Saturday, 13 June 2020

Book review: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, Jonathan Clements (2004)

I’ve lost all recollection of how this book came to be in my collection, but it’s been there for a good long while – from memory, at least 10 years. It came out of a small UK press and seems not to have been talked about much, which strikes me as like a wasted opportunity. This is not only a thrilling (though, like most nonfiction, complex) work of history, it’s also topical.

Complexity can of course put some people off though what might attract readers are the pirates and the smugglers. The story is set on the coast of China, in Taiwan, and in Japan in the 17th century. Dutch traders headquartered at Batavia (now Jakarta) engineered deals through their operatives in northeast Asia and often these turned into skirmishes with Coxinga’s father, a pirate-turned-admiral named Iquan. Coxinga’s mother was a Japanese woman but Iquan later married a Chinese woman who lived at his base in Amoy (Xiamen).

If this sounds complicated it’s not surprising as you are dealing with four cultures (counting the Taiwanese, closely related to Pacific islanders) each with different histories and priorities. It’s however rarely daunting as the style used for the conveyance is at the same time flexible and robust, though at points in the narrative you feel things get a little slippery – which seems fitting given the nature of the story being told.

Since derring-do is so popular these days, perhaps over-the-top TV viewers might want to sample real stories of sorties and escapades, of fortunes stolen and kidnappings, of epic battles and men clad in iron. On top of this kind of relatively predictable scenario – predictable at least in terms of the prosaic motives that seem to drive people, in a way that is much the same as in narco-thrillers – you also get access to solid history.

Here things are fortunately less predictable – depending on your personality, of course; some people like things black-and-white, others prefer greys of different shades (the story of Coxinga’s life is most definitely of the latter brand) – but I’m not sure Clements always makes the most of his material. Perhaps he could have used more that can be found in ancillary records, such as those belonging to the Dutch East India Company, or in China’s or Taiwan’s historical archives.

Why you might want to read Clement’s book, if you are not all that interested in history, would rest with the fact of China’s current standing in the world and the way it positions itself vis-à-vis the West. As Taiwan forms a prominent element in the drama, too, the story of Coxinga has contemporary echoes; it was only with the Qing that Taiwan was brought politically into China’s orbit, so its being considered by some to be “part of” China is a relatively recent innovation.

As for Iquan, how he earned his commission from Beijing might furnish material for a TV drama, but it’s all true (as Shakespeare said of his play ‘Henry VIII’). While the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) did have a naval presence for part of its reign, it shut down trade apart from Macao, so Iquan’s position as admiral was complicated, as he had financial interests, prior to accepting the posting, that depended on overseas trade. He also kept up good relations with men employed by the Dutch East India Company. If you were to write Iquan’s story today you would have a drug dealer turn into a narcotics policeman.

The Manchus would restrict trade even more radically once they took control. Coxinga, raised in early childhood in Japan, was a very different kind of man from his father. He was educated, steadfast, and loyal to the Ming Dynasty, embodying the Confucian ideal in a way that the arriviste Iquan couldn’t manage to do. The two men expressed their patriotism in different ways.

This difference providing a dramatic hinge upon which the story, to a degree, depends, but the interest inherent in the book isn’t limited to armed conflict alone. It’s actually quite a complex story about the nature of good governance. Cruelty appears often, allied with such ideas as patrimony and justice, but there is little space given to other ideas – love or beauty are absent beyond possessiveness – and so while it is comprehensive as far as the records consulted allow, in a sense the book has a limited scope. Justice without love or beauty is a fragile thing.

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