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How to Begin A History?

It’s hard to know where to begin a family history.

In trying to tell my Taiwan story, I’ve spent a lot of time reading history books and collecting pieces of my family’s journey. I love researching but got consumed with finding new details to fill holes in my knowledge. I ended up with tons of files, no clarity, and a colossal writer’s block. The goal was to write some sort of family history but I didn't know where to start. There’s a point where too much information derails storytelling. As a friend once said, in trying to say everything you can end up saying nothing at all.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and had some clarity. Taiwan’s story goes way back and I was feeling compelled to tell it all. But that’s not my story to tell. I wouldn’t have been writing from my life and what I know.

My Taiwan story begins in the late Qing Dynasty, circa 1840s, when my first ancestor – my third great-grandfather – migrated from China to Taiwan for a better life. He was a poor young Hakka man, likely from Guandong or Fujian province, who probably arrived alone as most migrants to Taiwan at that time were men. Maybe he wore the white linen robes of a Chinese peasant and his hair in a braided queue, which was required as a sign of male submission to the Manchurians.

My third great-grandfather’s name is recorded as 李四定 Lì Sì-dīng, though he probably also had a Hakka name (which could have been the same characters or entirely different). I know Sì-dīng from a written family tree my Taiwanese cousin miraculously found when my late uncle passed away some years ago. Miraculous because there weren’t many written records kept in mid-19th century Taiwan, and even less so of workers and the poor. I consider myself extremely lucky to know my third great-grandfather’s name at all.

Sì-dīng arrived in Taiwan when it was still a colony of the Qing Dynasty. Taiwan, at that point, had already been colonized several times since the seventeenth century by the Dutch, the Spanish, and Ming loyalist Koxinga. The so-called Great Qing was the islands’ fourth colonizer in over two hundred years, and there were others to come. Sì-dīng, like so many migrant Hakka men, would work in agriculture. There was at least the prospect of something better than what he’d left behind, but life in Taiwan would be hard.

To the Qing, Taiwan was unimportant and its people, Indigenous Taiwanese and Hakka and Hoklo settlers, were an underclass. The empire dealt with the islands begrudgingly and badly, only enough to prevent them from becoming a pirate haven, conspirator incubator, or other threat. Third-rate corrupt officials, sent to Taiwan and left to their own devices, created self-serving systems of bribery, extortion and fraud. There was constant conflict between Indigenous peoples, settlers and Qing administrators which led to many uprisings. Over the two centuries that Taiwan was a Qing colony, it is said there was a major rebellion every five years and minor rebellion every three years.

It’s important to underscore here that because imperial China viewed and treated Taiwan in this discriminatory, disparate way, the islands remained very segregated from “the mainland.” Remember prior to that point, Taiwan had been colonized by multiple others and prior to that, the lands had been stewarded by Indigenous Taiwanese for thousands of years. That means despite adamant claims by the People’s Republic of China (PROC) today that Taiwan is part of China, in fact Taiwan’s history and culture has always been crucially distinct from China’s.

I often say I want to decolonize my Taiwan story which is just a fancy way of saying I want to know who ruled and was ruled, how those things shaped my Taiwanese family, and how they shape me still today. If that’s true, then not only do I need to begin with my third-great grandfather’s migration across the Taiwan strait. I also need to begin with what he stepped into when he arrived on the islands as a Hakka settler and how the strands of his story are still being woven today through his descendants.


Feature image: My son at a Puli temple his A-kong (my father) frequented as a child, photographed in 2020.

© 2022 Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫

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