Formosa

The origins of the name Taiwan are uncertain, and may derive in part from a medley of the original Portuguese and Dutch terms for the island. Wan means bay in Putonghua—common speech, or Mandarin—so we could look for the composite phrase tai wan, which might mean platform bay, but we’d be chasing a red herring.

Chinese, like German, is built on composite words, but in this case each word matches a character. As an example, dian hua means electric speech, or telephone, and dian nao means electric brain, or computer. My favorite is da huo ji, or beat fire machine, which is of course a cigarette lighter.

Wan usually means bay. An example is Hau Hoi Wan, or Deep Bay, near Shenzhen (not to be confused with Schengen.) In the foreground, the mandatory marine cultivation—oysters, in this case.

Portuguese mariners apparently sighted the island of Taiwan in 1542, and christened it Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Island—the Western world used the term for almost four centuries.

The first European to reach China by sea was a nephew of the Vice-Roy of India Afonso de Albuquerque, named Jorge Álvares. The Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511, only thirteen years after Vasco da Gama first arrived in Calicut; given that a return voyage from Lisbon took about one year and a half, it’s astonishing how quickly the exploration moved east—two thousand nautical miles separate Calicut (Kozhikode today) from Malacca.

Álvares got to Lintin, an island in the Pearl River delta, in 1514, a further sixteen hundred miles from Malacca.

When I wrote Clear Eyes, I calculated the distances sailed by Columbus in his bizarre western quest to find Cipango. The numbers shown are the real distances, rather than the fake ones he logged to deceive his crew.

If we consider a (convenient) average of thirty-three leagues per day, or one hundred nautical miles, Álvares would have sailed for about two weeks, assuming he knew where he was headed.

Daily distance traveled by Columbus on his way across the Atlantic from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, to Guanahani. Note the central part of the image, when the fleet was becalmed in the Sargasso Sea, also known as the horse latitudes.

Taiwan is opposite Xiamen, in Fujian province, only three days sailing eastward from the Zhu Jiang, or Pearl River. I suspect the Portuguese got to Taiwan well before 1542—a twenty-eight year gap is a long time, and there were good reasons to keep discoveries secret.

Since the days when the island was named Formosa, it suffered many other occupations. First came the Dutch in the XVIIth century, profiting from the decline of the Portuguese empire following the Spanish occupation of 1580—they set up the typically unimaginative Fort Zeelandia.

Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Chinese in 1895, and regained in 1945 by the Chinese Nationalists. After they lost the civil war to Mao’s communists, Chiang Kai-shek moved his capital to Taipei—ever since then, the separation of the two Chinas has been a thorn in the side of the PRC.

In the late XXth century, Hong-Kong and Macau were handed back to China, but with a proviso—Deng Xiaoping’s one country, two systems. As an etymological parenthesis, xiao ping means little bottle.

The full text of the proviso is fascinating in its inclusion of Taiwan.

In recent weeks, the world has witnessed the mayhem in Hong Kong—if the chaos lasts long enough, China is sure to intervene. But far more interesting than that? Maybe the Trump trade talks will have a couple of secret clauses, such as reduced support for Taiwan from the US.

It’s well known that the orange man is totally hands-off when it comes to ‘internal business’ of other nations, from human rights to the annexation of Crimea, as long as it suits his self-serving goals.

It’s also well known that Xi Jin Ping (is that a bottle of gin?) wants to leave as his legacy the reunification of China.

Wouldn’t it be a thing if successful trade talks were followed a few years later by the annexation of Taiwan by the PRC, while America looks on, just as it is presently doing with Iran?

There is an apocryphal tale that comes to mind.

Deng was once asked, “What are the main consequences of the French revolution?”

He replied, “Too early to tell.”

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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