I’ve been in Montreal for the last few days, poking around the Quartier Chinois in search of Quebecois mutations to Chinese food like fried macaroni. Ticked off the mandatory statue of Sun Yat-sen and the bas-relief of Chinese lady musicians, as well as a roster of restaurants. Unlike San Francisco Chinatown, however, there were no T-shirts advertising that I had been to 满城. Come on, Montreal. Allons-y.
Young-tsu Wong’s China’s Conquest of Taiwan in the Seventeenth Century: Victory at Full Moon chronicles the hundred years of maritime trades and raids that preceded the Manchu naval campaign against the rebel island of Taiwan in 1683. The one-eyed admiral Shi Lang had once been a captain in the largely illegal smuggling operation of Nicholas Iquan (Zheng Zhilong), the “master of the seas” believed to have been the richest man in the world in the 1630s. After the invasion of China by the Manchus in 1644, Iquan had briefly served as the kingmaker of the Ming resistance, before defecting to the invaders. Shi Lang would also switch sides, a decision that would cause Iquan’s son Coxinga (pictured) to execute Shi’s father, brother and son in revenge. The aging Shi Lang returned a generation later, recalled out of semi-retirement to take down the island regime ruled by Coxinga’s grandson.
Wong sets the scene with stories of the Ming dynasty’s own struggles with porous borders, pirate attacks and swashbuckling punch-ups between rival Japanese traders in Chinese ports. He reminds us that Nicholas Iquan himself spent parts of his life on both sides of the law, in an era when almost all foreign trade was sure to be criminalised. He refers to the escalating coastal troubles of the 15th and 16th centuries as the “Great Pirate War”, as the authority of the Ming dynasty eroded on the coasts. The nation that had once sent vast fleets to show off its power overseas now increasingly huddled on the shore, fearful of pirate raiders which, for a number of reasons, were usually branded as “Japanese”.
Wong introduces the pirate/smuggler Wang Zhi (d.1560), who once proclaimed himself the King of Zhejiang, and who plied a route between Hirado in south-west Japan and the south Chinese coast. In linking Wang Zhi to his successor “Captain China”, and Captain China to Nicholas Iquan and Coxinga, Wong establishes a genealogy of marine warlords, the “masters of the seas”, stretching for more than a hundred years down to the fall of the Zheng regime on Taiwan – what we might call a transformative and disruptive “Pirate Century” running alongside Japan’s Christian Century.
As recounted in Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, the pirate-smugglers of the Chinese coasts were dragged into the conflict between the invading Manchus and the retreating Ming dynasty. By 1645, the Ming court was a dwindling group of refugees, throwing itself on the mercy of Nicholas Iquan, the billionaire “admiral” who bankrolled early counter-attacks. Noble titles were handed out to Iquan’s family, including the conferral of the imperial surname on his eldest son by a childless Ming pretender. It amounted, at least in some eyes, to a symbolic adoption and the boy, thereafter as “the Knight of the National Name” (Guo-xing-ye, or Coxinga in the local pronunciation) would become the most famous loyalist to the Ming cause.
His father, not so much. Nicholas Iquan deserted in 1646, leaving the Ming pretenders to their fate. Coxinga fought on for another generation, taking over the Zheng maritime empire. The height of his resistance came in 1659, when he led an army up the Yangtze as far as the former capital Nanjing – a fact that caused the young Manchu emperor to hack up his own throne with a sword in a blind rage. Pushed back from Nanjing, Coxinga retreated to Taiwan, which he established as his new base. His family, the Zheng clan, would rule it for the next 21 years, until Shi Lang’s fleet brought them down.
Wong suggests that a “pirate psychology” – always counting on being able to rush back to the ships in times of trouble – was a fatal flaw in the discipline of Coxinga’s troops during the attack on Nanjing. There were other problems, too, particularly the fact that besieging Nanjing was itself “more symbolic than real.” He argues that Coxinga’s men stood little chance of storming the heavily fortified, well-situated former capital. Far from it – they were heavily exposed to counter-attack, and could not even prevent reinforcements and supplies reaching their besieged enemies. However, Wong doesn’t think that Coxinga himself shared the fair-weather loyalties of his father and crews.
Who was fooling whom? When Coxinga declined the title of Prince of Yanping, offered by the Ming pretender, was he really being gracious, or was he avoiding annoying the Manchus during peace talks? Conversely, did he ever had any intent of playing along with Manchu negotiators, of was it just a useful ruse to preserve the status quo? For as long as there was a prospect of a treaty, Manchu enforcers would leave Taiwan unmolested, fearful that they might get the blame if any actions caused Coxing to break off communications. In the words of one Manchu official, Coxinga’s demands were “an idiot’s daydream” – the question remains whether Coxinga knew that himself.
For Wong, the tragedy of the Zheng family was that they could have had it all. The Manchus had no interest in Taiwan, and did not particularly regard it as part of China – even after its conquest, it was dismissed by the emperor as nothing but a “ball of mud”. If the Zhengs had maintained the wily flexibility of Iquan, they could have clung on to Taiwan as an independent kingdom, offering tribute to Beijing but largely left alone. Instead, their insistence that they were the last loyalists of the defeated regime would prove to be their eventual doom.
If Coxinga’s son Zheng Jing had stopped harping on about the lost Ming dynasty, Wong argues that he would have either been ignored or afforded an honorary princedom in the Manchu order. Instead of sticking to profitable overseas trade from his island redoubt, Zheng Jing allowed himself to get dragged into the doomed Revolt of the Three Feudatories, in which a group of southern warlords belatedly fought back against the Manchus. His men briefly won victories on the southern coast, before the revolt collapsed – its only long-term effect being that of making Zheng Jing’s continued presence on Taiwan intolerable to the Manchus.
Wong devotes an entire chapter to the decades of intermittent peace talks between the Manchus and the Zheng regime, as Beijing tried to find a way of buying its enemies off with bribes and noble titles. For two decades, Zheng Jing insisted that his base was a second Ming capital, he kept to the Ming calendar and proclaimed himself a loyal Ming subject. Even when his stance looked hopeless, he tried to get the Manchus to agree to an independent status, as if Taiwan were a single surviving province of an otherwise lost regime. As if! Oh, wait…
In Wong’s eighth chapter, he leaps back in time to tell the life of Shi Lang, the man who served as a captain under the Zheng regime, before defecting to the Manchus and ultimately, in his dotage, leading the fleet that would bring them down. There is tantalising potential here for a dramatic popular-historical narrative – born in 1621, Shi Lang was only three years older than Coxinga. “There is no room for two tigers on one hill,” writes Wong, pointing to the prospect of a book unwritten, in which Shi Lang, rather than the Zheng family, is the hero of his own story. But Wong is not interested in seeing the bright flash of a new, dramatic pathway through historical materials. As his blurb states, he is rather determined to “describe the historical process leading to Taiwan’s integration with Mainland China.” He does this with an incredibly wide array of Chinese-language sources, many of which do not appear to have cropped up in English before, on all sorts of interesting areas, from the ugly succession dispute that followed Coxinga’s death to the simmering feud between the Zheng clan and the defector Huang Wu.
Wong’s work sits within a welcome modern trend that flips the perspective of Ming piracy, asking how the world might have looked for a community that saw the islands and coasts, rather than the land, as its home. Peter Shapinsky’s Lords of the Sea, for example, reconsidered Japanese pirates not as nuisances and criminals, but as rulers in their own right, misnamed and misunderstood in histories of land-based politics. Maritime Ryukyu, by Gregory Smits has been similarly provocative, redrawing the map of the East China Sea to create a water-based territory incorporating not only the Ryukyu Islands, but coastal regions of Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan. Pushing a culturalist notion of China – that “Chinese” land is land where Chinese culture is paramount – Wong argues that Taiwan was not “Chinese” in any meaningful sense until the arrival of the Zheng clan and the subsequent seizure of the island by the Manchus.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Wong takes an entire book to get to just a single chapter about the actual conquest of Taiwan. But as his account makes plain, Taiwan was “conquered” multiple times in the 17th century, and Shi Lang’s campaign in 1683 was merely the finale. Although there are asides that point to the tense conditions on Taiwan – families burning down their own houses to avoid the newest emergency property tax, and Shi Lang himself welcomed by many supposed Ming-loyalist locals as a hero rather than an enemy – he does not deal specifically with the politics of the Zheng era.
I would have liked to have seen a little more incorporation of non-Chinese materials – a lot has been written about the period in the last 20 years, but remarkably few of Wong’s references postdate the turn of this century. He concedes in his introduction that much of this book was written some time ago, and it is a testament to his scholarship that so many of its sources remain fresh and original. But Wong has little to say, for example, about the impact of Japan (where Coxinga became a kabuki hero) on maritime politics in the region, when samurai wars were largely responsible for the large and lucrative trade in Taiwanese deer hides for use in armour. The cessation of Japan’s long civil war not only shut down the demand for hides, but created a flotsam of out-of-work soldiers that swelled China’s “pirate problem”, and supplied plentiful mercenaries to fight on the mainland. Arguably, the politics of Zheng-era Taiwan are outside of Wong’s area of interest, but I expect he could have derived some useful information from, for example, Yoshio Hayashida’s 2003 Japanese-language History of Taiwan Under the Zheng Clan: A True Chronicle of the Rise and Fall of Coxinga and his Descendants. His focus, instead, remains resolutely on the process that led to Taiwan becoming part of China, rather than the incredible personal stories, vendettas and battles that accompanied it.
The copy-editing is also remarkably shoddy for a book that retails at £80. It is riddled with little prepositional errors and mild malapropisms that suggest an editor for whom English is a second language. There are also some occasional (and possibly inadvertent) misattributions of action and agency – Coxinga’s grandson Keshuang, for example, is described as “murdering” his older brother in a power struggle “with the encouragement and support of his father-in-law.” It is surely more sensible to assume that the killing was arranged by a faction of adults acting in the name of Keshuang, who was only twelve years old at the time. Fortunately, such minor slips do not subtract from Wong’s personal accomplishment, of marshalling such a wide range of Chinese-language sources on such a fascinating period of world history.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. China’s Conquest of Taiwan in the Seventeenth Century: Victory at Full Moon is published by Springer.
I am in Toronto Chinatown, investigating restaurants Shanghainese, Yunnanese, Cantonese, a smattering of Sichuanese, one Manchurian, two Xinjiang halal and some half-hearted Peking. So obviously I started with a Mongolian hotpot. Services in the church are two parts Mandarin to one part Cantonese. Signage, as is common in Canada and around the world, tells one story to Chinese readers and another to Anglos. Yesterday was the Chinese collection at the Royal Ontario Museum; today I’m off to see the monument to the Chinese workers on the Pacific railroad. Me the north, as they almost say here.
I’ll leave you with a Ming-dynasty figurine of one of Hell’s Torturers. No, really.
Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I’ve contributed several new entries, including ones on the futurology of Jeffrey Lewis and the pulp fiction of Tetsuto Uesu, others on Light Novels and Visual Novels, and a massive piece on Baku Yumemakura, the author of the original novel that Chen Kaige recently turned into Legend of the Demon Cat (pictured).
Up on the Guardian website, my article about Masakado, the malevolent spirit said to be haunting modern Tokyo.
“Wary of his influence, in 1874 the new government officially proclaimed him an ‘enemy of the emperor’, ending his semi-divine status. Then the finance ministry burned to the ground in the 1923 earthquake. Masakado was blamed. Rumours then spread that the replacement building, too, was cursed: accidents, falls and mishaps claimed 14 lives in five years – including that of the finance minister himself.”
Announced on 1st April, to give calendar makers a whole month to scramble to integrate it into their files, the new Japanese reign era will be: Reiwa (a subject first remarked up on on this blog here). 2019 will bridge the last four months of the outgoing Emperor’s Heisei era, as well as the first eight months of Emperor Naruhito’s reign, which is sure to be a colossal pain in the arse for lawyers trying to read Japanese copyright dates hereafter.
Previous era names have been drawn from Chinese classics, at least officially, although nobody dares to point out what a colossal fudge this is. The last era name, Heisei, was supposedly drawn from two, which is to say, one word from each. That’s such a half-hearted, hand-wavy justification that it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Naruhito’s reign should begin with a statement that lifts a phrase from a medieval Japanese poetry book, the Manyoshu, or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves.
The words rei and wa crop up in the preface to a cycle of thirty-two poems about plum blossoms, translated by Edwin Cranston in A Waka Anthology as: “It is now the choice month of early spring; the weather is fine, the wind is soft.” Choice here doubles for proclamation, as an archaic term for the moon that proclaims the new season; soft for peace – I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that the selected words weren’t “old geese” and “winecup”, which could have been the new era’s Boaty McBoatface.
This isn’t the first time that the Manyoshu has cropped up in NEO’s transom. The sadly obscure sci-fi series Blue Submarine No. 6 came spattered with quotes from it, and Makoto Shinkai’s Garden of Words drew its title from another of the poems. I spent most of April Fool’s Day manfully resisting the temptation to offer fake explanations online. Reiwa, written with different characters, also means “illustration”, which manga creators are sure to have fun with for the next few decades. Somewhat more ominously, it also means “zero-sum”, an apt but rather chilling portent of the struggles ahead in the 21st century, as nations get increasingly bullish over the allocation of resources in times beset by climate change and energy crises. Although one more chance pun probably has them doing the Macarena in celebration at Gainax, since their iconic anime character Rei Ayanami probably just got a whole bunch of new merchandise opportunities.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #185, 2019.
Partway through the first act of Tuomas Kantelinen’s Mannerheim opera, our hero’s ex-girlfriends gate-crash his St Petersburg wedding like the three little maids from the school of hard knocks. Kitty, Maria and Betsy scandalise the family and taunt the bride with verses about how much he adores them, and how he will never love her more than he loved Annicka, the little sister who died as a child. Mannerheim (Waltteri Torikka) dismisses them with a cheeky shrug – left in penury by his faithless father, he is determined to marry the Russian heiress Anastasia (Johanna Isokoski), whose wealth will solve all his financial worries.
This opera moves fast. Within seconds, Anastasia is pushing a pram through a park, still dodging the taunting exes, before, in the space of a single aria, a decade has whizzed by and she has had enough of Mannerheim’s nonsense. She packs herself and her two daughters onto the train for Paris, and hisses at her estranged husband that everybody is afraid of him, except dogs and horses.
The sequence encapsulates the playfulness, humour and incisive understanding of Mannerheim’s life to be found in Laila Hirvisaari and Eve Hietamies’s libretto, as well as the many outrageous liberties they and director Tuomas Parkkinen take with historical characters. For starters, Kitty Linder (Johanna Rusanen-Kartano), one of Mannerheim’s most well-documented lovers, was only five years old at the time of his wedding to Anastasia Arapova, so I’m afraid it is rather unlikely that she would turn up at the party to sing about all the champagne they used to quaff. Nor was there much of a bunch of in-laws to scandalise – only Mannerheim’s father and brother showed up on the actual day, since everybody else thought that Anastasia was a “pop-eyed” bimbo.
But such howlers are so blatant that they may even be deliberate – the libretto lifts moments of undeniable provenance from Mannerheim’s life (such as a famous incident where a Bolshevik challenges him about the suspiciously high-ranking boots he is wearing), but also mixes in complete fabulations, such as an encounter with Puyi, the Last Emperor of China. This last incident is the prelude to revolution, signalled by the sudden display of a flag of the People’s Republic, forty years before it was actually hoisted. Such toying with history turns the opera into no less spirited a retelling than the controversial animated film Butterfly of the Urals or the schmuck-baity Kenyan “Black Mannerheim” remake Marshal of Finland, and despite a tone that is respectful and commemorative, it still manages to land some hard-hitting punches on its titular hero.
Mannerheim is a glorious celebration of the life of the most famous of Finns, but also smuggles in a remarkably subversive message about its subject. Far from being lauded as the father of his nation, Mannerheim here is a Faustian figure, wounded by his father’s infidelity, tormented by the death of his sister, and repeatedly bumping into a sinister coachman (Kristjan Möisnik) who makes him offers that come “at a high price.” In a neat below-stairs touch, his fate is interwoven with that of his housekeeper Ida (Johanna Rusanen-Kartano again), the deaths of whose son and grandson he inadvertently causes.
Despite much light-hearted humour – including a feud with a Russian officer played for laughs and a dance sequence in a clinic full of pregnant women – Mannerheim’s life is littered with corpses, at one point literally, as soldiers returning to the train station are outnumbered by a growing stack of coffins. He is haunted by the ghost of his sister Annicka (Annami Hylkilä), whose death we have witnessed in a melancholy aria about the boy she will never marry, and the daughter she will never carry. The polar opposite of the centenarian Aino from Kalevalanmaa, Annicka becomes the ghost of Finnish futures, forever frozen in time, unaware of the coming struggles of the Revolution or the Winter War, a symbol of Mannerheim’s carefree childhood in a simpler world. The first act finale finds Mannerheim literally with blood on his hands, lamenting the death of Ida’s son Toivo in the Civil War.
The second act makes a series of bold and unexpected dramatic decisions, starting with the striking recognition that the gallant young man of the first half was already a pensioner by the 1930s. It seems like only a moment ago we were snickering about his roister-doistering youth, but now he is a stuffy old man who needs his reading glasses, grumpily cutting ribbons for the opening of charitable institutions. Torikka’s Mannerheim is already infirm and slightly doddering, encouraging Ida’s grandson Kalle (Aarne Pelkonen) to join up, despite the dangers, presiding with increasing apprehension over a war that allows him to return to his glory days, at the expense of countless young lives.
We can all see what’s coming, as Ida sings her way through a letter from Kalle at the front, laughing at the recurring lyric “SENSUROITU” (censored), while Mannerheim tries to pluck up the courage to sign the telegram that will inform her that her son has died in action. But the opera’s greatest coup comes after the war, in a moment not of achievement but of denial, in which (SPOILERS SENSUROITU, highlight to read): Mannerheim is exhorted to ascend a ladder to take his place atop the bronze horse statue on the street that bears his name – symbolically, he is being invited to become the icon that he is today, but he stops at the base of the ladder. Instead, he runs away, which leads to another iconic moment from the photo gallery of his life – the lonely park bench in Lausanne, where he literally waits for Death, and finds a final duet with Annicka instead.
I was at the opening night of this season’s run at the Ilmajoki Music Festival, where Mannerheim received a well-deserved standing ovation, not merely for the leads, but for star turns from the supporting cast. As Mannerheim’s mother Helena, Essi Luttinen has a few minutes to belt out an incredible swansong, before conveniently dying so she can sneak back onstage to play his paramour Betsy Shuvalova. As Ida, Johanna Rusanen-Kartano ably juggles her dual roles as comic relief and grieving grandmother, but it is difficult to single out anyone in the cast who doesn’t shine in their moment.
The Mannerheim opera is a fascinating set of decisions taken in adapting the life of its subject, intriguing not only for what it includes, but for what it leaves out. There is no press-baiting scene to be had with Adolf Hitler; no walk-on for the Dalai Lama; no treatment of the stillborn boy whose death spelled the beginning of the end for an already shaky marriage. The Far East alone in this opera is a single scene, about a place where Mannerheim fought a war against the Japanese, led a posse of dandy bandits, banged a mysterious lady in Vladivostok, and spent three years undercover pretending to be a Swedish anthropologist. Mannerheim sings of his loneliness in his later life, although this rather ignores the fact that he spent much of his retirement with his lady friend Countess Gertrud Arco-Valley. And there was the hunting trip to India, and the coffee shop by the sea, and… I’ll stop. Mannerheim remains such a complex figure, and his life so packed with incident, that it really is possible to go back and write a whole other opera. I expect the Finns will, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, treat yourself to this one.