In 1895, following a series of military disasters, the 250-year-old Manchu “Qing” Empire in China ceded its frontier island outpost of Taiwan to the ascendant Empire of Japan. Taiwan became Japan’s first major overseas colony. To the Taiwanese people, for a period of 50 years between 1895 and 1945, the emperor in distant Beijing was swapped for another in equally distant Tokyo.
Despite the Japanese being a foreign occupying power, the people of Taiwan and Japan managed a certain degree of friendliness in their relationship. There is even a commemorative statue today near the Taiwanese capital—a gift and token of gratitude from Japanese veterans honouring Taiwanese soldiers who perished in Japan’s imperial aspirations.
However, as with all instances of foreign rule, there was certainly no shortage of dissidents. This is the legend of one of those dissenters—a mere petty criminal in the eyes of Japanese colonial authorities, but nothing short of a hero in the memories of his fellow Taiwanese. His name was Liào Tiāndīng (Taiwanese: Liāu Thiam-Teng)—born in Taichung in 1883, killed in Taipei in 1909.
In 1895, when the Manchu emperor handed sovereignty over Taiwan to his Japanese counterpart, Liao was only twelve years old. By 1905, at the age of 22, Liao was a familiar face in the colonial prisons. He had been repeatedly charged with petty larceny and regularly served brief sentences. At some point, however, far more serious allegations surfaced accusing Liao of treason against the colonial government in Taiwan. An arrest warrant was issued, forcing Liao to flee into Taiwan’s densely forested mountains. When the police arrived at Liao’s family home, Liao’s mother was taken in for questioning, where she allegedly died after enduring hours of severe torture. She never disclosed her son’s whereabouts to the authorities. Liao became an outlaw and would remain on the run for the rest of his short life.
Legend has it that, while on the loose, Liao regularly stole from the rich and powerful and distributed his loot to poor peasants and beggars. Liao’s acts of charity and his status as an outlaw garnered him the epithet “Taiwan’s Robin Hood” among today’s Taiwanese audience. At the time, however, it merely consolidated him as an annoyance in the minds of the colonial elites and secured him a place among the island’s most wanted criminals.
Liao’s story became known to the public through the newspapers of the day, which reported on his repeated evasions from the authorities. One tale told of his leaping out of a moving train into a gorge to escape capture and somehow surviving the ordeal. Another reported that he disguised himself as an elderly woman to escape from right under the noses of the police. Liao was also rumoured to have become involved in secret societies working to undermine the colonial regime in Taiwan as well as shielding Taiwanese citizens from colonial oppression.
The Taiwanese public, already in Liao’s lifetime, were captivated by these reports. He soon became a hero among the populace for standing up against their far more powerful colonial masters.
The final phase of Liao’s legendary life began in July of 1909 when he and his accomplices raided a number of police stations and dormitories. Liao’s raiders made off with large quantities of police swords, firearms and ammunition.
The raid was followed by a string of attacks and robberies committed through November of that year, marking the high point of Liao’s campaign to wreak havoc against the colonial establishment. By this point, however, the authorities, which had been hot on the heels of Liao’s bandits, began to close in. Liao and his followers fled to a cave near Bali in the mountains around Taipei (then known in Japanese as Taihoku) and prepared to make their last stand.
In the final skirmish between the police and Liao’s men, Liao was betrayed by one of his followers. Already suffering from several wounds sustained in the fighting, Liao was smashed over the head by the traitor in order to bring an end to the conflict. His skull was crushed and he was killed virtually instantly. He was only 26 years old.
Following Liao’s death, the colonial authorities took possession of Liao’s body, which was hastily buried in an unmarked grave at the base of the mountains around Taihoku. This is where the legend of Liao Tianding took a turn towards the supernatural.
It is said that soon after Liao’s death and hasty burial, a mysterious illness began to plague the household of one of the Japanese officers who had pursued Liao. The wife of the officer was the first victim. Later, his daughter also fell ill. Doctors were brought in and treatments prescribed but nothing seemed to work. Desperate, the officer took the counsel of local elders who advised paying respects at the burial site of the dead outlaw. After appropriate respects were paid, as mysteriously as it had come, the illness that plagued the officer’s family went away. Thankful, the officer had a headstone erected for Liao and a proper tomb was constructed.
Very soon, people began to visit the tomb and, eventually, a cult sprang up. It was reported in the Taiwan-Nichi Nichishinpō (“The Taiwan Daily”), a contemporary Japanese newspaper based in Taiwan, that the cult grew so large that the site became crowded with pilgrims and worshippers who visited daily. These devotees came to pay respects and pray to the outlaw. They believed that his spirit could cure diseases and perform other miracles. A ban against Liao’s worship was issued in March of 1910 by the colonial regime but this did nothing to curb the growth of Liao’s legend. His position as a hero had become entrenched among the common folks of Taiwan.
Today, many temples and sanctuaries dedicated to the memories of this outlaw who defied colonial rule are still found on the island. Folk worship of Liao Tianding has continued to the present and the Taiwanese people still honour the memories of this folk hero from the Japanese colonial era in Taiwan’s history.