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The Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography
Dahpon D. HoDahpon D. HO

Koxinga Zhèng Chénggōng 郑成功 1624–1662—Sea lord, military folk hero and conqueror of Taiwan Alternate names: childhood name: Fukumatsu 福松; courtesy name Zhèng Sēn 郑森 



Zheng Chenggong, better known as Koxinga and nicknamed the “Attila of the East,” was the son of a Chinese sea lord and a Japanese mother. Like his father before him, Koxinga squeezed the East Asian trade routes to supply his military forces, which grew from a few hundred to more than 100,000 soldiers at their peak. Years of mutual slaughter between Koxinga and the new Qing dynasty led the Qing to depopulate the coast to cut off Koxinga’s sources of supply. His conquest of the Dutch colony of Taiwan in 1662 brought the island into Chinese history for the first time, and he remains a controversial hero in both mainland China and Taiwan. Koxinga’s image is split between those who regard him as a hero of Taiwan’s independence from China and those who cite Koxinga as a symbol for Taiwan’s reunification with China.


Koxinga: a sea lord, a pirate king; a half-Japanese marauder and fierce Chinese patriot; an anticolonial hero; a ruthless romantic; a mad tyrant; conqueror of Taiwan; savior and butcher; a benevolent god. Rarely has a historical figure earned such stormy epithets, and in truth all of these contradictory images are vital parts of the man, the myth, and the legend that is Koxinga.

The historical Koxinga left behind no diary and few personal records; what we know comes from scattered sources (mostly from his enemies). Even portrait artists from Europe to Asia never seemed to agree on what he looked like. Still, darkly as we might see him through the glass of time, what a spirited individual he must have been to incite such passions! In his brief thirty-eight years of life, Koxinga ruled a vast maritime trading empire, warred up and down the Chinese coast for fifteen years, and finally defeated the Dutch in one of their largest and richest colonies, Taiwan. Koxinga’s conquest of Taiwan in 1662 brought the island firmly into Chinese history for the first time and became his lasting legacy.

Who was Koxinga, this sea lord, this man for all seasons and storms? We must begin with his family and with a place called Fujian Province. Although Koxinga was born in 1624 in Japan, his destiny was tied to the exploits of his father, Zhèng Zhīlóng 郑芝龙‎ (1604–1661), who was the first sea lord and an ambitious son of a remarkable province of China.

Fujian: The Other China

Fujian was the Portugal of imperial China. This southeastern province (with a land area larger than the country of Portugal) was home to China’s finest sailors and shipwrights. If we look closely at a map of Fujian, its complex coastline is full of coves, bays, and great protective harbors. There are about a thousand islands, big and small, off its shores. A hundred miles (180 kilometers) across the sea lies the great island of Taiwan, which the Portuguese called Ilha Formosa (“beautiful island”).

Historical Fujian, too, was beautiful and green, but life was hard even in the best of times. Fujian had very little farmland (only 7 to 8 percent arable land, including hill terraces) and was densely populated in a narrow strip along the coast. About 90 percent of Fujian was covered by mountains and hills that disrupted landward communications. Thus the people of coastal Fujian had a long history of depending on the sea for their food and livelihood.

Fujianese mariners built and navigated the largest wooden ships in history: the Ming “treasure fleets” that sailed from China to India and Africa from 1405 to 1433. After the Míng 明 dynasty (1368–1644) canceled its great ocean voyages in the fifteenth century, Fujian became known as a rogue province of smugglers and pirates. The coastal Fujianese, especially the Hokkiens (Mǐnnánrén 闽南人‎) of the south, were fiercely independent and defied government efforts to limit their mobility. Most coastal residents made a living from seasonal patterns of fishing, salt making, trading, and raiding. Some sons and daughters of Fujian, however, dreamed bigger and made their own rules. They did not simply sail across the sea—they lived on it until the land came home.

One such intrepid sailor was Zheng Zhilong, leader of the Zheng clan. Zheng was a man of the sea who huckstered, bribed, and battled his way to become a maritime overlord and one of the richest men in the world. All around the rise and fall of this man lay the dizzy world of maritime East Asia in the 1600s. Portuguese fidalgos (noble adventurers), Spanish galleon captains, Jesuit priests, and Dutch rogues, officers, and gentlemen were trying hard to break into this world dominated by Chinese and Japanese networks of trade and piracy. The Europeans soon met their match.

The Sea Lord

During his lifetime, the wily and dashing Zheng Zhilong was also known as Nicholas Iquan, Jasper (or Gaspard), Tei Shiryû, Ytcuam, or even Chinchillón. His many names matched a colorful career. The Spanish missionary Victorio Riccio (1621–1685) called him “Nicolas the apostate, a marvel of human fate, who rose up by most despicable chance to challenge kings and emperors” (Borao Mateo 2001, 586–587).

Zheng Zhilong was born in 1604 into the family of a minor Fujianese bureaucrat. As a teenager, he ran away from his hometown of Anhai and hustled around the docks in the Portuguese enclave of Macao, where he picked up some street Portuguese, a smattering of trade skills, and even a little Catholicism—he was baptized Nicholas Gaspard or Nicholas Iquan, though he never gave up worshipping his own sea gods. Zheng probably first visited Japan around age eighteen (c. 1622) and was captured by pirates, who let him go because he was too pretty and charming to kill. His sweet-talking skills soon served him well. He was taken under the wing of the wealthy Lǐ Dàn 李旦‎ (also known as Captain China, d. 1625), a master con man and leader of the Chinese merchants in Hirado (near Nagasaki in far western Japan).

It was also in Hirado that Zheng Zhilong met and married his first love: Lady Tagawa Matsu 田川松‎, whose name and lineage are disputed but who was possibly the daughter of a low-ranking samurai family. Zheng returned to Fujian to do business, leaving the pregnant Lady Tagawa to bear their child alone in Hirado. In late August (possibly the twenty-eighth) of 1624, the boy was born. Little else is known about the boy’s early life, but storytellers would later spin miraculous yarns about howling storms and a gigantic whale with glowing eyes that leapt from the ocean before Lady Tagawa gave birth on Hirado’s Senrigahama Beach (a stone pillar marks the supposed spot). The boy was given the Japanese childhood name of Fukumatsu 福松‎, officially named Zhèng Sēn 郑森‎, and later renamed Zheng Chenggong—but the world would eventually call him Koxinga.

Meanwhile the proud new father’s star was rising. Zheng Zhilong’s career in the 1620s took him far afield to work for the Dutch VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or East India Company) as a translator, then a privateer, and then an independent pirate. By age twenty-seven, Zheng was popular with the Dutch in Taiwan—who, strangely enough, called him “Daddy.” He learned from early setbacks and clawed his way up from pirate to sea lord, trounced Ming fleets in 1627, defeated a Dutch fleet in 1633, and smashed his last great pirate rival, Liú Xiāng 刘香‎, in 1635. The Ming state tried to buy him out with honors and admiralty. By age thirty-six (c. 1640), only a few years before fall of the Ming dynasty, Zheng Zhilong was the supreme commander of Fujianese military forces and the most important man in Fujian.

As a sea lord, Zheng was a maritime monopolist and an internationalist without equal. Among the sixty thousand men under his command, his loyal Black Guard of hundreds of African musketeers stood out for their size and skill. His fleet combined Fujianese pilots, Dutch muskets, Portuguese cannons, and Japanese steel. Hundreds of ships flying the Zheng flag carried silver, tea, silk, porcelain, guns, and spices across the trading networks from Japan to Southeast Asia. At his hometown of Anhai, Zheng built a personal castle ringed by waterways that allowed ships to sail directly into a special dock beneath his domicile. It was to this magnificent headquarters, in 1630, that he called his wife and firstborn son, whom he had not seen for years. Lady Tagawa was unable to travel but sent the seven-year-old boy on a lonely journey across the seas to Anhai. There, atop the battlements where his family banner fluttered, Zheng Zhilong embraced the young Koxinga for the first time and promised him that this brave new water world would one day be his.


This rich and corrupt world, however, came crashing down in 1644 with the collapse of the Ming empire. The Ming dynasty had been in decline since the mid-1500s, but when it finally fell to domestic rebellion, China was engulfed by decades of war and civil war. Rebels captured the imperial capital of Beijing in 1644, the last Ming emperor committed suicide, and the Manchus (a vigorous frontier people from beyond the Great Wall of China) invaded from the north to build a new empire: the Qīng 清‎(1644–1911/1912). Loyalists fled south to carry on a Southern Ming resistance, and Zheng Zhilong and his province of Fujian were now threatened by dangers on all sides.

At first, Zheng generously supported the Southern Ming loyalists, donating silver and soldiers to prop up the exiled prince Zhū Yùjiàn 朱聿键‎ (1602–1646), who called himself Emperor Lóngwǔ 隆武‎. In gratitude, Emperor Longwu gave Zheng’s firstborn son an honorary adoption into the imperial family, and so the young man was called Guó xìng yè 国姓爷‎ (“Lord of the Imperial Surname), pronounced “Kok-seng-ia” in the Hokkien dialect. The Dutch wrote this down as Cocksinja in 1653 and as Koxinga in 1670, and later English, French, and Spanish writers sought to improve upon it with bastardizations like Coxinga, Coccenyà, Cotsen, Cogseng, Con-seng, Kuesim, Cogsin, Coseng, Kue-sing, Quoesing, Coxiny, Quesin, Cocxima, and even the Latinized form Quaesingus (Keene 1951, 45; Borao Mateo 2001, 584). Zheng Zhilong, the original international man of mystery, would have been proud if he had lived to see his son’s later fame.

Zheng quickly became disillusioned with the pompous Southern Ming ministers who wanted to rush into a reckless crusade against the Qing invaders. Was he now to throw away his naval and marine forces as cannon fodder? Would it not be more prudent to use Fujian’s advantages in seaborne commerce to finance a network of strongholds in south China, contain the Qing onslaught, and plan a future counteroffensive, perhaps with the help of potential foreign allies like the Japanese, Portuguese, and Dutch? So Zheng argued in 1645, but his advice fell on deaf ears.

Then, in September 1646, Emperor Longwu and his court of quixotic ministers charged inland and were captured and killed. Zheng played no small role in this fiasco, since he had already withdrawn his border guards and decided to abandon the Ming court to its fate. The Qing forces, represented by Manchu Prince Bolo 博洛‎, made Zheng a grand offer: Fujian would be spared the horrors of war, and Zheng would be made viceroy of the seaboard provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. On 21 November 1646, Zheng accepted and traveled to Fuzhou (the capital of Fujian) to offer his fealty to the Manchus.

Some hostile commentators (who can be very brave by proxy) have been quick to label Zheng a traitor to his country and his race. His own son Koxinga begged him not to join the Qing empire, saying that “a tiger cannot leave the mountain; a fish cannot leave the water,” to which Zheng retorted that Koxinga was a mere boy who knew nothing of power and politics (Jiang 2004, 71–72). Koxinga had grown up with wealth, education, and honor by dint of his father’s power as sea lord; he had not seen the ugliness of the world that his father had fought so hard to master. When Zheng had hugged the seven-year-old Koxinga for the first time atop Anhai castle, he had not been able to explain to his son just what it had taken to build it all.

KoxingaClick to view larger

Portrait of Koxinga. Portraits of him disagree on what, exactly, he looked like. He was an heir to the maritime power structure built by his father, Zheng Zhilong.

Zheng Zhilong had been a risk taker all his life, but this last gamble tore his family apart. Koxinga pledged loyalty to the Southern Ming; a powerful nephew named Zhèng Cǎi 郑彩‎ also held off; and Zheng Zhilong’s trusted brother Zhèng Hóngkuí 郑鸿逵‎ (alias Zhīfèng 芝凤‎) deserted him by putting out to sea with a good part of the fleet. These betrayals crippled Zheng’s bargaining power, and Prince Bolo became suspicious that the sea lord was playing both sides in the Ming-Qing war. After days of hard feasting and hard drinking in Fuzhou, Prince Bolo abruptly ordered his soldiers to seize Zheng Zhilong. Too late, Zheng cried out to his faithful African musketeers, his Black Guards; many were cut down as they tried to rescue their lord, singing the name of St. James (who was their patron saint after they converted to Catholicism while enslaved by the Portuguese) as they fell (Boxer 1941, 437). Zheng was dragged to Beijing under armed guard; he would never see his homeland or the sea again.

Koxinga’s Crusade

All of this, of course, only confirmed for Koxinga and the rest of the Zheng clan that the Manchus had planned treachery all along. (It did not occur to them—or they did not admit it to themselves—that their betrayals had helped to seal the downfall of Zheng Zhilong.) Not long after abandoning his father, Koxinga tragically lost his mother, who had finally joined him in China in 1645 only to commit suicide in early 1647 when Qing troops overran southern Fujian. Koxinga swore revenge against the Qing and seized control of the clan after a violent struggle for authority with his uncles and cousins. This was no mean feat for a man who was only twenty-two at the time of his father’s fall and his mother’s death, but Koxinga was a zealot who literally whipped his men into shape. By about 1651, at the age of twenty-seven, he overpowered his rivals and took complete control of the Zheng enterprise.

Over the next decade, Koxinga rebuilt his father’s empire into a complex organization that warred for stockpiles and stockpiled for long-term war. To his father’s musketeers, fireships, and men-of-war, Koxinga added cannoneers, pikemen, and a class of “iron men”—fearsome fighters clad from head to knees in bulletproof steel plate and wielding those polearms that the Dutch called “soap knives”: battle swords lashed to staves as long as a man. These last iron giants were marvels to friends and foes alike and were said to be the strongest men in Fujian. Nationalist Japanese writers (both historical and dramatic) of the nineteenth and twentieth century would promote a different myth: the “iron men” must have been Japanese samurai, not Chinese soldiers, rallying behind the half-Japanese Koxinga.

Like his father before him, Koxinga squeezed the China–Japan–Southeast Asia trade routes to supply his military forces, which grew from a few hundred to more than 100,000 soldiers at their peak. His sailors also terrorized and looted coastal residents for grain and money. Trained by Zheng Zhilong and whipped by Koxinga, the seamen of Fujian were nearly indomitable in their own element.

From 1651 to 1654, Koxinga’s armies attacked major ports and blockaded the cities of central and southern Fujian. In 1657, Koxinga sent a fleet of some five thousand ships and sixty thousand men northward to probe the coastal defenses of Zhejiang Province and the Yangzi (Chang) Delta region (near present-day Shanghai), the richest areas in China. And then, in the campaigns of 1658–1659, Koxinga’s armada burst out of Fujian in an audacious strike at the economic heartland of the Qing empire.

His goal was Nanjing, the traditional southern capital of China, and Koxinga wanted an epochal showdown. Confident, even arrogant now, Koxinga moved deliberately and slowly so that the final battle would be as big as possible. With over eighty-five thousand infantry and a total invasion force numbering probably between 150,000 and 200,000, Koxinga felt that time was on his side. The Qing defenders barricaded the wide mouth of the Yangzi (the third longest river in the world) with massive chains, shipwrecks, cannon barges, and shore guns. Despite this, Koxinga’s assault smashed through the Qing defenses in what was no doubt one of the largest amphibious maneuvers of the seventeenth century.

On 24 August 1659, the invasion force arrived at the high walls of Nanjing, and Koxinga seemed within an ace of a huge symbolic victory. Instead he made the blunder of his career: for two weeks, presuming that Nanjing would surrender to his overwhelming numbers, Koxinga did not launch any serious attacks. His generals urged him to storm the city immediately, but Koxinga took his time and even allowed his troops to celebrate his birthday by drinking themselves into oblivion. To his dismay, on 9 September, Qing soldiers charged out of Nanjing, bolstered by fresh cavalry and crack reinforcements. Koxinga’s troops were routed, his navy was kept busy transporting the surviving troops to safety, and Gān Huī 甘辉‎, his best general and friend, was captured and killed. Koxinga wept.

The sea lord returned to his headquarters at Amoy Island (present-day Xiamen) in Fujian in October 1660. Morale had been damaged by the debacle at Nanjing, and the pressing concern was to defend against an imminent Qing counterstrike. “The island is a gunshot away, separating the sea from the dry land of this empire,” wrote Victorio Riccio, who led the small Amoy church in the 1660s (Borao Mateo 2001, 589). On 17 June 1660, the Qing navy attacked. “Thus broke out the fiercest and most dreadful battle ever fought in the Orient seas,” wrote Riccio, our eyewitness:

This terrible struggle made the sea turn blood red, with the dead and the dying. … Masts snapped in two, destroying ships; there was a heavy rain of arrows; lances and cannons fell; mountains of fire exploded. Combatants howled, the dying cried out; there was the chaotic blare of bugles, the rumble of war drums, the clanging of bassinets; add to this the volley of gunfire. It was a picture of a real life hell, filled with repulsive fumes, desperate screams and grotesque and frightful confusion of men. (Borao Mateo 2001, 597)

Koxinga’s forces beat back the attack, and for weeks the beaches of Amoy were littered with rotting bodies and wreckage. Koxinga challenged the Qing to do better next time; but in truth, Koxinga knew that his offshore bases could not hold out forever. He needed a stronger, safer base, and he set his eyes on the big island across the sea where his father had once worked: Taiwan.

Lonely Are the Brave

In 1660, while Koxinga was making his decision to conquer Taiwan, his father’s house arrest in Beijing went from bad to worse. The Qing government had repeatedly tried to negotiate with Koxinga from 1647 to 1654, sending gifts and offering noble ranks and coastal territories in Fujian if he would peacefully submit; and as a show of good faith, Zheng Zhilong had been treated courteously and given freedom to write letters to his son. When the talks broke down in 1654, Zheng Zhilong was imprisoned and pitiably chained—cold, alone, and destitute.

Koxinga’s defeat at Nanjing in 1659 turned the tide of the war, and this time it was Koxinga’s turn to send an emissary to Beijing to negotiate—but the Qing court was no longer willing to compromise. At last, the court ruled that Zheng Zhilong should die.

Differing accounts claimed that Zheng was cruelly sliced to death, or that he was killed by a saber blow, or that he was poisoned. A Spanish work offered an explosive hypothesis: Zheng was “blown to the skies by gunpowder with all his men, to fall miserably into hell. A death well deserved for his atrocious faults and sins, and specially for having apostatized from the Holy Faith that he professed in Baptism” (Borao Mateo 2001, 588). More likely he was simply strangled or beheaded, quickly and without ado. No doubt Zheng’s persona, “like that of his more famous son, was of such interest that people chose to invent incidents rather than state the insufficient facts known to them” (Keene 1951, 65).

KoxingaClick to view larger

Painting of Koxinga by the seventeenth-century painter Huang Zi.

National Museum of China.

On 24 November 1661, Zheng and eleven family members, including two sons, were removed from their prison cells and executed in Beijing. Few mourned him; some reviled him; most had neither sympathy nor time for grief. But Ruǎn Mínxī 阮旻锡, who served by Koxinga’s side, recorded the young sea lord’s reaction. Near the end of 1661, while locked in combat with the Dutch in Taiwan, Koxinga heard the news of his father’s death. “He shouted that it must be a false rumor, but in the middle of the night he sobbed with grief, and thereafter he passed his days in sorrow” (Ruan 1982, 47). The boy who had hugged his father for the first time atop Anhai castle, who had grown under his father’s stern but twinkling eyes—and who became a hardened thirty-seven-year-old patriot who denounced his father for the sake of a dying cause—had never really forgotten the most important man in his life.

Last Conquest

Many of Koxinga’s generals protested the move to attack Taiwan. They wanted to attack west, not east, and they were reluctant to leave their familiar home coast for an island that had never officially been part of China. Most had never been to Taiwan. But Koxinga’s stubbornness and choler were legendary, and he had made up his mind.

Qing moves also forced his hand. Fifteen years of mutual slaughter and rapine between Koxinga and the Qing had convinced the Qing government to take a drastic measure: to depopulate the coast and cut off Koxinga’s sources of supply. Experiments in the forced evacuation of coastal towns in late 1660 grew into a scorched earth policy known as “coastal depopulation” (qiānjiè lìng 迁界令‎), which lasted from 1661 to 1683. Fujian was the main target of this policy, but other coastal provinces suffered as more than fifteen hundred kilometers of coastline were laid to waste, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed or burned out of their homes.

Koxinga’s growing supply problems and the loss of coastal allies hardened his resolve for the Taiwan campaign. On 21 April 1661, he assembled his fleet of hundreds of ships and twenty-five thousand men and embarked. A storm nearly upset the expedition midway, but Koxinga pushed defiantly through the downpour, saying that Heaven was on his side. What later commentators saw as Koxinga’s faith in Heaven was really a calculated knowledge of the waters, as Koxinga rushed to reach the Bay of Taiwan (present-day Tainan City) in time for the spring tide. On 30 April, Koxinga’s ships arrived and safely crossed the shallow Deer’s Ear Gap (Lù’ěrmén 鹿耳门‎) into the Bay of Taiwan, thanks to the high tide.

The two forts in Taiwan, Zeelandia and Provintia, could not prevent the landing, but the 1,200 Dutch soldiers grimly prepared for war. For nine months the two sides were locked in battles, yelling, bluffing, and intermittent diplomacy. The most serious battle was hunger, as Koxinga’s large army lacked the food supplies to carry a long campaign so far from home. Both the Chinese attackers and the besieged Dutch suffered from malnutrition, scurvy, beriberi (a nutritional deficiency common in areas where polished rice is the staple diet), malaria, and other ailments (Andrade 2011, 188–193).

The war’s outcome turned on the questions of supply, leadership, and technology. The Dutch held some technological advantages but squandered them with poor leadership. During the first shots of the war, the bombastic Captain Thomas Pedel sallied forth with 240 musketeers, calling the Chinese effeminate cowards and believing that one Dutchman was worth more than twenty-five Chinese combined. Instead, it was the famed Dutch soldiers who dropped their guns and ran in panic as the Chinese officers outsmarted and smashed Pedel’s company. Governor Frederick Coyet ordered a foolish naval attack that was equally beaten by Chinese tactics. For his part, Koxinga’s numerical advantage was plagued by logistical problems and starvation; furthermore, although Koxinga captured Fort Provintia, he was stymied by the strong renaissance fortress at Fort Zeelandia, which withstood his siege for nine bitter months (Andrade 2011).

In the end, Koxinga’s adaptability won him the war. “Within a nine-month span, he learned siege tactics that had taken Europeans centuries to perfect,” and although this required help from European defectors, it was Koxinga’s willingness to listen that truly distinguished him from the Dutch, who had not heeded Chinese advice (Andrade 2011, 325–326). The final battle of 25 January 1662 ended with Koxinga’s capture of a strategic hill that forced Fort Zeelandia into submission. On the evening of 1 February 1662, Frederick Coyet signed a treaty of surrender to Koxinga. They were allowed to sail away unmolested, leaving behind their castle, their treasure, and their colony.

Koxinga had been born in 1624, the same year that the Dutch began building their Taiwan colony. Thirty-eight years later, he took it. He did not know that this victory would be his last.

King of Taiwan

On 23 June 1662, barely seven months after his father’s death, Koxinga perished in Taiwan. Many accounts claimed that he went mad and clawed at his own face; others pointed to fever. Plans were left undone. He had just begun to build his new capital in Taiwan. He had just threatened to conquer the Spanish colony in the Philippines. He had also issued orders to execute his oldest son, Zhèng Jīng 郑经‎ (1641–1681), on charges of incest, but his orders were disobeyed. He still dreamed of retaking Fujian.

Like his father’s case, Koxinga’s death inspired fanciful and hyperbolic stories. But whether he died of madness, rage, malaria, syphilis, overwork, a severe cold, or grief, by biting off his own tongue or gnawing off his fingers, or haunted by the ghosts of slain enemies (Keene 1951, 68–75), Koxinga’s untimely death at age thirty-eight was a turning point. A succession struggle erupted and nearly tore the Zheng clan in pieces. Zheng Jing, the oldest son of Koxinga, won the power struggle in 1663 and secured himself in Taiwan, where he focused on making Taiwan a wealthy and independent kingdom and elevating Koxinga as the island’s dynastic founder. Agents of the British East India Company signed a trade contract in 1670 with Zheng Jing, the “King of Tywan,” taking special care to tell him, “wee would have your Majesty know, that wee are Englishmen and a distinct Nation from Hollanders—some people of which Nation about ten years since were driven out of your Land by his Majesty your Renowned Father” (Campbell 1903, 501).

Zheng Jing made one last hurrah during the massive Rebellion of the Three Feudatories (1673–1681). His forces returned to the Chinese coast and captured territories in Fujian, but six years of seesaw warfare ended in smoke when Qing armies drove the sea lord off the Chinese coast once more. In 1680, Zheng Jing sailed back to Taiwan in defeat and fell into wine, women, and song—and finally perished in 1681.

In July 1683 the Qing government resolved to end the conflict by sending Admiral Shī Láng 施琅‎ (1621–1696), who had once served in Koxinga’s navy, with a Qing armada to defeat the Zheng forces in Taiwan. Shi Lang won the sea battle, and on 8 October, Zheng Jing’s teenage son Zhèng Kèshuǎng 郑克爽‎ (1669–1707) formally surrendered to Qing rule. The mainland coast was reopened to trade, and the island was absorbed into the Qing empire as part of Fujian Province. Taiwan had become Chinese.

Contested Memory

Once upon a time, “every Dutch schoolchild learned that in 1662 the cruel pirate Coxinga robbed his [or her] ancestors of their beautiful colony, Formosa” (Blussé 1981, 90). By contrast, Chinese schoolchildren learned that the great hero Koxinga expelled the evil Dutch and recovered Taiwan for the motherland. These are but pieces in the roller coaster of Koxinga’s memory.

KoxingaClick to view larger

Image (1850) based on the 1715 play The Battles of Coxinga by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Koxinga is the figure on the far left.

Koxinga was first admired by the Ming loyalists, and after he was safely dead even his former Qing enemies honored his bravery. In 1875, the Qing emperor officially renamed him a “paragon of loyalty” (zhōngjié 忠节‎). Local shrines and temples in Fujian and Taiwan burned incense to Koxinga, who had become a very god. Koxinga’s fame in Japan flowered in the eighteenth century when the puppet play Kokusenya kassen (The Battles of Coxinga) by Chikamatsu Monzaemon 近松門左衛門‎ (1653–1725) made him a tragic hero. Pictures of Watonai 和藤内‎ (Koxinga’s name in Japanese) taming tigers became a popular artistic trope. When Japan conquered Taiwan and ruled it from 1895 to 1945, Koxinga’s half-Japanese heritage helped legitimize Japan’s colonial rule; when China reclaimed Taiwan in 1945, Koxinga’s Chinese identity was emphasized. People in southern Fujian disdained such crude national attempts to claim him: he was their own Fujianese folk hero.

The historical waters are further muddied by the legacy of the Chinese civil war (1945–1949) between the Nationalists and the Communists. When Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek 蒋介石‎ (1887–1975) was defeated in China and retreated to Taiwan with a million troops and loyalists, the parallels with Koxinga were striking. Chiang Kai-shek resolved to his dying day that he would fight his way back to the mainland. His successors developed Taiwan into an economic success story, and today Taiwan remains a thriving and self-governing democracy. Consequently, Koxinga’s image is split between those who regard him as a hero of Taiwan’s independence from China (the “Father of Taiwan”) and those who cite Koxinga as a symbol for Taiwan’s reunification with China. The mainland Chinese government maintains that Koxinga planted the flag and that Taiwan will forever be part of the motherland.

As if to drive home the point, a gigantic stone statue of Koxinga stands today in Xiamen, China, looking eastward toward Taiwan. Meanwhile, in the ruins of Fort Zeelandia in Tainan City, Taiwan, a modest sculpture of the god-king gazes benignly on all worshippers, including high school students and their parents, who pray to him for success in the grueling college entrance examinations. In 2012, China and Taiwan celebrated the 350th anniversary of Koxinga’s conquest of Taiwan—each in its own way.

Warped memories of Koxinga as a political symbol will likely continue, as will Asian movies and dramas that celebrate and twist his memory. And are they wrong? During his lifetime, Koxinga cultivated a romantic image of passionate intensity and manifest destiny; after his death, the mythmaking continued. To remove the stories is to remove half of his living memory. As the historian Tonio Andrade has said, “It’s impossible to resist the dramatic stories about him because his life was dramatic” (Andrade 2011, 60).

Loved or hated, the man, myth, and legend endure because people choose to see what they want to see in the mercurial hero, Koxinga.

Dahpon D. HO

University of Rochester


Andrade, Tonio. (2011). Lost colony: The untold story of China’s first great victory over the West. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Andrade, Tonio. (2008). How Taiwan became Chinese: Dutch, Spanish, and Han colonization in the seventeenth century. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Blussé, Leonard. (1981). The VOC as sorcerer’s apprentice: Stereotypes and social engineering on the China coast. In W. L. Idema (Ed.), Leyden studies in sinology (pp. 87–105). Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.Find this resource:

Borao Mateo, José Eugenio. (Ed.). (2001). Spaniards in Taiwan: Documents, vol. II, 1642–1682. Taipei, Taiwan: SMC Publishing Inc.Find this resource:

Boxer, Charles R. (1941). The Rise and fall of Nicholas Iquan (Cheng Chi-Lung). T’ien-hsia Monthly, 11, 5, 401–439.Find this resource:

Campbell, William. (1903). Formosa under the Dutch: Described from contemporary records, with explanatory notes and a bibliography of the island. London: Kegan Paul.Find this resource:

Clements, Jonathan. (2005). Coxinga and the fall of the Ming dynasty. Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton Publishing.Find this resource:

Croizier, Ralph C. (1977). Koxinga and Chinese nationalism: History, myth, and the hero. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Jiang Risheng 江日昇‎. (2004). Taiwan waiji 台湾外志‎(外记‎) [Historical novel of Taiwan] (Liu Wentai 刘文泰‎, Ed.). Jinan, China: Jilu shushe. (Original work published 1700s)Find this resource:

Keene, Donald. (1951). The battles of Coxinga: Chikamatsu’s puppet play, its background and importance. London: Taylor’s Foreign Press.Find this resource:

Ruan Minxi 阮旻锡‎. (1982). Haishang jianwenlu dingben 海上见闻录定本‎ [Personal record of the maritime resistance] (Xiamen Zheng Chenggong jinianguan, Ed.). Fuzhou, China: Fujian renmin chubanshe.Find this resource:

Struve, Lynn A. (1984). The Southern Ming, 1644–1662. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

Tang Jintai 湯錦台‎. (2002). Kaiqi Taiwan diyiren Zheng Zhilong 開啟台灣第‎一人鄭芝龍‎ [Zheng Zhilong: The pioneer of Taiwan]. Taipei, Taiwan: Guoshi.Find this resource:

Terao Yoshio 寺尾善雄‎. (1986). Minmatsu no fūunji tei seikō 明末の風雲児鄭成功‎ [Koxinga: Last hero of the Ming]. Tokyo: Tōhō Shoten.Find this resource:

Wakeman, Frederic, Jr. (1985). The great enterprise: The Manchu reconstruction of imperial order in seventeenth-century China (Vols. 1–2). Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Wills, John E., Jr. (1974). Pepper, guns, and parleys: The Dutch East India Company and China, 1622–1681. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Yang Ying 楊英‎. (1995 [1968]). Congzheng shilu 從征實錄‎ [Records in the service of Koxinga, by Yang Ying, Chief Financial Officer] (Taiwan Wenxian Congkan 32, Rep.). Taipei, Taiwan: Taiwan sheng wenxian weiyuanhui.Find this resource: