Scenes from Dutch Formosa. Staging Taiwan’s Colonial Past. Edited by Llyn Scott.
Portland (Maine): MerwinAsia 2014. [xiii, 329 pp.]

By Carsten Storm

This edited volume is in many ways a confusing collection of chapters. It has both good and bad points. Although the reviewer has found many issues to take issue with, in the end he will conclude that this book should have a place on the shelves both of institutes of sinology, history, theatre, and media and of academics working in these fields, as well as of individuals who for one reason or another are interested in the history of Taiwan.

The reader is well advised not to take the title too literally. The main title, Scenes from Dutch Formosa, indicates materials and sources which themselves are historical and originate roughly from the time of the Dutch settlement and colonization of Taiwan. The subtitle, Staging Taiwan’s Colonial Past, seems to hint at the theatre and thus at ‘images of the Dutch on Taiwan’ as they were presented in drama of that time. In post-modern times, the usage of the term ‘staging’ is highly ambiguous. However, in this case the volume itself might be the ‘stage.’ Thus, we find incidents not only from the Dutch past but also from the Chinese reoccupation by Zheng Chenggong alias Coxinga. In fact, the time of transition from Dutch to late Ming colonization is the prime subject of this book. Images of this transition are not only presented in historical sources, as in the plays of Joannes Nomsz (1738–1803) and Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793), but also as modern media adaptations like film, theatre, or video games. The reviewer suspects that this volume came out of the editor’s involvement in a radio docudrama entitled Tales of Dutch Formosa, which she co-authored with Norman Szabo (broadcast by Radio Taiwan International in 2003). It seems that she wanted to get more mileage out of the wide range of material she and Szabo had collected for their own creative work, especially with regard to the plays by Nomsz and Goldoni. Scott obviously believed it would be valuable for readers interested in the history of Taiwan or the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC).

The selected texts include academic studies, translations of drama texts, and studio reports. They combine theoretical and practical dimensions of dealing with the Taiwanese past and will thus appeal not only to academics from various fields and experts and students in Chinese and/or Taiwan studies, anthropology, history, and theatre, but also to practitioners and artists working in theatre, or the production of anime, video games, and film. This audience diversity is both an obstacle and an opportunity.

At first sight, the most interesting parts of this volume are the chapters that reproduce and introduce primarily Dutch plays about Formosa’s colonization and the protestant mission of the VOC. The same is true of the debates on single issues, especially regarding the implementation of mission; a debate that aroused in the Netherlands as a reaction to reports from Taiwan. The translations provide a vivid insight into the way in which the lives of important public figures from the 1660s were perceived in Dutch literature between 1600 and 1800. They include excerpts from a range of Dutch plays including Antonius Hambroek or the Siege of Formosa (Anthonius Hambroek op De Belegering Van Formoza, 1774) by Joannes Nomsz, East India Chat, between Four Dutchmen in Batavia (Oost-Indisch-praetjen, Vorgefallen in Batavia Tusschen vier Nedrlanders, anonymous, 1663), and Carlo Goldoni’s Once Upon a Deserted Land (L’isola disabiata, 1757, which – rather annoyingly – is translated as The Uninhabited Land in the introductory chapter). And finally, there are sea shanties that relate the experiences of sailors serving in the VOC. While all of these texts are accessible for the expert through library channels, they are not all easily available. The reader thus has a valuable source book at hand. The reviewer has no proper command of early Dutch and thus cannot evaluate the quality of the translations, but he most certainly appreciates having these translated excerpts at his disposal.

These plays, together with the explanatory academic texts, account for the first and second part of the book. The arrangement itself is inconsistent: Nomsz’s play Antonius Hambroek or the Siege of Formosa appears in both parts. The academic texts accompanying the translations do not properly evaluate the processes of perception and reception that led to the writing of these plays. The time difference of roughly 100 years between the events depicted and the writing of the plays would also have merited more careful consideration. (Some comments by A. Heylen are a positive exception). Why did the playwrights choose these incidents that had taken place 100 years previously? Why was the siege of the VOC in 1662 a topic for audiences in the mid 18th century? The information provided by A. J. E. Harmsen, a Leiden specialist on Dutch theatre, seems too cursory. He deals primarily with plays of the 17th century and says little about the texts of the 18th century. None of the texts he addresses in detail is presented in excerpts later on. The reviewer could find no mention of the taste for Chinoiserie which might have played an important role in dramatizing these events a century later.

In Part 2, the reader also finds a chapter that appears to be out of place. John Shufelt explores the complicated indebtedness of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) to George Psalmanazar’s An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (1704). In 1705 Psalmanazar was at the centre of a massive scandal among intellectual elites in London and Oxford since he had completely fabricated his description of Formosa and his own identity as a real Formosan. Swift not only used Psalmanazar’s descriptions of geographical positions and landscapes but also satirically referred to the hoax and the role of the Royal Society in his Gulliver’s Travels and other writings. However, while this in itself is an interesting and valuable academic study, it remains unclear why the chapter is included in this volume at all. A special part investigating the functioning of Chinoiserie in Europe, and the ways of dealing with hearsay and arbitrary information about the Far East during that time would have benefitted the chapters of both Harmsen and Shufelt.

The remaining two sections of the volume focus on contemporary texts (film, drama, video games, and radio docudrama) which deal with the transition from the VOC to Coxinga in a post-modern style. Here, the failure to contextualize the texts properly within a contemporary framework is even more obvious. Why does Wu Ziniu 吴子牛 (born 1953), a mainland Chinese director of the so-called 5th generation, shoot a film about the victory of Zheng Chenggong, namely The Sino-Dutch War 1661 (Yingxiong Zheng Chenggong 英雄郑成功, 2000)? Furthermore, what exactly are the social and commercial frameworks in which a film like this is produced and distributed? A more thorough discussion of patriotic and sino-centric tendencies on the Chinese mainland would have been helpful here, especially for non-sinologists. Furthermore: is it really meaningful to reproduce a dialogue script?

Next, we read about the difficulties of the New York “Adhesive Theater Project” in adapting The Battles of Coxinga for the stage in 1999. The play is a bunraku-style puppet theatre by Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon 近松 門左衛門 (1653–1725), originally entitled Kokusen'ya kassen 国姓爺合戰 (1715), which in 1951 was translated by the well known specialist in Japanese literature, Donald Keene. In order to be staged in New York it first had to be adapted to modern American trained actors and was then combined with anime, samurai, and kung-fu elements. The project directors Cory Einbinder and Kalle Macrides deliver a report on the difficulties they encountered during the adaptation and production process. This is surely an interesting insight into a modern theatre production, though it clearly aims at a different audience than the bulk of the chapters. The academic reader will bemoan the lack of reliable information about the source. The reviewer had to search for the Japanese characters and dates of the original himself. In fact, for the reviewer this chapter is more “exotic” than anything about 17th century Dutch Formosa.

At the end of the book the reader is confronted with a politically correct “must-have” section on aboriginal (yuanzhumin 原住民) culture, which first deals with the role of the snake in the mythology of the Taiwanese Yuanzhumin. Kurt Cline, a poet and artist, describes basic formations of these myths on Taiwan with emphasis on the Rukai myth of Princess Banenn (巴冷公主) and goes on to unfold a rather esoteric panorama of the universal motif of the snake in the mythology of prehistoric matriarchal societies. This is followed by translated excerpts from the video game Princess Banenn (2002), again presented without contextualization, e. g., he fails to consider the status of the commodity character of a video game and its highly critical relation to authentic tradition. Even more incongruous: there is no link whatsoever to Dutch Formosa. It even remains unclear whether snakes figured predominantly in the myths that were prevalent among those tribes with which the Dutch came into contact or whether snake myths in particular were of interest to the Dutch missionaries (i. e., as a special feature of “heathen” faith).

The snake myths are connected, however, to the radio docudrama Tales of Dutch Formosa by the volume’s editor Scott and N. Szabo in which – apparently in a formulaic way following current fashions of dealing with Taiwan’s past – emphasis is laid on the role of Yuanzhumin, who now play their part in the representation of Taiwan’s history. However, the reviewer’s impression is that in the docudrama the Dutch characters – in a very Eurocentric way – appear as the rational, reliable, and reasonable people, whereas the Yuanzhumin (at least in the excerpts) are depicted as driven by violence and notions of manhunting. Although this is culturally explained, it nevertheless fits images of the savage for modern readers. Even more annoying is the accompanying chapter by Llyn Scott in which she provides background information on her own radio docudrama, thus another studio report. Obviously confident in her work, she tends to argue the wrong way round. Instead of checking the contents of the docudrama against the historical background and explaining which material or fact was selected for the drama and why, the docudrama itself is taken as the point of reference: Scott considers whether or not historical facts ‘correctly’ fit the story of the docudrama.

The mixture of academic chapters, translated excerpts, studio reports, and plays (in the widest sense) from the 17th century until the present day makes it very difficult for the reviewer to draw a meaningful conclusion about this edited volume. He himself has an academic background in Chinese and Taiwan studies and has much more to take issue with than the criticisms listed above. In many instances, he would have preferred more reliable information, e. g, in terms of biographical data and exact titles in Chinese. Theoretical aspects in many of the academic chapters are inadequate, to say the least. These chapters rely heavily on the work of John E. Wills Jr., Leonard Blussé, and Tonio Andrade, two of whom are highly recommended as further reading in the final chapter by Murray A. Rubinstein, an eminent scholar in the field of Taiwan studies. His chapter would have been a perfect introduction to this volume rather than an epilogue. The works of Wills Jr., Blussé, and Andrade are cited in almost every (academic) chapter and thus it is surprising that none of these scholars has contributed to the volume.

However, I very much enjoyed the range of translated material made available here and also the presentation of contemporary perceptions and artistic adaptations of the story of Dutch Formosa, both of which are new for the reviewer. Triggering this ambivalent reaction is perhaps the volume’s best achievement. It is a disappointing book for anyone who seeks high-profile innovation in his or her own field of expertise. However, if the chapters dealing with one’s own field of expertise are taken as a gateway to something that lies beyond one’s usual work, than this volume has a lot to offer. In this sense it is innovative: it leads readers to think beyond the boundaries of their own specific field of interest and expertise. That is why it is certainly worth reading and why it should find its way onto many bookshelves.