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Rebel Island: The incredible story of Taiwan: a brisk narrative related with style and brio

A splendid portrait of layers of identity and resistance in what is no less a settler society than the United States

Rebel Island: The Incredible History of Taiwan
Rebel Island: The Incredible History of Taiwan
Author: Jonathan Clements
ISBN-13: 978-1915590275
Publisher: Scribe
Guideline Price: £22

Taiwan is an island whose unfortunate fate in recent times is to have others, most notably in Beijing and Washington, speak on its behalf. This is a shame, given it has been an unsung Asian success story, transforming itself in just a few decades from a repressive police state to a vibrant free society with one of the highest levels of equality in Asia. It is also a land largely unknown in the west. Jonathan Clements’s excellent short but comprehensive history should go a long way to filling gaps in the knowledge.

As his title indicates, Clements paints a picture of a society that has long chafed at being under the yoke. This includes the island’s Austronesian indigenous peoples (collectively known as Formosans, after the name once given the island by passing Portuguese explorers), and the early Chinese settlers, the benshengren, who started arriving from across the Taiwan strait under Dutch rule in the 17th century. These were mainly Hoklo and Hakka from Fujian, a historic bastion both of anti-Beijing scepticism and later of Ming loyalism after the Manchu Qing overran the Middle Kingdom.

This resistance manifested itself against a succession of rulers — the Dutch, who ran Formosa for four decades until 1668; the Qing Empire; the Japanese, who administered Taiwan as a colony for 50 years until 1945; and then Chiang Kai-shek’s one-party Republic of China, which retreated to the island in 1949. It also explains why there is so little appetite among Taiwanese to be subsumed into the People’s Republic of China, which claims the island as its own.

Clements’s brisk narrative is related with style and brio and an appropriate amount of caution, given the various competing narratives surrounding the island’s history, and he draws on an impressive trove of documentation, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese and western. The result is a splendid portrait of the layers of identity and resistance in what is no less a settler society than the United States, Australia or Argentina.


And though Clements carefully avoids making any case regarding Taiwan’s sovereignty, his account certainly bolsters the argument that the island is sufficiently different from the mainland to remain apart from it. In this sense, Rebel Island is worth a thousand blow-hard geopolitical opinion articles about Taiwan and its supposedly imminent invasion by China.

Oliver Farry

Oliver Farry is a contributor to The Irish Times