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Book review: Imagining the exploits of Koxinga

Sex, violence and a tight plot are the highlights of this new edition of ‘Lord of Formosa,’ published by Camphor Press

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

LORD OF FORMOSA: a novel, by Joyce Bergvelt.

Chinese war junks with crimson sails, diets said to influence the sex of a child and match-makers with painted white faces and red cheeks: Lord of Formosa, which centers on the life of the 17th century warrior and Ming Dynasty loyalist Cheng Cheng-kung (鄭成功, also known as Koxinga), is crammed with these details. I had no idea his life was going to be so fascinating.

Koxinga was brought up as Fukumatsu in Japan’s Nagasaki, with a Japanese mother and a Chinese Hakka father. His father, Zheng Zhilong (鄭芝龍), soon returned to his native Fujian Province, however, where he was the lord of a large estate. When the boy was seven he was ordered to go to China to be brought up as Zheng’s heir, with the Chinese name Zheng Sen.

He was initially frowned on by Zheng Zhilong’s Chinese wives and concubines, a situation made no better by the eventual arrival of his Japanese mother. Things improved, though, after the boy began to display his military prowess, not to mention his enthusiasm for nubile girls.

His father had meanwhile made a reputation for himself as the pre-eminent merchant operating between Taiwan and China. The Dutch had appeared on the scene, establishing themselves in the south at Fort Zeelandia (today’s Tainan), and Zheng soon became obliged to base his operations in the Pescadores (today’s outlying island of Penghu) — technically under Beijing’s control, which Taiwan as a whole was not.

The first part of the novel is largely taken up with his exploits, notably two sea battles with the Dutch; the first battle he loses, the second he wins spectacularly.

The junior Cheng was also involved with supporting the Ming Dynasty, which was under pressure from the Manchus to the north, and now ailing after 300 years of glory. The Manchus, with their outstanding ability on horseback and their archery skills, and in spite of their bulky, greasy queues, were in the process of taking control of China. Zheng Senior, with his naval supremacy, was the main obstacle they faced in the south.

Publication Notes

LORD OF FORMOSA: A NOVEL

By Joyce Bergvelt

480 pages

Camphor Press

Softback/ Hardback, Taiwan


The climax of his fortunes came in the 1640s when the discontented Chinese in Taiwan, who had to pay taxes to the Dutch whereas they’d never had to pay any to China, combined with the authorities in Fujian Province to come to his aid. This proved to be Zheng Senior’s finest hour. But worse, much worse, was to follow.

The embattled Ming emperor, Longwu, had rewarded the Zheng family with, among other things, an honorific name, Koxinga, for their young son. The father, though, had other ideas. The Ming were a lost cause, he decided, and indeed Longwu only reigned for a year and was eventually beheaded. So Zheng Zhilong, fearful that his trading empire would disappear, decided to switch sides and offer his services to the Manchus, by now approaching his family estate at Anhai in Fujian.

Koxinga was appalled by this betrayal, and when the Manchus, represented by one Prince Bolo, learned that the son wasn’t joining his father in switching sides, they lost all faith in Zheng Zhilong, arresting him and taking him to Beijing as a prisoner. His estate was then sacked, the women raped and his Japanese wife ended her life hanging from a tree.

Koxinga wasn’t present to witness these atrocities but, when he eventually saw the devastation, his enmity for the Manchus reached new heights. With this, the first part of the novel concludes.

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