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Yao-Chang Chen: 傀儡花 (Puppet Flower)

Like, I imagine, most Westerners, I am very ignorant of Taiwanese history and certainly one of the reasons for reading this book was to learn more about it. This novel is set mainly in 1867 (the subtitle is A Novel of 1867). Taiwan had long been inhabited by indigenous tribes but both China and various European countries (Britain, Netherlands and Portugal in particular) had occupied part of it at various times. By 1867 part of the island was occupied by the Qing Dynasty and the rest of the island by various indigenous tribes. The indigenous tribes and Qing dynasty tended to keep to their own part of the island and have little to do with one another. Taiwan’s aboriginals were categorised into two kinds: raw savages (sheng fan) and cooked (tamed) savages (shou fan), based on the degree of their adoption of the Han Chinese lifestyle. Those living in the high mountains were generally marked as “raw” and those on the plains as “cooked.” The Qing called the indigenous people Puppet Savages” (kuilei fan). The very helpful introduction gives two possible explanations.

With the signing of the Peking Treaty in 1860, Taiwan was forced to open its ports to Western merchant ships. From then on, more and more Westerners came to the island, bringing with them— among other influences— Christianity and Western medicine. In this book we will meet British and US officials who are resident on the island, as well as naturalists and the like exploring the island’s fascinating ecosystem.

The key event in this book is the Rover Incident. A US ship was wrecked off the coast of Taiwan when it struck a coral reef. The passengers managed to escape in small boats. The opening scene sees them arriving at a Koalut village. They were looking for sanctuary. However Payarin, their chief, and his people remember the last time the Red-Hairs, as they call Westerners, came. They had guns in an era when the indigenous people did not. The Red-Hairs slaughtered the people and it is only recently that they have fully recovered. The Koalut assume the worse so immediately attack. Palarin manages to kill a running Red Hair and only later sees that it was a woman. There is great shame in killing a woman. All of them were slaughtered though we later learn that the cook managed to hide and later get away.

We also meet Butterfly aka Puppet Flower. She had lived with her parents and brother, Bunkiet, but when first her mother (snake bite) and then her father (infected wound when he was caught in a trap) died, the pair were taken in by Mia in Sialiao near Takao (modern Kaohsiung).

Tok Kwang, the cook, has reported what happened and we now follow the British authorities (there are no US authorities). We learn that this is not the first time that shipwrecked crews have been killed by the indigenous people. We meet Robert Swinhoe, naturalist and diplomat, who is familiar with the island, William A. Pickering, British government official and Patrick Manson, a British doctor.

An expedition is organised to find what happened and they, of course, turn up in Sialiao, where they meet Mia (who speaks some English) and Butterfly. Mia says his people have no contact with the Koalut. The British plan on visiting the Koalut but need an interpreter. While these discussions are taking place, Dr. Manson is able to treat a man who has an infected leg from a boar bite. Butterfly is so impressed that she volunteers to be the interpreter with the Koalut provided Dr Manson teaches her the basics of Western medicine. As no-one else wants to be the interpreter, this is accepted.

We now follow various strands. The British, first, and then the Americans try to attack the Koalut, with limited success. (When they were back on the Cormorant, Captain Broad raged.How could Great Britain be forced into retreat by a bunch of wild and uncivilizable savages? And they left without even knowing what their enemies looked like!) We follow the stories of both Bunkiet and Butterfly. Butterfly accompanies Dr Manson, including on one of the attacks. She learns English and Western medecine. Bunkiet goes with others to visit the chief of all the local tribes, Tauketok, and learns a lot about his past, his parents having been reluctant to share the information with their children. He remains with the chief and his men but is somewhat concerned with the conflict. Tauketok is also concerned as he knows the Westerners have greater firepower and are unlikely to go away, despite the initial success of his guerilla tactics. I do not know whether this is deliberate but the tribes fighting the Americans is very reminiscent of the Vietcong in the Vietnam War.

If you read the introduction you will learn that there are two key players in this books. The first is Butterfly whom we have already met. The second now puts in an appearance. He is Charles Le Gendre, a French-born US diplomat. He had fought many battles in the US Civil War and is well scarred but has since done well, particularity in the Far East. He is very much in favour of all-out attack on the Koalut and has a plan. He is also very much taken with Butterfly.

We now follow three interrelated characters and their stories. Butterfly works with Dr Manson and does well. She also has a boyfriend, Chinya and, inevitably there are ups and downs. Bunkiet is with the tribe and he is concerned, as is Tauketok, that any victories will be short-term and that the foreigners will return. Indeed, Le Gendre plays various political games with the Qing government and gets them to send a large force, which he accompanies, Bunkiet and Lim try to dissuade Le Gendre from attacking but they fail.

Both Le Gendre and, indeed, Tauketok are getting increasingly worried that, while they may win, there will be a heavy price to pay. Le Gendre is a seriously flawed character in many ways, but is a pragmatic diplomat. After all this messy affair is over and his, Butterfly’s and Chinya’s complex situations are resolved, he is recruited by the Japanese. While the British, US, Qing regime and other players have failed to take over Taiwan, the Japanese succeed where the others fail. Indeed Chang Chen carries the story almost up to World War II. The Japanese will remain in control of Taiwan till the end of Word War II.

The whole novel is fascinating in that it mixes in a fairly messy but also fairly conventional personal story with the complex manoeuvrings of the various powers seeking control of Taiwan. There is no doubt that, for Chang Chen, the heroes are the raw savages, the indigenous tribes of Taiwan defending their land and way of life against foreign incursion. Of course, sadly, the indigenous people will be pushed to the margins though they still exist ,as we can see from this novel, but clearly, like many indigenous peoples, their fate has has not worked out well.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by INK
First English translation in 2023 by Columbia University Press
Translated by Pao-Fang Hsu, Ian Maxwell, and Tung-Jung Chen