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Culture History
Culture: Taiwan: what it tells us about Dutch and Chinese colonialism
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Monday, 20 November 2006 Written by Henry Midgley
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A drawing of the Dutch fortress on the Island of Taiwan
Taiwan is known most today for being the site of the Democratic Republic of China which opposes the regime in Peking and has done since Chiang Kai Shek fled there in the forties. As Tonio Andrade from Emory University makes clear though in December's issue of the Journal of World History, Taiwan may tell us more about the world we live in and the contrasts between Europe and Asia than a casual acquaintance with the Island state might indicate. Indeed Taiwan, occupied by the Dutch in the mid seventeenth century, may indicate part of the answer as to why Europeans developed empires in the early modern period whereas the great imperial states of Asia, superficially in many ways more advanced, failed to either develop sea based empires or in the end to survive European attack.

Tonio Andrade's article focuses on Taiwan because he marvels at the fact that the Chinese failed at any point before the Dutch arrival to conquer Taiwan. As he points out the island was within easy sailing distance from Fuijan province, and furthermore held out the promise of agricultural resources. Yet he provides an interesting answer- the reason that China did not colonise Taiwan was because of the difficulty of colonisation- Taiwan was inhabited by brutal tribes whose young men graduated to manhood by bringing back heads to their tribes- and because of its lack of threat to the Chinese mainland- there was no possibility of a Taiwanese attack on China. Compare that to the Chinese attitude to its hinterland, where it followed a brutal policy of colonisation, a policy that in Tibet is not finished today. In many ways, Andrade argues China was an imperial state, just not one that saw advantages in pursuing its ambitions on the sea.

If China, according to Andrade, left its colonial ambitions to private enterprise when it came to Taiwan, hoping that poor peasants would sail the narrow gulf and set up home there to releive the pressure for resources on the mainland, the Dutch attitude was very different. The Dutch built a fortress and sent reinforcements of troops over, pacifying the tribes by force. They invited Chinese workers to join them and protected them behind stockades and the ever present threat of Dutch military power- consequently what grew up in modern terms was a Dutch colony but staffed by Chinese immigrants. That colony fell apart as soon as the Chinese themselves intervened for domestic reasons in the mid-seventeenth century.

Andrade offers some lessons which again are interesting. Historians are beginning to focus on this area and intriguing work is being produced. In the same journal issue as Andrade's article is found for example, Erik Ringmar of the LSE and National Chiao Tung Universities, writes about the differing cultural activities between Chinese people and Europeans towards exotic items. I've reviewed that article here. Whereas Ringmar stresses the cultural difference, Andrade attempts to look at systemic differences in the construction of the Chinese as opposed to European states. He adopts models given him by previous historians- notably John Wills and M.N. Pearson. He argues that the basis for the differing attitudes to colonialism may lie in the contrast of how revenue was collected- in the great empires of asia, revenue largely came from the land, whereas European states especially the great colonial ones- the British, Dutch, Spanish, Portugeese and French- derived their income from trade.

This article is an interesting attempt to think about a very old question- and the focus on Taiwan is illuminating. As Andrade would admit and I'm sure Ringmar too, analysis of these questions isn't going to go away and nor do two articles represent the end of the problem. For more scrutiny of the ideas in this area- I'd recommend the recent Radio 4 In Our Time program on the Needham Question. But definitely both of these historians have brought interesting insight and innovative research to a question whose answer profoundly matters to the way that we understand the modern world.