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The Republic of Formosa, a short-lived experiment in Taiwan

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The old name for Taiwan, commonly used in the West until after World War II, dates back to around 1545, when passing Portuguese seafarers dubbed the island “Ihla Formosa” for its unique beauty. After Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists retreated to Taiwan in 1949, wowing to retake the Chinese mainland from the Communists, they named it “Free China”. In contrast, “Formosa Magazine” was the title of a later banned publication by the political opposition. When the Cold War ended and Taiwan step by step became a democracy, that old denomination made an unofficial comeback. Its nostalgic touch reminds Taiwanese of their own distinctive identity.

A lesser known, nevertheless important part of Taiwan’s history was the short-lived Republic of Formosa (in Chinese called “Democratic State of Taiwan”). It was proclaimed on May 23rd, 1895 by officials loyal to the languishing Qing-Dynasty and elements of the local gentry as a reaction to the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed about a month earlier. After the First Sino-Japanese War Taiwan, which as late as 1887 had finally become a separate Chinese province, had to be ceded to Japan in perpetuity.

Those opposed to this sudden power transfer declared independence, and a new government was inaugurated on May 25th, which adopted a still well-known national flag with a yellow tiger on a blue background. Tang Ching-sung, actually the appointed governor, became its first president. But soon after the Japanese landed near the northern port of Keelung on May 29th and started to move southwards, Tang sailed back to China.

Liu Yung-fu, a war veteran who had fought back the French in Indochina, succeeded him as political and military leader. As soldiers and militia in the north were no match for the Japanese, these entered Taipei on June 7th. He then started a campaign of resistance from the southern city of Tainan, the old capital. In central Taiwan, Taiwanese organized by local warlord Chiu Feng-chia were involved in the Battle of Baguashan on August 27th, which slowed down the inexorable Japanese advance. However, due to much better equipment, the well-disciplined conquerors occupied Tainan peacefully on October 21st. Liu had escaped on October 19th and managed to board a British ship undetected.

The exact numbers of troops involved on both sides are unclear, though at least 100,000 defenders (6,770 dead) were facing around 45,000 invaders, assisted by 26,000 coolies (5,000 casualties, 90% died of disease).

There were two reasons for the fast collapse of this first state-building attempt in Taiwan. First, the strength of an invading modern army, which had been trained and equipped according to the high standards of France and Prussia, proved to be far superior to what the Chinese had to offer. Many of the rather ill-disciplined soldiers were neither familiar with, nor attached to the land they were supposed to defend, and quickly defected.

Second, the fact that its adherents still recognized Chinese suzerainty cost them a lot of sympathy abroad, and resulted in a total lack of international recognition. Formosan foreign minister Chen Chi-tung, an experienced Qing diplomat who had lived in Paris, could not mobilize his extensive contacts there within the required time.

Moreover, some Western observers believed that the declaration was simply a smokescreen that would allow Peking’s allies to fight without breaking the peace treaty. In case of a victory, they expected that the island would almost certainly return to Chinese rule.

The Republic of Formosa lasted only for five months, most of which were spent at war, leaving behind nothing but some postal stamps very valuable for collectors. Five decades of Japanese colonial rule followed, which at the end contributed to a special Taiwanese awareness and planted the seeds of a new independence movement.

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