Tonio Andrade: How Taiwan became Chinese

One of the oddities of history is that although Taiwan is separated from mainland China by only about 100 miles, the first outside power to exert political control over the island was the Netherlands. Even more peculiar, and delightful, is the thesis articulated in Tonio Andrade's "How Taiwan Became Chinese": The Dutch are ultimately responsible for the Sinification of Taiwan; the transformation of an island populated predominantly by Austronesian aborigines into a culturally Chinese domain.

Here is how Andrade introduces the idea:

Intensive Chinese colonization began abruptly in the 1630s, shortly after the Dutch East India Company established a trading port on Taiwan. The Dutch realized that their port's hinterlands could produce rice and sugar for export, but they were unable to persuade Taiwan's aborigines to raise crops for sale -- most were content to plant just enough for themselves and their families. The colonists considered importing European settlers, but the idea was rejected by their superiors in the Netherlands. So they settled instead on a more unusual plan: encourage Chinese immigration. The Dutch offered tax breaks and free land to Chinese colonists, using their powerful military to protect pioneers from aboriginal assault... In this way the company created a calculable economic and social environment, making Taiwan a safe place for Chinese to move to and invest in, whether they were poor peasants or rich entrepreneurs. People from the province of Fujian, just across the Taiwan Strait, began pouring into the colony, which grew and prospered, becoming, in essence, a Chinese settlement under Dutch rule. The colony's revenues were drawn almost entirely from Chinese settlers, through taxes, tolls, and licenses. As one Dutch governor put it, "The Chinese are the only bees on Formosa that give honey."

Regular readers of How the World Works know that I have something of a Taiwan fetish, given my years spent there in the mid-80s, and my conviction that the country plays an extraordinarily important role in both the global economy and the emerging narrative of China's rise in world affairs. So I'm generally a sucker for well-written Taiwanese history. But Andrade hooked me with a lure glistening with more than just the promise of intriguing historical ironies. It is his contention that the late 16th and early 17th centuries in East Asia, a period in which the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese all operated in pursuit of trading riches and power, offers an early look at globalization -- that it was here where the first true era of global trade emerged.

Again, let's return to the source:

We can glimpse the structure of the new global trade by focusing on its most important commodity: silver. In 1637 a Spanish official wrote that "China... is the general center for the silver of Europe and Asia." Recent scholarship corroborates his view. During the sixteenth century, silver production and trade increased dramatically and, although the metal moved through a web of networks, most of it ended up in China. Indeed, China became a global "silver sink," drawing the metal from all over the world. So vast was China's demand that it may have affected major developments in Europe itself: "There would not have been a Spanish Empire in the absence of the transformation of the Chinese society to a silver base, nor would there have been the same sort of 'Price Revolution' (i.e., inflation) around the globe in the early modern period." China's thirst for silver shaped the pattern of global trade and colonialism and, what is most important for our inquiry, led to the colonization of Taiwan.

Icing on the cake? A key player in this drama was Koxinga, a.k.a. "the pirate king of Taiwan," the never-say-die Ming dynasty loyalist who ruled the Taiwan straits and defeated both the Manchu invaders and the Dutch in a series of extraordinary battles. So even as I write these words, my printer is chugging away printing out PDF versions of the rest of the chapters of "How Taiwan Became Chinese." In my geeky world there's nothing better for bedtime reading than a little dose of 16th century Taiwanese globalization....

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