Taiwan Insight

Language in the study of Dutch Formosa

Written by Ann Heylen.

Ahead of my talk on the history of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) on 22 November, I have decided to procure some further insight into the field of Dutch Formosan studies in Taiwan.

One of the obstacles which seems to run like a constant red thread throughout history, is that of language. Yet, once we explore these languages; their literature and communication, it unveils a new way of approaching research. In addition, the need to have a more accurate knowledge of 17th century Taiwan is now felt on a national level, and with this in mind, I am focusing on the use of language from a contemporary perspective. Looking into language patterns present in the materials used in  Dutch Formosa studies sheds light on Taiwan’s complex postcolonial history and sociopolitical development.

Through the brief presence of the Dutch in Taiwan during the 17th century, we move one step closer to unravelling the interconnection bringing Minnan, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and the Formosan language, in East Asia.

How did Taiwanese society become aware of its Dutch past? The earliest records date to the period itself: handwritten manuscripts in non-standardised Dutch. These manuscripts consist of daily records, missives, private letters and other forms of correspondence. Not all stood the test of time, but for those which did, their journey from Formosa to Batavia and/or the Patria, eventually found their way back to Taiwanese library collections, some translated into Chinese. Some of these collections have been digitised.

In view of Taiwan’s recent history, Japanese, rather than English, functioned as the intermediary language used in recording the history of the Dutch during the 17th century in Taiwan. Early post-war scholarly articles on Dutch Formosa published in Taiwan Wen Hsien and other related journals such as Taiwan Folkways, drew heavily on materials accumulated and left behind by Japanese colonial forces. The Japanese interest in the Dutch era fits with their own colonial efforts to meticulously document and collect materials pertaining to the social, economic and historical development of Taiwan. These documents were part of a large corpus on Western imperialism in Asia, stored in the archives of the Governor-General, and also in the library of the Taihoku Imperial University. Some of these materials were handwritten, copied by Japanese colonial officials visiting Dutch libraries during the interwar period.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, the Bank of Taiwan published the Economic History of Taiwan (台灣經濟史) and Collectanea of Researches on Taiwan (台灣研究叢刊). These volumes included several Chinese translations from Japanese scholars on aspects of the Island’s economic development during the period of Dutch-rule. It was no coincidence that these Japanese scholars happened to be the generation of young researchers and junior university staff teaching in Taiwan at the Taihoku Imperial University during the interwar period. Names that deserve a mention are Murakami Naojirou (村上直次志), who was one of Ludwig Riess’ students, and two of his close collaborators; Iwao Seiichi (岩生成一) and Nakamura Takashi (中村孝志). In the early 1970s, Murakami Naojirou rendered a Japanese translation of several volumes of Batavia Registers (Batavia Shiro Nisshi バタヴア城日誌). Another noteworthy piece of Murakami’s writing is a collection of Sinkan manuscripts, which he published as a memoir of the Faculty of Literature and Politics at Taihoku Imperial University in 1933. In the early 1990s, Taiwan Folkways published a series of translations in Chinese from Nakamura Takashi’s research, including articles on the Dutch censuses of the indigenous population, gold-hunting on the east coast, mullet fishing and the production of deerskins.

The translations were used in the late 1980s, when Taiwan underwent a Chinese versus Taiwanese consciousness debate, which engulfed academia, politics and society. Thanks to Tsao Yung-ho (1920—2014) and his vibrant network of students and researchers, the first transcriptions and translations of the primary sources written in Dutch, came to see daylight from the mid-1980s onwards.

The Sinkan manuscripts have become the foundation for the study of the indigenous Formosan language, Siraya. The translation of place names and their locations has become a popular area of study within Dutch Formosa studies. It is not so much the variations of the Dutch transcriptions of indigenous place names, but the later Chinese adaptations of these place names; over time, there have either been mistakes in their recording, or they have been wrongly interpreted, due to the emergence of the post-war Mandarin language education system.

In the mid-1990s, the Taiwanese mother tongue movement started to gain ground. At the same time, the emergence of socio-political studies of the indigenous population helped Taiwan understand further its linguistic roots which have helped shape it and define  Taiwan’s cultural heritage.  Through the brief presence of the Dutch in Taiwan during the 17th century, we move one step closer to unravelling the interconnection bringing Minnan, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and the Formosan language, in East Asia.

Ann Heylen is professor at the Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages and Literature and Director, of the International Taiwan Studies Center (ITSC) at the National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU). Her research interests cover the history of Taiwan. Image Credit: Johannes Vingboons /Wikimedia