Monday, May 28, 2018

New Book: Lord of Formosa

Lord of Formosa
Joyce Bergvelt
Available from Camphor Press

Last month Camphor formally launched its latest offering in an increasingly diverse and interesting library of books about Taiwan, Lord of Formosa. Bradley Winterton, the sturdy book reviewer for the Taipei Times, described it:
Chinese war junks with crimson sails, diets said to influence the sex of a child and match-makers with painted white faces and red cheeks: Lord of Formosa, which centers on the life of the 17th century warrior and Ming Dynasty loyalist Cheng Cheng-kung (鄭成功, also known as Koxinga), is crammed with these details. I had no idea his life was going to be so fascinating.
Set in the 17th century, the book tells the story of Koxinga, who conquered southern Taiwan and established a pirate state on the island. There's a video introduction on Youtube and a Goodreads page. The author is on Goodreads here introducing herself and taking questions.

The book itself is a great story, but just as great is the story of how the author came to write it. She's interviewed on Bookish Asia:
The answer to that goes back to 1983, when I arrived in Taiwan with my parents in my teens. It was then that I learnt that Taiwan had once been a Dutch colony. This intrigued me. I read about Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong), but information on the Dutch, who they were and what they were doing on Taiwan was limited. When I had to decide on a subject for my academic dissertation for my Chinese Studies degree at Durham University (UK), I didn’t have to think very hard. My final dissertation had the title: ‘The Battle of Taiwan: Taiwan under the Occupation of the Dutch and their Expulsion by Koxinga.’ Not a very catchy title.

It was all factual, of course, but I wrote it in chapters, alternating between Koxinga’s story and that of the Dutch, leading up to the final climax of the siege. My history professor gave me a good assessment; he even told me that it read ‘like an exciting novel.’
The author is also interviewed here.

The prose is accessible and lively and the book is full of wonderful nuggets of history and minutely informed by the author's deep historical knowledge:
THE size of the armed Black Guard that escorted Zheng Sen back to his home in Fujian was significant. Years ago, his father had explained to him why he preferred these men over his own countrymen for his personal army. From bitter experience, his father had learned not to trust anyone, not even his own brothers, and found that employing these hardened, foreign soldiers had its advantages. The Black Guard consisted of a motley crew of Africans and Moluccans from the East Indies, most of them mercenaries and former slaves of the Dutch. Recruited as strangers from other lands, they played no part in the intrigues that were rife among his Chinese officers or even his own family, all of whom had their own agendas. These people had no history of conflict or loyalty to any particular Chinese lord. The only loyalty they felt was to the wages he paid them.
Not many people know that Koxinga was attended by a unit of freed slaves. For the history alone this book is worth it.

I won't spoil it for you, but I am enjoying it very much, both as a Taiwan history buff and as a reader of good stories (that moment when the messengers arrive with news of his father's death. And a whole lotta something else...). Someone will certainly make a great movie out of it.

Buy it, Camphor has it in both e-book and printed formats. Well worth their affordable price.
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1 comment:

EyeDoc said...

Seems a good novel, although the Black Guard historical nuggets might be a bit off. They were actually Cafres, mercenaries brought from South Africa to Macao by the Portuguese. The were rifle specialists. The Moluccans indeed were enslaved by the Dutch; while trapped inside Ft Zeelandia, they were able to communicate with the Black Guard through ancient Malay, the common maritime language at that time. It is unknown if they later joined the Black Guard. The quoted passage appears to suggest that Koxinga was escorted back home by the Guard while it was two of his uncles alone.