Category Archives: Asia
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
Every so often a woman takes up arms to lead a spirited struggle against invaders and occupiers of her homeland. Such women usually wind up dead at an early age, but they capture the imagination. The most famous example in British history is Boudica, aka Boedicea; in French history, it is Joan of Arc.
The Taiwanese revolutionary Hsieh Hsüeh-hung （1901-1970）is such a figure, although like most aspects of Taiwan’s history her significance is contested. Born in Taiwan, buried in Beijing, Hsieh was a communist and also an advocate of Taiwanese self-determination. In the history of world communism she is noted for being one of the founders of the Taiwanese Communist Party, established in 1928.
In the annals of the Taiwan independence movement, Hsieh has emerged as a heroine of the 1947 uprising, now the subject of an annual commemoration held in Taiwan in 28 February. In 1948 she founded the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government Alliance.
Hsieh Hsüeh-hung’s fate – in life and in death – was determined by the shifts in attitude towards Taiwanese independence on the part of ruling powers, and by the status of its local left-wing movements. To some degree, she is not so much a woman hidden in history as one rendered visible by it.
Blood on the snow
Hsieh was a child of the Japanese empire. In 1894, seven years before her birth, Japan defeated China in a short war at sea, afterwards demanding Taiwan as part of the post-war settlement. It was to be the sovereign power in the island for the next half-century.
Hsieh’s parents were immigrants from Fujian province, the most common source of settlers in Taiwan. The family was poor. Hsieh was sent into service in a Japanese family at the age of eight. At 12, she was sold into a shopkeeper’s family to be raised as their daughter-in-law.
In an early show of feistiness, she ran away when in her teens, finding work initially in a Japanese sugar factory in Tainan and later, in her home-town of Chang-hua, as a representative for Singer sewing machines. As an extremely young person, she was exposed to the impact of international capitalism on her home turf, and to extremes of social inequality.
To these experiences, she added a growing political awareness. In Chang-hua she formed a relationship with a merchant named Chang Shu-min, to whom she was married for some years. The couple lived for around three years in Japan, where she began to acquire an education, learning to read and write in both Japanese and Chinese. Both there and back in Taiwan she came in contact with politically progressive organisations.
In April 1919, she paid her first visit to the Chinese mainland, staying in Qingdao, which at that time was about to be transferred from German to Japanese control under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, sparking the radicalising May Fourth Movement in China.
When she returned in 1925 it was to Shanghai, where she enrolled in Shanghai University – more like a cadre training school than an academy and dominated by Communist Party members. Together with fellow-Taiwanese Lin Mushu she was there recommended for acceptance at the Far Eastern Toilers’ University in Moscow, where they were groomed to set up the Taiwanese Communist Party.
The Taiwanese Communist Party was formally established on 5 April 1928. Its charter was the Taiwanese as a people or nation (minzu), and its slogan was “long live Taiwan independence.” The Chinese Communist Party early on took a similar view. In Mao’s stated opinion (circa 1936), Taiwan’s relationship to China was comparable to Korea’s. For Hsieh, there was no contradiction between the fight for socialism and the fight for Taiwan’s independence.
If being Taiwanese was one driving force in her political life, being a woman was another. At birth she was registered with the name A-nü, or “girlie,” not really a name at all.
From this assigned anonymity she became a vivid presence in history under the name “Hsüeh-hung”, meaning “the snow turns red”. She took the name, it is said, after seeing a worker’s blood spattered on the snow in Qingdao.
As a communist cadre, she was active in peasant and worker associations, but she took a rather independent view of the position of women in Taiwan. In 1930, she pointed to women’s emancipation movements in the Western bourgeoisie as worthy of emulation by Taiwanese women, with equal participation in political life among the goals. It is easy to see how in later years such views would land her in trouble with the Chinese Communist Party.
A born oppositionist
The 1920s were the decade of Hsieh’s political formation. Thereafter till her death in 1970 she was in conflict with three different regimes. To her cost, she was a born oppositionist.
The first of these regimes was the Japanese colonial government in Taiwan, the target of all political opposition movements in the island. In the context of a rising fascism in the Japanese home islands, the authorities conducted a sweep of Taiwan’s communist activists in 1931. This destroyed the Taiwanese party. Arrested, imprisoned, and subsequently sentenced on charges of threats to public security, Hsieh spent the next nine years in jail.
The Japanese were replaced in 1945 by China’s Nationalist Party, which established a heavy-handed administration on the island, thoroughly alienating the locals. On 27 February 1947 a conflict between tax agents and a cigarette dealer met with protests. A brutal crackdown on 28 February led to an island-wide uprising that was eventually suppressed with great violence.
The insurgency unfolded in various ways across the island. In Taichung, near to her hometown on the central west coat, Hsieh, a known activist and political organiser, chaired a protest rally calling for self-government and played a key role in dismantling Nationalist Party authority in the city.
Taichung’s few days of independence are associated with three principles set down by her: protect mainlanders; protect public property; place weapons “in the hands of the people”.
Her name is also connected with the formation of the Twenty-Seventh Militia Corps, an armed force of 4,000 men meant to provide organised defence against the Nationalist forces. Between the things she actually did and the things she was blamed for doing, a legend grew up around her. With the collapse of the resistance on 9 May, a price was put on her head, and she fled the island.
The last part of Hsieh’s life, a period of more than 20 years, was passed entirely on the mainland, where unaccountably she found herself in conflict with yet a third regime, the Chinese Communist Party. Present with other communist leaders at the declaration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, she was appointed to a number of official positions in the early 1950s, including chair of the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government Alliance.
The honeymoon was short-lived. She modified her position on Taiwanese independence to accommodate new political realities in the region, but never quite to the Party’s satisfaction. In 1952 she was attacked for lack of humility before the Party and for murky political thinking in relation to Taiwan.
In 1957 she was attacked again, and declared a “rightist”, losing her positions and her party membership. In the Cultural Revolution, she was attacked once more, this time physically. A photo provided to her biographer, now widely published on the internet, shows her in the hands of Red Guards in 1968. She died in Beijing in 1970, of lung cancer.
Emotionally, Hsieh shared most of her life and her mission with fellow-Taiwanese Yang K’o-huang, who was imprisoned with her in 1931, worked with her in a small business during the war years, and accompanied her to the mainland. The couple were never legally married: Yang had another family. But in the People’s Republic of China they lived together through the few good years and the many bad until her death. Her final words to him were that he should maintain the struggle: “the final victory will go to the people of Taiwan.”
In 1986, the Party decided to rehabilitate Hsieh. A short biographical statement written for the rehabilitation formalities included mention of her “deviations and errors” but conceded that she had “opposed invasion by outsiders” and had shown a spirit of struggle for “the realisation of the unification of the ancestral land.”
Left unchallenged, the rehabilitation statement might have defined her legacy. In 1991, however, a biography of her appeared in Taiwan. The author, long-time political dissident Chen Fang-ming, offered readers a portrait of Hsieh as a life-long champion of Taiwanese self-determination, whose tenacity and courage in face of political persecution put male political actors of her generation to shame. Widely read and influential, this biography effectively reclaimed Hsieh for Taiwan.
The history of the spice trade conjures up exotic images of caravans plying the Silk Road in storied antiquity as well as warfare between European powers vying for control of what, pound for pound, were among the most valuable commodities in the known world.
One of the most valuable of the spices was clove – the versatile immature bud of the evergreen clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum) which is native to the Maluku Islands or the Moluccas in the Indonesian Archipelago. Prized for its flavour and aroma, and also for its medicinal qualities, clove quickly became important for its use as a breath freshener, perfume and food flavouring.
We believe we might have found the oldest clove in the world at an excavation in Sri Lanka, from an ancient port which dates back to around 200BC. This port, Mantai, was one of the most important ports of medieval Sri Lanka and drew trade from across the ancient world. Not only that, but we also found evidence for black pepper (Piper nigrum), another high-value low-bulk product of the ancient spice trade.
Western knowledge of Sri Lanka dates back to at least 77AD, when the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote about the island as Taprobane in his famous Natural History. This is the earliest existing text which mentions Sri Lanka, however Pliny states that the ancient Greeks (and Alexander the Great) had long known about it.
Sri Lanka, wrote Pliny “is more productive of gold and pearls of great size than even India”, as well as having “elephants … larger, and better adapted for warfare than those of India”. Fruits were abundant and the people had more wealth than the Romans – as well as living to 100 years old. No wonder then, that ancient Sri Lanka drew trade ships not only from the Roman world, but also from Arabia, India and China.
Decades of archaeological exploration has sought to uncover evidence for the rich kingdoms of ancient Sri Lanka. Mantai (also written as Manthai and known as Manthottam/Manthota), on the northern tip of the island, was one of the port settlements of the Anuradhapura Kingdom (377BC to 1017AD) and has been recently radiocarbon dated to between about 200BC and 1400AD.
Today, the site is barely visible from the ground – but it is still an important location with Thirukketheesvaram temple sitting in the centre of the ancient settlement. From the air, the defensive ditch and banks of ancient Mantai can be seen covered in trees, as can the area where the defences were cut away to build the modern road.
The site was excavated in the 1980s – during three seasons of excavation an amazing array of artefacts were uncovered, including semiprecious stone beads and ceramics from India, Arabia, the Mediterranean and China. But in 1983 Sri Lanka’s civil war broke out, bringing an end to archaeological exploration in the Northern Province, as well as many other areas of the island. Unfortunately, many of the records related to this archaeological work became lost or were destroyed, including detailed stratigraphic information of how the layers of soil excavated related to one another, which would have been used to identify how and when the site developed, prospered and came to an end.
In 2009-2010, after the end of the civil war, a multinational team of researchers went back to Mantai and began new excavations. Work was jointly carried out by the Sri Lankan Department of Archaeology, SEALINKS and the UCL Institute of Archaeology. This project aimed to collect as much evidence from these excavations as possible, including fully quantified and systematically collected archaeobotanical (preserved plant) remains. The plants remains recovered include some of the most exciting finds from the site. Crucially, these include what were incredibly valuable spices at the time when they were deposited at the site: black pepper and cloves.
Only a handful of cloves have previously been recovered from archaeological sites, including these from France, for example – other archaeological evidence for cloves, such as pollen from cess pits in the Netherlands, only dates from 1500AD onwards – and there are no examples from South Asia.
Earlier finds of clove have been reported from Syria – but these have since largely been discredited as misidentifications. The clove from Mantai was found in a context dating to 900-1100AD, making this not only the oldest clove in Asia – but we think the oldest in the world.
We also found eight grains of black pepper at Mantai, plus a further nine badly preserved grains that we think are probably black pepper too. The earliest are dated to around 600AD, the time when international maritime trade became increasingly large and well established across Asia, Africa and Europe.
Clove was one of the rarest and most expensive spices in the Roman and Medieval world. It was not grown in Sri Lanka, but came from the Maluku Islands of South-East Asia (some 7,000km away by sea) for trade onwards to Europe, China or one of the other many regions that traded with Mantai.
Black pepper was also traded along these routes, and was most likely grown and harvested in the Western Ghats of India. Although less rare and valuable than clove, it was still known as “black gold” on account of its value in the Early Modern Period from 1500AD to about 1800AD.
From the 16th century, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) was colonised by various European powers, from the Portuguese (1500s-1600s) to the Dutch (1600s-late 1700s) to the British (late 1700s-1948). They were all drawn by the island’s profitable trade in spices – although the British turned the fledgling coffee industry there into an incredibly lucrative tea trade which is still important to the island’s economy to this day.
But, whether or not the cloves we unearthed at Mantai turn out to be the oldest in existence, the presence of the spice at this 2,000-year-old site is solid evidence of the ancient spice trade that existed long before these wars of conquest.
In 1635, María, a slave woman from the Indian sub-continent living in the Spanish-controlled Philippine Islands, enters the historical record. We know that women as well as men were involved in forced movements like María’s around the region but historical documentation about their lives is rarely available.
María was owned by an artilleryman named Francisco de Nava who was then living in Manila. In 1635, the city’s archbishop, Don Hernando Guerrero, began an investigation into, in the words of the contemporary documents, “illicit communication” between the two.
Nava explained that they had an understanding. “He had brought [María] from India, saying that he was going to marry her, as he had taken her while she was a maiden”.
This was, in his eyes at least, a contract for her virginity: María would gain a respectable marriage in exchange for her sexual labour.
A slave’s autonomy
However, the evidence surrounding this case suggests María had other ideas. She “left the house, going to that of Juan de Aller, a kinsman of Doña Maria de Francia, wife of Don Pedro de Corcuera, whom she asked to buy her.”
A contemporary report noted that “the slave girl said that she preferred to belong to another” than to be Nava’s wife.
Maria de Francia, an influential woman who was the wife of the governor’s nephew, “became fond of her” and sought to buy María from Nava, with support from the archbishop.
Female slaves such as María were vulnerable to the sexual expectations of their masters and as migrants, they generally had few familial or other social networks to assist or protect them.
How did María attract the attention and sympathy of powerful local citizens to assist her? She had managed to engage ecclesiastical authorities and elite women in her plight, who were prepared to step in, in order to instil Catholic moral values.
The sexual behaviour of women and men in Manila was of great concern to Spanish secular and ecclesiastical officials. The city was a known trading centre for slaves but Spanish authorities were anxious about the “many offenses to God” that took place between female slaves, in particular, and men in the city.
In 1608, King Felipe III had outlawed the “evil” of the passage of female slaves aboard vessels, but the practice continued. In November 1635, the governor, Don Sebastian Hurtado de Corcuera, once again complained about the “great license and looseness of life” in Manila.
María’s case may thus have offered authorities an opportunity to discipline the wider population and reinforce moral expectations. They were willing to recognise a slave woman’s capacity to resist sexual exploitation, although not, it seems, a right to freedom from slavery itself.
At María’s departure, Nava was reportedly “so beside himself over the loss of the said slave that he refused to sell her at any price, saying that he wished, on the contrary, to marry her.”
But there were other stories circulating that complicated his narrative. The governor, for example, reported that Nava “had said the year before that he had been married in Nueva España.” Could his marrying María be even legally possible?
Still, Nava went to de Francia’s house, “to request that they should give him the slave,” whereupon he was beaten and placed in the stocks.
His reaction to the loss of María was perceived by onlookers as excessive, and shortly afterwards, an order was given that he should be treated as if he were mad.
On Sunday, 8 August 1635, at three in the afternoon, María was passing by in the street in a carriage with her new mistress. Nava approached them, asking María if she recognised him as her master.
Interestingly, one account provides another hint of a possible assertion of autonomy in María’s actions: “The slave answered him with some independence”, it was reported. But María’s precise words were not considered worthy of note for the historical record.
The encounter ended tragically for María. “Blind with anger,” Nava “drew his dagger in the middle of the street and killed her by stabbing her, before anyone could prevent it.”
Nava was condemned to death. On 6 September 1635 he was executed on gallows raised at the site where María had been killed, in front of the San Agustin Church.
This is not a celebratory history, for María’s life ended abruptly. We don’t know what María looked like or how she felt about her plight except through her actions as they were recorded by others. What we do know about her comes from documents created by Nava’s crime.
But these documents provide small insights into the experiences of displaced and marginal women who are typically among the most silent in the archives.
They reveal María’s forms of agency and resistance — not only in her access to support mechanisms among the powerful Catholic elite of colonial Manila, but also in her most basic impulse to refuse to accept her situation and to seek a better life within the limited choices before her.