A Historical Look on the Foreign View of Taiwan

I was just amazed with an article I read published by Time Magazine on Monday, Sep. 11, 1950. I think for historical reference alone it is an interesting read. I will not inject my opinions, but some interesting observations were made that play a large role in current issues today.

Formosa, an island about 100 miles off the South China coast, is slightly larger than Maryland. Two-thirds of Formosa is covered with tropical forest—banyans, Japanese cedars, teak, black ebony and most of the world’s camphor trees.

The island’s backbone is formed by two north-south mountain ranges which thrust up 16 peaks of 10,000 feet or more. On the east coast, the mountains become sheer rock walls, dropping 1,500 to 7,000 feet into the sea. On the west they fall away in successive terraces down to a wide coastal plain, thereby giving the island its Chinese name: Taiwan (Terraced Bay).

The climate and fertile soil combine to produce vast quantities of rice, tea, sugar and fruit, including the round, yellow-fleshed watermelons which Formosans like to eat chilled in vinegar. In their paddy fields many Formosans grow two crops of rice each year, follow up with a third crop of turnips or cabbages.

Snakes & Pirates. The Portuguese, who first sighted the island in 1590, were so entranced by its vistas of purple mountains rising out of lush, green lowlands that they named it Ilka Formosa (Beautiful Isle). But the Beautiful Isle has its shortcomings. In August and September it is whipped by destructive typhoons. It averages 330 earthquakes a year. Formosa also boasts twelve varieties of poisonous snakes, including the “hundred pace snake.” (The legend: the victim walks 100 paces and falls dead.)

The Dutch and the Spaniards arrived in Formosa in the 1620s. They fought the head-hunting Formosan aborigines and each other. In 1644 the Dutch captured the Spanish stronghold of La Santissima Trinidad at Keelung, but their victory was short-lived. Formosa was being inundated with South Chinese fleeing before the Manchu invaders of China. In 1661 one refugee, the pirate Koxinga, turned up at Formosa with a fleet and an army of 25,000 men, overwhelmed Formosa’s small Dutch garrison and proclaimed himself king of the island. Though he ruled for only a year before his death, Koxinga is still Formosans’ greatest hero.

Wasps & Head-Hunters. Until Koxinga’s time, Formosa had been bedeviled by Japanese pirates. Formosans still maintain that the Chinese residents of Kaohsiung beat off one Japanese attack in the 16th Century by setting afloat a host of bamboo tubes filled with live wasps. The curious pirates opened the tubes, were so badly stung that the Chinese captured the whole invading force.

In 1683 Formosa became a part of the Chinese Empire. Chinese settlers wrested control of the best land from the aborigines. This land steal aroused in the aborigines a hatred so implacable that even after World War I a traveler reported of the headhunters: “Mongolian [Chinese] heads are preferred, though those of other tribesmen, of domesticated natives or of Japanese are esteemed.”

During their 212 years under the Chinese Empire, Formosans of Chinese blood became different from mainland Chinese, much as colonial Americans developed a different type from their British stock. In appearance Formosans still resemble their South Chinese ancestors—short, dark, well-muscled people with broad faces and flat noses. Most Formosans still live in the straw-thatched huts which are the homes of South China’s peasants or in the two-story brick houses which are the homes of South China’s gentry. Formosans speak a Fukienese dialect, and few can talk to mainland Chinese without an interpreter.

Crows & Bombing Planes. In 1895, after its defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, China was forced to cede Formosa to Japan. Admiral Viscount Kabayama, appointed Japan’s first governor general, sailed down to Formosa in triumph, released from his flagship as a sign of victory a pair of crows. Their descendants still make Formosan daybreaks raucous.

The Formosan Chinese proclaimed a “Republic of Formosa” which the Japanese defeated in three weeks. The aborigines were harder to handle. To isolate the aborigines up in the mountains, the Japanese built what they called the Savage Guard Line, 360 miles of barbed wire fence, 230 miles of which were electrified in the 1920s. Along the Guard Line the Japanese maintained a force of 5,000 men who, as late as 1930, were besieging the aborigines with field guns, land mines and bombing planes.

Japanese rule in Formosa was a model of colonial exploitation. They developed an irrigation system so that water falling during the rainy season could be stored for use in dry periods, extended it to cover two-thirds of Formosa’s arable land. Under Japanese guidance, Formosa’s annual rice crop was doubled, and cultivation of sugar cane increased so greatly that in the years before World War II the Japanese Empire stood fourth among the world’s sugar-producing nations.

The Japanese also turned Formosa’s fragrant Oolong tea into a big-money crop, but here their customary sense of order and cleanliness deserted them. Of the girls employed in the tea-sorting godowns a Yankee traveler in 1922 complained: “Some of these tea-sorters are as much addicted to maternity as the cigarette-makers of Seville, and not a few carry young bead-eyed Mongolians slung in wide black bands over one hip. These pigtailed little toddlers do not always heighten one’s relish for the finished tea, as the big piles of leaves ready for sorting and perfuming are oftentimes their playgrounds, and through and over them they tumble and waddle with infantile disregard for consequences.”

Ports & Power. The Japanese were ready to spend money in order to make money. They gave Taipei, Formosa’s capital, a government building which would do credit to most British colonies, developed deepwater ports at Keelung and Kaohsiung. Throughout the island Japanese engineers built 2,463 miles of railway, 11,300 miles of good road. They harnessed Formosa’s short, swift-flowing rivers, built a large 300,000-kilowatt hydroelectric power station at Jihyuehu (Sun-Moon Lake). For other power sources, they worked Formosa’s coal deposits, believed to total 400 million metric tons, and exploited her oil, refining it at the rate of 5,000 gallons of gasoline a day.

Everywhere the Japanese scattered sugar mills, pineapple canneries and factories to produce textiles, chemicals, paper and industrial alcohol. At Kaohsiung and Hualien they built plants which produced about 10% of the Japanese Empire’s alumina and aluminum. By the beginning of World War II, Formosa was exporting more than Turkey or Yugoslavia, returning a yearly net profit of $100 million to Japanese investors and the Japanese government, had an export balance in trade with both China and Japan.

Gold Teeth & Electric Lights. Fifty years under Japan’s wing has given Formosans attitudes and habits rare on China’s mainland. Nearly every Formosan sports one or two gold teeth, the badge of Japanese health-consciousness. About 10% of Formosans are industrial or communications workers. Even the 71% of Formosans who are agricultural workers have electric lights in their huts, a luxury possessed by no other Asian peasants except the Japanese.

World War II shattered Formosan’s secure and, by Oriental standards, abundant life. U.S. bombers hit all of the island’s 42 sugar mills, put almost all of the rest of its industry out of commission. The bombers won the U.S. great face in Formosa by leaving the Japanese quarter of Taipei in rubble, damaging the Formosan section of town far less.

Wreckage & Reconstruction. At war’s end Formosa was placed under Chinese control with the understanding that China would get final possession of the island when the war with Japan was officially ended. (No peace treaty with Japan has been signed.) Formosans, stumbling about in the wreckage of their economy, found themselves in the hands of a despotic and inefficient Chinese governor, Chen Yi. After he had provoked a brief, bloody rebellion Chen Yi was removed. As the faltering Nationalist government fled from South China, Formosa became the refuge of nearly 2,000,000 mainland Chinese. Formosans complained bitterly that the rapacious Nationalist refugees acted like conquerors who did not expect to stay long.

In the last two years Formosans have grown more contented. Nationalist authorities have done a good job of economic reconstruction. Formosa’s overall production this year will be up to 75% of what it was in good prewar years. Formosan tenant farmers, who under the Japanese paid as much as 70% of their crops in rent, now pay only 37% to the landlord. Formosans have also been mollified by the improved morale of 500,000 Nationalist troops largely trained by V.M.I.-educated General Sun Li-jen.

Formosa’s 160,000 remaining aborigines are happier, too. They do little work. Some of them sublimate their head-hunting desires by taking monkey skulls; others make a play for the tourist trade with performances of native dances. And now that the harsh days of the Japanese Guard Line are gone, the aborigines are free to wander down to Taipei for an occasional glimpse of civilization.