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The legacy of Koxinga

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The life of Zheng Chenggong, traditionally known as Koxinga in the West (a bastardization of guóxìngyé, an official title given to him by one of the last Ming princes), is a complex mixture of historical fact, myth and politics. Born in 1624 in Japan to a pirate Chinese father and a Japanese mother, he was taken to Fujian in China when he was 7 and given a strict Confucian education. After the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, Fujian became the centre of resistance to the new Qing rulers and Koxinga rose rapidly through the ranks of the military, gaining honours from various Ming princes and becoming the leader of the entire resistance movement. In 1658 he was defeated in Nanjing, an event that led him to consider a tactical retreat to Taiwan, and in 1661 he led a sizeable fleet across the straits to remove the Dutch. Contrary to popular belief, the siege of Fort Zeelandia was characterized by a series of blunders, Koxinga’s overwhelmingly superior forces taking nine months to oust the defenders. The general died a few months later in 1662, most likely from malaria and, although he was initially buried in Taiwan his body was taken back to China with his son in 1699. On the island he became known as kāishān wáng, “Open Mountain King”, for his supposed role in developing infrastructure and opening up the country for Chinese immigrants, and is worshipped as a folk god – there are around 63 temples dedicated to him island-wide.

Today, Koxinga is eulogized not just in Taiwan but also in China (there’s a huge statue of him gazing towards the island in Xiamen) for being the only Chinese general to inflict a major defeat on a colonial Western power. Those favouring unification claim he was the first to “take back” Taiwan, while Taiwan independence activists like to point out that Koxinga’s family ruled an independent kingdom that had never been part of the Chinese empire. What’s often forgotten in both cases is that Koxinga’s brief war with the Dutch was a relatively minor footnote to his epic struggle with the Qing regime in Beijing.

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