Book review: A treasure trove of interdisciplinary learning

This accessible and useful book combines history with archeology by delving into Taiwan’s maritime past

  • By James Baron / Contributing Journalist

From time to time a work appears which ruthlessly exposes the limits of his knowledge. Even seasoned students of Taiwan history will likely come across this book repeatedly.

Whether speculating on the origins of the Pisheye (毗舍耶) raiders who terrorized the Fujian coast in the 12th century; citing the 1875 memoir of British Royal Navy Captain Bonham Ward Bax, for whom the Taiwanese were “looters…always looking upon wreckage as legitimate spoils”; or postulating trade relations, rather than shared origins, as the source of mutual intelligibility in the languages ​​of Lanyu (蘭嶼) and the Batane Islands, each article in this collection is rich in revelations.

Some documents are intended for specialists, but most subjects are accessible. Even the chapters that contain lots of data and graphics for the average reader – especially those on archeology and climate – are textually simple enough to ensure that reading is rarely a chore. This clarity, conciseness and engagement of the prose is in part due to the interdisciplinary nature of the subjects.

This is acknowledged in the introduction, where the editors call for “a timely synergy between archaeologists and historians” and credit “careful multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work” for helping to fill “the vast historical void in the written sources”.

Fans of equally polymathic popular science – the work of Jared Diamond or geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza come to mind – should find this book a treat. Areas of expertise that might normally seem obscure or difficult are communicated with elan. The authors and editorial team must also take immense credit for making a work of such scholarship so effortlessly enjoyable.

In addition to articles with a more scientific vocation, there are fascinating chapters devoted to textual sources on the maritime history of Taiwan. These include works in Chinese, English and Spanish, some of which have rarely, if ever, been discussed in English before and certainly not in this context.

Two nautical terms that appear in several chapters – but receive their fullest treatment in an essay by Chen Kuo-tong titled “Chinese Knowledge of the Waters Around Taiwan” – are luoji (落漈) and wanhsui chaodong (萬水朝東) . Although both have been in use since at least the Yuan dynasty, a precise meaning for either remains elusive.

Literally translated as “all the waters leading to the east”, this last phrase is generally taken to refer, rather loosely, to the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. However, the location of the first, which indicates some sort of deep trench, is shrouded in mystery.


Some Yuan sources indicate it to be near Penghu or “the Liuqiu (琉球) Islands”, while later chroniclers suggest a location as far south as the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙島). Where exactly it was, the luojii was considered a treacherous place where high winds and a sudden drop in depth meant that few ships captured there “could safely return”. Chen speculates that the place or phenomenon in question could be the Kuroshio Current or Black Current (黑潮) which flows northeast from the Philippines through Taiwan and Japan. Elsewhere, the luoji and the kuroshio are considered separate entities.

Readers familiar with the exploits of Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He (鄭和) and China’s burgeoning naval prowess during this period might also be surprised how few Chinese seafarers seemed to know – or at least connect – from the surrounding seas before.

The gap in reliable records is partly due to the fact that the best existing accounts generally came from anomalous ancient travel writers who had very little knowledge of the intricacies of seafaring, rather than from professional sailors. Later records, such as those of scholar Yu Yonghe (陏永河), whose Small Sea Diaries (裨海紀遊) is a personal and unique account of Taiwan in the late 17th century, are rarely more trustworthy – du least not. on the nautical front.


Besides the climatological and nautical terminology, even the references to islands and places were confused. Some readers know that in addition to being the current name of a small island southwest of Taiwan, Liuqiu is also the Chinese name for the Ryukyu Islands or the main island of the group, Okinawa, and that it has also been used as the name of Taiwan at times in history. More surprising is Chen’s revelation that Japanese samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi referred to the Philippines as such in correspondence with his Spanish Governor General.

Other names that seem to have referred to Taiwan were (or could have been) Yi Island (Yizhou, 夷洲), the mythical Penglai Islands (蓬萊仙島), or the Min Region (閩) of the south coast. east of China that the ancient Sea Mountains Classical Text (山海經) claimed to “lie in the sea”. (NB: This is distinct from the modern Min people and language group, of which Hokkien-Taiwanese is a variety.)

Thus, Taiwan itself appears as a nebulous, liminal presence despite, or perhaps because of, the fascinating exposure it receives in this collection. This does not necessarily mean the geopolitical marginalization that the country has suffered in contemporary times. Rather, it is a facet of the spirit of investigation that underlies the work: like any great science, by illuminating dark corners, it reveals hitherto unknown passages to other places which otherwise would have could remain prohibited.

Release Notes

Maritime landscapes — from the Neolithic to the early modern period

Edited by Paola Calanca, Liu Yi-chang & Frank Muyard


French School of the Far East

Paperback: France

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