Re-Imagining the Formosan Flag: Taiwan's First Appeal for International Help

Re-Imagining the Formosan Flag: Taiwan's First Appeal for International Help
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'The difference between the two tigers is hidden in their eyes; the obverse side has undilated pupils while the reverse has dilated ones. Researchers believe this contrast is a metaphor for day and night, symbolizing constant vigilance.'

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On this day in 1895, Tang Jing-song (唐景崧), governor of Taiwan during the Qing dynasty, was inaugurated as president of the Formosan Republic — a short-lived state established by Qing loyalists after China formally ceded Taiwan to Japan.

A flag of rag cloth, 3.1 meters long by 2.6 meters wide, was hoisted into the sky at the Qing Dynasty Taiwan Provincial Administration Hall in Taipei. The flag’s most distinctive quality was a yellow tiger situated on a blue background, painted in oil colors.

In March 2016, 121 years after it was first raised, the “Yellow Tiger Flag” was designated a national treasure by Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture.

Li Zi-ning (李子寧) has been a curator at the National Taiwan Museum for more than 20 years. He says the tiger’s cartoonish look follows the style of traditional Chinese folkart. American journalist James Wheeler Davidson, a witness to the rise and fall of the Republic, once described it as a “hungry-looking tiger.”

Since 1909, a “Yellow Tiger Flag” has been in the possession of the National Taiwan Museum, and for almost a century, it was thought to be the original. However, in 2004, it was revealed that what the museum owned was actually a copy.

Hsu Pei-hsien (許佩賢), a professor of Taiwan history at National Taiwan Normal University, has published an academic report on the history of the flag. Hsu believes three flags were created in 1895 and while the one in the museum is a copy, it may be the oldest “Yellow Tiger Flag” still in existence.

The first “Yellow Tiger Flag” was raised on Tang’s inauguration, and later hung at the Military Governor’s Office, now the Taipei City Police Department; its disappearance remains a mystery.

Another flag was sent to the Tamsui Customs Wharf but it was never flown and instead taken to England by Customs Commissioner H.B. Morse when he retired in 1908; it is unclear whether the flag survived after his death in 1934.

A third flag was flown at the Keelung Fort in northeastern Taiwan. When Japanese forces captured the fort, the flag was sent back to the Imperial Hall in Tokyo, Japan as a spoil of war. It is this flag that the museum’s copy is based on.

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National Taiwan Museum
The fall of the republic

Ten days after his inauguration ceremony, following the Japanese capture of Keelung, Tang escaped to China, leaving Brigadier General Liu Yong-fu (劉永福) in charge of the fledgling republic. Liu subsequently moved the capital south to Tainan.

The battle in northern Taiwan against Japanese forces lasted for just a couple of weeks. The Japanese initiated a five-month campaign that culmintated in the capture of Tainan on Oct. 21, 1895. This led to the dissolution of the Formosan Republic and signaled the start of Japan’s five decades of colonial rule.

In 1909, the Japanese colonial government sent painter Untei Takahashi to the Imperial Hall in Tokyo to make an official copy of the flag taken from Keelung Fort. Takahashi’s reproduction was faithful to the original, down to its damaged parts; the darkened squares on the bottom right of the flag indicate that it was torn or burned at some point. The copy is the one exhibited at the National Taiwan Museum; the original in Tokyo was, reportedly, lost.

According to Hsu, confirming the whereabouts of the last flag is a sensitive issue that could affect Taiwan-Japan relations given their problematic history.

Japanese graduate student Yuichi Takahashi, unrelated to the artist, recalls this history when he saw the "Yellow Tiger Flag" in Taipei for the first time last November.

“I felt sympathetic to those who have suffered under Japanese imperialism of that time,” he says.

Majoring in history with a focus on Taiwan and China relations, Takahashi believes that the Formosan Republic was an act of rebellion against the Qing empire’s declaration of cessation. He describes it as Taiwanese defending Taiwan.

When Chinese statesmen Li Hong-zhang (李鴻章) and Li Jing-fang (李經方) signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, officially relinquishing Taiwan to Japan on April 17, 1895, members of Taiwan’s gentry class appealed but to no avail. Records indicate that Qing officials even requested Tang and other officers and soldiers to return to China.

Museum curator Li Zi-ning (李子寧) has participated in the research, repair and exhibition of the museum’s flag since the 1990s. He believes the establishment of the Formosan Republic was an international appeal for help and the flag reflects a “diplomatic design.”

“The real intentions behind the Republic weren’t to establish a real country but to form a state that would prevent Japanese occupation, but this diplomatic design failed as well,” he says.

Takahashi adds, “[the Republic] was an immediate reaction and also encompassed a revolutionary spirit but something that was only felt by the military class and not among the everyday Taiwanese.”

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National Taiwan Museum
Two sides to every story

When the museum first applied for national treasure status of the flag in 2005, it was rejected due to a lack of information on the flag’s complicated history.

For the flag to be officially designated a historic relic, the museum needed to provide a condition survey backed up by scientific analysis, and a conservation proposal among other documents. Preliminary research efforts were conducted by the National Center for Research and Preservation of Cultural Properties.

After seven years, a group of experts specializing in Asian paintings, and textile and painting conservation, were invited to partake in creating a conservation plan. Official restoration began in 2010, which was also the Year of the Tiger.

Local conservators collaborated with specialists from Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. All were surprised to find another tiger on the reverse side of the flag.

“Back then, we didn’t know the flag was a copy and we didn’t know that the flag had a backside as well,” says Li.

Researchers discovered the flag had a second tiger when removing the backing paper, which was set with starch paste in the 1970s. The difference between the two tigers is hidden in their eyes; the obverse side has undilated pupils while the reverse has dilated ones. Researchers believe this contrast is a metaphor for day and night, symbolizing constant vigilance.

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National Taiwan Museum
Political sensitivity

Today, the “Yellow Tiger Flag” is one of the most popular attractions at the museum. Li believes flags have become symbols of nationhood and identity beyond a utilitarian function — one of the reasons is because people ascribe their own projections onto it.

“Maybe people of the time didn’t really wish to be an independent nation. Maybe it was all for the purpose of diplomatic design. But even so, the name Formosan Republic isn’t the Republic of China or the Chinese Republic so some people might think this implies that Taiwan and China are different,” he says.

Li notes that post-World War II scholars, influenced by the Chinese Cultural Renaissance, incorporated their partisan views in writing about the Formosan Republic.

Li recalls, “At the time, the education system, our museum included, explained the event in anti-Japanese expressions [...] how the Taiwanese rebelled against the Japanese empire while yearning for China. It was always one story.”

This “yearning for China” is reflected in the composition of the flag itself. The official flag of the Qing dynasty featured a blue dragon on a yellow background. Li says the reverse color scheme of the “Yellow Tiger Flag” alludes to the Republic’s loyalty to China, which post-World War II scholars emphasized.

Takahashi believes this singular narrative has evolved into a bifurcation due to current politics.

He says, “Some Taiwanese scholars believe that Taiwan and China have a diverging history so if they don’t focus on Taiwan it sends the message that Taiwan and China have a shared history and culture therefore some scholars will especially emphasize Taiwan’s own history.”

Current display

But the museum’s biggest challenge in displaying the flag has nothing to do with politics.

The public “won’t adopt a political perspective when looking at the flag. Rather, they will appreciate the flag’s unique design and the symbolic tiger itself,” Li says.

Because of its size, Li says the curators must think creatively and display the flag like a painting in an art museum.

Maintenance is also an important issue. Like scrolls of traditional Chinese paintings, the flag cannot be exhibited all year around and must be taken down for repair. The museum continues to carry out research into solving unanswered questions like the original shade of the flag’s background, which is now brown due to discoloration.

The surviving copy of the “Yellow Tiger Flag” is currently not on display, as the museum is preparing for renovation in September, but it will be brought out again in 2018 with its complex history being the focal point of future exhibitions.

“[The curators] will focus on the flag itself because it has a complicated background so we want to highlight that rather than the Republic it once represented,” Li says.

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National Taiwan Museum
The life of Taiwan's Yellow Tiger Flag:
  • April 25, 1895: Treaty of Shimonoseki signed after Japan wins the First Sino-Japanese war. Taiwan was not involved.

  • May 25, 1895: Day of Tang Jing-song (唐景崧)’s inauguration during which a “Yellow Tiger Flag” is raised at the Qing Dynasty Taiwan Provincial Administration Hall

  • June 5, 1895: Japanese Army take over Keelung Fort and send a “Yellow Tiger Flag” to the Imperial Hall in Tokyo, Japan.

  • Oct. 21, 1895: Japanese forces capture Tainan, ending the Formosan Republic.

  • 1908: H.B. Morse retires from the Tamsui Customs Wharf. He takes a “Yellow Tiger Flag” with him to Surrey, England.

  • 1909: Untei Takahashi travels to the Imperial Palace to make a copy of the “Yellow Tiger Flag” taken from Keelung Fort. Copy of flag is displayed in museum periodically until the 2000s.

  • 2000: Copied version of the “Yellow Tiger Flag” is reported to be in poor condition, unfit for display and vulnerable to additional damages even in storage and handling.

  • 2004: Professor Hsu Pei-hsien (許佩賢) publishes her academic report on the “Yellow Tiger Flag.”

  • 2005: National Taiwan Museum applies for national treasure status but is rejected.

  • 2010: National Taiwan Museum applies for national treasure status again and begins conservation project of “Yellow Tiger Flag.”

  • 2012: Actual reparation of flag begins.

  • March 2016: The copy of “Yellow Tiger Flag” is designated a national treasure by the Ministry of Culture.

  • 2017: Flag is taken down for maintenance as museum prepares for remodelling.

Editor: Edward White