By Dirk van Delft
In September 1624, when Martinus Sonck landed on the island of
Formosa, he immediately set to work to build a fortification
built at Tayouan: later to become Fort Zeelandia. This marked the
beginning of the period of Dutch rule which lasted until 1662.
Formosa, present-day Taiwan, was an important junction in the
commercial network of the VOC. Sugar and silk from China were
brought there and paid for with Japanese silver. From China also
came the gold which was later exchanged for Indian textiles on
the Coromandel Coast of India. This way the breadbasket of the
Company, where the Christian mission also made remarkable
headway, evolved into one of its most prominent factories or
In China, Japan, and Taiwan itself interest in this snippet of history has grown tremendously in recent years. Taiwan is eagerly in search of its own identity, and the Dutch period, when the steady stream of Chinese immigrants really got underway and the aboriginal Austronesian inhabitants were driven into the mountains, is seen to mark the beginning of an independent existence, separate from China. This is why the episode is placed in the light of the revolt of the Manchus against the Ming regime, and of the change of dynasty which resulted from this.
Until now, the historian from the Far East has had to fall back on data from the VOC archives translated into Japanese or English, which merely skim the surface. It is a much better idea to take the complete Generale Missiven van Gouveneur-Generaal en Raden aan Heren Zeventien der Verenigde Ooostindische Compagnie (The General Missives from the Governor-General and Council to the Directors of the Dutch East India Company), an archive which covers a good kilometre in the General State Archive in The Hague, as a point of departure, paying particular attention to the passages relating to Formosa. The annual Missives provide a detailed review, varying from ship movements to punitive military expeditions against the aboriginal population. Of course, to do this it is necessary to be able to read and understand seventeenth century Dutch, a gift that is not granted to everybody. Would it not be a wonderful idea if these data were made available in a Chinese translation? During the past five years this tedious task has been carried out resolutely and with great dedication by the historian Cheng Shaogang from the People's Republic of China. On Tuesday 12 December 1995, Cheng defended his thesis entitled De VOC en Formosa 1624-1662: een vergeten geschiedenis (The VOC and Formosa 1624-1662: a forgotten history) under the guidance of the Leiden sinologist Prof. K.M. Schipper. This is a piece of work of unusual length: volume 1 (671 pages) contains an extensive introduction followed by an annotated Chinese translation of the Formosa passages from the Generale Missiven, while volume 2 (519 pages) has the Dutch texts copied in the State Archive. In his presentation Cheng has deviated as little as possible from the original text, but in order to make it all more accessible he has added punctuation marks, capital letters, and pagination, as well as writing out the abbreviations in full.
An Unusual Path
Cheng's thesis came about in a most unusual way. He was born in Northern China in Caopo, a town close to Manchuria. He began his academic career in 1983 by studying German at the Institute for Foreign Languages in Beijing, financed with money earned by his brother. At Christmas 1985 Cheng was sent to the Netherlands by the Chinese authorities to learn the language so that, on his return to China, he could become an interpreter. Cheng remembers: "I spent the first half year in Leiden learning Dutch in the language laboratory and under the guidance of two private tutors. I could speak German but my landlady warned me that, depending on the company, I should be careful about using this."
In the academic year 1986-1987 Cheng -who now speaks immaculate Dutch- began Dutch Studies, a new course tailored for foreigners. Having completed the basic two-year programme, for his graduation study he chose history, taking the VOC and the Far East as his specialization. This choice was purely coincidental. Cheng explains: "In 1988, when the royal visit to China by Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus appeared on the horizon, I helped the historian Dr L. Blussé of expansion history with the translation of his book Tribuut aan China (Tribute to China), written for the occasion, which reviews four centuries of commercial relations between China and the Netherlands. The visit was postponed in the wake of the student protests in Tienamin Square, but the booklet was distributed in China. One thing led to another and, under the guidance of Bluss‚, I began the Formosa translation project."
Cheng did not qualify for a doctoral research grant. Eventually, the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences sprang to the rescue. Once a Chinese co-supervisor had been found in the person of Prof. Zheng Xuemeng from the University of Xiamen, Cheng was given four years to translate and annotate the passages from the Generale Missiven. At that point there was absolutely no question of research for a doctorate - this is not the function of the Academy. Cheng recalls: "Three days a week I travelled to the State Archive in The Hague to copy texts. I maintained an iron discipline. In the beginning I had an uphill battle with the handwriting and with trying to understand the Missives was troublesome. Sometimes it seemed as if punctuation marks and capitals had been thrown in arbitrarily, formal phrases had been borrowed from Latin and French, and the spelling was of a phonetic nature. Tijdelijck, now 'temporary', then meant 'timely, in time', and Indianen (Indians) was used to designate the inhabitants of the Indonesian Archipelago." As the project progressed Cheng was able to step up his production rate from 6 written A4s a day to between 20 and 30. Everything was written by hand, a labtop was not part of his equipment. In the evenings the zealous copyist wrote the Chinese translation in the margins of his notes, after which he sat down in front of the computer to enter up everything. In between his activities he read general scientific literature about the Far East, helped Blussé with looking after Chinese students, and assisted in the compilation of a book in which the sources for Slauerhoff's book Chinese poëzie (Chinese Poetry) are described. Cheng concedes: "I have to admit that the amount of work involved was a bit of a blow, there was very little time for social contacts. All the same the Missives made fascinating reading. I was interested to read how the Ming loyalist and general Zheng Chenggong, otherwise known as Coxinga, set about building up his network. Utilizing his supremacy at sea he was able to drive the Dutch out of Formosa in 1662." When his Academy appointment drew to an end, Cheng and his supervisors were able to arrange that the University of Leiden, in the guise of the Centre for Non-Western Studies (CNWS), provided him with a doctoral scholarship for one year so that he could expand the annotated translation into an academic thesis. Under the banner of scientific fraternization, Schipper, Blussé, and the earlier-mentioned Zheng Xuemeng were joined in the supervising by Prof. Cao Yonghe of the Academia Sinica of Taiwan. Cheng says that: "Since Taiwan ended martial law in 1987, relations with China have shown a great improvement. Before then, on certain special days, they had a habit of shooting at each other's territory. But actually paying a visit to Taiwan is out of the question at the moment." After a decade in the Netherlands Cheng hopes to have the chance to develop himself further in Leiden academic circles. "I don't have any great need to return. I would like to delve more deeply into this subject, for instance as a post-doc. Of course, the Netherlands is never one's own country but should I return, in view of the spectacular changes which have taken place there, I would also no longer be a real Chinese. Have I not performed China a real service by my unlocking of an important source? I am the first to complete such a large project since the Japanese translated a selection of the journals (dagregisters) of Batavia in the 1930s. This is indeed an achievement and I'm happy that it has been accomplished."
Translated by Rosemary Robson-McKillop
(source: NRC Handelsblad, 7 December 1995)