The subtitle is no exaggeration: the Formosan imposter, who went by the name Psalmanazar, really was one of the greatest charlatans in literary history. As author Graham Earnshaw says, “he not only faked literary works, he faked himself, too.”
Despite Psalmanazar writing a confessional memoir, published posthumously, many of the details of his life remain a mystery. We do not know his real name (his fake one, Psalmanazar, was inspired by an Assyrian king “Shalmaneser” in the bible). Psalmanazar was born in about 1679 and is believed to have come from southern France. According to his memoir, he attended a Jesuit school, but finding theology too dull, dropped out; a little later, he took to the road in the guise of a pilgrim, first as an Irishman and then as a Japanese converted to Christianity. Finding that soliciting alms was easier the more exotic his disguise, he decided to pass himself off as a Japanese heathen. He made a little “bible” filled with figures of the sun, moon, and stars, and verses in a language of his own invention that he would chant to the rising and setting sun.
In 1702 Psalmanazar’s deceit was uncovered by Alexander Innes, an Anglican chaplain stationed with a Scottish regiment then in Holland. Innes had asked Psalmanazar to write a passage in Japanese, then pretending to have lost the piece, had him rewrite it. The two samples were different and Psalmanazar confessed. Innes, a greedy opportunist, thought to take advantage of Psalmanazar’s talents and invited him to England, though instead of having come from Japan, he was now to be a native of the more obscure Formosa.
Psalmanazar was warmly received in England and soon became a minor celebrity. Two months after arriving in London, he was persuaded to translate some religious texts into the supposed Formosan language. These translations were so well received that Innes prompted him to write a complete history of Formosa. The resulting work is an amazing hodgepodge of oriental exoticism, wild imagination, and religious philosophy. Written in Latin by Psalmanazar and then immediately translated into English, it was published in 1704 to wide acclaim under the title An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan. The Taiwan of Psalmanazar’s invention is a rich land of good government, prosperous towns, and bizarre often grisly customs.
Since his arrival in England, people had been surprised by Psalmanazar’s appearance, in particular his fair complexion. This, he explained in his book, was because Formosans went to such great lengths to avoid the sun:
Altho’ the Country be very hot, yet the Men in all Formosa are very fair, at least those who can live upon their Means.… The Men of Estates, but especially the women, are very fair; for they during the hot season, live under ground in places that are very cold; They have also Gardens and Groves in them so thick set with Trees, that the Sun cannot penetrate thro’ them; … And hence it comes to pass, that altho the Formosans live in a hotter Country than the English, yet they cannot so well endure heat.
Not only was Psalmanazar fair-skinned, but he had shoulder-length blonde hair. Looking like a quintessential northern European, he tried to compensate by putting on a really good show, which he seems to have done with flair and enjoyment. As well as chanting gibberish to the skies in prayer, he came up with the ruse of eating raw meat. In his memoir, Psalmanzar writes:
I fell upon one of the most whimsical expedients that could come into a crazed brain, viz. that of living upon raw flesh, roots and herbs; and it is surprising how soon I habituated myself to this new, and, till now, strange food, without receiving the least prejudice in my health; but I was blessed with a good constitution, and I took care to use a good deal of pepper, and other spices, for a concocter, whilst my vanity, and the people’s surprize at my diet, served me for a relishing sauce.
Later, when Psalmanazar had lost most of his credibility, he would take his Formosan show further down-market by adding excessive drug taking to the repertoire – consuming huge amounts of laudanum (opium in liquid form) and tobacco. After all, as he told people, Formosans were demon smokers, and even the women there smoked pounds of tobacco a day.
A few individuals came forward to challenge Psalmanazar — even before his book was published— but their critiques were ignored. Rather than the content of Psalmanazar’s account of Formosa – after all it is utter nonsense not worth taking too seriously – Earnshaw is more interested in how the brazen hoax was defended and why it was believed. In the foreword of The Formosa Fraud, Earnshaw writes:
There are perhaps two common themes that can be discerned in a comparison of the many examples of fake news today and the story of George Psalmanazar. One is a determination on the part of the faker to double down in the face of objections. Do not admit the lie, instead build on it. Be categorical. Cast doubt on the objector, and accuse them of fakery too. The second theme is a desire on the part of the audience to believe the lie.
On this last point, Psalmanazar benefited enormously by being such a champion of the Protestant church. A good third of his book is taken up with attacks against the Jesuits and descriptions of his conversion to Anglicism.
As for defending himself, Psalmanazar did a good job of refuting the charges. He appeared before the Royal Society to address doubts about his outlandish description of Formosa. Here was a young foreign man going head to head with heavyweight intellectuals and men of standing; the likes of astronomer and mathematician Edmond Halley and French Jesuit priest, Father Jean de Fontenay, who had lived in China (and had spoken with priests who had been in Formosa). It’s hard not to admire the pluck needed to do this. Earnshaw agrees, his concluding remarks are: “Ultimately – and this is just a personal view – he has to be admired for his audacity.”
Psalmanazar addressed criticisms of his account in the preface of his second edition, published in 1705. He dismissed differences between Dutch accounts of Formosa with his own as describing different regions. The Dutch had possessed a colony in southwestern Taiwan from 1624 to 1662; however, Psalmanzar said, this had been on remote islands, a wild region unlike the more civilized Formosan heartland. He also attacked the veracity of Dutch accounts. A Short Account of the Island of Formosa by Dutch missionary Georgius Candidius had been published in Dutch in about 1664 (and in English just before the publication of Psalmanazar’s book). The most amazing claim – and one largely accepted by historians today – made by Candidius’ was that the local aborigines practiced mandatory infanticide of babies born to women under 35 years of age. Time and again Psalamanazar would cite this as evidence not to take the Dutch accounts too seriously.
Psalmanazar also turned the differences between the Formosa of his imagination and the real one to his advantage; Earnshaw paraphrases the argument: “If I had been a fraud, he says, I would have been smart to base my description on the existing materials.”
Psalmanazar says in his Memoirs that his critics erred in not targeting his weakest point: the fake language he had invented. A simple test along the lines of the one Innes had used would surely have exposed the hoax.
Although the Psalmanazar story has been told before, it’s usually been covered by academics who have taken narrative gold and spun it into fine yet rather dull cloth. Earnshaw comes from a journalist background and his The Formosa Fraud reflects that, presenting the story in an accessible, amusing, and relevant way.
Graham Earnshaw is something of a legend in the region. Born in England and growing up in Australia, his Asian adventures started in Hong Kong in 1973, where he worked as a junior reporter for the South China Morning Post. He moved to Beijing as a Reuters correspondent in 1979. That year he formed the first rock group in China – the Peking All-Stars – and played China’s first ever rock concert. He has the related dubious claim to fame of having turned down Cui Jian, future “Father of Chinese Rock,” when he asked to join the group.
Earnshaw was in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 the night when the tanks rolled in. He later left journalism to pursue various business interests, including book publishing (if niche publishing actually qualifies as business). Earnshaw Books, founded in 2007, publishes new and old books, the latter often with a new introduction and notes. In 2017 he did such a reissue of one of my all-time favorite China books, Norwood F. Allman’s Shanghai Lawyer. (Ignore the title and take my word – it’s a fantastic read, and now even better with added material from Douglas Clark.) Another standout title is Décadence Mandchoue, an autobiographical memoir by eccentric genius Sir Edmund Backhouse, and, like Psalmanazar, a literary fraudster. Earnshaw has written several books on China, the best known of which is The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet (2010).
Unfortunately, like most long-term China residents, Earnshaw displays a blind spot for Taiwan. I don’t whether this ignoring Taiwan just becomes an unconscious habit over time for them, a way of avoiding conflict, but it is unmistakable. Of course, it might just might be my own bias that I would have liked more details about what was known of Formosa at the time of Psalmanazar’s book. Earnshaw describes Candidius’ account from the early Dutch days. However, there were other good sources of which no mention is made.
When we refer to the Dutch in Taiwan, it’s actually a shorthand way of saying the Dutch East India Company (or VOC), which was the world’s first international corporation. They employed numerous non-Dutch Europeans; the last VOC governor in Taiwan, for example, was a Swede, and the traitor who helped make him the last governor was a German. Among the Britons who worked for the VOC was Scotsman David Wright. He spent more than twenty years in Formosa and in around 1655 wrote a detailed, wide-ranging account of the island. Wright’s description was superior to Candidius’, in part because the Dutch had expanded their control and knowledge of the island at this later time. Although Wright’s Notes on Formosa are a lost work, we have significant quoted material from it in Atlas Chinensis (which was available in England in Psalmanazar’s day.
And remarkably there was even an English presence on Taiwan well within living memory of Psalmanazar’s time. The British East India Company, had a “factory” (a trading post) in southwestern Taiwan from 1670 to 1685.
Although The Formosa Fraud is primarily a fun look at a quirky historical episode, Earnshaw does raise some interesting questions about fake information in the modern age.
Social media in the early twenty-first century has provided an opportunity for doing exactly the kind of thing that Psalmanazar did – the creation of an entire castle in the air. The silo-ed and discrete nature of online social media communities recreates in a way the geographical distances and difficulties of travel that made it possible for Psalmanazar to pull the wool over the eyes of Londoners all those years ago.
The Formosa Fraud: The story of George Psalmanazar, one of the greatest Charlatans in Literary History is about 250 pages in length. The first fifth of the book is Earnshaw’s chapters on Psalmanazar and his hoax, and the remainder of the book is Psalmanazar’s original text (thankfully cleaned up a little) An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, which makes for a good balance. Tackling the Psalmanazar book without this kind of extended introduction is not recommended for the general reader.