Thu, Jul 31, 2003 - Page 2 News List

Exhibit asks questions about Taiwan's history


The first words at the entrance to a new history exhibit read like a line from leaflets passed out by today's radical Taiwanese independence groups: "To the east of the sea is a large island, which the Chinese have never claimed." (海東有巨島,華人舊不爭)

But the small print shows the words come from a 17th century poem, The Eastern Capital by Lu Juo-teng (盧若騰), and the exhibit on Taiwan in that era raises questions about China's claims to the island.

Did Taiwan always belong to China, as the regime in Beijing argues? Or were European trading powers, like the Dutch, the first to really value and develop the island?

Portuguese sailors were the first Europeans to come to the island off China's southeastern coast in the 16th century but they did not pay it much heed.

It was the Dutch who really put the first foreign imprint on Taiwanese soil while running the island from 1624 until they were driven out by a Chinese army in 1662.

"The Dutch opened the literal history of Taiwan," says Ang Kaim (翁佳音), a historian at Academia Sinica.

It's no surprise the exhibit emphasizes links between Taiwan and anyone but China. The show's host, the National Palace Museum, is an institution whose director is appointed by the government.

The exhibit has moved to Taiwan's fourth-largest city, Tainan, which was the trading base for the Dutch, and will be on display there until Aug. 31.

While the Dutch ruled Taiwan for just four decades, the exhibit argues they had a lasting influence.

"Although they invested some capital to develop Taiwan during their occupation, they were not goodwill economic reformers," Ang says.

The Dutch held a monopoly on trade between China, Taiwan and the rest of Asia, and used the island as a trans-shipment point to exchange Chinese gold and raw silk for silver from Japan, spices from Indonesia and cotton cloth from India.

That lucrative business became the focus of conflict with China.

Cheng Cheng-kung (鄭成功, also know as Koxinga), the Japanese-born son of a Chinese official, eventually wrested control of Taiwan from the Dutch and established his own rule over the island. "The island was now in every way an independent kingdom," the exhibit says of his rule.

But Ang says Cheng was not really the Taiwanese independence hero he is sometimes made out to be.

"I don't even think he ever tried his best to strive for Taiwan independence in his life, but the irony is that many Taiwanese admire him as the founder of Taiwan," the historian says.

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