A Brief History of Taiwan

Early History, Modern Era, and Cold War Period

Merged flag of China and Taiwan
Flags of China (left) and Taiwan (right). ronniechua / Getty Images

Located 100 miles off the coast of China, Taiwan has had a complicated history and relationship with China.

Early History

For thousands of years, Taiwan had been home to nine plains tribes. The island has attracted explorers for centuries that have come to mine sulfur, gold, and other natural resources.

Han Chinese began crossing the Taiwan Strait during the 15th century. Then, the Spanish invaded Taiwan in 1626 and, with the help of the Ketagalan (one of the plains tribes), discovered sulfur, a main ingredient in gunpowder, in Yangmingshan, a mountain range that overlooks Taipei. After the Spanish and Dutch were forced out of Taiwan, Mainland Chinese returned in 1697 to mine sulfur after a huge fire in China destroyed 300 tons of sulfur.

Prospectors looking for gold started arriving in the late Qing Dynasty after railroad workers found gold while washing their lunch boxes in the Keelung River, 45 minutes northeast of Taipei. During this age of maritime discovery, legends claimed there was a treasure island full of gold. Explorers headed to Taiwan in search of gold.

During the early 17th century, both the Spanish and the Dutch attempted to colonize Taiwan, then called Formosa, as part of the ongoing competition among European powers for increased trade and power. The Spanish colony was on the north of the island, and the Dutch settled in the south. After several years, the Dutch emerged victorious until they, too, were ejected from Taiwan by anti-Qing dynasty rebels.

Entering the Modern Era

After the Manchus overthrew the Ming Dynasty on the Chinese mainland, the rebel Ming loyalist Koxinga retreated to Taiwan in 1662 and drove out the Dutch, establishing ethnic Chinese control over the island. Koxinga’s forces were defeated by the Manchu Qing Dynasty’s forces in 1683 and parts of Taiwan began to come under the control of the Qing empire. During this time, many aborigines retreated to the mountains where many remain to this day. During the Sino-French War (1884-1885), Chinese forces routed French troops in battles in northeastern Taiwan. In 1885, the Qing empire designated Taiwan as China’s 22nd province.

The Japanese, who had had their eye on Taiwan since the late 16th century, succeeded in gaining control of the island after China was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). When China lost the war with Japan in 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan as a colony and the Japanese occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Japan relinquished control of Taiwan and the government of the Republic of China (ROC), led by Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), re-established Chinese control over the island. After the Chinese Communists defeated ROC government forces in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), the KMT-led ROC regime retreated to Taiwan and established the island as a base of operations to fight back to the Chinese mainland.

The new People’s Republic of China (PRC) government on the mainland, led by Mao Zedong, began preparations to “liberate” Taiwan by military force. This began a period of Taiwan’s de facto political independence from the Chinese mainland which continues today.

The Cold War Period

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the United States, seeking to prevent the further spread of communism in Asia, sent the Seventh Fleet to patrol the Taiwan Strait and deter Communist China from invading Taiwan. US military intervention forced Mao’s government to delay its plan to invade Taiwan. At the same time, with US backing, the ROC regime on Taiwan continued to hold China’s seat in the United Nations.

Aid from the US and a successful land reform program helped the ROC government solidify its control over the island and modernize the economy. However, under the pretext of ongoing civil war, Chiang Kai-shek continued to suspend the ROC constitution and Taiwan remained under martial law. Chiang’s government began allowing local elections in the 1950s, but the central government remained under authoritarian one-party rule by the KMT.

Chiang promised to fight back and recover the mainland and built up troops on islands off the Chinese coast still under ROC control. In 1954, an attack by Chinese Communist forces on those islands led the US to sign a Mutual Defense Treaty with Chiang’s government.

When a second military crisis over the ROC-held offshore islands in 1958 led the US to the brink of war with Communist China, Washington forced Chiang Kai-shek to officially abandon his policy of fighting back to the mainland. Chiang remained committed to recovering the mainland through an anti-communist propaganda war based on Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (三民主義).

After Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975, his son Chiang Ching-kuo led Taiwan through a period of political, diplomatic and economic transition and rapid economic growth. In 1972, the ROC lost its seat in the United Nations to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In 1979, the United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing and ended it military alliance with the ROC on Taiwan. That same year, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the U.S. to help Taiwan defend itself from attack by the PRC.

Meanwhile, on the Chinese mainland, the Communist Party regime in Beijing began a period of “reform and opening” after Deng Xiao-ping took power in 1978. Beijing changed its Taiwan policy from armed “liberation” to “peaceful unification” under the “one country, two systems” framework. At the same time, the PRC refused to renounce the possible use of force against Taiwan.

Despite Deng’s political reforms, Chiang Ching-kuo continued a policy of “no contact, no negotiation, no compromise” toward the Communist Party regime in Beijing. The younger Chiang’s strategy for recovering the mainland focused on making Taiwan into a “model province” that would demonstrate the shortcomings of the communist system in mainland China.

Through government investment in high-tech, export-oriented industries, Taiwan experienced an “economic miracle” and its economy became one of Asia’s ‘four little dragons.’ In 1987, shortly before his death, Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law in Taiwan, ending the 40-year suspension of the ROC constitution and allowing political liberalization to begin. In the same year, Chiang also allowed people in Taiwan to visit relatives on the mainland for the first time since the end of the Chinese Civil War.

Democratization and the Unification-Independence Question

Under Lee Teng-hui, the ROC’s first Taiwan-born president, Taiwan experienced a transition to democracy and a Taiwanese identity distinct from China emerged among the island’s people.

Through a series of constitutional reforms, the ROC government went through a process of ‘Taiwanization.’ While officially continuing to claim sovereignty over all of China, the ROC recognized PRC control over the mainland and declared that the ROC government currently represents only the people of Taiwan and the ROC-controlled offshore islands of Penghu, Jinmen, and Mazu. The ban on opposition parties was lifted, allowing the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to compete with the KMT in local and national elections. Internationally, the ROC recognized the PRC while campaigning for the ROC to regain its seat in the United Nations and other international organizations.

In the 1990s, the ROC government maintained an official commitment to Taiwan’s eventual unification with the mainland but declared that in the current stage the PRC and ROC were independent sovereign states. The Taipei government also made democratization in mainland China a condition for future unification talks.

The number of people in Taiwan who viewed themselves as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese” rose dramatically during the 1990s and a growing minority advocated eventual independence for the island. In 1996, Taiwan witnessed its first direct presidential election, won by incumbent president Lee Teng-hui of the KMT. Prior to the election, the PRC launched missiles into the Taiwan Strait as a warning that it would use force to prevent Taiwan’s independence from China. In response, the US sent two aircraft carriers to the area to signal its commitment to defend Taiwan from a PRC attack.

In 2000, Taiwan’s government experienced its first party turnover when the candidate of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Chen Shui-bian, won the presidential election. During the eight years of Chen’s administration, relations between Taiwan and China were very tense. Chen adopted policies that emphasized Taiwan’s de facto political independence from China, including unsuccessful campaigns to replace the 1947 ROC constitution with a new constitution and to apply for membership in the United Nations under the name 'Taiwan.'

The Communist Party regime in Beijing worried that Chen was moving Taiwan toward legal independence from China and in 2005 passed the Anti-Secession Law authorizing the use of force against Taiwan to prevent its legal separation from the mainland.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait and slow economic growth helped the KMT return to power in the 2008 presidential election, won by Ma Ying-jeou. Ma promised to improve relations with Beijing and promote cross-Strait economic exchange while maintaining the political status.

On the basis of the so-called “92 consensus,” Ma’s government held historic rounds of economic negotiations with the mainland which opened direct postal, communication and navigation links across the Taiwan Strait, established the ECFA framework for a cross-Strait free trade area, and opened Taiwan to tourism from mainland China.

Despite this thawing in relations between Taipei and Beijing and increased economic integration across the Taiwan Strait, there has been little sign in Taiwan of increased support for political unification with the mainland. While the independence movement has lost some momentum, the vast majority of Taiwan’s citizens support a continuation of the status quo of de facto independence from China.

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Mack, Lauren. "A Brief History of Taiwan." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-taiwan-688021. Mack, Lauren. (2023, April 5). A Brief History of Taiwan. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-taiwan-688021 Mack, Lauren. "A Brief History of Taiwan." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-taiwan-688021 (accessed June 3, 2023).