- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The first words at the entrance to a new history exhibit read like a line from leaflets passed out by radical Taiwanese independence groups of today: “To the east of the sea is a large island, which the Chinese have never claimed.”

But the small print shows that the words come from a 17th-century poem, “The Eastern Capital” by Lu Juo-teng, 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 Beijing government argues? Or were European trading powers, such as 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 attention. It was the Dutch who really put the first foreign imprint on Taiwan 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,” said Ang Kaim, a historian at Taiwan’s prestigious Academia Sinica.

Taiwan has ruled itself since the communists won control of mainland China in 1949, and passions are easily inflamed by the question of whether the island should be united with China or declare independence. Beijing has threatened to use force if Taipei takes the latter course.

The island’s government is sympathetic to independence, so it’s no surprise that the exhibit emphasizes links between Taiwan and anyplace 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. The Dutch introduced the plow and the water buffalo and promoted the cultivation of rice and sugar cane, which remained the island’s main crops well into the 20th century.

Not all academics agree on how much the Dutch should be praised.

“Although they invested some capital to develop Taiwan during their occupation, they were not” acting out of altruism, Mr. Ang said.

“The Dutch invested only for the interest of the company,” the historian added, referring to the Dutch East India Co., which managed the trade. “The Dutch governor-general and his assembly always denied requests from Taiwan for further investments to improve the circumstances on the island.”

Whatever the motive, the Dutch were responsible for a thorough change in the island’s population, overseeing the large-scale migration of Chinese from the mainland. “The Dutch recruited lime burners, bricklayers, blacksmiths, carpenters and coolies from China,” according to the exhibit.

Even the present name of the island, though Chinese, originated during the Dutch era. They called their stronghold in the south Tayouan, a name that evolved into Taiwan and came to describe the entire island.

The Dutch ruled over a multicultural society of aboriginal islanders, Chinese immigrants, Japanese, Europeans and Southeast Asians. The aboriginal islanders migrated to Taiwan from islands in the Pacific Ocean and were later driven off its fertile plains to less-hospitable mountain areas.

Taiwan, a flourishing exporter today, became a center of regional trade during the Dutch era. The Dutch held a monopoly on trade between China, Taiwan and the rest of Asia, and used the island as a transshipment 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, the Japan-born son of a Chinese official, eventually wrested control of Taiwan from the Dutch and ruled the island. “The island was now in every way an independent kingdom,” according to the exhibit.

But Mr. Ang says Cheng was not really Taiwan’s independence hero, as he is sometimes made out to be.

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

In 1683, China’s Manchu rulers, the Qing dynasty, sent an army to occupy Taiwan, and the island remained part of the empire for two centuries.

The Qing ceded the island to Japan in 1895 after losing a war with the rising regional power. A half-century later, Japan’s defeat at the end of the World War II led to the return of Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty, but China quickly plunged into a bitter civil war.

The civil war ended in victory for Mao Tse-tung’s communists in 1949, but the losing Nationalists fled to Taiwan and turned the island — slightly larger than Maryland — into a stronghold. Over the decades, Taiwan became a democracy and trade powerhouse.

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