There is evidence of human settlement in Taiwan dating as far back as 30, 000–40, 000 years ago; current prevalent thinking dates the arrival of the Austronesian peoples, ancestors of many of the tribal people who still inhabit Taiwan, between 4000–5000 years ago.
For most of her long history, China seemed fairly indifferent to Taiwan. Early Chinese texts from as far back as AD 206 contain references to the island, but for the most part it was seen as a savage island, best left alone. Contact between China and Taiwan was erratic until the early 1400s, when boatloads of immigrants from China’s Fujian province, disillusioned with the political instability in their homeland, began arriving on Taiwan’s shores. When the new immigrants arrived, they encountered two groups of aboriginals: one who made their homes on the fertile plains of central and southwestern Taiwan and the other, seminomadic, lived along the Central Mountain Range.
Over the next century, immigration from Fujian increased, these settlers being joined by the Hakka, another ethnic group leaving the mainland in great numbers. By the early 1500s there were three categories of people on the island: Hakka, Fujianese and the aboriginal tribes. Today, Taiwan’s population is mainly descended from these early Chinese immigrants, though centuries of intermarriage makes it likely a fair number of Taiwanese have some aboriginal blood as well.
In 1544 a Portuguese fleet ‘discovered’ the island. Enamoured by the lush plains, rugged mountains and rocky coasts, they declared Taiwan Ilha Formosa, meaning ‘beautiful island’. Less romantically minded Europeans soon took notice, and before long the Dutch (national proprietors of the recently formed Dutch East India Company) set up a trading base on the Penghu Islands in the Taiwan Strait.
This did not sit well in China’s Ming court, who sat up suddenly and took notice of Taiwan. The Ming government sent its navy to Penghu, and before long had thrown the Dutch off the island. But being particularly tenacious, the Dutch soon returned and established a colony in Penghu in 1622, remnants of which can still be seen in the Dutch Fort ruins, a few kilometres out of present-day Makung City.
The first thing the Dutch did on their return was to establish a trading route between Batavia (now Jakarta), Makung, China and Japan. For a short period of time, Dutch trade dominated the Taiwan Strait, much to the chagrin of the Ming court, who issued a decree in 1623 banning all entry of ships into the Taiwan Strait from southeast Asia. Realising the ineffectiveness of the decree, Ming troops were sent to attack the Dutch, who gave in and agreed to remove themselves from Penghu. Oddly, the Ming allowed the Dutch to establish trading ports in Taiwan proper.
Spain, ever envious of the Dutch hold on Taiwan and their growing wealth, decided they wanted in on the action themselves. In 1626 the Spanish invaded what is now Keelung and established their territory all the way down the west coast to Danshui and eventually all over northern Taiwan. Unfortunately, Taiwan’s climate took revenge and a series of catastrophes took its toll on the Spanish traders. Typhoons and malaria devastated the Spanish and attacks by local aboriginals caused them to relinquish their territory. In 1638 the Spanish withdrew from Danshui and the Dutch (ever tenacious) moved in to snatch up the remains, taking control of Keelung in 1642.
Though continued western encroachment into Taiwan undoubtedly displeased the Ming court, over in Beijing the emperor had bigger problems; the dynasty itself was in collapse. One staunch Ming loyalist in exile would have a lasting impact on Taiwanese history; Admiral Cheng Cheng-kung, also known as Koxinga, sought refuge with his troops on the small island of Kinmen off China’s Fujian province. On Kinmen, Cheng met a disgruntled former interpreter for the Dutch East India Company who convinced Cheng to invade Taiwan and overthrow the Dutch.
Intrigued, Cheng somehow managed to amass an army on Kinmen and build a fleet of ships (in the process deforesting the island, from which it’s now only just recovering). Cheng set sail for the Penghu Islands, where he swiftly deposed the Dutch before moving on to Taiwan proper. Arriving in Taiwan, Cheng he was greeted by local supporters anxious to be free of the Dutch once and for all. Realising their days in Taiwan were numbered, the Dutch surrendered to Cheng in 1662 and left for good.
With Cheng came 30, 000 mainland Chinese, who established Taiwan island as their home. Others soon followed, and would do so for the next 200 years. Taiwan’s growing population accelerated development on the island, especially in the north and along the fertile plains of the west coast. To manage Taiwan’s fast growth, Cheng set up an efficient system of counties, some of which remain today. However, his dreams of overthrowing the Manchu remained unfulfilled; he died a year after landing on Taiwan. Many Taiwanese today regard Cheng as a hero for driving the Dutch out of Taiwan.
After Cheng’s death, his son and grandson ruled the island but their ineptness caused widescale poverty and despair. In 1683, the Qing government overthrew Cheng’s descendents and took over the island, placing it under the jurisdiction of Fujian province. Having ‘retaken’ Taiwan, the Qing court’s attitude towards Taiwan was about as lax as the Ming’s before them, and Taiwan was again mostly ignored by China, save the boatloads of Chinese immigrants yearning for space to spread out.
In the West, however, Europeans were not blind to Taiwan’s advantageous position, and the ‘beautiful island’ was quite well known among traders both for its strategic location and hazardous coastline. (The latter factor would eventually play a part in the Qing court’s surrender of Taiwan to Japan.) After the second Opium War ended, Taiwan was opened to trade with the West in Keelung and Suao. The southern ports of Kaohsiung and Tainan were also opened. Foreign trade increased rapidly, with Taiwan’s main exports being camphor, rice, tea and opium.
Despite Taiwan’s importance as a trading centre, the island remained a wild and unruly place, and the Qing government did little to control the frequent unrest between settlers, foreign sailors and the aboriginal population. In 1872 the crew of a shipwrecked Japanese junk was executed by an aboriginal tribe; after being told by the Qing emperor that the aboriginals on the island were beyond the his court’s control, Japanese troops invaded Taiwan. Before the annexation was complete, the Qing government offered compensation to the families of the dead sailors, as well as pledging to exert more control over Taiwan. Placated for the time being, the Japanese withdrew from Taiwan.
In 1894 war broke out between Japan and China over the Japanese invasion of Korea. China’s poorly equipped navy was no match for Japan’s modern fleet, and in 1895 China was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki which ceded the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa), Taiwan and the Penghu Archipelago to Japan.
Taiwan responded to the treaty with alarm and a group of intellectuals formed the Taiwan Democratic Republic, writing a Declaration of Independence and claiming the island as a sovereign nation. Japan was not deterred, and after subduing the areas of Keelung and Danshui, the Japanese took over the ex-Qing governor’s office in Taipei. Control over the rest of the island was not as easy as in the north and the Japanese met strong resistance as they moved further south. Employing over a third of its army in Taiwan, the Japanese eventually overcame the Taiwanese who’d confronted the modern weapons of the invaders with bamboo spears and outdated weapons.
The hopes of the nascent Taiwan Democratic Republic were crushed, and Japan was to stay on the island for 50 years. It’s believed that in the first several months after the Japanese arrived, over 10, 000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives.
Once the Japanese felt they had things under control, they set out to modernise the island, building highways and railways to improve trade and to open up formerly isolated areas, especially along the east coast. They also constructed hospitals, schools and government buildings in an effort to improve the infrastructure of the island. Despite these improvements, the Japanese rule on the island was harsh, with brutal crackdowns on political dissent.
The loss of Taiwan to Japan was merely one in a string of humiliations heaped by foreign hands upon the tottering Qing dynasty, and by 1900 it was obvious that a strong breeze would bring about its collapse. That wind came in the form of a revolutionary doctor named Sun Yat-sen, founder of China’s Nationalist party, Kuomintang (KMT). In 1911, China’s last dynasty finally collapsed; Sun’s KMT stepped in to fill the void, and Imperial China became the ROC. By this time Taiwan had been under Japanese control for nearly two decades, and the nascent ROC had far bigger things to worry about than reclaiming Imperial China’s former and farthest-flung possession. From the creation of the ROC in 1911 until the defeat of Japan in 1945, Taiwan remained firmly in Japanese hands, while the ROC battled for its very existence on the Chinese mainland.
All this would change on 25 October 1945 (known as Retrocession Day in Taiwan). Japan, defeated in WWII, was forced to cede all overseas possessions. Taiwan, now a spoil of war, was handed over to the ROC.
Though some say the Taiwanese were relieved to be rid of the Japanese, others maintain that most already grown accustomed to the stability offered by the Japanese. In any event, any goodwill towards their Chinese ‘liberators’ would be short-lived. Almost immediately following the defeat of Japan, civil war broke out on the mainland between the KMT (led by Chiang Kai-shek) and Chairman Mao’s communist forces. Embroiled in civil war, Chiang sent an inept general named Chen Yi to govern Taiwan; Chen Yi and his thugs plundered Taiwanese homes and shops, sending anything of value back to the mainland to help support the Nationalist fight against the communists. Riots against the KMT broke out, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.
Though adept at slaughtering civilians, Chiang’s KMT proved less so at fighting soldiers, and before long Mao’s communist forces had driven the KMT from the mainland. Fully defeated, Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, followed by a steady stream of soldiers, monks, artists, peasants and intellectuals. One of the first things Chiang did when he arrived in Taiwan was to send Chen Yi back to the mainland (he was later executed). By 1949, the ROC consisted of Taiwan, Penghu, and a number of islands off the Chinese coast including Matsu and Kinmen. These straits islands were quickly set up as military zones, both to rebuff any mainland attack and to set up a base of operations from which Chiang vowed he would use to retake the Chinese mainland.
On Taiwan, Chiang proved the able state governor that he never had been in China, instituting a series of land reform policies that successfully laid the foundation for Taiwan’s future economic success. While advertising his government in exile as ‘Free China, ’ based on the democratic ideals of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang’s Taiwan was anything but free. While economic development was swift, Chiang’s rule was quick to crush any political dissent. The White Terror era of the 1950s was a frightening time in Taiwanese history, when people literally disappeared if they spoke against the government. Political dissidents were either shipped to Green Island to serve long sentences or executed outright.
During the Korean War, the Americans were protective of Taiwan, assuring the Taiwanese that they would repel any communist attacks. Military outbreaks between China and Taiwan were common in the 1950s and 1960s, with Kinmen subjected to regular shelling. Events such as the August 23rd Artillery War kept Chiang’s ‘Free China’ firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of anti-communist America. At the time of the KMT arrival, the Taiwanese had been heavily indoctrinated by the Japanese and spoke little Mandarin. They were also accustomed to a higher standard of living than the mainland Chinese and felt an ingrained superiority towards the poorer and less well-educated immigrants, especially soldiers who often came from humble backgrounds. The KMT issued laws requiring all Taiwanese to speak Mandarin, in an attempt to ‘resinicise’ the population. The Taiwanese resented the heavy handedness of the KMT, and there were various outbreaks of rebellion and clashes with military police.
Though Taiwan prospered during the 1950s and 1960s, her economy becoming one of the richest in Asia, and her population growing to 16 million, big changes were on the horizon as the 1970s began. In 1971, Chiang Kai-shek withdrew the ROC from the UN Security Council after the council’s admission of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In 1979, America, the ROC’s staunchest international ally, switched official recognition from the ROC to the PRC. US policy towards Taiwan would now be dictated by the Taiwan’s Relations Act, which, while promising to protect Taiwan militarily in the case of attack by mainland China, recognised Beijing as the sole capital of a China which included Taiwan.
Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, his presidential duties taken over by his son, Chiang Ching-kuo. The younger Chiang’s rule over Taiwan was softer than that of his father; in an effort to improve relations with native Taiwanese, Chiang allowed more Taiwanese to take up political positions. The late 1970s saw increasing political dissent in Taiwan. One of the most noteworthy uprisings of the late martial law–period place occurred in December 1979.
Considered a turning point in Taiwan’s shift from authoritarian rule to democracy, the Kaohsiung Incident occurred when editors of Meilidao, a publication often critical of the government, organised a rally to celebrate International Human Rights Day. The day before the rally, two organisers were arrested and beaten by police when they were caught handing out promotional flyers. On the day of the rally, scuffles broke out between police and protestors and the situation turned violent, changing from a peaceful event into a full-scale riot. Eight of the organisers were arrested, including Taiwan’s current vice president Annette Lu. Among the lawyers who represented the organisers was future Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian. Though it was a short-term defeat for the democracy advocates, the violence brought increasing support for democratic reforms. Public sentiment eventually forced the KMT to make political concessions. In 1986, with martial law still in effect, Taiwan’s first opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was formed. Chiang Ching-kuo, surprisingly, did not shut the party down, resulting in a large number of DPP candidates being elected to office, and culminating in the official formation of Taiwan’s first opposition party.
In 1987, Chiang Ching-kuo announced the end of martial law. The following year, Chiang passed away and his vice president, Lee Teng-hui, became the first Taiwanese-born ROC president. For Taiwan, a new era had begun.
With Taiwan all but excluded from the international community and China growing economically and militarily, Lee Teng-hui had his work cut out for him. Early in his presidency, Lee paid lip service to the ‘One China policy, ’ but as the years progressed he developed a more pro-independence stance. Mistrustful of Lee, China launched a series of missiles only 25km away from the Taiwanese coast in 1995. But the scare tactics backfired, and Taiwan reelected Lee Teng-hui in open elections the following year.
Sensing that the ‘stick’ approach had failed, China switched to carrots, and in 1998 offered to lift the ban on shipping and direct flights. The offer was rebuffed by Lee, who incensed China even further the next year by declaring openly his belief that China and Taiwan, as two separate countries, should enjoy ‘state to state’ relations.
In 2000, with Taiwan’s presidential elections looming on the horizon, there was much cross-Strait sabre rattling. Despite this, DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian won in a three-party race, ending 54 years of KMT rule in Taiwan. Though the election signalled pro-independence, Chen was widely seen as a disaster by Beijing. The newly elected Chen soon softened his stance somewhat, declaring in his inauguration speech that the status quo would be maintained as long as China did not attempt to take Taiwan by force. But Beijing was hardly won over by Chen’s words, demanding a firm commitment to the ‘One China principle.’
Chen found himself between a rock and a hard place, unable to please either his supporters or his detractors. As a result, cross-strait relations stalled during Chen’s first term, with the only glimmer of improvement being the opening of limited trade and travel between China and Taiwan’s offshore islands. Though often overshadowed by the more high-profile presidential election, Taiwan’s legislative election of 2001 was equally revolutionary, reducing the KMT (albeit temporarily) to minority party status in a legislature they’d once controlled with an iron grip.
Chen’s reelection in 2004, by the slimmest of margins, was surrounded by strange circumstances to say the least; an assassination attempt on the day before the election resulted in both president and vice president being mildly wounded, both by the same bullet. Needless to say, some felt the event was staged for sympathy. China, fearing that Chen’s reelection would embolden pro-independence factions, caused cross-strait tensions to be ratcheted to their highest level in years with the issuing of an ‘anti-secession law’. The law, in brief, codified China’s long-standing threat to attack Taiwan should the island’s leaders declare independence. Though Beijing’s move was protested by massive rallies throughout Taiwan, cross-strait tension seems to have abated somewhat since, and there’s been little outside of the usual sabre rattling for the past two years.
2006 brought a number of interesting political developments, as two major figures from Taiwan’s ‘old guard’ made much-touted visits to mainland China. Other major political stories of 2006 and 2007 have been the changing the names of various state-run departments and buildings to incorporate the word ‘Taiwan’ instead of ‘China, ’ and the large scale removal of thousands of statues of former dictator Chiang Kai-shek from many public spaces in Taiwan. As of this writing, there’s even talk of removing Chiang’s statue from one of Taipei’s most famous landmarks, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall; the hall’s name itself might have been changed to the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall by the time this edition goes to print. Probably the biggest political story of 2007 has been Taiwan’s extended state of political gridlock thanks to a number of high-profile corruption charges involving major figures from both the KMT and the DPP. What affect this will have on Taiwan’s internal and external situation in the coming years is anybody’s guess.