The history of Taiwan is complicated and there is wide disagreement and ambiguity regarding its status as part of mainland China and who is ruling the islands. Despite this, the Taiwanese people maintain a hardworking and friendly culture with distinct beliefs, art forms and cuisine.
Farmers from mainland China settled in Taiwan about 4,000 years ago and are believed to be the ancestors of today’s Taiwanese aborigines. The islands of Taiwan were ruled by various tribes, whose hostility repelled invaders and traders for centuries. During the 13th century, Han Chinese began settling the Penghu islands.
The Dutch East India Company failed in an attempt to set up an outpost on the Penghu Islands due to intervention by Ming authorities in 1622. Fort Zeelandia was established on Tayouan islet off Anping, Tainan by the Company in 1624. At that time, the area was populated by a variety of tribal settlements, each with their own chief, some of which had fallen under Dutch control by the 1650s. The Spanish conquered northern Taiwan in 1626, and set up forts and colonies which lasted until 1642, when Dutch forces captured the area.
The Dutch were defeated in 1666 by loyalist, Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong), fleeing the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Koxinga and his heirs ruled the renamed Kingdom of Tungning until 1682, regularly raiding the coast of mainland China.
Quing Dynasty forces captured Taiwan in 1683 and absorbed it into the Fujian province. During this time, Fujian immigrants moved to Taiwan and there was regular conflict amongst Chinese from different regions as well as with local aborigines. The Qing created Taiwan as a separate province in 1885, with Taipei as the capital. A process of modernization followed which saw the construction of Taiwan’s first railway and the introduction of a postal service.
The Japanese gained control of Taiwan and Penghu as a result of the 1894-1895 First Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese industrialized the islands, extending the railways, implementing sanitation systems and introducing formal education. Production of the main crops of rice and sugar cane increased to the point that Taiwan was world’s seventh largest rice producer by 1939. The Japanese marginalized and persecuted the Taiwanese and aborigines. They instigated a deliberate campaign in 1935m to teach the subjects of the Japanese Empire to see themselves as Japanese, with some success. During World War II, tens of thousands of Taiwanese served in the Japanese military. Japan used Taiwan as base for naval and air campaigns throughout to war, which, along with industrial targets, made Taiwan an object for regular and heavy Allied bombing.
In October 1945, the Japanese surrendered Taiwan to the Republic of China (ROC) troops. The ROC considered the turnover of Taiwan to be completed from that time, while the Allies considered it to be a military occupation of a place under Japanese sovereignty until Japan renounced all claim in 1952.
The ROC administration was not popular in Taiwan which, along with economic issues, led to great unrest in Taiwan during 1947. At the same time, the Chinese Civil War between Nationalists (Kuomintang) and Communists was in progress on mainland China, from which the Communists emerged victorious to form the People’s Republic of China (POC) in 1949.
The defeated ROC Government and some two million soldiers, Kuomintang party members, intellectuals, and elite businesspeople evacuated to Taiwan, taking mainland China’s gold reserves with them and making Taipei the temporary capital.
From then onwards, the territories under Kuomintang ROC control were reduced to Taiwan and a few other islands. Despite this, the ROC continued to claim the right to rule all China, including mainland China, Outer Mongolia and Taiwan. By contrast, the Communists of mainland China claimed that the ROC was extinct and that there was only one China, which included Taiwan.
The ROC declared martial law in 1949, which was used to suppress political oppositions and lasted until 1987. A one party policy prevailed and anyone perceived to be pro-communist or anti-nationalist was subjected to persecution, which could include, amongst other horrors, imprisonment, torture and death.
Throughout the 1950s, the ROC government constructed military fortifications across Taiwan, as well as the Central Cross-Island Highway. The Chinese civil war continued throughout this time, with sporadic unpublicized clashes and raids. 1958 saw the establishment of Nike-Hercules missile in Taiwan, which were not deactivated until 1997, when they were replaced by new systems.
Technological innovation and industrialization allowed Taiwan to recognize rapid economic growth during the 1960s and ’70s, even while the ROC maintained an authoritarian, single-party rule. This growth, along with American support, allowed Taiwan to establish fiscal independence from mainland China. Anti-communist ideals left most Western nations to consider the ROC to be China’s sole legitimate governing body during the Cold War. After the Cold War, this recognition largely switched to the PRC while Taiwan retained a status as an independent territory known as the Republic of China.
A quashed pro-democracy protest in 1979, united Taiwanese opposition forces to push for reform. The Government began to enact a process of liberalization from about 1984. The first official opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was allowed to form in 1986 and martial law was lifted in 1987.
The first ethnically Taiwanese president of the ROC succeeded the presidency in 1988, following the death of the original incumbent. Democratization continued, including a policy of increased localization, which promoted Taiwanese culture and history rather than pan-Chinese identity. The bans using Taiwanese Hokkien language in schools and the media were removed. In 1991, government officials who had held positions without re-election since 1947 were forced to resign.
The president was re-elected in 1996, in what was the first democratic election in the history of the ROC. In 2000, DPP representative Chen Shui-bian, was the first elected non-KMT President. He was re-elected in 2004. Today, the politics of Taiwan are polarized between the Pan-blue Coalition, who favor Chinese reunification and the Pan-Green Coalition, which prefers the prospect of an independent Taiwan. To this day most countries do not recognize the sovereign state of ROC, mainly due to pressure from China, so it remains in diplomatic limbo, with trade missions around the world rather than embassies, but still asserts a measure of authority.
In 2007, the ruling DPP formally asserted a separate identity from China. In 2008, elections returned control to the KMT, with presidential stated aims of increased economic growth and better ties with the PRC.
Taiwan has a well formed regional identity, separate from mainland China, made from a blend of ideas and traditions brought by the various people who settled the region. The Taiwanese are a hardworking, family oriented, polite and pragmatic people, known for hospitality. Food plays a large part in Taiwanese culture with many activities and even festivals centered around food based traditions.
Religion and superstition also shape the Taiwanese culture with Buddhist, Taoist, indigenous, and folk traditions blending into a fascinating and colorful mosaic of temples, shrines, festivals, art, poetry, proverbs, and habits.