Finished reading “Forbidden Nation” — A History of Taiwan

Hi PK,
I finished reading this morning (July 22, 2008) the book "Forbidden Nation" by J. Manthorpe that you put on my desk a couple weeks ago (though I started to read 3/4 days ago).  I took a few notes while reading the book almost like writing down some details to be sent to "Lonely Planet" after a trip. 
(1)  Manthorpe (a Vancouver journalist) didn’t talk about modern Taiwan until the last two and half chapters (except at the beginning of the book), which made me slightly disappointed somehow (though without good reasons).  I’d enjoy more of his views for something that he’s lived with (as a journalist), rather than something that he read in English — which might even suffer from translation problems.
The most detailed part that he’s descried in this book is probably about how 鄭成功 took Taiwan from the Dutch, especially at Fort Zeelandia !  Without disguise, he seems to use English books from W. M. Campbell and Davidson which in turn base on the Dutch soldiers’ daily journals in the war.   鄭成功 and his armies were kind of barberic and the ultimate victory seems to be due to all the disservice that the Dutch have done to themselves.   In a Chinese or Taiwanese version,  instead of barbarism, it’d be more of heroism and the victory would be more of the successful tactics/strategics/skills that 鄭成功 might have employed.  Here, his qualification as a journalist doesn’t make me think that he’s had anything original here but just talking from a western point of view…  ( Obviously, the fictional stories in 鹿鼎記 about 鄭克塽, 馮錫範、施琅 etc. are more interesting … )

This brings to my another point …

(2) Though reading a book written by a non-Asian may avoid any Chinese/Asian bias, it nevertheless has the western bias. As the relativity has been verified uncountable no. of times (…each time we turn on the accelerator), I’m a great believer in relativity Open-mouthed There is NO absolute frame or absolute truth.  It’s all true in their own frame/in their point of view but probably different in another frame.  It just needs a "transformation" from one frame to another (be it a Lorentz transform or not).
When an old enough adult decides to read a book, unless s/he is totally ignorant in that area, often s/he has some "objective" when the book is chosen.   The choice is seldom innocent.
It might be good to read from a 3rd party describing (eg.) the war between KMT and CCP in the Chinese civil war (this book didn’t have any substantial coverage).  But with my surgical mind (hahaha…), I kind of feel that the book contains a strong sense of western superiority.   Eg.  What 蔣經國 and 鄧小平 had in their stomach were just the same thing that they learnt from Stalin (et. al.) in Moscow’s Sun Yat Sen University.  I don’t believe 鄧小平’s pragmatism could really come from Stalin….  Or, in p. 123, he uses "European chroniclers" to laugh at Chinese commanders sitting in sedan chairs.  I said to myself "Come on.  If you want to tease people, use your own words and be honest !".  Though I often curse/laugh at Chinese stupidity, when the westerners do the same thing too often in front me somehow doesn’t go well with the fact that a siginificant fraction of my blood is ethnic Chinese.

Or, in p. 148, he mentioned the big hole (by design) in the middle of "The Repulse Bay" apartment/hotel building.  He mentioned it as an extreme example of "feng shui" that the hole allows the dragon behind to fly unimpeded to the sea.  But again, come on !   This is the story that Hong Kong tour guides have always given to the tourists.  But according to my more knowledgeable architect friend in HK, there is fluid dynamics consideration as well as giving a see-through perspective to the blue sky and green mountain.  It’s a good piece of architecture actually.  The wavy structure of this building in addition to this hole in the middle has earnt international architecture award for the architect.  That hole is like HK’s first 空中花園.  If you google, you’d find that the webpages who have explained this hole with this "feng shui" reason are likely somebody’s travelling diaries or explanation under somebody’s photos in the trips in HongKong etc. etc.
So, Manthorpe was just at the level of a tourist ?!  Or, I’m pretty sure that if I told him a stupid Canadian matter that he doesn’t know, he’d dig deeper to find other explanations.   Just like a student analyzing data, if the data appear to agree with his/her understanding/theory, s/he would often stop spending more time looking at it.  So, the orieintals are just those stereotypes to Manthorpe … Only when it suits his purpose would the orientals have some more depth ?!
(3) Just like type 1a supernova is good measuring stick for determing distance in the universe (…leading to the discovery of accelerated expansion of the universe –> dark energy), Hong Kong is a calibration instrument for me as Manthorpe did mention Hong Kong a few times.  I know those stuff much better (or even first hand) ….
From the above example (a hole in the middle) and other mentioning about HK, he seems to put speculations and opinions as a matter of proven fact without doubt — if you don’t know better than he does, you’d not know that something he said so absolutely is actually a common speculation or opinion.
With this in mind, I’ve always tried to remind myself to take whatever he says with a pinch of salt
(4.1) He mentioned a few times that the Hakka are looked at (in the Chinese communities) as "2nd class" citizens, even now.   I don’t know about thousands of years ago but today, who the hell look down at the Hakka ?!  Just as Manthorpe mentioned, 鄧小平, 李登輝 and 李光耀 are all Hakka … and this fact (that they’re at the top of the ruling class) just contradicts with his "2nd class" statement. Today, after so much mixing and time changes, any Chinese who look down at the Hakka are just laughable.  They can be jealous but they can’t despise.
(4.2) Another thing which sound slightly odd was that  in p. 227, Manthorpe had "only children from privileged families were allowed entry into universities that fed the Tiananmen (1989) protest" as the only cause mentioned for this June 4th massacre — at least the way that I read it ( for a few times).   I was active in the demonstrations in those couple of years … I wonder whether I was in a different planet or universe from his ??!!

(4.3) Manthorpe talked about the triads many times.  At one point, he was saying that those triads originated from those who followed Li Tan/鄭芝龍/鄭成功 (after their deaths).  But then later on, Manthorpe said that they (he mentioned the same Heaven and Earth Society among others) had their origins from 白蓮教 which was against the Mongolian at the end of 元 dynasty.    It’s confusing … though I guess the triad problem is complicated.

(4.4)  p. 232:  Manthorpe talked about the Apr. 2001 incident that US reconnaissance plane was forced to land in Hainan, China.  In the entire description with many lines, he didn’t mention a word that a Chinese pilot died in that incident.  I almost forgot about this incident but I remember a Chinese pilot’s death.   When I read this, it’s a very unfair.  Death of a pilot would shift the "sympathy balance" for innocent readers (to different extent for different people).

(5) Another disadvantage of reading Chinese/Taiwanese history in English is that recognizing names is just more difficult than necessary. If it’s written in Chinese, you’d immediately know what a name means and what implications are … but in English, it took Manthorpe a lot of explanations.  I’d always think that somebody else told him and he might not have got them right….
(6.1) A few sentences of his in p. 208 somehow helped me connect a couple dots why there have been so many Burmese expatriates in Taiwan (somehow I knew a couple of them).
(6.2) It tells an interesting story that when the KMT first came to Taiwan after Japanese left, some KMT soldiers stole Taiwanese bicycles but they carried the bicycles on the back because they didn’t know what bicycles were !!   That’s funny … I guess obviously these soldiers were not from Shanghai or something …. In 白先勇’s 《台北人》(obvioiusly from a Mainlander Taiwanese point of view), his characters usually would say how good things were in Mainland especially like Shanghai and one couldn’t find anything comparable in Taiwan …. A big contrast …

(6.3) In p. 202, Manthorpe  somehow complimented KMT’s land reform (one of the very few good things that he said for KMT).  Then he said: "…disinheriting of the young offspring of the landowning class … tended to make them into radical Taiwanese nationalist….". 

Is this you, PK ??  I immediately told myself.
Manthorpe said that independent farmers would become independent businessmen … and independent thinkers.  I guess, when people become richer and don’t only worry about whether they have enough to eat (ie. economic improvement), they’d start to use brain to think anyway whether it’s successful land reform or other things.


(7) Getting a little closer to the topic about Taiwan, somehow Manthorpe seems to use USA as a kind of standard for everything.  Even though USA is the only superpower left and has a lot of influence, I can’t help asking myself "When have Canadians started to adopt US-centralism" ??  Even a US citizen like me (hahaha …) wouldn’t have this illusion that everything is about how US looks at it.   Manthorpe even uses US court’s judgement/opinion to strengthen his opinion about Taiwan’s "ownership".   If this is a reasonable way, why China’s court doesn’t do it every day ?!
(8) Manthorpe tried to appear to be neutral but everybody reading his book understands how much he’s against Beijing’s hegemony (he didn’t use this word) towards Taiwan.   Without any delay, he tries very hard and in every way to convince the readers that China doesn’t legally own Taiwan and China’s point of view is stated only when he has something to say against it.  It is as if it’s really a legal matter or a school debate competition ……. Even as naïve as I’m, I think territory is about power (economically & militarily ….).
It’s obvious enough to everybody that if I were a Taiwanese, why would I want to voluntarily submit myself to a country which has much lower GDP/capital, which doesn’t allow me to vote for the President etc. and which is repressive and is trying to isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world ??
At times, I feel that Taiwan is like a weapon for him (or many westerners ??) to shout at China.
The legal things that he liked to talk about are all arguable.  I think one can say that both sides don’t have necessary/sufficient logical argument (ie. A > B and B>C ==> A > C).  It’s all like a school debate competition to me.
One thing that he’s mentioned a few times was that when the Japanese wanted to do something after some Japanese were killed by the aborigines in Taiwan, the Qing dynasty claimed that they didn’t want to claim responsibilities for those eastern mountainous areas — as it’s of course convenient for the Qing govt. to say so.  This was Manthorpe’s "proof" that Qing admitted that they didn’t control the entire Taiwan.    But later on, after a lot of mess, Qing dynasty had promised the Japanese to better control those mountainous area.  Why didn’t Manthorpe say that this was a "proof" that Qing admitted that the entire Taiwan should be under their control ??    In fact, does he feel that the Mainland Chinese govt. could legally and soundly claim the western part of Taiwan ??
All these so-called legal arguments don’t really matter much nor have any teeth.   Hong Kong Island and Kowloon of Hong Kong were ceded (permanently) to Britain and only New Territories on Hong Kong was leased for 99 years.  But I didn’t recall British actually used these "treaties" to try to keep Hong Kong.  And it was not.
The Chinese govt. could and have conveniently claimed that all those treaties were made in unfair conditions when the western and Japan bullied around the world with their firepower.   Of course, the Chinese govt. kept the territories that Qing dynasty had obtained … when it’s convenient and to their advantage.
All the legal arguments are not helping … Taiwanese want to be independent just like Bill Gates not wanting to work and be paid for by a Chinese factory owner.
(9)  All these are hypocritical anyway … US often accuses China etc. of not obeying international laws.  I remember watching CNN that US State of Dept. (with Bush’s approval) wanted to enforce what the international court said what US should do (so that  a Mexican wouldn’t be executed).  But then legal challenges brought to higher court which said that they only knew about US law and international court has no say.    Lou Dobbs and the guests he invited applauded and said that we were proud that this US court has upheld our sovereignty.   I watched with "amazement" and can’t help shout out  "What ???!!! "
(10.1)  Perhaps to try to say that China didn’t care about Taiwan before and in p. 111, he went as far as saying "empire building in the European style were not the Chinese way".   What ?!  In order to argue a point, Manthorpe had to paint the Chinese so nicely ?!  And later on in the book, clearly, China is a threat to the region (and perhaps the world).
(10.2) Manthorpe didn’t seem to say anything bad about DPP and Chen Shui Bian.
(11)  This book was written in 2005 and he didn’t see DPP losing power in 2008.  
Taiwan’s "status quo" is de facto independence and it’s easiest to be kept this way.  I believe even most Pan Blue people don’t really want to unite with China but just that they don’t want to go closer to a war or something.  The western powers have bullied the world so much when they were stronger.  If China wants to flex her muscle, it’s just natural. 
Let me now use my imagination.   Taiwan may grab the chance to formally become independent perhaps
— when there is a gigantic problem/disaster in China such that China becomes very weak and doesn’t have the resources to invade Taiwan … yeah, now I could see that Taiwanese might be one of the people to benefit from a much much weaker China ;
— when China is broken apart into many pieces — so why not Taiwan also.
— when Taiwan somehow becomes super-super strong and is capable of countering Chinese attack and China may need Taiwan’s economy etc.
— most interestingly, maybe, somehow the entire world is united to fight against China, Russia from the North, Japan from the East, India/Vietnam from the South, and US from every direction …. then it’s a great time for Taiwanese independence !! 
I watched so many war movies when I was a kid in Shanghai … seeing German soldiers falling down like a domino was a lot of fun.  So at times, I like to see people fighting against each other.  Am I bellicose ? Hmm…  Though I can often understand how meaningless wars are (eg. in movies) and how miserable lives are in wars, at times I don’t mind seeing people going against each other (as long as it’s not me).  I’m crazy at times … At any time, what I feel is linear combination of all these feelings and is determined by a quantum mechanical wavefunction — it could collapse into any state and you don’t know before you try to measure it.
   **********            **********                   **********
But anyway, thank you for lending this book to me.   At 1% level, I read this book to kind of please you or … 盛情難卻.

I seem to feel that I need to read something quite opposite to balance …

Yours crazily,  

About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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