Saturday, May 08, 2010

1904 NY Times article resurrected as antidote to KMT propaganda. Please no.

Now making the rounds in the Taiwanese community is a 1904 NY Times article on Japanese colonialism in Formosa. There's a Chinese-English translation on this blog (check out the cool pics) and the original may be had here.

The article is the usual mix of fact and fiction. After a few general comments on the difficulty of colonization, the article states:
For this reason Japan’s first attempt at colonizing is particularly interesting, especially as the Island of Formosa, which is Japan’s first colony, probably so-called offers difficulties to a colonizing nation which in the past have appeared insurmountable to many other nations.
But of course, this is not Japan's first attempt at colonization. By the time that article was printed, Okinawa had been a formally annexed Japanese territory for a quarter-century, and its influence there dated back to the 17th century. Let's not even mention Hokkaido.

The rest of the article carries on in a similar vein:
The Spanish and the Dutch made attempts at colonizing Formosa, but they gave it up in despair. The Chinese left the land virtually a wilderness, and the French and English, who might easily enough have acquired it, preferred not to put their foot into the interior of that savage island.
In reality, the Spanish were tossed by the Dutch; the Dutch were tossed off by Koxinga. They didn't "give up in despair." The Qing did not leave the island "virtually a wilderness". The English did not take a crack at Taiwan because they did not want to touch off a general war among the Powers over a subdivision of the Qing empire, and the French were defeated by the Qing in their invasion. It almost makes one wish blogs had been invented in 1904; what fun bloggers would have had with this piece!
Only a few years have elapsed since the island has been completely pacified. Nevertheless, the economic ordinary progress which has already been made is very striking. The increased prosperity of the inhabitants may be seen from the fact that the general revenue, which is principally derived from Government works and undertakings, the opium monopoly, customs, and various taxes has expanded from 2,711,822 yen in 1896 to 12,738,587 yen in 1903, having grown almost tenfold.
It would not be difficult to show that the rest of the article is colonialist propaganda, especially with the 20-20 historical hindsight we have. For example, the gains in rice production the writer alludes to were largely the result of the completion of a cadastral survey in 1904 that increased the amount of land the government was measuring and taxing, not from actual production boosts. In keeping with its mix of truth and falsehood, it is true that Japan poured money like water into the island -- the budget for Taiwan was a major political issue in the first decade of the 20th century in Japan. But the island being completely pacified, that is nonsense. Nearly thirty more years of fighting against the aborigines remained, along with a few revolts from the local Han population.

From comments on email lists I have seen, some clearly see this article as an antidote to KMT claims about having developed Taiwan. It cannot be used this way; it is merely some American correspondent's paean to Japanese colonialism, written in the midst of the Russo-Japanese War, when Japan was sourcing military equipment from the US and was still condescendingly regarded as a junior and admirable member of the colonial club. Its crushing defeat of Russia, which would open eyes around the world, was another year in the future, and Homer Lea's prescient novel of World War II, The Valor of Ignorance, was still five years from its 1909 publication.

It contains no more truth or falsehood than similar KMT claims, and cannot be used to confront them. It is interesting solely as an artifact of attitudes and ideologies about the colonialism of its day. The opposite of ideology is methodology; to oppose the ideological constructions of history, historical methodology is necessary. I suggest Ho's monumental The Economic Development of Taiwan 1860-1970 as a good place to start opposing historical methodology to colonial ideology.
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