You’re in for a treat. This has got to be one of the weirdest stories we’ve ever come across about Taiwan. It is wild!

In 1704, a fantastical book was published in London, England titled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa. It got off on the wrong foot right from the start. The book’s subtitle called Taiwan (Formosa) “an island subject to the Emperor of Japan.”

For your information, Taiwan was annexed by the Manchurian empire (Qing dynasty in China) in the late 1600s and was held by the Chinese until the late 1800s. So when the book was published in 1704, no, Taiwan was not (yet) a subject of the Japanese. But obviously, this minor inaccuracy didn’t bother the book’s 18th-century British readers one bit. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Briton who knew the difference in those days.

Despite its faulty subtitle, the book aimed to give “an account of the religion, customs, manners, etc. of the inhabitants.” And, boy, did it ever.

Flag of the Qing dynasty
Flag of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty in China. The Manchurian empire annexed Taiwan in 1684.

An Account of the Religion, Customs, Manners, Etc.

According to the book, Taiwan was prosperous and had a capital called Xternetsa. The Taiwanese were mostly naked and practiced polygamy. The diet of the Taiwanese was described as consisting of snake venom and raw meat. Cannibalism was allegedly practiced as well, especially as a form of punishment or execution in cases of female adultery. It also claimed that the Taiwanese practiced child sacrifices in religious rituals that involved the extraction of hearts.

In case you’re wondering, none of that was true. The book drew on stories and rumours about the Aztecs and the New World and slapped these narratives on Taiwan. But that’s not all. The book was also rather Tolkien-esque! That is, a whole system of the language of the Taiwanese was invented and carefully documented. Yeah. An utterly made-up language that looked real was constructed and recorded in the book. Points for effort!

In the book was also an invented history of the Taiwanese. Apparently, Taiwan once fought a great war against invaders from Tartary (a vague European word roughly covering Central Asia). And, as noted earlier, claimed that Taiwan was a subject of the Japanese emperor. Basically, it was a book full of nonsense and gobbledygook. And the British audience loved it.

Cover of George Psalmanazar's "An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa" published 1704
Cover of An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa published in 1704

FYI: Taiwan Actually

Taiwan first became part of the Qing dynasty in 1684, which means that by 1704, when the book was published, it had only been 20 years since Taiwan became part of a Chinese state. But Chinese immigration began earlier in the 1600s when the Dutch first colonized the island. Those waves of newcomers shaped the island’s languages and ethnic makeup for centuries to come—down to the present day.

As the Chinese mingled and intermarried with indigenous tribes, the Taiwanese language—an offshoot of Hokkien—emerged. The culture and religious beliefs of Han settlers became increasingly dominant, especially in the lowland plains of western Taiwan. Meanwhile, the traditional ways of Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian peoples continued on in the highlands and mountains of Taiwan’s central and eastern parts. Contact with European missionaries led to the gradual adoption of Christianity among the indigenous peoples of the highlands.

Some of these tribes had matriarchal societies and continued to live lifestyles distinct from the increasingly sinicized and largely patriarchal lowland communities to the west. Head-scratchingly, as far as anyone could tell, there never was a capital city anywhere in Taiwan called Xternetsa.

17th-century Dutch depiction of indigenous Taiwanese

George Psalmanazar: But…Why?

So what the heck? Why was this book purportedly about Taiwan but full of nonsense even circulating in 18th-century London? To find out, let’s get to know its author—a Frenchman named George Psalmanazar.

Monsieur Psalmanazar, apparently blue-eyed and blond, didn’t only pretend to be an expert on Taiwan. He claimed to be Taiwanese. He had apparently explained away his typical European complexion by claiming to have lived underground for much of his life, and therefore never developed a tan typical of non-Europeans. The book he published wasn’t meant to be a mere study of the Taiwanese, it was the memoir of a Taiwanese man living in England recounting his faraway homeland in 1704.

Europeans in their age of exploration, colonization and imperialism were fascinated by the fantastic tales about other parts of the world. Books like Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe (both also published in the 1700s) and memoirs of renowned European explorers were immensely popular. It seemed George Psalmanazar was trying to tap into this craze and profit from it.

The Frenchman would allegedly break into gibberish when conversing with his English hosts and ate, not with forks and knives, but with his bare hands. He convinced enough of his audience that he even got invited to the Royal Society in London to talk about Taiwan! As they say, “fake it till you make it.”

Portrait: George Psalmanazar
Portrait of George Psalmanazar

Repeat Offender: “Try, Try Again”

Taiwan wasn’t even the first rodeo for this bold Frenchman. Prior to his pretending to be Formosan, George Psalmanazar tried passing himself off as an Irishman. Alas, Ireland wasn’t too far from continental Europe or Britain and there were just enough Irish folks around to call him out whenever he started spewing gibberish or inventing tall tales about Irish customs.

So, it seemed, Psalmanazar instead picked another island, this time on the opposite end of Eurasia. At first, he picked Japan. But he eventually switched to Formosa, today’s Taiwan, which proved a good choice. It was a place that well-educated, high-society Britishers would have heard of in the 1700s, but would know very little about.

Obviously, this whole crazy tale says nothing about Taiwan; but rather, speaks volumes about European tastes and fantasies in the age of empires. It is, however, still an incredibly amusing story, albeit quite ridiculous, featuring Taiwan. It warrants a share if only for the silliness of it all when examined from the distance of almost 320 years.

Posted by:Island Folklore

Taiwanese Tales & Traditions | An online repository of Taiwan’s folktales, history, legends, myths and traditions.