Tue, Feb 27, 2018 - Page 13 News List

When Taiwan was China’s (for seven years)

Yes, the nation was once a province of China, but that’s before the Qing Dynasty in 1895 ceded it and the Penghu in perpetuity to Japan

By Gerrit van der Wees  /  Contributing reporter

A 17th-century watercolor drawing of the Dutch East India Company’s Fort Zeelandia, present-day Tainan, taken from the Eugenius-atlas, which was commissioned by Laurens van der Hem, a Dutch lawyer and map collector.

Photo courtesy of Wikemedia Commons

Taiwan was once a province of China, but for only a brief period: 1887 to 1895, and the era laid the foundation for a separate identity in Taiwan.

Two hundred years earlier, in 1644, the Qing Dynasty under Manchu rule had come to power in Beijing, driving out the Ming Dynasty rulers. But at the time, Taiwan was under Dutch colonial rule through the Dutch United East India Company.

In April 1661, Ming warlord Cheng Cheng-kung (鄭成功, also known as Koxinga) — himself being on the run from the Qing invaders — crossed over to Taiwan with some 400 ships and 25,000 men, and after a nine-month siege of Zeelandia, a Dutch fortress in present-day Tainan, took control of the area.

The rule of Koxinga’s family didn’t last long: in 1683 his grandson, Cheng Ke-shuang (鄭克塽), was defeated in a battle on the outlying island of Penghu (the Pescadores) by the famed admiral Shih Lang (施琅), the first official to rule Taiwan on behalf of the Qing. Then for 200 years, Taiwan was ruled from Fujian Province in a turbulent period known to have an “uprising every three years and a rebellion every five,” as one Qing official stated at the time.


During these 200 years, Taiwan became a quiet backwater, with very little interaction with the global economy. This changed in the 1850s, when the advent of the steamship made it possible for Western nations to travel far and wide. In the mid 1850s, US Admiral Perry and his “Black Ships” were in the area and even proposed to Washington to make Taiwan an American trading hub, in part to counter the influence of the other Western nations expanding into the region: France, England and Germany.

In the early 1870s Japan made military incursions into the area in order to punish local pirates, while from 1884 to 1885 France briefly occupied northern Taiwan. The Japanese expansion and the French episode convinced the Qing court in Beijing that it was necessary to pay more attention to Taiwan, and governor Liu Ming-chuan (劉銘傳) was asked by the Court to prepare to make Taiwan a province in its own right.

Liu’s first order of business was to try to bring the Aboriginal population under his control: from 1885 through 1887 he conducted three major military campaigns but lost one-third of his men, while in the end only one-third of Aboriginal areas were under his control. Still, in 1887 Taiwan was officially declared a province of China, and Liu was made its first governor.


Once in office, Liu started an extensive process of modernization. He felt constrained by the old capital Tainan — too many small winding streets —and proposed to move the capital to Taichung, where he laid out a grid for a modern city and started to build many new buildings, city walls, gates and imperial offices. However, cost overruns put a halt to the project.

Still, in the next few years Taiwan went through a period of frantic modernization: a modern telegraph line connected north and south, electric streetlights started to line the streets, a taxicab service with rickshaws was initiated and a modern railroad was built between Keelung, Taipei and Hsinchu. With the help of European trading houses, Taiwan became a major trading hub again, exporting tea, camphor, sugar and rice.

The renewed interaction with the West put Taiwan on the map again for Europe and also for the young American republic. Small European communities sprouted in Tainan and Taipei: traders and missionaries, who set up schools, clinics and hospitals. Missionary Thomas Barclay in Tainan set up the first ever printing press, and started publishing Presbyterian Taiwan Church News.

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