In 1895, Taiwan became Japan’s first major overseas colony.
This is the legend of one Taiwanese outlaw—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 (Liāu Thiam-Teng in the Taiwanese language)—born in Taichung in 1883, killed in Taipei in 1909.
In 1895, when the Japanese arrived in Taiwan, Liào was only twelve years old.
By 1905, at the age of 22, Liào was a familiar face in Taiwan’s colonial prisons. He had been repeatedly charged with petty larceny and regularly served brief sentences.
Later, however, far more serious allegations surfaced accusing Liao of treason against the colonial government in Taiwan. An arrest warrant was issued, forcing Liào to flee into Taiwan’s densely forested mountains.
When the police arrived at Liào’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, Liào regularly stole from the rich and powerful and distributed his loot to poor peasants and beggars.
Liào’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 further annoyed the Japanese and made him one of the most wanted Taiwanese criminals.
Liào’s story became known to the public through the newspapers of the day, which reported on his repeated evasions from the authorities.
One tale recounted his leaping out of a moving train into a gorge to escape capture and somehow surviving the ordeal. Another reported that he’d 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 overthrow Japan’s colonial government in Taiwan and shielding Taiwanese citizens from brutal oppression.
The Taiwanese public was captivated by these reports. Lià soon became a hero among the populace for standing up against their far more powerful colonial masters.
The final phase of Liào’s legendary life started in July of 1909 when he and his accomplices raided police stations and dormitories. Liào’s raiders made off with a cache 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 Liào’s campaign to wreak havoc against the colonial establishment.
By this point, however, Japanese authorities began to close in on Liào.
Liào 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, Liào was betrayed by one of his followers. Already suffering from wounds sustained in the fighting, Liào was smashed over the head by the traitor in order to bring an end to the conflict. His skull was crushed and he died instantly.
He was only 26 years old.
Following Liào’s death, the colonial authorities took possession of his body, which was hastily buried in an unmarked grave at the base of the mountains around Taihoku.
Here, the legend of Liao Tianding took a turn towards the supernatural.
It is said that soon after Liào’s death and hasty burial, a mysterious illness began to plague the household of one of the Japanese officers who had pursued him.
The wife of the officer was the first victim. Later, his daughter also fell ill. Doctors prescribed various treatments 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, the mysterious illness went away. The officer had a headstone erected for Liao and a proper tomb was constructed.
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 quickly grew large and pilgrims flocked to the sight.
These devotees came to pay respects and pray to an outlaw who, they believed, could cure diseases.
A ban against Liào’s worship was issued in March of 1910 by the Japanese regime but this did nothing to curb the growth of Liào’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 Liào Tiāndīng 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.