A New Illustrated History of Taiwan
by Wan-yao Chou, translated by Carole Plackitt and Tim Casey
Looking for a good, easy-to-read book to provide a general overview of Taiwanese history?
This book is not a comprehensive history of Taiwan, nor does it pretend to be one. Powerful figures from Koxinga to Lee Teng-hui are mentioned only in passing, because Chou’s focus is instead on the ordinary people, and how their lives were shaped and impacted by historical events.
And the book does a stellar job tracing the history of Taiwan’s people, from the Indigenous inhabitants up through colonization from Fujian and Guangdong in the 1600s and 1700s, to the effects of 20th century politics on Taiwan’s people.
Areas where I felt my knowledge needed beefing up and this book was informative included a concise summary of distinctions between Taiwan colonization from Quanzhou, Zhangzhou and Guangdong; good overviews of the two big rebellions against Japanese rule in Taiwan (the Chiaopanien [aka Tapani] rebellion of 1915 and the Wushe [aka Musha] rebellion of 1930); a survey of Taiwanese domestic home rule movements of the 1920s and 1930s; and a brief discussion of pro-democracy stirrings in the 1950s and 1960s.
Early on in the book, Chou writes “Sometimes one’s understanding of history increases if one stops using modern concepts” (p. 50). This is a great line which I wholeheartedly agree with. In the text, it refers to the fact that the close association between Taiwan and Penghu in fact got a relatively recent start; Penghu was closely tied to China’s Fujian Province for centuries before any Chinese government gave much thought to colonizing Taiwan.
But of course, the idea that “sometimes one’s understanding of history increases if one stops using modern concepts” is a great lesson that should be hammered into the head of people around the world. For more on this general area, see my review of Sam Wineburg’s book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on your Phone) and what I wrote about thinking like a historian.
The book’s title highlights the fact that this is an illustrated history of Taiwan, and the illustrations are the main feature of the book.
The illustrations highlight and shape key moments in Taiwan’s history. I looked and couldn't find most of them online, but some of the ones that I will specifically remember include:
A group of young Taiwanese musicians at an outdoor pavilion in Kaohsiung in 1934. They’re all smiling, joyful even -- many are laughing. Among them are Koh Bunya, a singer and composer who would eventually live in post-1949 China and face persecution during the Cultural Revolution. I wonder if the other men and women would have similarly complicated life stories. (p. 247)
A linguistically fascinating 1944 photo of a sign saying to 常用國語. Nowadays in Taiwan, 國語, which literally means “national language”, refers to Mandarin. But in 1944 Taiwan 國語 would have meant Japanese -- the pronunciation is different, but “national language” is written the same way in the two languages. So this sign extorted Taiwanese to speak Japanese, using exactly the same written word for Japanese that nowadays means Mandarin! (p. 273)
A striking image from an Atayal village in 1950. Chiang Kai-shek, dressed in a fedora and black cape, making an inspection tour. His son is a few steps behind him in military fatigues. Among Chiang’s retinue is Atayal leader Losin Watan, easily recognized in a dark suit, who would be executed along with five other Indigenous leaders four years later. (p. 338)