Tonio Andrade tried to thread the needle between Historical Revisionists and the more traditional historical narratives in * Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West*. Though I read a lot of nonfiction History, and listen to a fair bit of historical podcasts, I’m in it for the narrative. I couldn’t tell you if Andrade succeeds at an academic level. Still, he tells a great story and makes an excellent case for complexity that throws a lot of the traditional and revisionist narratives into doubt.
The story of Koxinga, the Japanese-raised son of a Chinese pirate, is the kind of story they should be making movies out of. After the fall of the Ming dynasty, Koxinga fought against the Manchu rebels and became the sole defender of the remnant of the old regime. Yet after some setbacks, he set his eyes on the Dutch colony in modern Taiwan.
This is where we move from the establishment of Koxinga’s bona fides as a general—as well as his penchant to punish his own army with executions and abuse for failure—and moves toward a contrast between East and West. The spoiler is this is a place where the European power was sent packing. This face-off allows for Andrade to thoroughly compare and contrast the tactics between the two armies.
Even if you aren’t the biggest fan of nonfiction history, Andrade manages to weave sources together into a tight narrative. He also deftly manages to compare what’s likely gossip, or merely the sort of exaggeration one makes about the enemy. Yet these don’t stop the pace of the book from being just as readable as a novel throughout.
At the end of * Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West*, you get a nicely wrapped-up story. The afterward introduces all the complicated bits that the Hollywood version would leave out. Then there are almost a hundred pages of cited sources to back up Andrade’s story.
Yet Andrade’s writing is strong enough that you want to cheer for Koxinga as we know how this turns out once the English show up, but Andrade reminds you that Koxinga wasn’t a hero. It never drifts into making him an anti-hero or trying to cast him as a misunderstood hero. Andrade, like all good history writers, understands there are no heroes.
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