Review: Forbidden Nation, A History of Taiwan by Jonathan Manthorpe

In the context of the current debate about closer economic integration with China, Jonathan Manthorpe’s book Forbidden Nation offers a colorful backstory to how Taiwan got to where it is today.

By Stuart Hill

Based on what appears to be extensive research and use of input from academics and experts that are still alive, Forbidden Nation portrays a complex historical timeline that takes the reader back to a Taiwan before the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), before the Japanese, even before the Dutch.

The second part of the book’s title “A History of Taiwan” might sound a bit dry and academic, but Manthorpe’s journalistic style drives his stories with a pace and drama that make for easy reading. Although most of the content covers periods in Taiwan’s past that are decades if not centuries ago, Manthorpe’s eye is always on the modern context. Quick references to what are relatively recent events or remain unresolved issues engage the reader with a contemporary relevance that never loses sight of its general audience. Serious academic readers might find this technique annoying, however.

As the title of the book implies, Manthorpe’s perspective on Taiwan is one of a country whose transformation into a nation has been constantly thwarted by the impact of powerful external forces. Across the last 400 years of Taiwan’s tumultuous history, European, Japanese, and Chinese merchants have all eyed the strategic location and economic potential of the island. Yet each group has also had to contend with existing aboriginal inhabitants. For each external group, the existence of these established societies is proof enough that no-one can lay much claim to an ownership of Taiwan except perhaps the aborigines themselves; and they weren’t a nation as such.

Manthorpe’s overall arc of a story is that of Taiwan’s unfulfilled desire for nationhood. Whether aborigines, dutch settlers, Fujian immigrants or Japanese colonialists have ever thought about Taiwan in these terms is not quite the point. In fact, as many of the chapters deal specifically with the impact these groups have had on Taiwan, the overall role of the book is to debunk the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) claim to Taiwan’s story. Even to this day, both political movements continue to make this claim. It is one of the key reasons why nationhood — ie fully proclaimed, legally stated, and internationally recognized independence — remains “forbidden” in Manthorpe’s terms.

This essential KMT/CCP claim in its current form — and Manthorpe provides lots of evidence to contradict this — that Taiwan has always been a Chinese possession, represents the books major value. As it relates to the current discussions between the KMT and CCP about the existence of a “1992 consensus” and “one china” the book builds a compelling argument that untangles the discussion from its connection with Taiwan.

Though he also uses the language of the KMT and CCP, “the Republic of China ON TAIWAN” and refers to the “mainland” versus “Taiwan” (that fits with the one China principle), you are left with the distinct impression that Manthorpe views the trajectory of Taiwan’s nationhood to have been repeatedly knocked off course through extremely bad luck and unfortunate location. Much like many of the pirates, immigrants, invaders and tourists that have been knocked aside by Taiwan’s infamous typhoon weather. Manthorpe’s gloomy 2009 conclusions, made in the context of the KMT’s return to power under Ma Ying-Jiou as leader, offer an ambivalent sense of hope for Taiwan to finally achieve any formal nationhood.

A fascinating update would be Manthorpe’s assessment of Ma’s first term as an ROC President.

A few historical references are typical of the insights Manthorpe offers:

With little political input, Chinese have been migrating to Taiwan, including Penghu’s islands, for hundreds of years, setting up farming and trading bases. As early as 230 AD Taiwan was identified as an unmanagable barbarian territory. The Sui Dynasty in 607 AD attempted to exact tribute from the aborigines with little success, and gave up on Taiwan as it attempted to build its empire in China. The Hakka, one of Taiwan’s major cultural groups, are estimated to have first arrived on Taiwan in large numbers as early as 1000 AD.

After China decided to ban ocean trade around 1500 AD, Taiwan emerged as a natural maritime base and port of call for the huge fleets trading between Japan and South East Asia. Later, the ports of Keelung, DanShui, Tainan and KaoHsiung were conceded to the British after defeating the Chinese in the opium wars.

The Ming Dynasty loyalist, and heroic merchant Koxinga (Zheng Cheng-Gong), who is renowned for expelling the Dutch from Taiwan, was born in Japan to a Japanese mother, used Taiwan as a base for running a pirate fleet against the Qing Dynasty.

Until the Chinese Nationalist Party arrived on Taiwan, no Chinese government had controlled more than a third of Taiwan, with the rest of the island considered lawless badlands plagued by tropical disease and over-run by head-hunting aborigines. It was the Japanese who subjugated the whole island.

Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, is divided into the following chapters:

  • Chapter 1 Two Shots in ChinHua Road (Shots fired against Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu)
  • Chapter 2 A Leaf of the Waves (Aboriginal and Chinese migration)
  • Chapter 3 Barbarian Territory (Views of Taiwan by various Chinese dynasties)
  • Chapter 4 Pirate Haven (Taiwan’s role as a trading base)
  • Chapter 5 The House of Cheng (the story of Koxinga’s father, Cheng Chih-lung)
  • Chapter 6 The Seige of Fort Zeelander (Koxinga and the Dutch)
  • Chapter 7 The Prince Who Became a God (Koxinga’s Taiwan legacy)
  • Chapter 8 Deliverance and Defeat (Koxinga’s management of Taiwan, and defeat to the Qing)
  • Chapter 9 A State of Constant Rebellion (Taiwan under the Qing)
  • Chapter 10 The Wolves Circle (The British and the French)
  • Chapter 11 A Modern Province (The Province of Taiwan under Governor Liu Ming-chuan)
  • Chapter 12 The Taiwan Republic (May 23 to October 21, 1895)
  • Chapter 13 Becoming Japanese (Taiwan under Japanese control)
  • Chapter 14 Missionaries and Filibusters (China’s external threats and the civil war)
  • Chapter 15 New Beginning, New Betrayal (The US-backed KMT takes Taiwan)
  • Chapter 16 The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier (The KMT proves its value to the US)
  • Chapter 17 Reform and Terror (Taiwan under the rule of Chiang Ching-kuo)
  • Chapter 18 Strategic Ambiguity (The US recognizes Beijing, shifts approach to Taiwan)
  • Chapter 19 The Perils of Democracy (Taiwan democracy)
  • Chapter 20 29,518 (Chen Shui-bian’s second term as president)

Find Forbidden Nation by Jonathan Manthorpe on Amazon


One response to “Review: Forbidden Nation, A History of Taiwan by Jonathan Manthorpe

  1. Syurati,
    This is an excellent summary of what looks to be a very interesting book.It is a well known expression that the victors get to write the history of any event. In this case young Taiwanese who are interested in their future should take the time to find out where they have come from, and what major events and milestones have been passed to get to where they are now. In fact the book looks so interesting that I intend to read it in the New Year.

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