Out of China: A History of 17th Century Taiwan by Macabe Keliher
Long before people took advantage of Beitou‘s position at the foot of Yangming Shan to enjoy the benefits of its hot springs, some individuals were making the hazardous journey – often over very considerable distances – to exploit a different, though related, natural resource: sulphur. One such person was a man named Yu Yonghe, a literati and itinerant wanderer, who hailed originally from Zhejiang. In 1697 he found himself in Fuzhou, and when the provincial governor requested the services of someone to help them replenish their stores of sulphur (which had literally gone up in smoke a few months before, when their stores of gunpowder exploded), Yu duly obliged. Word of abundant sulphur supplies at the northern tip of the Chinese empire’s newest possession – Taiwan – had long before reached the Mainland, and this was an opportunity to make use of them.
Macabe Keliher’s book, ‘Out of China: A History of 17th Century Taiwan’, tells the story of Yu Yonghe’s journey from Fuzhou to Xiamen, his crossing by boat to Taiwan Fu (Tainan), and his obstacle-ridden trek overland from the south of the island to Danshui and, finally, to Beitou. Keliher tells this story well, taking Yu’s own diary as his primary source material and structuring narrative. As Tu Cheng-sheng, former Director of the National Palace Museum, says in his preface to the book, Keliher has done an excellent job of translating these diaries and weaving them together with his own strong knowledge of early Qing Dynasty social conditions to create a broader history of late 17th century Taiwan. He commands the source material well, and the book engages the reader throughout, subtly drawing on revealing details.
The book was published in 2003 to accompany the exhibition entitled “The Emergence of Taiwan on the World Scene in the 17th Century” at the National Palace Museum, and Out of China has successfully brought an important historical character to life, helping us gain an insight into not only into the minutiae of Yu Yonghe’s own daily existence (lack of sleep, rain-drenched clothes, the tribulations of making a river crossing), but also into the prevailing attitudes of Mainland bureaucrats towards this new island frontier and its aboriginal inhabitants. Yu is a contemplative mind, and on more than one occasion in his diaries he calls into question the contempt in which many of his fellow Mainlanders hold the Taiwanese tribespeople and the discriminatory treatment they receive. “Just because they are different does not mean we must discriminate against them…they are still people, their flesh and blood the same as ours,” he explains in one heartfelt passage. The book thus raises a new, important historical perspective in evaluating China’s experience with colonisation, shifting the focus from the country’s role as victim, to the part it has played in the oppression of minorities – a subject which still remains no less relevant today.
Beautifully illustrated and incorporating a number of explanatory diversions into subjects such as ‘Spaniards in Taiwan’, ‘The Dutch at Penghu’, and ‘The Zhengs as Colonizers’, Out of China is an accessible and illuminating introduction to 17th century Taiwanese history. Despite structuring his narrative with a verb tense that sometimes results in confusion regarding the timing of events, Keliher has achieved an overall result that is nevertheless very accomplished and readable. Out of China will be a welcome addition to any English-language library focused on Taiwan.
Out of China: A History of 17th Century Taiwan by Macabe Keliher, published by SMC Publishing, is available at Page One, Taipei 101 Mall, priced at NT$300.