The Taiwanese remember fondly a pirate king who ruled their island in the 17th century. His story is full of David-versus-Goliath struggles against far more powerful adversaries. Today, he is known as Koxinga and Taiwan has built numerous shrines honouring him.
In the 17th-century China Seas, there was a wealthy Chinese Christian merchant from Fujian named Zhèng Zhīlóng (Tēnn Tsi-Liông in Taiwanese). The merchant dealt in Chinese silk and porcelain. From the southern Chinese port of Amoy, his goods were shipped abroad to Japan and the European East Indies.
Under this merchant’s command were not only trading vessels but powerful warships numbering in the thousands. Emboldened by his regional naval dominance, Zhèng was not only an accomplished trader but a notorious pirate as well.
In 1644, the Chinese Ming Empire, which overthrew the Mongols nearly 300 years earlier, was once again at war against a nation of invading horsemen. That year, Manchurian hordes defeated the Ming dynasty—as well as neighbouring Tibetan, Turkic and Mongol kingdoms—to establish the vast Qing empire that lasted till 1912.
Zhèng Zhīlóng submitted to this new dynasty and was rewarded by the Manchu emperor. His son, however, continued to struggle against the Manchus. This continued defiance by the son would ultimately lead to the execution of the father.
The Rise of Koxinga
The name of Zhèng Zhīlóng’s holdout son was Zhèng Chénggōng, but he is better remembered by the Hokkien and Taiwanese honorific Koxinga.
Koxinga’s hatred of the Manchus was personal. He was of mixed heritage and had been born near the Japanese port of Nagasaki. His mother, lady Tagawa Matsu, hailed from a family that served the lord of Hirado. On a visit to Nan’an in Fujian, the lady was killed in an ambush by Manchu forces. Koxinga never forgave the Manchus. Neither did he forgive his father, who capitulated to his mother’s murderers.
Koxinga inherited the Zhèng family’s fleets operating in the Taiwan Strait and the South and East China Seas. His powerful warships harassed the southern Chinese coast. In retaliation, the Manchus implemented a complete blockade of all southern ports.
The lockdown was designed to break the economic back of Koxinga’s naval insurgency. It forced Koxinga to leave China in search of greener pastures. He set his sights on Ilha Formosa (Taiwan). In 1661, he launched his invasion.
Battle for Taiwan
Taiwan, at the time, was a Dutch colony (known as Dutch Formosa) under the rule of the Dutch East India Company. After the island’s native Austronesian cultures, the Dutch were the first to successfully colonize Taiwan. By the time of Koxinga’s invasion, Taiwan had become an important trade post and commercial link between the 17th-century markets of south China, Japan and maritime Southeast Asia.
Koxinga’s forces landed near the Dutch stronghold of Fort Zeelandia in present-day Tainan City. After a brutal nine-month siege, the Dutch governor of Taiwan surrendered the island to Koxinga, marking the end of decades of Dutch colonial rule over the island.
The Koxinga Dynasty
After the Dutch expulsion of 1661, the Koxinga dynasty established the Kingdom of Dōngníng in Taiwan with its capital at Tainan. The kingdom, known to westerners as the Kingdom of Formosa, was the very first Chinese-style state in Taiwanese history. Despite a brief period lasting about a year when the Zhèng family pledged nominal allegiance to the overthrown Ming emperors, the Taiwanese-based realm operated fully autonomously.
In 1672, when Koxinga’s son and successor, Zhèng Jīng (Taiwanese: Tēnn King), concluded a treaty with the English East India Company (later the British East India Company), recognizing him as the sovereign king of Taiwan and addressing him as the King of Formosa.
Koxinga’s kingdom promoted Han learning and established Chinese-style schools throughout its lands. Compulsory education was implemented and all boys were entitled to receive government-sponsored education beginning at eight years of age.
The kingdom exported large quantities of deerskin, sugar cane and rice to places like Japan and was a heavy importer of firearms from England. This was a state that, despite its small size, was highly militarized and centralized. Large amounts of resources were devoted to the defence of the island against Manchu and Chinese invasions from the continent.
The kingdom lasted until 1683 when forces from the continent finally broke through and defeated the island realm—leading to its absorption into the Manchu Empire. The year 1683 marks the first time in history that Taiwan became a part of a larger imperial state based in China.