Taiwan: Facts and History

Aerial view of cityscape at Taipei center district, Taiwan
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The island of Taiwan floats in the South China Sea, just over one hundred miles from the coast of mainland China. Over the centuries, it has played an intriguing role in the history of East Asia, as a refuge, a mythical land, or a land of opportunity.

Today, Taiwan labors under the burden of not being fully recognized diplomatically. Nonetheless, it has a booming economy and is now also a functioning capitalist democracy.

Capital and Major Cities

Capital: Taipei, population 2,635,766 (2011 data)

Major Cities:

New Taipei City, 3,903,700

Kaohsiung, 2,722,500

Taichung, 2,655,500

Tainan, 1,874,700

Taiwan's Government

Taiwan, formally the Republic of China, is a parliamentary democracy. Suffrage is universal for citizens 20 years old and older.

The current head of state is President Ma Ying-jeou. Premier Sean Chen is the head of government and President of the unicameral legislature, known as the Legislative Yuan. The President appoints the Premier. The Legislature has 113 seats, including 6 set aside to represent Taiwan's aboriginal population. Both executive and legislative members serve four-year terms.

Taiwan also has a Judicial Yuan, which administers the courts. The highest court is the Council of Grand Justices; its 15 members are tasked with interpreting the constitution. There are lower courts with specific jurisdictions as well, including the Control Yuan which monitors corruption.

Although Taiwan is a prosperous and fully-functioning democracy, it is not recognized diplomatically by many other nations. Only 25 states have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, most of them small states in Oceania or Latin America because the People's Republic of China (mainland China) has long withdrawn its own diplomats from any nation that recognized Taiwan. The only European state that formally recognizes Taiwan is Vatican City.

Population of Taiwan

The total population of Taiwan is approximately 23.2 million as of 2011. Taiwan's demographic make-up is extremely interesting, both in terms of history and ethnicity.

Some 98% of the Taiwanese are ethnically Han Chinese, but their ancestors migrated to the island in several waves and speak different languages. Approximately 70% of the population are Hoklo, meaning that they are descended from Chinese immigrants from Southern Fujian who arrived in the 17th century. Another 15% are Hakka, descendants of migrants from central China, mainly Guangdong Province. The Hakka are supposed to have immigrated in five or six major waves beginning just after the reign of Qin Shihuangdi (246 - 210 BCE).

In addition to the Hoklo and Hakka waves, a third group of mainland Chinese arrived in Taiwan after the Nationalist Guomindang (KMT) lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong and the Communists. Descendants of this third wave, which took place in 1949, are called waishengren and make up 12% of Taiwan's total population.

Finally, 2% of Taiwanese citizens are aboriginal people, divided into thirteen major ethnic groups. This is the Ami, Atayal, Bunun, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Sakizaya, Tao (or Yami), Thao, and Truku. Taiwanese aborigines are Austronesian, and DNA evidence suggests that Taiwan was the starting point for the peopling of the Pacific islands by Polynesian explorers.


The official language of Taiwan is Mandarin; however, the 70% of the population who are ethnic Hoklo speak the Hokkien dialect of Min Nan (Southern Min) Chinese as their mother tongue. Hokkien is not mutually intelligible with Cantonese or Mandarin. Most Hoklo people in Taiwan speak both Hokkien and Mandarin fluently.

The Hakka people also have their own dialect of Chinese which is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin, Cantonese or Hokkien - the language is also called Hakka. Mandarin is the language of instruction in Taiwan's schools, and most radio and TV programs are broadcast in the official language as well.

The aboriginal Taiwanese have their own languages, though most can also speak Mandarin. These aboriginal languages belong to the Austronesian language family rather than the Sino-Tibetan family. Finally, some elderly Taiwanese speak Japanese, learned in school during the Japanese occupation (1895-1945), and do not understand Mandarin.

Religion in Taiwan

Taiwan's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and 93% of the population profess one faith or another. Most adhere to Buddhism, often in combination with the philosophies of Confucianism and/or Taoism.

Approximately 4.5% of Taiwanese are Christians, including about 65% of Taiwan's aboriginal people. There are a wide variety of other faiths represented by less than 1% of the population: Islam, Mormonism, Scientology, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witnesses, Tenrikyo, Mahikari, Liism, etc.

Taiwan's Geography

Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa, is a large island about 180 kilometers (112 miles) off the coast of southeast China. It has a total area of 35,883 square kilometers (13,855 square miles).

The western third of the island is flat and fertile, so the vast majority of Taiwan's people live there. In contrast, the eastern two-thirds are rugged and mountainous, and hence much more sparsely populated. One of the most famous sites in eastern Taiwan is the Taroko National Park, with its landscape of peaks and gorges.

The highest point in Taiwan is Yu Shan, 3,952 meters (12,966 feet) above sea level. The lowest point is sea level.

Taiwan sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire, situated at a suture between the Yangtze, Okinawa and Philippine tectonic plates. As a result, it is seismically active; on September 21, 1999, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake hit the island, and smaller tremors are quite common.

Climate of Taiwan

Taiwan has a tropical climate, with a monsoonal rainy season from January through March. Summers are hot and humid. The average temperature in July is about 27°C (81°F), while in February the average drops to 15°C (59°F). Taiwan is a frequent target of Pacific typhoons.

Taiwan's Economy

Taiwan is one of Asia's "Tiger Economies," along with Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong. After World War II, the island received a huge influx of cash when the fleeing KMT brought millions in gold and foreign currency from the mainland's treasury to Taipei. Today, Taiwan is a capitalist powerhouse and a major exporter of electronics and other high-tech products. It had an estimated 5.2% growth rate in its GDP in 2011, despite the global economic downturn and weakened demand for consumer goods.

Taiwan's unemployment rate is 4.3% (2011), and a per capita GDP of $37,900 US. As of March 2012, $1 US = 29.53 Taiwanese New Dollars.

History of Taiwan

Humans first settled the island of Taiwan as early as 30,000 years ago, although the identity of those first inhabitants is unclear. Around 2,000 BCE or earlier, farming people from the mainland of China immigrated to Taiwan. These farmers spoke an Austronesian language; their descendants today are called Taiwanese aboriginal people. Although many of them stayed in Taiwan, others continued on to populate the Pacific Islands, becoming the Polynesian peoples of Tahiti, Hawai'i, New Zealand, Easter Island, etc.

Waves of Han Chinese settlers arrived in Taiwan via the off-shore Penghu Islands, perhaps as early as 200 BCE. During the "Three Kingdoms" period, the emperor of Wu sent explorers to seek islands in the Pacific; they returned with thousands of captive aboriginal Taiwanese. The Wu decided that Taiwan was barbaric land, not worthy of joining the Sinocentric trade and tribute system. Larger numbers of Han Chinese began to come in the 13th and then again in the 16th centuries.

Some accounts state that one or two ships from Admiral Zheng He's first voyage might have visited Taiwan in 1405. European awareness of Taiwan began in 1544 when the Portuguese sighted the island and named it Ilha Formosa, "beautiful island." In 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi of Japan sent an armada to take Taiwan, but the aboriginal Taiwanese fought the Japanese off. Dutch traders also established a fort on Tayouan in 1624, which they called Castle Zeelandia. This was an important way-station for the Dutch on their way to Tokugawa Japan, where they were the only Europeans allowed in to trade. The Spanish also occupied northern Taiwan from 1626 to 1642 but were driven off by the Dutch.

In 1661-62, pro-Ming military forces fled to Taiwan to escape the Manchus, who had defeated the ethnic-Han Chinese Ming Dynasty in 1644 and were extending their control southward. The pro-Ming forces expelled the Dutch from Taiwan and set up the Kingdom of Tungnin on the southwest coast. This kingdom lasted just two decades, from 1662 to 1683, and was beset by tropical disease and a lack of food. In 1683, the Manchu Qing Dynasty destroyed the Tungnin fleet and conquered the renegade little kingdom.

During the Qing annexation of Taiwan, different Han Chinese groups fought one another and the Taiwanese aborigines. Qing troops put down a serious rebellion on the island in 1732, driving the rebels to either assimilate or take refuge high in the mountains. Taiwan became a full province of Qing China in 1885 with Taipei as its capital.

This Chinese move was precipitated in part by increasing Japanese interest in Taiwan. In 1871, the Paiwan aboriginal people of southern Taiwan captured fifty-four sailors who were stranded after their ship ran aground. The Paiwan beheaded all the shipwrecked crew, who were from the Japanese tributary state of the Ryukyu Islands.

Japan demanded that Qing China compensate them for the incident. However, the Ryukyus were also a tributary of the Qing, so China rejected Japan's claim. Japan reiterated the demand, and the Qing officials refused again, citing the wild and uncivilized nature of Taiwanese aborigines. In 1874, the Meiji government sent an expeditionary force of 3,000 to invade Taiwan; 543 of the Japanese died, but they managed to establish a presence on the island. They were not able to establish control of the entire island until the 1930s, however, and had to use chemical weapons and machine guns to subdue the aboriginal warriors.

When Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, they signed control of Taiwan over to mainland China. However, since China was embroiled in the Chinese Civil War, the United States was supposed to serve as the primary occupying power in the immediate post-war period.

Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government, the KMT, disputed American occupation rights in Taiwan and set up a Republic of China (ROC) government there in October of 1945. The Taiwanese greeted the Chinese as liberators from harsh Japanese rule, but the ROC soon proved corrupt and inept.

When the KMT lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong and the Communists, the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan and based their government in Taipei. Chiang Kai-shek never relinquished his claim over mainland China; likewise, the People's Republic of China continued to claim sovereignty over Taiwan.

The United States, preoccupied with the occupation of Japan, abandoned the KMT in Taiwan to its fate, fully expecting that the Communists would soon route the Nationalists from the island. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, however, the US changed its position on Taiwan; President Harry S Truman sent the American Seventh Fleet into the Straits between Taiwan and the mainland to prevent the island from falling to the Communists. The US has supported Taiwanese autonomy ever since.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan was under the authoritarian one-party rule of Chiang Kai-shek until his death in 1975. In 1971, the United Nations recognized the People's Republic of China as the proper holder of the Chinese seat in the UN (both the Security Council and the General Assembly). The Republic of China (Taiwan) was expelled.

In 1975, Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-Kuo, succeeded his father. Taiwan received another diplomatic blow in 1979 when the United States withdrew its recognition from the Republic of China and instead recognized the People's Republic of China.

Chiang Ching-Kuo gradually loosened his grip on absolute power during the 1980s, rescinding the state of martial law that had lasted since 1948. Meanwhile, Taiwan's economy boomed on the strength of high-tech exports. The younger Chiang passed away in 1988, and further political and social liberalization led to the free election of Lee Teng-hui as president in 1996.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Taiwan: Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/taiwan-facts-and-history-195091. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Taiwan: Facts and History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/taiwan-facts-and-history-195091 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Taiwan: Facts and History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/taiwan-facts-and-history-195091 (accessed June 7, 2023).