The Sino-French War / 中法戰爭 (1883 - 1885)

I've an ingrained enthusiasm both for the outdoors and for history.

When we moved from Taipei to the outskirts of Keelung in 1999, among the practical enticements included green hills to hike (Taipei, by contrast, is largely flat and paved) and a vague notion that the port had been occupied at some point by France.

Over the past eight years, I have trekked across much of the Northeast Coast and its hinterland (as well as elsewhere). Not only are remnants of the Sino-French War (中法 or 清法戰爭) still clearly evident along the hilltops and ridges that ring the city, the area is also peppered with many other vestiges of history and previous economic activity. Such continue to make this area an interesting place to live and explore.

As a prelude to long-planned (well, in my head at least) blog-type entries on hiking, historical sites, flora, etc., I plan to post to this site some topical introductions (tagged "background") to various aspects of my city on the sea. Content is my own, drawn from various English and Chinese sources, and can be used elsewhere as long as the source is cited.

A Quickie Guide to the Sino-French War

A decade of hostility between France and China over influence in Annam (modern Vietnam) climaxed in the Sino-French War. French authority in the area had grown steadily since France established the colony of Cochin China (in the Saigon Delta) in 1862. Legionnaires captured Hanoi in 1882 and the king of Annam acknowledged French suzerainty in 1883.

Facing imminent loss of a vassal and southern buffer against belligerent colonial powers, China dispatched troops to Annam to help indigenous Vietnamese and Black Flag irregulars fight the French. (In one interesting historical note, the Black Flag society (黑旗隊) formed in 1866 in south China to challenge Qing authority during the Taiping Rebellion [see Wikipedia article here]. The Emperor later granted Black Flag members amnesty in exchange for pledges of loyalty. In the 1870s and 1880s, the group was engaged by anti-French members of the Annamese nobility to help fight French influence in their country.)

Now at war (albeit unofficially) with China, France broadened the conflict beyond Vietnam to the China coast in hopes a series of decisive victories there would force a Qing capitulation. French warships shelled Mawei (馬尾, near Fuzhou) and Tamsui (淡水) and troops stormed Keelung and Magong (馬公, in the Penghu Islands).

However, France largely failed to achieve its strategic objectives. Qing troops consistently outnumbered and, in many important battles, outmaneuvered their adversary. In northern Vietnam, France endured significant setbacks and, in Taiwan, held Keelung harbor and several adjacent valleys only at a high price in blood.

China nonetheless did not press its advantages in the field and the Emperor's military advisers were consumed with a fear that France's navy, sailing unopposed in the East China Sea, would move north and land troops to threaten the capital at Beijing. The Treaty of Tientsin, signed in June 1885, ended hostilities. China acknowledged French control over Vietnam and France evacuated its remaining soldiers from Chinese territory ...

Keelung was a ten-month nightmare for French troops. Terrible weather, malaria, meager support from the high command, pesky British and American opportunists and an unexpectedly real Chinese resistance kept the French bottled up inside the first row of hills that separated the harbor from north Taiwan's interior (e.g., the Keelung River and Taipei Basin beyond). There was never a realistic prospect that France could have extended its occupation to Taipei (Banka) or elsewhere. The Qing government took very seriously France's attack on Taiwan, and the Chinese repulsed solidly a French attack on Tamsui and arrayed over 10,000 Mainland and Taiwanese soldiers in the hills surrounding Keelung to keep the 2,000 or so French Legionnaires and Bat d'Af soldiers from moving any further inland.

For the "honor" of France and the Legion, several months before abandoning Keelung for the relatively more pleasant Pescadore (Penghu) Islands, just over a thousand French soldiers made a final desperate push to take the heights above Keelung. Several days of horrific hand-to-hand fighting along ridgelines to the east of the harbor ended in France capturing "Fort Bambou", the highest crest overlooking the harbor, and sending most of the Qing army across the Keelung River, where defensive lines were reestablished.

Chinese military resistance to France in Taiwan was a resounding success, won largely by overwhelming manpower and a home field advantage. The French occupation was a strategic failure. France was never able to use the harbor as a supply depot (France's navy still used Jinmen and other islands for coastal activities), and hoped-for coal supplies lay beyond the occupied harbor area.

However, while China won the battle (for Taiwan), they lost the war. Irresolution at the upper levels of Qing officialdom and concurrent challenges to Qing sovereignty elsewhere convinced Chinese leaders to disregard successes at Keelung and Annam and sue for a quick peace, largely on France's terms.

For both the French and Chinese, hostilities in Taiwan represented an extemporized, ad hoc affair. Although wooden structures built by both sides have long since disappeared, dirt trenches, gun emplacements, and cleared areas for barracks and command posts remain intact to a surprisingly large extent. With preserving island history high in importance for most Taiwanese (tongue firmly in cheek), such remnants have since become good spots to grow bamboo or have simply gone back to nature. The government has made no effort to designate or restore Sino-French War sites, which all in all may be for the best ... until the construction industry figures out how to plant high rises along hilltops.


Naruwan said...

Great post. Taiwan is just bursting with fascinating history. Too bad I know so little of it!

Jeff Miller ... (米傑富) said...

Thanks, Naruwan. Taiwan is such a compact place in just about every sense of the word. Most of the U.S. needs at least a day's worth of driving to reach a national park or significant historic site. In Taiwan, such are an hour or two away by car ... and no crowds (for the most part)!

John said...

Very informative!

I've wandered many times through the French sailor's graveyard that lies beside the road leading out of Keelung towards the maritime university. Do you know how old that cemetery is, or whether it's the only one around there?

I suppose there may be quite a few foreign occupiers' graveyards around places like Keelung, Danshui and Tainan, but I wonder how many are still marked as such, and how many have long since been forgotten. I've seen photos of the foreign graveyrad in old Danshui, but haven't found it myself yet. Surely there must also have been Japanese-only cemeteries up until the end of WW2? What became of them? Don't recall ever hearing about them.

Have you seen the big monument in Penghu commemorating the French sailors who died there? It looks pretty modern. I saw the monument, but didn't see a marked graveyard.

Jeff Miller ... (米傑富) said...


Agree that there must be many foreign bones around Taiwan, but, with the exception of those few foreigner cemeteries still maintained, information on gravesites may be almost impossible to find. There must be Japanese graveyards in many places around Taiwan, but I've never heard of nor seen them. Interesting question. Anyone have insights?

Burial is such a family oriented affair in Chinese/Taiwanese culture that, perhaps, once there is no longer an immediate family around to "sweep" (maintain) a grave, it is forgotten, then overtaken by the elements. On hikes, I've come across old (early-19th century) Taiwanese graves that have clearly been not tended for awhile. Could be because the family no longer attended to it or the bones were removed elsewhere.

The French cemetary in Keelung is actually a more recent relocation of bones from various gravesites in both Keelung and the Penghus. The actual Sino-French War cemetary established by the French was (I think) further down the harbor aways.

小周 said...

I wrote an article,西仔反 清法戰爭與臺灣特展雜記, in 2004 and had co-led some hikers to cruise the old battlefields in the mountains of Keelung by using French 1885 maps, as described in 清法戰爭基隆砲台與戰場遺跡(一) 法蘭西軍之逆襲 and 清法戰爭基隆砲台與戰場遺跡(二) 清軍大反攻. We found Fort Du Sud, which has never been found in academic study. very interesting!

小周 said...

You can call me Yourdon. Let me introduce a website by my friend Kenny, who live in Keelung as you and have climbed more than 1000 summits in northern Taiwan.

Kaminoge said...

Great post. I believe Keelung was also the site of conflict when the Japanese arrived in 1895 to take over Taiwan following the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Do you know of any places in the Keelung area related to that?

Jeff Miller ... (米傑富) said...


The Japanese parked a few warships off the Keelung coast while the main force landed at Gongliao (just north of Fulong) and followed two tracks north before converging on the city. There is one interesting monument that I know of in Ruifang (瑞芳) raised by the Japanese to celebrate victory in their first major engagement against the Taiwanese resistance. Don't know the scale of the battle. The monument is inscribed in Japanese and surprisingly intact (in light of much of the scoring done to such monuments post-1949).

There is also a monument in Keelung City, not far from the French Cemetary, raised to commemorate the commander of the Japanese occupation forces. Unfortunately, all characters have been scored off. There is (or at least was a few years ago) the name of that general inscribed in large characters on a hill just above this monument (partially obscured by vegetation, so not easy to make out).

Know that there remain various memorial markers and such in and around Keelung dating from the Japanese period, but believe that little is know regarding their purpose or contemporary importance ... another telling indicator of the general health of "history" in Taiwan.

Michael Turton said...

Jeff --

Michael K. is having a get together on the 20th. Are you in?


Patrick Cowsill said...

This is a very interesting post. You mention American and British opportunists. I'm curious about this. What were they up to?

I think Taiwan's resistance to colonization by Japan and in particular resistance fighters has been exaggerated by the Chinese in Taiwan. The Taiwanese were always squabbling amongst themselves (see 159 uprisings in 212 years of Ching rule). Undoubtedly, some of this has been misinterpreted as resistance to the Japanese. The Japanese were actually greeted by Taipei's most powerful merchants in Keelung, and then shown the way into Taipei. These guys were breathing a sigh of relief, as finally the incompetent and corrupt Ching had been run out of town.

I'm not saying there weren't any revolts. 6,000 people were massacred in Yunlin in 1896 after all. But I wonder how much of this has been played up by the revisionists, who are eager to downplay Japan's contributions to Taiwan's development?

Another topic: have you read anything about the Franco-Chinese War playing a part in Taiwan's being upgraded from prefecture to province in 1885?

Jeff Miller ... (米傑富) said...


Thanks for your comments. In quick reply to the questions ...

1) British & American opportunists. Neither the French nor the Chinese declared formal war on the another, so other countries were not beholden to take sides or stay neutral. The Qing had no navy with which to challenge French supremecy in the East China Sea - and thus no way to ferry troops and supplies to Taiwan. British and American (and probably other) steamship operators were more than happy to do so for a nice fee. The French couldn't take action without creating an incident with another major power. ... I also read about an American (or Briton?) who set up a private supply store in Keelung during the French occupation. He was later asked to pack up and leave on suspicion of passing information to the Chinese.

2) Fractual Taiwan. Taiwan has never been a solid entity, whether it be in terms of big ethnic or power issues or of "smaller" (e.g., clan vs. clan, gang vs. gang) issues. All sovereign rulers over Taiwan have impacted the island for both "good" and "bad". The particularly tumultuous history here (perhaps analogous to such places as Alsace-Lorraine, Poland, the American Southwest, ... ?) has brought with every major turnover in government the impulse to end balanced discussions of society and issues current during the previous administration. I've encountered many anecdotal examples of such here. It makes comprehending Taiwan beyond the last few decades (even for Taiwanese themselves) quite complicated.

3) I understand that the Sino-French War was instrumental in Taiwan's upgrade to a province. Liu Ming-chuan was the general in charge of the successful effort to keep France bottled inside Keelung Harbor and was, almost immediately after the war's conclusion (1885), assigned to Taiwan as its first governor. The Mudan Incident and the Sino-French War appear to be the two modern turning points in Qing attention to the island, spurring belated concern with island affairs and attempts to bring under greater central control Taiwan's inchoate frontier society.