Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
One must be terribly grateful in these times to be able to do any traveling at all.
A couple of months ago, I returned to the land of my birth, Taiwan. Being still a citizen here, I had the right to return regardless of Covid-19 border restrictions. And I must be doubly grateful that here and my other country, New Zealand, just happen right now to be the two safest places on earth as far as Covid is concerned.
And recently I got out of the capital city of Taipei to visit the south and the offshore island of Kinmen. All of which—against the backdrop of the pandemic as well as events in Washington—makes me reflect upon what it means to be a remnant, to be an heir to lost causes
I’ll explain. But let’s start in Kinmen and the 17th century.
“What offshore island? Isn’t Taiwan already an offshore island?” So it is, offshore from China. Kinmen, or Jinmen or Quemoy depending on your dialect of choice, is a much smaller island that is much closer to Mainland China. Actually, it’s only five miles or eight kilometers off the coast of the mainland, and some adjacent islets are even closer. At night, the neon lights of the skyline of the Mainland city of Xiamen directly across brighten the horizon. Even so, Kinmen is controlled by Taiwan, not the People’s Republic of China. We’ll get to that.
O the road to Mandalay,
“Kinmen” means “golden gate,” like the bridge in northern California, or “golden door.” In Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, the golden door is the port of entry into New York and America, the proverbial land of opportunity. The golden door of Kinmen historically served the opposite function: it was a gateway through which hard-scrabble Chinese men sailed out to Southeast Asia and beyond to seek opportunities. Some would return as wealthy tycoons.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
Some time in the middle of the 17th century, Kinmen and Xiamen found themselves under a new lord. Zheng Chenggong was the son of a Japanese woman and a Chinese pirate named Zheng Zhilong—not just any pirate but the greatest pirate of the Pacific, so powerful that the Ming Dynasty government in the end just offered him amnesty instead of trying to arrest him. Having accepted amnesty, Zheng Zhilong served the Ming regime when, in 1644, Manchu horsemen breached the Great Wall, entered Beijing, and founded the new Qing Dynasty.
All that was happening in northern China, and surviving members of the Ming imperial family in the south still sought to maintain their rule. One by one, distant cousins of the previous emperor claimed to be emperors themselves. And one by one, they were captured or killed by the Qing army always bearing down on them.
Seeing that what was left of the Ming was surely doomed, Zheng Zhilong decided to surrender to the Qing. His son vehemently objected, but he wouldn’t listen. When the Qing troops came supposedly to accept Zhilong’s surrender, they instead arrested him and violated his Japanese wife. She committed suicide. Chenggong arrived on the scene only just in time to pick up her corpse.
Grief-stricken, Zheng Chenggong is said to have cut open his own mother’s body and tried to wash the inside. Today, we would say that the traumatized man had a psychological break. Alas, he lived three hundred years before Dr. Freud, and there was no one there to put him on the couch. For the rest of his life, Zheng would struggle with anger management. His irritability and rage led to betrayal by some of his closest associates.
Zheng swore revenge on the Manchus and vowed to support the Ming until his dying day. For his absolute loyalty, one of the string of imperial cousins who claimed the Ming throne endowed upon him a unique honor: Zheng was free to use the imperial surname as his own. In reality, he hardly ever did so. But the honor gave rise to another title, the one recorded by Europeans who encountered him so the one used in Western history books: “Koxinga,” literally “Lord National-Surname.”
Koxinga inherited his father’s pirate fleet, reconstituted as a formidable navy. With these forces, he occupied Xiamen and Kinmen. Various Ming imperial cousins came to seek his protection. One of them, Prince Lu, lived out his remaining days on Kinmen. Using these territories as his base, Koxinga attempted to beat back the Qing army—which is to say, the inexorable tide of history itself.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
After trying and failing to retake the Yangtze Delta area, Koxinga recognized that a couple of tiny offshore islands are ultimately insufficient for his purposes. He began eyeing Taiwan. Ihla Formosa (“beautiful island”) to the Portuguese, Taiwan was at the time under the colonial administration of the Dutch East India Company. In 1661, Koxinga sailed from Kinmen to Taiwan. After besieging the forts of Provintia and Zeelandia in the modern city of Tainan, Koxinga defeated the Dutch and took Taiwan for himself.
A year later, he died, aged 37.
His much less enterprising son and grandson continued their regime on Taiwan for another two decades or so, until the inevitable came. Admiral Shi Lang, a former Koxinga deputy whom he alienated with his temper, sailed for Taiwan under a Qing banner, conquering the island with barely a shot fired.
Shortly after Shi Lang set sail but before he arrived on Taiwanese shores, the last Ming imperial cousin, Prince Ningjing, saw the writing on the wall and hanged himself in Tainan. And with that, the long impossible dream of restoring the Ming was finally fully forgotten.
Fast forward to 1949, and history repeated itself.
The Waves of 1949
In the wee hours of the morning on October 25, 1949, some ten thousand Chinese Communist soldiers crossed the narrow sea between from Xiamen in small boats to land on the northern corner of Kinmen called Guningtou. Their adversaries defending the island were a roughly equal number of troops of the anti-communist Republic of China.
The Chinese Civil War had been raging for four years already, having begun essentially as soon as Japan surrendered in WWII. And by October 1949, it was already clear to anyone with eyes which side had won. The Republic, led by Chiang Kai-shek, began the war with control of most of China. But by now it had lost almost all of it—much like the Ming under Qing assault. All that remained in Republican hands were Taiwan and a handful of other offshore islands like Kinmen—much like Koxinga and his surviving contingent of Ming loyalists. Three and half weeks earlier on October 1, Mao had already declared victory in Beijing and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic.
If any of the Republican troops present, such as my grandfather, wondered why they bothered fighting at all under such circumstances, I would understand. And if they should falter or give in, and Kinmen should fall, then Taiwan would be ripe for the taking just as Shi Lang once sailed there almost without opposition. But, miraculously, the Republican troops prevailed. By then, the Republic had gotten so used to losing battles that when Chiang received news of the victory, he refused to believe it. Even so, they were merely the last survivors of their side. There were enough of them left to pass on the legacy of the Republic, but never enough to reverse the inexorable course of events.
The Battle of Guningtou drew a line across the map of the world. Churchill in his 1946 speech said that “[f]rom Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” A line no less definite in the political geography of the earth was now drawn across the narrow water between Kinmen and Xiamen. It became one of the most dangerous fault lines in the world as the People’s Republic would periodically attack Kinmen to snuff out the remnant of the Republic. In 1958, an artillery battle between the two sides almost drew in the superpowers and escalated into a third world war.
Indeed, the fact that I can even visit Kinmen now for tourism is a small miracle. For much of the Cold War, 100,000 Taiwanese troops were stationed on this tiny island, at one point including my uncle. I have no childhood memory of anyone ever visiting Kinmen other than on military business.
In any event, like the nominally Ming regime of Koxinga once did, the nominal “Republic of China” has survived as a remnant on Taiwan and its outlying islands. Yes, it has endured for far longer than Koxinga’s state. And yes, unlike Koxinga’s Taiwan, it has developed into a prosperous liberal democracy. But it probably lives on borrowed time, as it likely must be when a lonely island is pitted against the might of a continent. Those of us who were born into the lost cause of the Republic, then, essentially are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
At any moment, Beijing can make its move. No one knows when, but presumably one of these days it will be the turn of our Prince Ningjing, so to speak, to hang himself. Even so, we carry on as though never doubting that tomorrow the sun will still come up. A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. And though it is but a small island, there are those who love it.
The Words of the Hebrews
Since being in Taiwan has made me contemplate my status as a remnant, I have wondered whether I may find solace or wisdom in the Bible. After all, from Babylonian exile to the Holocaust, the Jews surely know more about what it means to be a remnant than just about anyone else.
The Prophet Isaiah promised:
And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
But I find the prophet’s words to be cold comfort. The biblical idea of a “remnant” is an ethnic one. The promise is that, for all the tribes that have been lost, for the family members who perished, enough of the Chosen People will always survive to carry on Jewish identity.
In contrast, the Chinese race is never in danger of extermination. There are simply too many of us. We heirs of the Republic are rather the remnant of an idea and a cause. In Confucian ethics, loyalty is one of the highest ideals. Depending on who’s counting, some dozen or so dynasties have come and gone in Chinese history. And when each of them fell, there were those who held on to the lost cause, who refused to give in even on pain of death and torture. We hold them up as moral exemplars, as paragons of loyalty. But in the end, after enough time has passed, a lost cause is just that: lost. No one alive today would argue for the restoration of the Ming Dynasty, no matter how passionately Koxinga once fought for it.
To My American Friends
I have repeatedly heard that it is the foreign correspondents, those who have covered conflict zones and authoritarian countries, who are the journalists now best equipped to cover recent events in Washington. They are the ones who have seen how thin the red line really is that divides democracy from autocracy, order from chaos, liberty from tyranny.
I have also heard it argued that the pandemic has hit the so-called “First World” worse than the so-called “Third World” precisely because in poorer countries, people know just how close to disaster they are always living. They remember when their parents or grandparents had to flee from genocide or war. They understand just how quickly things can go bad. So they responded to the pandemic with that memory in mind. Americans in particular, on the other hand, have a tendency of thinking that they are exceptional, that they can escape the inescapable grasp of history: “It can’t happen here.”
And, at least according to the orthodox, textbook telling, American history has always turned out “the right way.” The Founding Fathers hung together rather than hung separately. The Union defeated the Confederacy. The Allies won both World Wars. MLK and LBJ successfully pushed through the civil rights legislations. So much so that Americans tend to think that in the long run, history is always on their side. MLK was guilty of this himself: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he famously said, “but it bends toward justice.” People from other countries know that the arc of the moral universe bends whichever way we bend it.
Now the cause of the American Republic hangs in the balance, as the cause of the Chinese Republic hung in the balance in the 1940s, as the cause of the Ming Dynasty hung in the balance in the 1640s. Knowing that there are always those willing to give their last full measure of devotion even when all is lost, what excuse does a patriot have not to stand up and be counted when the good fight is just beginning?
Which is not to say that the United States is not without its sins; quite the contrary. In the same way, the Ming was guilty of myriad crimes. From the point of view of many native Taiwanese, the Republic of China more or less colonized them; it didn’t help that government troops massacred quite a few of them in the so-called February 28 Incident in 1947.
But to be devoted to a cause—the nature of loyalty—is to say, “Yes, but nevertheless.” Even when the cause is lost. Even when the fight is hopeless. Even when one is no more than a remnant. But hopefully long before that as well.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."