Monday, February 12, 2007

A Rereading of Liu Ming-chuan

The following is a translation of a post on Tseng Wei-chen's always substantive blog that appeared several months ago. My comments and notes appear in square brackets [].

Liu Ming-chuan has enjoyed a recent wave of popularity in Taipei political circles. Mayor Ma says he is following is Liu's footsteps and has written several essays linking himself directly to Liu's legacy. And now James Soong has come out with a book called I'd Rather Be Liu Ming-chuan that he used to announce his intention to run for mayor. But Liu is overrated by later generations and has become, with the exception of Koxinga, one of the few historical figures who is highly regarded in both Taiwan and China. Was Liu really such a great man? This view is worth contesting.

Of all of Liu's policies in Taiwan, his policy of 'opening up the mountains and pacifying the aboriginal savages' (kaishan fufan) deserves the most criticism. This was in fact the bloody colonial subjection of the Taiwanese aborigines by force. The most violent episode in this campaign was the pacification of the Rikavon Puyuma [now Beinan Township's Lijia Village in Taidong County] in 1887. The expedition was supported by the Beiyang Fleet, East Asia's largest fleet at the time, despite the fact that the fleet was not officially launched until the following year.

At Liu's request, the fleet's commander Ding Ruchang despatched the fleet's [German built] warships the Zhiyuan and the Jingyuan to Taiwan. Land and sea-based artillery were then used to almost completely flatten Rikavon. This kind of brutal military campaign or betrayal and massacre of aborigines continued relentlessly. Those who were not exterminated fled from their traditional lands to the deep mountains. Liu then moved Han settlers onto aboriginal land, taking away the places the aborgines depended on for their livelihood and raising tensions between the Han Chinese and the aborigines. Hu Shih's father Hu Chuan harshly criticized Liu's aboriginal policies:

It has been 18 years since opening up Taiwan's mountains was discussed. Force has not brought victory while bribery has not been effective. Not one foot of cultivated land has been registered as taxable. Our defenses are do nothing but protect shacks on tea farms, rice paddies, and camphor plantations belonging to wealthy gentry. They do not stop the fierce aborigines from attacking. Every year monies for defense are wasted and vast sums are used to pay off the aborigines to allow farming. It clearly does absolutely no good and the same policies are repeated this year, next year, the following year, and the year after that without anyone waking up or feeling remorse. Isn't this completely ridiculous?

There is also much to be criticized in Liu's much-praised self-strengthening new administration. First of all, his policies heavily favored the north to the expense of the south. In an extension of the rivalry between the Hunan and Anhui factions, Liu used his official position to purge Taiwan Circuit Intendant Liu Ao, who enjoyed widespread support among the gentry in southern Taiwan, by making false accusations. This made it impossible for the southern gentry to trust Liu Mingchuan's leadership. This combined with the many deficiencies in Taiwan's cadastral caused unfair tax assessments and unrest and resulted in the uprising led by the peasant farmer Shi Jiuduan. Shi, who enjoyed significant popular support, was hidden by the people and never captured. Liu's reforms, which were centered in Taipei and intentionally neglected the south, were the beginning of the tradition of favoring the north at the expense of the south that has now lasted for more than 100 years. Poor administration also seriously eroded the effectiveness of Liu's programs.

Liu Mingchuan also ignored Taiwan's poor finances. When Taiwan Province was established, Fujian assisted Taiwan with massive funding. But Liu's reforms were extremely expensive, and Liu did not open up new sources of funding. Since his reforms did not benefit Fujian, Fujian began to reduce its funding for Taiwan. Liu's reforms became a great burden on Taiwan's public finances and created budget deficits.

Even Liu's railroad building, which has been glorified by later generations, is overrated. Liu advocated having the private sector build the railroad supervised by the government and planned to have Li Tongen raise one million taels of silver in southeast Asia to construct a railway from Keelung to Changhua. But the project was enormously expensive, so investors stayed on the sidelines and shares were under subscribed. In the end, the government had to take over the project.

Construction was difficult and building the section between Keelung and Hsinchu alone cost more than one million taels and construction quality was poor. James W. Davidson's The Island of Formosa Past and Present (1903) has vivid descriptions of the many deficiencies in the construction and operation of the Taiwan railroad. After Japan took over, they abandoned Liu's railway and built a new one.

Liu Mingchuan's excessive severity as an official is always overlooked. For example, Liu set strict standards to maintain the efficiency of his modern postal system and did not allow the soldiers who delivered mail to be late. In the Danshui/Hsinchu archives, there is the case of a soldier named Wu Ruiqi who lost a letter he was delivering. A furious Liu had the unfortunate Wu beheaded and stuck his head on a pole to set an example. Liu's cruel administration of his reforms made them unpopular with the people.

After Liu left office, his successor Shao Youlian adopted more moderate policies after a review of the realities at the time and halted a number of Liu's less successful programs. Although Shao also thought that operating a rail system was important, he reluctantly stopped maintaining the Danshui-Hsinchu line. He also reformed the civil service, created new sources of revenue, and improved Taiwan's relations with the outside world. His many contributions to Taiwan also included reforming the soldiery and defenses and he fixed many of the problems left over from the Liu era. The shallow and formulaic condemnations of him by later generations is unfortunate.

Given Taipei's present environment and development, we would be better off with a pragmatic, moderate mayor like Shao rather than one like Liu who developed extravagantly. If we want to discuss who has contributed the most to Taipei's development, both Goto Shimpei during the Japanese era and Kao Yu-shu in the post-war era both had far greater influences on Taipei than Liu did. There's really not much use in trying turn Liu into a myth or trying to get mileage out of him.

1 comment:

Patrick Cowsill said...

Older people here remember how chaotic life was following WWII, when Chen Yi and his carpet-bagging cronies showed up on Formosa. They contrast this to the law, order and progress made under the Japanese.

On the other side of the Japanese colonial period, history books contrast the Ching Dynasty's neglect of Formosa to Japan's efforts to develop the island (which became after Japan Asia's most developed area).

Liu is attractive to historical rewriters like Ma because they can say that the Chinese were also able to develop the island and that they were not completely corrupt and incompetant.