Hengchun (恆春鎮, meaning Town of Eternal Spring) received fame last year through Cape no. 7, Taiwan’s highly successful movie set in southern Taiwan. What I was mainly impressed with, is how well the old town of Hengchun is preserved. Built over 130 years ago, Hengchun carries with it a very interesting history of Taiwan.
First, one has to consider who built the walls and who the walls were protecting from. Interestingly enough, long before some parts of western Taiwan were ceded to the Japanese by the struggling Qing dynasty, the Japanese were already there, fighting a mix of local Aborigines/Hakka tribes and Qing soldiers. Here’s some background from an official Taiwanese website (bold not in original text):
In former times, Hengchun had a different name, pronounced “Lungchiao”, which was a local aboriginal term for the orchids growing in the local forests to the south of Fengshan. This name, which is also the name of the local aboriginal tribe, was used until 1875. At that time, under the recommendation of Ching Government imperial official Shen Bao-jen, the city was renamed “Hengchun”, meaning “always spring” due to its comfortable year-round climate. During the 16th century Dutch occupation of Taiwan, Lungchiao was settled by Chinese. In 1661, towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, the pirate-warrior General Koxinga sent troops to combat the native people, resulting in the end of Dutch rule. After Lin Shuang-wen’s anti-Ching uprising of 1786, the Ching Dynasty refused to allow Chinese people to settle in Lungchiao for many years. It was not until the Mudan Incident of 1874, when the Japanese army invaded Taiwan, attacking the local aboriginal population, that the Ching Dynasty realized the importance of guarding the coast in the southern Taiwan. The government started to build up the city, set up an official district, developed the area and reached a settlement with the aboriginals.
You might be wondering what the Mudan incident was about. Wikipedia with "Taiwan Expedition of 1874" comes to the rescue :
The Taiwan Expedition of 1874 (Japanese: Taiwan Shuppei: 台湾出兵), usually referred to in Taiwan and mainland China as the Mudan incident (牡丹社事件), was a punitive expedition launched by the Japanese in retaliation for the murder of 54 Ryukyuan sailors by Paiwan aborigines near the southwestern tip of Taiwan in December 1871. The success of the expedition, which marked the first overseas deployment of the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy, revealed the fragility of the Qing dynasty’s hold on Taiwan and encouraged further Japanese adventurism. Diplomatically, Japan’s embroilment with China in 1874 was eventually resolved by a British arbitration which confirmed Japanese sovereignty over the disputed Ryukyu Islands in 1879. […]
More generally, the Japanese incursion into Taiwan in 1874 and the feeble Chinese response was a blatant revelation of Chinese weakness and an invitation to further foreign encroachment in Taiwan. In particular, the success of the Japanese incursion was among the factors influencing the French decision to invade Taiwan in October 1884, during the Sino-French War.
The Qing court belatedly attempted to strengthen its hold on Taiwan, and the Chinese imperial commissioner Shen Pao-chen made some improvements to the island’s coastal defenses during the second half of the 1870s. Further substantial improvements were made by the Chinese governor Liu Ming-ch’uan in the 1880s, in the wake of the French capture of Keelung during the Sino-French War. However, little was done to improve the poor quality of the Qing garrison of Taiwan, and both the French in 1884 and the Japanese in 1895 were able to land successfully in Taiwan.
I bet that’s a piece of history you don’t know much about. Before the Japanese aggressive takeover of Taiwan (which you could learn a bit more about in the wonderful 1895 movie) there was general chaos in Taiwan, which suggests that the general misconception that Taiwan as being under full Qing occupation should be revisited. Long ago, Jerome Keting wrote a remarkable short piece about Taiwan’s history that I’ve long wanted to quote "Cairo Rhetoric, Undecided Stealing, Taiwan and the UN" :
Certainly there were Chinese people that had come to Formosa but had not many of them, aside from Qing bureaucrats, come illegally to escape their lives under the Qing? And finally, what about this fact? No country had ever controlled the whole island of Formosa (Taiwan) before the Japanese.
The western half of Taiwan was governed by the Qing, and that half became a province in 1885 ten years before the 1895 treaty, but the other half was aboriginal territory. The Qing surely had designs on the lands of those "uncooked savages" and if it would acquire that land it could clearly be called stealing. Even on the land governed by the Qing, history records a tenuous rule there with an uprising every three years and a rebellion every five. So in the treaty of 1895, the Qing government was getting rid of its troublesome half of the island. The remaining land was not the Qing government’s to give. It didn’t mind Japan "stealing" it.
Though it’s probably controversial and would not go well with the Chinese readers, I strongly encourage you to read the whole article, it’s well worth your 5 minutes.
Peter Williams’ “correction” of Michael Wise’s claim that Taiwan has never been a province of China was itself highly problematic. It is true that from 1886 to 1895 Taiwan was a province, but it was a province of the Qing empire, run by non-Chinese Manchus, the owners of other territories in Asia that are now independent states.
Taiwan was a colonial holding of the Manchus, just as India was once a colonial holding of the UK, or Mexico a colonial possession of Spain. The fact is that no ethnic Chinese emperor ever controlled Taiwan, and it was never a province of any Chinese empire.
Ben Goren explains the connection to this post:
The existence of Qing garrisons and maintenance of the “fire-line” are evidence that the Qing did not control eastern Taiwan, the largest part of the country. The 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki conceded only the western plains to Japan.
This is evidenced by the battles of the Japanese to bring the majority of the country’s mountainous land mass under control, which from the start of human habitation until the early 1900s had been occupied independently by Aboriginal groups.
Regardless of whether we agree with those interpretations of Taiwanese history, and I’m really not leaning either way, point is, the Hengchun represents that history as the Qing were fortifying the city to fend off from Japanese that were going head to head with the locals in Taiwan with various other colonizing nationalities trying to make a stand in various parts of Taiwan. We’re talking 1870s, 20 so years before the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and during the time Taiwan is considered by most to be under tight mainland control.
Isn’t that fascinating? Comments and clarifications welcome.