Historical sources of Taiwanese character

February 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Reading on the history of Taiwan at the Guo-Tu, the origins of character of the island and its citizens suddenly stand out sharply as in a flash of revelation.  The island was very difficult and very dangerous to get to:  throughout most of the settlement era it was illegal for the Chinese to go there; those who went, would never be able to come back; many of them would die in the crossing at the infamous Black Ditch.  As a result they were almost entirely men, all of them desperadoes, fifth and seventh sons, the orphaned, the disinherited, the criminal.  They left behind them overpopulated, barren land, racked by hunger, peasant uprisings, war, barbarian invasion, Japanese pirates, vicious, cruel government.  They stole and borrowed to buy passage; the passage was hell.  But if they didn’t sink, weren’t captured by pirates, or sold into slavery by their own captains, what they found upon arrival exceeded their wildest expectations.  A heaven on earth, fat, fertile soil, overgrown with lush jungle rich with wild fruit and animals, barely inhabited, free for the taking.  Or almost.  There was the minor trouble of local lords — Spanish or Dutch, later the local Chinese king, then the officials sent in from the Mainland — and of the natives who didn’t always want to give up their land and women and had a troublesome penchant for taking heads.  To protect themselves and to get what they were after these outcast men formed sworn brotherhoods, often secret associations based on the blood-oath and total and absolute loyalty — these were the beginnings of most triads — modern Chinese organized crime associations.  They fled local lords and muscled in on the natives — place names preserve the history of the violence — “the second jump”, “the eight ditch”, “the ninth division”.  And when they have taken the land, built the house, acquired the animals, they turned their thoughts to securing themselves a woman.  As was the case in the American West — women were hard to come by — one to seven, or less; there was no such thing as an unmarried woman, or an unwanted spinster; as long as she had two legs, she would suffice. They took whatever women they could and started their own households, unlettered as they were, from scratch:  no ancestor temple in Taiwan carries any record of the ancestors on the mainland:  all records start with the first founder — the first desperado to have made it across the sea.  The most we usually know about him is that he came from Fujian; sometimes, rarely, his county; his family name is what he had told upon arrival it was.

And the modern Taiwanese are their descendants: ambitious, fearless, risk-takers, disrespectful of the government and the law, quick to resort to violence, fiercely loyal to their friends, un-bookish, indifferent to the great cultural traditions of China, ugly the a man — descendants of enterprising gamblers and whatever women they could secure for themselves.

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