Although Taiwan’s Imagined Geography is more an academic work than popular non-fiction (no surprise to learn that it began life as a doctoral dissertation) it’s digestible enough for the non-specialist general reader to tackle. Published in 2004 by Harvard University Press, the book is actually one of the best-selling titles on Taiwan from an academic press. Alongside John Shepperd’s Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier, 1600-1800, I highly recommend it for readers wanting an in-depth look at Chinese perceptions of Taiwan (and the practical consequences of those perceptions) during the wild frontier days.

The period Teng covers, 1683–1895, is when Taiwan (or at least the lowland areas) was under the dominion of China’s Qing dynasty. When the Qing defeated the heirs of Koxinga in 1683 and came into possession of the short-lived Kingdom of Tungning in southwestern Taiwan, the new masters were faced with a choice of what to do with the island. The Kangxi emperor is reported to have told his officials: “Taiwan is no bigger than a ball of mud. We gain nothing by possessing it, and it would be no loss if we did not acquire it.” He favored abandoning Taiwan (after repatriating all the Chinese). Keeping the island would be an economic burden, an expenditure not worth what was considered a wild land of tattooed cannibals, dangerous terrain and disease. Furthermore, Kangxi had – as did his predecessors – a continental mentality; his eyes were on expansion into Central Asia, not turned toward maritime horizons.

Admiral Shi Lang, the man responsible for capturing Taiwan, thought the island was worth keeping, and it was his side – by stressing strategic considerations – which eventually won the debate. Having decided to keep the conquered territory, the contention now was whether it was fit for colonisation or not.

Since the Qing had not intended to acquire Taiwan permanently when it sent Shi Lang into battle, in annexing the island it became, in effect, an accidental colonizer rather than a colonizer by design. The court continued to regard Taiwan with some ambivalence and did not embrace the idea of colonizing the island wholeheartedly.

Unlike the Zhengs, and the Dutch before them, the Qing did not seek to develop Taiwan. They followed a policy of quarantine, restricting Chinese immigration, and did not seek to extend control over the entire island. Instead, they sought to restrict Chinese infiltration into aboriginal areas in the hope of avoiding frontier disputes.

Chinese visitors who wrote about Taiwan in this early Qing period had this with question of fitness for colonization firmly in mind. The most memorable account from this time is Yu Yonghe’s Small Sea Travel Diaries. Yu, an adventurous literati, happened to be in Fujian when the need arose for a brave volunteer. In the winter of 1696, the Imperial Chinese gunpowder stores had exploded. Sulphur was required to manufacture a new supply of gunpowder. Taiwan, recently coming into Qing hands, was said to be rich in sulfur. Asking for a volunteer to go to Taiwan and oversee the mining of the sulphur, Yu stepped forward. In turned out to be a gruelling ten-month mission. First he sailed to the main city of Taiwanfu (Tainan) and then travelled north to the sulphur deposits around Beitou, now a suburb of Taipei city.

Yu found traveling in Taiwan arduous; there was the inpenetrable jungle, the merciless sun when not in said inpenetrable jungle, and insects: “The mosquitoes and flies suck your flesh like starving vultures and hungry tigers; it is impossible to shoo them away.”

Some of the native inhabitants were equally formidable. Yu Yonghe divided the aborigines into two categories: “native savages” and “wild savages.” Yu wrote of the latter:

The wild savages live deep within the mountains, screened behind layered ranges of linked peaks that jut up into the Milky Way. The forest is so deep, and the bamboo thickets so dense that you cannot see the sky when you look up. Brambles and vines are [so tangled] that you cannot lift your foot. Since the Chaos of Creation, no ax has ever entered here. The wild savages live in its midst, dwelling in lairs and caves, drinking blood and eating fur.… The wild savages rely on their ferociousness and from time to time come out and plunder, burning huts and killing people, and then returning to their lairs.

And yet Yu expressed admirable concern for the aborigines. He was critical of earlier mistreatment against them by the Dutch and Zheng regimes and also of current mistreatment by Chinese settlers, whom he saw as the cause of frontier disputes. The Chinese authorities would come to the same conclusion several decades later. In 1722 a north-south boundary line the length of Taiwan was established. Stretching along the western foothills, this demarcation line – mostly existing as ink on maps but marked by 54 steles in strategic locations – prohibited the Chinese settlers from moving into the mountain areas. Encroachment did occur, however, and the line was redrawn higher up four times by the end of the century. Eventually, ditches were dug and some guards posted to mark and better enforce the line.

As Taiwan developed and became more attractive a destination, the pro-colonization camp eventually won the debate: “By the nineteenth century, Chinese attitudes toward Taiwan and the material conditions of the colony had changed so dramatically that “the ball of mud” was now considered a “land of Green Gold.” (“Green gold” meaning tea.)

Despite the efforts of pro-quarantine officials, the Qing could not stem the tide of Han Chinese immigration to this frontier, and by the nineteenth century, the court had decided to proceed with the final colonization of the island as a whole. In 1875, the Qing adopted the “Open the Mountains and Pacify the Savages” (kaishan fufan) policy. This policy legalized the entry of Han Chinese settlers into the last of the remaining indigenous territory on the island. In order to accomplish this appropriation of lands, the Qing employed the military to “pacify the savages.”

Taiwan’s Imagined Geography excels at showing history in all its messy complexity and dynamism. We come away from it with a more nuanced understanding of the Qing period, of how events were sometimes happenstance, how widely perceptions varied, and that policies were contentious. It’s also refreshing to see Qing China portrayed as the empire it was – Europeans didn’t have a monopoly on imperialism – and given the Chinese Communist Party’s continual bleating on the humiliations suffered from Western imperialism, it’s always useful to point out that China was an imperial power. This book is not a polemic against Chinese imperialism, though; the overall impression gained from reading the book is that Qing rule over Taiwan was no worse than what Europeans were doing elsewhere at the time, and rather than the Chinese having a monolithic view of non-Chinese peoples as savages, we learn that there was a range of views and these changed over time.

Taiwan’s Imagined Geography is 400 pages in length and contains numerous color illustrations, line drawings, and maps. Harvard University Press deserves credit not only for producing an attractive book, but also for such reasonable pricing; the paperback is a bargain at $25. The book is available from Harvard University Press, Amazon.com, and other retailers.

Emma Teng is an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also the author of Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China and Hong Kong, 1842-1943 (2013).