Mon, Jun 04, 2018 - Page 8 News List

The rise and fall of the Republic of Formosa

The brief Republic of Formosa’s chapter in Taiwan’s history carries important lessons for Taiwan today: Ensure that the country has adequate military and build a solid network of significant allies who can come to the nation’s defense

By Gerrit van der Wees

A painting depicting the moment Japanese soldiers enter Taipei City in 1895 after the Treaty of Shimonoseki between the Qing Dynasty and Japan. Date unknown.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On May 23, 1895, the Taiwanese declared independence through the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Formosa. A few weeks earlier, on April 17 1895, the Qing Dynasty government in Beijing, represented by viceroy Li Hongzhang (李鴻章), had signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, and under the provisions of the treaty, Taiwan had been ceded to Japan in perpetuity.

The treaty came as a total surprise to the Taiwanese. Neither the population nor officials had been consulted. In 1887, Taiwan had gained more prominence when it was officially declared a province of the Qing Dynasty; infrastructure had been built, the economy had grown and a relatively free and open society had developed.

REPUBLIC OF FORMOSA

Under governor Liu Ming-chuan (劉銘傳, 1887-1891), Taiwan attracted intelligentsia and literati from China, escaping Beijing’s oppressive atmosphere under late Qing rule. The mix of these intellectuals and local gentry brought about a flourishing of art, literature and politics in Taiwan (see “When Taiwan was China’s (for seven years),” Feb. 27 edition of the Taipei Times).

The local gentry abhorred the impending takeover by a new foreign ruler, and convinced Governor Tang Ching-sung (唐景崧) to declare a Republic of Formosa, the first independent republic in Asia, which he led as president. A new government was inaugurated on May 25, 1895.

The Republic of Formosa was quite a progressive enterprise. It had officials “elected by the people of Taiwan,” and a parliament made up of local gentry. It had its own flag — the now-famous yellow tiger flag — issued paper money and postage stamps (today some of the most valuable in the world) and had a functioning cabinet.

The foreign minister in the new government was Chen Chi-tung (陳季同), an experienced diplomat in the Qing government, who spoke French fluently. Chen had lived in Paris for many years and had even written a book, Les Chinois peints par eux memes (The Chinese painted by themselves), explaining “China” to the French public.

His experience in France had exposed him to the workings and symbolisms of the-then young French Republic, and he was the one who designed much of the republican symbols for the new Republic of Formosa.

Another cabinet member was “Black Flag” general Liu Yung-fu (劉永福), who had fought together with Governor Tang against the French in Indo-China, and who had been asked to come to Formosa to help defend it against the incoming Japanese. He commanded an army of some 100,000 Qing government soldiers.

Another military leader was Chiu Feng-chia (丘逢甲), a local Hakka warlord, poet and scholar who had become vice president and headed the gentry in what is today’s Changhua County. Chiu had entered the civil service when Tang was governor, and was one of the most prominent advocates of self-rule, self-determination and independence. He also commanded a local militia of some 50,000 well-trained fighters, who would put up the biggest fight against the incoming Japanese.

Six days after the declaration of the Republic of Formosa, Japanese troops under general Kawamura Kageaki landed near Keelung and started to move south. The Qing soldiers and the local militia in the north were no match for the well-armed and trained Japanese: on June 5, 1895 President Tang fled via Tamsui, and on June 7 1895 the Japanese army entered Taipei.

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