On 12 March 1867, an American merchant ship, the Rover, capsized near Kenting, on Taiwan’s southern coast. A handful of survivors managed to come ashore, but almost all were promptly killed by a local indigenous tribe.
This historical event is what sets Yao-Chang Chen’s narrative in motion. News of the massacre soon spreads among the local towns and villages, and eventually reaches US consul Charles William Le Gendre, who immediately takes the matter into his hands by urging the Qing government, which at the time had jurisdiction over Taiwan, to respond to this diplomatic crisis. By accessing the points of view of a multiplicity of characters directly involved in the affair, such as foreign diplomats, Hakka and Hokkien settlers, and indigenous people from various tribes, Puppet Flower presents to the reader a faithful reconstruction of the history of the Rover incident.
As a matter of fact, the novel shows an almost scholarly attention to historical reconstruction, and is indeed a satisfying reading for those interested in historiographical studies and Taiwan historiography in particular. Perhaps Chen’s approach should not come as a surprise given his academic background: a medical doctor and a recognized specialist in bone marrow transplant, he authored several scientific publications and a few non-fictional essays (among them Island DNA, a study on the genetics of Taiwan’s indigenous population). He turned to fiction later in his life, publishing a few historical novels focused on the period that predates Japanese colonization, some of which have won prestigious literary prizes in Taiwan. Furthermore, this novel was adapted into a TV miniseries that aired in 2021 with the title Seqalu: Formosa 1867, which received both praise and criticism.
The English version we can read today is owed to the work of Pao-fang Hsu, Ian Maxwell, and Tung-jung Chen, though, as stated by the author in the preface to the book, the translated text has been substantially modified to be tailored for an English-speaking readership.
The story’s main character is Butterfly, the daughter of a Hakka man and a woman of the Tuillassock tribe, one of the several indigenous groups that at the time populated the area of lower Liangkiau (modern day Hengchun), collectively known as Seqalu. She and her brother, Bunkiet, will play a significant role in the resolution of the conflict between the foreign diplomats demanding retribution for the massacre of the shipwrecked sailors and the Seqalu people, whose violent act was justified as a reaction to a perceived attack—as the “Red Hairs” had indeed done in the past.
The fact that Chen uses two tushengzi (literally “half-blood”) characters like Butterfly and Bunkiet to tell this story is particularly significant in that it sheds light on Taiwan’s ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity at the time. On the other hand, US consul Le Gendre, another key actor in the novel, is also presented as having a multilayered (and cosmopolitan) identity. Born and raised in France and naturalized after his marriage to a New York woman, he participated in the American Civil War, where he was commended for his courage in battle. In 1866, he was appointed consul in Amoy (today’s Xiamen, on the Chinese coast), and later served as adviser to the governments of Japan and Korea. As soon as he sets foot on Formosa, Le Gendre too is impressed by the composite social fabric of the island (“Now this is truly a colonial world, complicated almost beyond comprehension,” Chen makes him admit at some point). The author’s attention to the particularities of local and foreign subjectivities contributes, as pointed out by Michael Berry in his very informational foreword, to deconstruct existing versions of Taiwan history that are essentially Han-centric.
As the story proceeds, Le Gendre seeks the help of a local girl, our Butterfly, who could speak Hakka, Hokkien, her indigenous language, as well as English. Her wit and spirit of initiative will prove decisive for the successful resolution of the conflict. A somewhat passionate liaison develops between the two (an element the author makes sure to point out as being fictional), although the novel does not really delve on it, and it is rather clear that Chen’s preferred focus is on the diplomatic and military history of the incident.
Indeed, in terms of stylistic features, while the novel has been praised for its historical accuracy, it lacks a bit in emotional representation—the characters might have benefited from a deeper psychological exploration, especially since the whole narrative is sustained by the dynamic alternation of characters’ points of view and inner monologues. However, what is clear from Chen’s recounting of the events through this kaleidoscopic perspective, is the unflattering opinion basically all parties have of Qing officials. For instance, after meeting with Seqalu leader Tauketok, Le Gendre praises him for being “resolute, sensible, and trustworthy,” whereas the Qing officials are described by the US consul as “fastidious, sly, procrastinating, winding in their thoughts, and in love with the sight of their own faces.” Similarly, the Qing government was certainly neither liked nor trusted by the Seqalu people, and even after the signing of an agreement, Tauketok had made it very clear that “the Qing government bureaucrats do not deserve his respect.”
Chen’s novel successfully delivers an alternative history of Taiwan in which all the involved subjectivities, especially those that have traditionally been neglected by official narratives, are given a voice. On the symbolic level, the relation between Butterfly (whom the author explicitly points out as “an avatar of Taiwan”) and Le Gendre exemplifies the complex aspects that need to be understood when attempting to reconstruct the early history of Taiwan-US relations. More generally, the novel provides interesting insights into the causes and consequences, as well as limits and possibilities of the encounter between cultures and people with very different agendas and ambitions.