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Why Taiwan is Historically Not A Part of Chinese Sovereign Territory: Taiwan From Quarantine to Japanese Rule

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Taiwan’s national identity is not the same as China’s. If anything, the idea that Taiwan is “Chinese” is a notion forced upon Taiwan by the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party. Sure, you can argue that regarding culture, language and certain traditions, China and Taiwan are quite similar, but overall, that isn’t enough of an argument to lay claim that Taiwan is Chinese sovereign territory.

Whereas many Chinese will tell you that they are proud of their civilization and rise to global importance in recent decades, many Taiwanese would say they are proud of their open, free, and ever-changing democracy. Sure, Taiwan is considered a flawed democracy, but it does rank very high in Asia and in the rest of the world.

Historically speaking, Taiwan has never been completely ruled by a Chinese authority until the KMT arrived in 1949.

You might be wondering how that is possible, well, let’s define what is sovereignty:

Sovereignty is the power of a state to do everything necessary to govern itself, such as making, executing, and applying laws; imposing and collecting taxes; making war and peace; and forming treaties or engaging in commerce with foreign nations.

The Qing never had the power to govern, tax, or apply laws throughout the entire territory of Taiwan, and I’ll explain why.

The Qing’s Quarantine Policy

Dutch, Spanish and Ming rebels occupied different parts of Taiwan in the 17th century. It wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty came in 1684, that a long-lasting presence by the Han was established.

Taiwan was to become an “ambiguous frontier” for the Qing who enacted a quarantine policy. This policy essentially prohibited Chinese emigration, Han settlement, banning trade of iron and bamboo and restricting official travel to the island.

For all intents and purposes, Taiwan was viewed as a backwater island that was more of a security issue, than an issue of sovereignty. The island not an integral part of the Qing’s territory. Quite the opposite, if Koxinga had no invaded the island and taken it from the Dutch, the island would more than likely have not even been on the radar of the Qing.

Even with Qing administration, their ability to apply laws and govern were restricted by the quarantine policy. This policy was nothing new for the Qing. Their empire was huge and it was normal to have fluid borders, instead of hard ones.

The island of Taiwan was broken into the area that was administered by the Qing and the area occupied by “raw and cooked” aborigines. This classification is explained as the “raw” aborigines being the “untamed” and otherwise those outside the control of the Qing’s power. The “cooked” were those who paid taxes and were not beyond the pale of Qing control.

Even then, the classification of raw and cooked are both still fluid terms than could be applied to different degrees of how cooked or how raw a tribe is. However, what Taiwan was reduced to, is seen below.

old taiwan

Essentially, anything past the mountainous regions was seen to be beyond the control of the Qing.

The quarantine policy was not put in place to protect aborigines, but rather to prevent conflict between Han and aborigines, which would afford the Qing higher costs for the island. The bottom line was, the Qing were not interested in Taiwan. It was a backwater island that posed security concerns at one stage and was more of hassle than a sovereign part of their territory.

However, this policy was to be challenged by three great case studies that were provided by Lung Chang, on the topic of From Quarantine to Colonization: Qing Debates on Territorialization of Aboriginal Taiwan in the Nineteenth Century tenth-Century Taiwan.

Three Case Studies of Changing Perceptions of Territory and Quarantine Policy

Gemelan in 1810

The first case study was from Gemelan in Northern Taiwan. In 1810, Gemelan became a subprefecture and was the first administrative expansion in Taiwan since Danshui in 1731.

The area was occupied by Han immigrants, 36 aboriginal tribes and plains-aborigine settlers also arrived in the area in 1796. In 1806, the people of Gemelan defended the area from pirates and this prompted an investigation from the Qing court.

General Saichonga: “The Han and the aborigines reside peacefully with each other and have shown their loyalty to the government. It is recommended that the place [should] be incorporated into the imperial domain in order to extend the influence of our civilization.”

Emperor Jiaqing edict: “How can we leave it beyond our civilization! Moreover, the land is rich and fertile. If the territory is occupied by bandits and pirates, it will cause serious problems to Taiwan.”

Governer-General Min-Zhe fang Weidian: “The number of Chinese sojourners and aborigines has been increasing. If we do not establish official administration, disturbances will occur.”

It wasn’t until a part of unadministered land became useful for coastal defense and later, fertile for coffers, that land would be incorporated.

Gemelan was incorporated because it led to preventing local disturbances and minimizing administrative costs. But, it was the threat of invasion by pirates and security and coastal defence that gave most concerns, not revenue of settlement and protection of natives.

Thus, the Qing at this time were only interested in land that was for the betterment of the protection of the island. The rest of the island was beyond their control, and this was easier for the Qing.

Shuishalian in the 1840s

The opposite to Gemelan occurred in the Shuishalian. By the 1840s, the First Opium War had ended, and the precedent of foreign invaders and the importance of maritime defense was now a reality that many in the Qing had come to terms with.

Taiwan was now beginning to be seen as not just a backwater island, but as a strategic position that foreign powers could use to attack China.

His criticisms were not heeded until after the 1840 and the conclusion of the Opium wars (Unfair treaties).

Prefect Yao Ying: “The opening and development of the aboriginal territory will soon invite conflicts. It is better to leave the land barren in order to diminish the enemy’s ambition and deter temporarily their invasion.”

Shi Ma: “It is easier to achieve success by opening up the aboriginal territory. The quarantine policy could not prevent disturbances… It is recommended that we reclaim the land and appoint officials in Shuishalian following the precedents of Danshui and Gemalan.”

Grand Councilor Muchanga: “The proposal of opening the territory does not serve the main object of preventing disturbances… It is better to observe the quarantine precedents and curb territorial ambition in advance than to open the territory and cause unforeseeable problems in the future. It is more appropriate to follow the ancient practices and not to make any changes.”

Thus there was heavy debate from both pro-colonization and pro-quarantine sides

Pro-colonization used the Gemalan precedent, while pro-quarantine stated the remoteness as an issue and they did not perceive any threats or see any strategic importance of the area to coastal defence.

Therefore, the Gemelan precedent reigned, and that unless a unadministered area held importance for defense, the area would not be incorporated. However, this was all to change after the Second Opium War.

The Rover Incident and The Mudanshe Incident

By the 1870s, the quarantine policy was a bygone policy that was to be pressured to end because of encroachment of foreign powers. As a result of the Unfair Treaties (不平等條約), China was forced to open ports, including Taiwanese Ports in the 1860s. This led to the commoditization of tea, which in turn caused boundary trespassing, as foreigners were entitled to freely travel across Chinese territory

In 1867, Westerners crossed aboriginal boundary in south Taiwan and this had brought a huge challenge to the quarantine policy.

They wanted to find the American ship “The Rover.” The ship ran aground and those shipwrecked were killed by aborigines.

If you want to learn more about the the Rover Incident, I recommend you check out Michael Turton’s blog on the subject.

When the Qing were pushed for a resposne, they were unable to provide assistance. They could not guarantee the safety of people entering their territory because they had no control over it.

When asked for permission to cross the aboriginal boundary, Liu Mingden stated:”The raw aborigines are beyond the imperial domain and the realm of our civilization. The foreigners are advised to observe the boundary policy and not to venture into the forbidden aboriginal territory.”

Prince Gong, Director of the Zongli Yamen: “To prevent foreign ambition, it is advised that during the debate with the U.S. Consul (Le Gendre), our officials can not refer to the view that the aboriginal territory is beyond the Chinese imperial domain.

The Qing Dynasty’s indifference to aboriginals caused foreign powers to question Qing’s sovereignty over aboriginal Taiwan. The island as a whole was not administered and without it seemed that aboriginal tribes were in control of the areas East of Taiwan. The fact that the Qing would suggest that the area inhabited by the raw aborigines was beyond the imperial domain and realm of their civilization, was almost a declaration that they did not control, or have sovereignty over the area.

The Mudanshe Incident

In 1874, a Japanese shipwreck occurred with 53 Ryukyuan sailors becoming shipwrecked in Eastern Taiwan, and ultimately being killed by aboriginals.

In response to the killings, the Qing court had made it clear that the Japanese were not allowed to enter Taiwan, stating that:

Min-Zhe Li Henian: “Although they are still beyond the reach of civilization and administration, they live in our territory and are therefore under our jurisdiction”

The message, in many ways, made no sense. How could the area be under Qing jurisdiction if they could could not administrate it? This led to the Japanese invasion of Taiwan in 1874, and the Japanese only left because of aggressive diplomacy.

As such, the Mudanshe Incident initiated the “Kaishan fufan” project in 1875 to open up the mountains.

However, from 1875 to 1895, the Qing failed to open up the mountains. A lot of this has to do with how they viewed the aborigines. The aborigines are not just one group. Although they were classified as raw and cooked, at that time in Taiwan, there were many tribes. There was no central power for the entirety of the aborigine peoples. Another issue was the corruption, lack of administration and the all round 差不多 of the policy.

Japanese rule after the Treaty of Shimonoseki

By the end of 1895, Taiwan became a colony under the Japanese. Unlike the Dutch, Spanish and Ming rebels, the Japanese would do a better job at administering the entire island.

I would not call this an accomplishment considering just how many people were killed by the Japanese during the colonial era. Many anti-Chinese Taiwanese tend to think of themselves as belonging to the Japanese identity of Taiwan, rather than a Chinese one. However, to me, this is romanticization of an era that was marred by brutality.

However, it is important to discuss the fact that up until this point in history, Taiwan had never been fully controlled by any other central power. The aborigines were not a unified people, the Dutch and Spanish didn’t control most of the island, and the Qing claimed to have sovereignty over the island, but only had control over the Western part.

Closing thoughts

Taiwan is used as a nationalistic scapegoat by the Communist Part in China for the purpose of offsetting criticism of itself. The rallying call for the return of Taiwan and having a unified China is nothing more than an artificial concept. Taiwan was never an integral part of China’s territory.

For the CCP, Taiwan is said to represent the century of humiliation that China endured by Western powers. By unifying Taiwan and China, the century of humiliation would end. Taiwan is no longer an island off the coast of China, it is not even sovereign territory, it is a symbol of ending a century of humiliation and bringing back those who left China after the Civil War.

Therefore, as much as you can rationalize that Taiwan historically was not fully controlled by the Qing, it doesn’t matter. The issue is now symbolic, brought on by propaganda by the CCP to offset criticism of it’s own failings.

After all, if you google 64 into Baidu, you will find no results that are very relevant, but if you google 228, you will have all the information you would ever need to know about massacres and problems with Taiwan.

This is one way to look at the issue. Of course there are a myriad of other issues that would call into question why Taiwan would be considered Chinese, but those issues can be dealt with in another blog post.


EDIT: A part written on the Rover Incident was not factually correct and this was brought to my attention by Michael Turton. Mr. Turton provided content from his own blog that explains the incident in full for anyone interested in learning more about Taiwanese history.

One Reply to “Why Taiwan is Historically Not A Part of Chinese Sovereign Territory: Taiwan From Quarantine to Japanese Rule”

  1. If you haven’t, I strongly suggest you read John Shepherd’s Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier. The argument that Taiwan was neglected/left to its own devices by the Qing is completely blown out of the water there. Either way, not having full control doesn’t mean they didn’t consider it Chinese territory.

    In the end, though, the historical case regarding sovereignty is all really a waste of time. The bottom line is Taiwanese have had enough time to form and develop their own identity and decide what or whom they want to be. Constructing arguments about the historicity of Chinese sovereignty is all really just a red herring, not to mention unnecessary.


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