Renovation and Reform: Taiwanese Society in the 19th Century
This exhibition takes visitors on a journey that revisits the history of Taiwan in the 19th century, a time of rapid and dramatic change. This exhibition features artifacts and images that tell the stories of the interactions among Taiwanese indigenes, Han immigrants, Western explorers, merchants and missionaries. The political, economic and cultural exchanges that occurred as a result of these, as well as sometimes intense conflicts, brought the island into a new era.
Rapid Expansion and a Globalized World
Enabled by the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, Western European countries soon applied their advanced naval technology to establishing global sea routes for the purposes of trade and colonization. This created the global exchange of resources, wealth and manpower. However, the exploitation of land and resources that was involved in this process raised the question of whether progress in knowledge and technology were indeed able to further the development of civilization.
Taiwan under Qing Rule
The Qing Empire sought to maintain sovereignty and control over Taiwan as part of its territory, as depicted in the Imperial Atlas of China (Huang yu quan lan tu). As a result, the priority was not so much to bring prosperity to the people, as to contain any possible rebellion on the island. The empire neglected the complicated and often disparate backgrounds of the people in Taiwan, and even turned one group against another in order to secure its absolute control. In the historical documents of this period, Taiwan was always portrayed as a distant land at the periphery of the Empire. Conflicts among different groups on the island mattered little to the Empire, whether between Han immigrants and the indigenes, between Minnan and Hakka peoples, or between the Quanzhou and Zhangzhou peoples who came from Fujian Province. For the Empire, there were only two kinds of people on the island: the obedient and the rebellious; the former it exploited, the latter it eradicated.
The island of Taiwan was just one remote corner of the Qing empire, and yet it was the only place where its various peoples could call home.
Taiwan’s Opportunities and Challenges
In the 19th century, Taiwan was “re-discovered” as Western countries sought wealth and power in Asia. This time, the Qing Empire was no longer able to maintain its absolute control and monopoly on the island.
In 1860, Tamsui, Keelung, Anping and Takao (now Kaohsiung) ports were opened for foreign trade, based on the Treaty of Tientsin and the Convention of Peking. This substantially transformed Taiwan’s economic structure, as subsistence agriculture was replaced by growing profit-oriented cash crops. Tea, camphor and sugar thus became the most highly valued commodities at that time.
Thriving trade brought changes to the landscape and ecology, and transformed the way people lived. Were these developments good or bad? Judgments vary depending on the place and people.
Western Religion in Taiwan
The impacts of 19th century Western culture on other parts of the world were not just material, but also spiritual. In addition to merchant ships and fleets, Western missionaries also arrived on the shores of Taiwan.
Christianity had been deeply ingrained in Western culture after over 1,800 years of development. To the people living in Taiwan, however, what the missionaries preached was more than just a new religion, but a completely different way of understanding life, death and the world. Cultural conflicts were inevitable, and were all the more complicated in an era when Western culture had conspicuous advantages over others.
Sailing towards a Modern Society
What distinguishes humans from other species on Earth is that they have learned to rely on tools to survive, and that the related technologies then evolve. In the 19th century, men turned tools into industrial innovations, which in turn enabled them to explore nature, exert control over more resources, and even exploit other people more effectively.
Such changes shaped the basic structure of modern society. The wave of modernization is unstoppable, and Taiwan was thus inescapably pushed toward a more modern society. Though some may have struggled, or even fallen, the majority of its people embraced the challenges and moved on.
Looking back at our history, what we need is not nostalgia, but reflection. This island is where we call home, and while we cannot change what has happened, we can look towards the future, and remember that a new destiny awaits.
As our history shows, our destiny is to evolve by overcoming challenges to create a new future.