George Psalmanazar: Taiwan’s first diplomat!

George Psalmanazar (1679? – 3 May 1763) claimed to be the first Formosan to visit Europe.
By Sean Kaiteri / Culture Vulture for The Wild East

In 1703, England received her first ever exotic traveler from Formosa (Now Taiwan): a charming man who enjoyed telling everyone all the crazy and foreign things he and his “people” did from the faraway land. One problem? That man was named George, he was white with blond hair. He was actually from France, had never been to Formosa and the people he was telling it to were apparently thick as shit (OK, that was actually several problems.)

Bearing in mind, this was a time when general population saw light rain as a sign from God, they lapped up the stories from the “faraway traveler” and quizzed him about his fake home for years while he hung around and got high on opium.

How Did He Do It?

Psalmanazar invented a Formosan language, became a theological essayist and a friend and acquaintance of Samuel Johnson and other noted figures of 18th-century literary London
George Psalmanazar was no dumbass. He was top of his class, fluent in Latin by seven-years old and had a knack for philosophy. Born and raised in France, Psalmanazar decided to see the world but, more to the point, he decided he didn’t want to pay for it. So, how do you get a bunch of strangers to let you into their homes for free? By posing as an exotic, otherworldly Japanese man.

He started off in Rome, pretending to be Japanese by eating strange foods and sleeping upright in a chair (like the Japanese) and talking in gibberish (like the Japanese). Sure enough, the Italians laughed at him.

Storming off and jumping ship to a more impressionable England, Psalmanazar switched to being Taiwanese, or a “Formosan savage” as it was known at the time. He talked in a made-up language, followed a foreign calendar and generally acted like a lunatic to seem more “exotic,” and the English ate it up. He was so famous in England, he even wrote a hugely successful book about Formosa which of course was utter bullshit, complete with ridiculous claims about social behaviors, language and geography.

You’d think it would have something to do with the fact that he looked nothing like other Formosans, but no, he sidestepped that tricky issue by explaining how upper-class Formosans rarely get sun because they sleep underground.

Instead, he just eventually confessed, and, oddly enough, there was never any major fallout. Psalmanazar was still basically liked and respected until his death, even when his stories became more transparently ridiculous and even when actual Formosans started poking holes in everything he’d ever said. Just goes to show you, there’s nothing wrong with blatantly lying to people and taking their money.

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