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Thursday, February 24, 2011

From Far Formosa

The day after 9/11, I boldy boarded a plane in Fukuoka, Japan, and flew back to Taiwan. This felt bold not only because airplanes had been going missing, but also because we had to fly around a hurricane that was positioning itself between islands. But I was eager to return to an island where I had spent five or six years of my life, a the beautiful and fascinating shoe-shaped country once called Formosa.
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For years after that trip, whenever we played "Quiz" at the dinner table, my younger son would often blurt out the answer, "Taiwan" to irrelevant questions. "What is the capital of New Jersey?" "Taiwan!" This is no doubt partly because his stock of geographical names was small, and partly because my trip, under those conditions, and no doubt accompanied by prayer at home, made a deep impression on his mind.
Recently, I read a book by pioneer missionary George MacKay, called From Far Formosa! Gosh! How that book brought back memories. And what an amazing story he has to tell -- one of the most successful missionaries to China, one of the only ones to dare marry a Chinese girl, attacked by Chinese, aboriginal head-hunters, French naval vessels, poisonous snakes.

Everything has, of course, changed -- but much also remains the same.

I thought I'd share my review of that book, then some quotes from it, along with some of my funky old photos from my years in "Far Formosa."

(I. Here's an explanation of the photos: (1) On a 300 mile "prayer hike" across Taiwan with Keenan Booher; his wife Juanita missed this part of the walk. (2) Peace Park in the usually rainy port of Jilong at the north of Taiwan. Some of Mackay's adventures take place nearby; so did mine. (3) A Taiwan fern tree. (4) A tribal girl decorating a Christmas tree high in the mountains of Taiwan; MacKay had some interesting run-ins with their "headhunter" ancestors; some became Christians. (5) What would an anti-government demonstration be without snacks like tianbula? (6) A tribal village in Hualian. MacKay describes traveling to this region by boat across a beautiful night ocean, then contending with headhunters and waves on the way back. I usually took the train, aside from walking that one time!)
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II. Here's the review, also posted on Amazon:

"When I first went to Taiwan as a solitary missionary, 6 story MacKay Hospital on Zhong Shan Rd was a popular meeting place, including for dates. I felt a little guilty about going out with some of those girls -- they made it a little harder to concentrate on the job, you know!

"One of my amusing discoveries in this wonderful old book, was to learn that MacKay himself, for whom the hospital was named, raised a lot of eyebrows when he married a Taiwanese girl. (James Rohrer points out in a critical article that MacKay was one of only two China missionaries he found who dared marry a Chinese lady.)

"MacKay was a man deeply in love not just with one Taiwanese girl (who turned out to be a tremendous help), but with the island of Formosa and its peoples as a whole.

"The book is cobbled together, Rohrer suggests, from MacKay's notes and a first draft that emphasized a scientific description of Taiwan. Two church colleagues apparently helped write the book. The final draft is well-written, but has a bit of a disjointed structure. First MacKay tells a bit about his early life. Then he plunges into a long description of the geography, history, geology, plants, animals, and ethnic groups of Taiwan, the industry, (in) justice system. Finally he describes his travels, work, and the institutions he established.

"Don't be afraid of those middle chapters! There are priceless nuggets in there, too. MacKay can never get far without telling a story -- about famous snakes he knew (tried to bite him, were killed with tobacco, etc - ah! those snakes brings back memories!), about European sailors chased by a mob for hitting pigs with walking sticks, loving descriptions of luscious local fruit, the story of Christian converts who were tortured and killed for their faith.

"But the best of the book is probably the last and by far longest part of the book. Like the young Taiwanese who followed him around the island on interminable mission travels, I found MacKay a delightful companion. He's full of humor. His descriptions of nature are often eloquent and bring me back to my own trips to Hualien, the hills behind Xindian, and so on. There are bombardments by the French, riots among the Chinese, stalkings by headhunters, nighttime ocean journeys.

"MacKay's love for God is also palpably clear. As a missions narrative, this book is full of interest. Some 3000 Taiwanese were practicing baptized Christians in northern Taiwan by the time of MacKay's untimely death, along with many churches, schools, a museum, an educated group of minister-doctors. How did all that happen, when the price of conversion could be death? Especially interesting to me (I worked with "mountain people," as they called them in those days) were his accounts of the quick conversion of several villages of lowland tribemen, within a few weeks. This is amazing -- most of these villages were very leery of strangers, and had not accepted Chinese religions for hundreds of years.

"There are a few passages that breath of spin, and a few words suggesting late Victorian over-floweriness here and there. Let's blame that on the editors. I enjoyed this book so much, I've read passages to my family over dinner. Gotta get back to Taiwan.

III. And here are a few exerpts from the book:
"Ginger. This very useful pant attains the height of about a foot, and has long, pointed leaves. The rhizomes or roots are taken when green, sliced, and prepared as a relish. Around the city of Tek-chham there has sprung up quite an industry in preparing it for market. It is preserved dry, in sugar, in small earthn pots. It is not in any way like the preparation in Canton which is brought into Western lands. Plums, peaches, and pears are preserved in small earthen pots like the Tek-chham ginger."

"Reptiles. Serpents. One day, on returning from the country, and goin up the steps to the door of our house in Tamsui, I found a large serpent, eight feet in lengthy, lying across the threshold. With help I succeeded in dispatching him. The following day, when about to leave my study-room, I was confronted by its mate, of equal length and very fierce-looking. A loud call brought two or three students, and we ended that one's life. They belonged to the species Ptyas mucosus."

"Once, as I ented a small shed like a hen-coop, a snake which resembled the hoop-snake sprang from the roof and fell coied up in front of me. Its head was up in a moment, and ready to spring. I jumped backward, and with the assistance of others I succeeded in securing this rare specimen for my museum."

"At Tamsui, near the mission bungalow, I erected a second story above an old kitchen for a small study-room. One night, about eleven o'clock, I heard a noice among papers which were lying over a hole in the floor. Supposing that the noise was produced by rats, I called to those below. Presently Koa Kau ran up, looked into the room, then darted downstairs again, and in a twinkling pinned the exposed part of a monstrous serpent to the wall below. By this time fully three feet of the body was through the hole into the room above."

"The pig is a great pet among the Chinese. It is always to be found about the door, and often has free access into the house . . . The affection of an Englishman for his dog is scarcely stronger than the affection of a Chinese for his pig. Foreigners in China should remember this, and not thoughtlessly excite enmity and antagonism. Not long after my arrival, when in my house in Tamsui, I heard loud voices and hurried trampling in the street in front. On opening the door I saw several European sailors, from a ship lying at anchor in the harbor, running in wild haste down the street toward me. As they came near, one of them, mad with rage, asked if I had a gun. They were followed by a mob that seemed to be furious and eager to overtake them. I directed the sailors down a narrow lane, by which they escaped to their ship. Turning to the crowd, I asked the cause of the disturbance. They replied that the sailors had been striking the pigs belonging to one of their families with their walking-sticks. The people were very indignant, and had they overtaken the sailors there would have been trouble. I appeased them by the assurance that should the offenders misbehave again complaint would be made to the authorities."

"It has been my custom never to denounce or revile what is . . . sacredly cherished, but rather to recognize whatever of truth or beauty there is in it, and to utilize it as an 'open sesame' to the heart. Many, many times, standing on the steps of a temple, after singing a hymn, have I repeated the fifth commandment, and the words 'Honor thy father and thy mother' never failed to secure respectful attention."

"This venerable cultus, the worship of ancestors, is indeed the most stubborn obstacle Christianity has to face."

"Out on the downs I saw a dozen boys herding water buffaloes. As soon as I went near they shouted, 'Foreign devil, foreign devil!' jumped on the ground, waved their large sun-hats, and disappeared behind boulders. The next day I tried them again. They looked at me in silence, but on the alert, and ready to run at the first sign of danger. The third day I spoke to them, and as I had carefully practiced my words they exclaimed, in utter astonishment, 'He knows our language!' That the 'barbarian' could speak even a few of their words interested them very much. I took out my watch and held it up for them to see. They were around me instantly, feeling my hands, fingers, buttons, and clothes. The herdboys and I became friends that day . . . I was out there on the plateau with them every day for four or five hours, talking to them, hearing them talk, noting down new words and phrases, until my vocabulary began to grow with a rapidity that quite amazed my servant . . . years after, when they grew to manhood, they continued friendly, and were always delighted to recall the first days on the buffalo-pasture. Several of them became converts to Christianity, one a student and preacher."

But the stories in this book are endless; that's probably enough for now, but I may add more later.

1 comment:

Benjamin said...

Thanks for sharing this great review. I was born in Taiwan, stayed in the US for 13 years, then returned to Taiwan in 2007. Still I found the book and your description about Dr. MacKay fascinating.