendre includes realistic and sometimes harsh observations. Piracy is a constant threat to local trade. A sharp distinction is made between the Chinese portion of the island and the indigenous controlled territories that are “outside the jurisdiction of the Emperor.”

Warfare is a constant threat between the ethnic groups and in many areas weapons are carried wherever one goes. The rules and laws of the Qing government serve as a “pretext for exacting money from the people” with officials “purchasing” posts anywhere from “$50 to $200,000.” In turn they subsequently “extort” money from the subject people to reimburse themselves. The industrious Hakka live nearest to the indigenous tribes intermarrying and often serving as middlemen to the benefit of both but they also can be “cunning” and “perfidious.” The indigenous (generally described in a favorable manner) are not united and would have to be “subdued” or worse. Most telling of all is Chapter 24, titled Has Japan the Right to Assume Suzerainty over Aboriginal Formosa?

The National Museum of Taiwan History (Tainan), the editors, and all involved (reference the three page list of acknowledgments) have done yeoman service in “freeing” Notes from the US Library of Congress. And given the enormous effort put into this work, one hesitates to indicate omissions and suggestions, but a review is not complete without such.

These range from minutia such as Huang Chi-wei’s placename map omitting the frequently mentioned Taiwanfoo; Appendix One strangely lists a focus on 1850 to 1875 but includes people of a much earlier era yet omits the central Tauketok. An opportunity to visually contrast and reveal Le Gendre’s choice of a topical format is missed by not taking Fix’s painstaking chronology of the eight visits and separately tracing them place by place on Huang Chi-wei’s map. Similarly a simple chronological timeline of related pertinent developing realities could avoid the “isolationist tag” of most research and integrate it with Le Gendre’s intriguing future casting of his lot with Japan and Korea and the eventual 1895 acquisition of Taiwan by Japan. Such trivia aside, Notes of Travel in Formosa is an essential work for anyone interested in treaty port era Taiwan to read if not make part of one’s personal library.

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