Saturday, December 1, 2007

Land Acquisition and Loss in the "Forbidden Nation"

As is often the case in Taiwan, history isn't too far removed from the present day. For example, I still bump occasionally into old men who came as soldiers from China to Taiwan with the KMT retreat in 1949, and the island's economy has really only been developed for a couple generations. Another example of this is a family herethat lives right across the street from the big temple (Temples are not just the center for religious affairs in Taiwanese society but also the community center and economic center). In the past the heads of this family built many schools and other construction projects for the community. They were real big whigs. The grandparents on both sides were both part of a disinherited ruling landowner class. How was their property stripped away from them? And how did their ancestors come across it in the first place? These were questions  Jonathan Manthorpe's  Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan helped answer for me.

Chiang Kai-Shek is commonly viewed as the Founding Father of Modern Taiwan, but perhaps a more representative candidate for founding father for Taiwan as it has evolved over the years would be Koxinga, as he is known by his western name. Koxinga was born to a Japanese mother and a Chinese merchant/pirate father in Japan.  Koxinga wasn't the first in his family to come to Taiwan. When his family first came over, it can be said they came as pirates, and in fact Koxinga's military fleet directly evolved from the former pirate fleet.  Later the Cheng  came as legitimate rulers representing the dying embers of the Ming Dynasty. In fact, Koxinga's father was executed by the Manchu for failing to persuade his son to hand over his fleet  (p. 57).

Koxinga lived in Tainan, a little over an hour from where I am living now. In many cultural and historical respects, Tainan is more truly the "capital" of Taiwan than its present capital city of Taipei, which developed only in more recent history. BeiGang, a larger town not to far from where I am living, was the main Chinese coastal village north of Tainan, but it is now well inland due to silting. Koxinga came here at least on one occasion to hold audience with the leaders of the Chinese community, many of whom were guardians of his family's interests.

In order to encourage agricultural development, Koxinga offered free grants of undeveloped land to Chinese who had already come to Taiwan before his army arrived, and to new emigrants as well. Pioneer farmers were exempt from land tax during the 3 years it took to bring plots into production (p. 90). There were other aspects to Koxinga's land development plan as well, but the bottom line was to encourage more Chinese to come over from the mainland. Koxinga's policy of giving land to small farmers came more than 300 years before Sun Yat-sen instituted a similar policy in 1911 (p. 91).

Over time, the society that evolved was, in the rural areas, a patchwork of large landholdings controlled by extended families under the rule of warlords and their household militias. Clashes between these clans over landholdings or crucial water rights were frequent and sometimes developed into feuds that carried on for generations... Throughout society ran the influence of triads, hovering on the cusp between political, Ming dynasty loyalist secret societies and simple criminal gangs (p. 145). They needed to protect family interests. That's why the general area where I am living now is so well-known all over Taiwan for the prevalence of its gangs or "black society".

As recent as 1949, Taiwan still had a largely feudal landholding system under which tracts were owned by wealthy families, with most farmers paying rents as tenants worth from 50 to 70 percent of their crop value. But when the Kuomintang came from China in 1949, they did not own agricultural land and the native Taiwanese landowning class was without influence. So they started a program in 1949 in order to get land for themselves, to distribute it to the have-not's, and most significantly to wipe out the power and authority of their biggest opponents (e.g. the landowners).  To forestall grabs by the rich, the land was sold off in lots of a size suitable to support a family of six. Later, in 1953, the Kuomintang passed a law to require landlords to sell to the government all holdings beyond what they could farm themselves. As a result, at least two million Taiwanese became landowners, farmers' income doubled, and productivity increased by 50% by 1963. The land reform program removed at a stroke the traditional privileges of the gentry class and created a far more equal society. Not everyone was happy, as one former landowner commented in 1960: "The regime will never give its real reason for stealing our land... they wanted to eliminate the power of the landowners because were were the social elite in every community, looked up to by the peasants, and were known" to be politically active. Thus, many of the disinherited offspring of the former landowning class became in later years radical Taiwanese nationalists (p. 202).

The grandparents on both sides of the family mentioned at the beginning of this post were both part of the disinherited ruling landowner class. However, in the years that have passed, my source in the family tells me that what happened way back then has pretty much been accepted with no ill feeling by all parties.

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