A new research agenda for late Qing and Japanese colonial Taiwan’s history: Perspectives from East Asian history and World History

Written by Wen-Kai Lin.

Image credit: 鐵路局局長宿舍 20080524 by 臺北市大同區公所/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY 3.0.

Since the first wave of globalisation in the early modern period in the 16th century, the history of Taiwan has become increasingly closely related to the whole history of East Asia and the world. Therefore, the history of Taiwan is not only the history of Taiwan but also an important manifestation of the history of East Asia and the world. In the late 16th century, with the expansion of Western imperialism in East Asia and the expansion of East Asian maritime business culture, Taiwan, which was the original home of the Austronesian peoples, began to interact closely with the outside world and successively transformed into the colony of Netherlands (1624-1661), Spain (1626) -1642), Ming Zheng Dynasty (1661-1683) and Qing Empire (1683-1895). Taiwan also became a multi-ethnic society dominated by Han people under the reclamation process of many Han immigrants. From the late 16th century to the early 18th century, the economic and trade relations between Taiwan and Japan, from the closeness to the final severance in the 1720s, reflect the ever-changing interactions and international order among Dutch, Spain, Ming Zheng (Koxinga), Qing dynasties and Japan in the East Asian waters during this period.

After the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, Western powers promoted the second wave of globalization in East Asia. Western empires not only changed the way of governance in the Southeast Asian colonies acquired since the early modern era but also knocked on the door of the once evenly matched East Asian powers like Qing and Japan and forced them to open ports to the world. In response to the impact of Western imperialism, the two countries began to promote the modernization movement of learning Western civilization in the 1860s, namely the Westernization Self-improvement Movement of the Qing Empire and the Meiji Restoration Movement of Japan. As part of the Qing Empire’s territory, Taiwan had changed its political and economic relations with Western empires and Japan since the 1860s in tandem with these major changes in East Asia.

After the Second Opium War, the “Tianjin Treaty” (1858), signed between the Qing Empire and Britain and France, stipulated the opening of Taiwan’s ports. As a result, Taiwan once again became a part of the world economy and resumed international business activities with the West and Japan. On the other hand, Taiwan’s strategic position in East Asia was re-emphasized. As a result, it once more became the target of a new wave of European, American and Japanese imperialism, for instance, “the Rover Incident” (American Formosa Expedition, 1867), “the Mudan Incident” (Japanese invasion of Taiwan, 1874), “Sino-French War” (France’s attack on Penghu and Northern Taiwan, 1884-1885) and other events. After the Mudan Incident and the Qing-French War, the Qing court, to guard against the impact of Japan and the Western Empire, successively sent Shen Baozhen and Liu Mingchuan to Taiwan to promote the Westernization Self-improvement Movement. These constructions significantly impacted Taiwan’s political and economic development in the late Qing Dynasty. However, in 1894, China and Japan broke out the Sino-Japanese War due to the Korean issue. After the defeat of the Qing Dynasty, Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Therefore, Taiwan became the first colony of the Japanese Empire. After half a century of Japanese colonial rule, Japan was defeated in 1945. After that, Taiwan returned to the rule of the Republic of China.

Regarding the changes in Taiwan’s history from the late Qing Dynasty to the Japanese occupation period, there have been many studies in the academic circles at home and abroad in the past. Still, most of the studies are limited to one-country historiography by Chinese nationalist view or division of history into periods. Few carefully examine the history of Taiwan from the late Qing Dynasty to the Japanese colonial period. On the other hand, the research on the history of Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period, based on Marxist imperialism, focuses on the discussion of imperialist oppression and exploitation and nationalist resistance and pays less attention to colonial modernity issues.

Moreover, the research of these two approaches concerns themselves less with the historical significance of Taiwanese history from the late Qing Dynasty to the early days of Japanese occupation from the perspective of comparing Taiwan history with East Asian history and world history. However, as far as the exchange of knowledge and modernization in East Asia is concerned, the history of Taiwan and its interaction with Japan since the late Qing Dynasty has many critical issues worthy of study. The following is a brief description of the three issues that I recently focused on. The first is to use Taiwan’s history from the late Qing to the early colonial period as a case study to compare the Late Qing’s Westernization Self-improvement Movement and the Japanese Meiji Restoration. The second is to study how Taiwan’s governing knowledge was transplanted to Manchuria and Fujian in diverse ways and its relationship with the modernization of Manchuria and Fujian; the third is the comparison of the modernization and colonial rule of Taiwan and Korea since the late Qing Dynasty.

First of all, Liu Mingchuan’s Westernization Self-improvement Movement (1886-1891) in Taiwan was part of the Westernization Self-improvement Movement in Qing China, while Goto Shinpei’s series of reforms in Taiwan in the early days of Japanese occupation (1898-1906) were transplantation of the Japanese Meiji Restoration in colonial Taiwan. Through the comparison of Liu Mingchuan and Goto Shinpei’s policies on land, finance, administration and governing aborigines reforms and their knowledge from the late Qing Dynasty to the early Japanese colonial period, we can not only understand the continuation and changes of Taiwan’s history from the late Qing Dynasty to the early Japanese occupation period. It can also compare and evaluate the similarities and differences in the modernization process between late Qing China and Meiji Japan.

Secondly, from the perspective of the exchange of East Asian knowledge of modern governance, the knowledge of Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan not only contributed to the development of Taiwan’s colonial modernization but also was applied to Japan’s colonial expansion in Manchuria and Fujian by means of the Japanese Empire’s northward and southward expansion policies. On the one hand, after the Russo-Japanese War, Goto Shinpei was recommended by Kodama Gentaro, the governor of Taiwan and the chief of the general staff of the Manchurian Army, who led the Russo-Japanese War, as the first president of the Southern Manchurian Railway Co., Ltd., and transplanted his governing experience in colonial Taiwan to the colonial rule of Manchuria. On the other hand, the Japanese Empire has always hoped to use Taiwan as a base to expand its political, economic, and cultural influence in Fujian and other southern China regions. The Fujian provincial government has admired the achievements of Taiwan’s modernization under the rule of Goto Shinpei since 1910, and they hoped to learn the knowledge of Taiwan’s governance to promote the modernization of Fujian’s provincial government. Therefore, from 1910 to 1937, a series of economic and agricultural knowledge exchange activities between Taiwan and Fujian were launched.

Finally, after the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese Empire inherited its ancestral aspiration for imperial expansion in East Asia since the Toyotomi Hideyoshi era in the late 16th century. Therefore, in the 1870s, it simulated Western imperialism and launched local wars against Taiwan and Korea, hoping to expand its presence in the two places. However, these expansions were initially blocked by the Qing empire, which became powerful again through the Westernization self-improvement movement in the 1870s and 1880s. However, the Qing Dynasty was defeated in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Not only did Taiwan become a colony of the Japanese Empire, but the Qing Dynasty also lost its suzerainty in Korea. As a result, Japan became the suzerain of Korea. After the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, Japan further expanded its imperial influence in Korea and, in 1910, annexed Korea as a colony. The modernization and colonial rule in Taiwan and Korea since the late 19th century were closely related to the Qing Empire and the Japanese Empire. From the perspective of comparing Taiwan’s history with East Asia and the world, it is worth comparing their history.

With the development of Taiwan’s democratisation in the late 1980s, Taiwan historians have been able to transcend the Chinese nationalist historiography of the past Kuomintang government and carry out historical research with Taiwan’s multi-ethnic groups as the equal subjects of historical interpretation. However, many researchers only focus on Taiwan itself, which inevitably ignores Taiwan’s relationship with East Asian history and world history and narrows the broader temporal and spatial significance of Taiwan research. This article attempts to take the exchange of East Asian knowledge of Taiwan’s modern governance from the late Qing Dynasty to the Japanese colonial period as a new research agenda to reveal that the research on Taiwan history is often not only Taiwan history but also a complex manifestation of wider East Asian history and world history.

Wen-Kai Lin is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Taiwan History, Academia Sinica. His main research areas are Taiwan’s economic history and legal history from the Qing Dynasty to the Japanese colonial era. Recently, he has paid attention to the diffusion and exchange of Japanese imperial knowledge of modern governance around east Asia. Therefore, he has been studying issues such as comparing Manchurian history and Taiwan history under Japanese colonial rule. For more information about my personal biography, see below personal webpage.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Taiwan-Japan Relations.

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