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  • Other Names: 高砂 (Takasago), Formosa
  • Chinese/Japanese: 台湾 (Táiwān / Taiwan)

Taiwan is an island located off the east coast of China. Home to numerous aboriginal groups, Taiwan became a base of operations for pirates and smugglers and the Portuguese in the 16th century, and the Dutch East India Company and Ming loyalist rebels in the 17th century, before being conquered by the Qing Dynasty towards the end of that century. The island was annexed by Japan in 1895, and regained its independence in 1945. Since 1949 it has constituted its own independent country, known officially as the Republic of China.


Medieval to 19th century

Though the Taiwan Strait is quite narrow, the crossing was historically relatively difficult. The seas could be quite dangerous, and typhoons presented a serious threat during certain times of year. Many areas were rendered relatively impassable by high mountains and malarial jungle. Further, aboriginal groups defended their territory tenaciously.[1]

Chinese may have begun settling on Taiwan in the early Ming Dynasty, if not earlier. These small early communities consisted chiefly of merchant shippers and the like. In the 16th century, Ming policies banning Chinese from trading at Japanese or Southeast Asian ports made most of these previously above-board merchants and traders into illegal smugglers. Taiwan then thus became a haven of smugglers and pirates, along with sites in Kyushu, the Philippines, and elsewhere. These so-called wakô ("Japanese brigands") were mostly Chinese, but included Japanese, Koreans, and Southeast Asians as well, and raided ships and ports all along the Chinese and Korean coasts.[2]

In the beginning years of the Edo period, several daimyô launched missions to attempt to establish trade relations with the island. These included a mission led by Arima Harunobu in 1609, and one led by the Ômura clan in 1616. However, all were unsuccessful, in large part because the indigenous peoples had no unified, centralized, or complexly structured government with whom the samurai could negotiate; on some of these missions, the samurai were attacked by the aborigines and suffered casualties.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the island, giving it the name "Beautiful Island" (Ilha Formosa). However, they did not establish a permanent base on the island, satisfied with their base on Macao. The Dutch established themselves on Taiwan beginning in 1622, and built the trading post of Fort Zeelandia in 1624 just outside of Anping Harbor (Tainan), while the Spanish established themselves around the same time with a short-lived base at Keelung on the northern end of the island. The Dutch then came into conflict with Japanese merchants already established on the island, as the two groups competed for control of the island's ports. In 1628, trader Hamada Yahyoee, acting on orders from Nagasaki bugyô Suetsugu Heizô, attacked the Dutch fort and captured the governor, Pieter Nuyts, who had led an unsuccessful mission to Japan the previous year. Nuyts was released soon afterwards, but the Japanese took his son and four others captive, exchanging them later for Nuyts himself, who then remained a hostage in Japan for four years. Events like these produced great difficulties for both the Dutch and Japanese trading communities on Taiwan, but formal relations between the shogunate and VOC were restored in 1632; tensions and conflicts between the Dutch and Japanese on the island dissipated further after the VOC gaining exclusive rights to trade at Nagasaki, and after the Japanese were forbidden to go abroad (or to return to Japan) after 1635.[2]

The Dutch grew powerful on Taiwan, exporting for example as much as 1.85 million taels of silver (527,250 florins) from Japan via Taiwan in 1639 alone. By the 1640s, they had pushed both the Spanish and Japanese smugglers & pirates off the island.[1] One of the fort's chief individual trading partners was the smuggler/pirate/trader Zheng Zhilong, who traded gold, silks, and other goods to the Dutch in exchange for Japanese silver, but also competed against them. Taiwan also became a major source of sugar in the region at this time. Some number of Chinese settlers gathered around the Spanish and Dutch settlements, but initially most of them returned to the Chinese mainland regularly, spending only part of the year on Taiwan, and thus leaving it to the Dutch to work out their position on the island (especially vis-a-vis the aborigines).[1]

As the Ming Dynasty fell in the 1640s, many loyalists fled to the south of China, and to Taiwan; after being driven out of mainland China in 1646, they launched numerous raids on the South China coast, and continued to hold out against the Qing until the 1680s. A Qing attempt to blockade Taiwan in 1656 failed; the following year, they implemented a policy known as qianjie, pulling populations away from the south China coast, in order to protect them from raids. Further Qing attacks on the island in 1664 and 1665 also failed.[3]

Meanwhile, Zheng Zhilong's son Zheng Chenggong (Coxinga) took Fort Zeelandia in 1662, driving the Dutch from the island. He died later that year, but his son, and then grandson, continued to command the trade and combat efforts. The loyalists sent a number of requests to the Tokugawa shogunate asking for support, but ultimately received none. While the Qing was preoccupied dealing with the Revolt of Three Feudatories in 1673-1681, the loyalists continued to expand their lively and profitable trade networks, and before long, the population of Chinese on the island reached 100,000. They grew and exported considerable amounts of rice and sugar, as well as engaging in businesses such as shipbuilding and trading in salt.[3]

Following the end of the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, the Qing assembled a fleet of some three hundred warships, to be commanded by Shi Lang, one of Zheng Zhilong's men who had surrendered to the Manchus in the 1650s and whose father, brother, and son had all been killed by Zheng Chenggong. Shi Lang set sail from Fujian in early July 1683, destroying forces loyal to the Zhengs on the Pescadores before making his way to Taiwan, where he vanquished the last of the Ming loyalists within three months,[4] claiming the island for Chinese territory for the first time in history. There were debates at court as to what to do with Taiwan; while Shi Lang and others advocated that it be used as a fortress helping to defend the coast from European navies (and, incidentally, as a trading site), other court officials adhered more closely to the traditional view associating maritime trade with disorder, and with piracy and smuggling, and feared that it would lead to dangerous outflows of silver from the country, and of vital state secrets. In the end, the Kangxi Emperor decided to incorporate Taiwan into Fujian province, designating it a prefecture with its capital at Tainan, and dividing it into three counties, each governed by a civilian magistrate. A force of 8,000 men would be garrisoned on the island. However, the Qing did not colonize Taiwan; Chinese immigration to Taiwan was to be severely restricted, and while Chinese military and civilian settlement did, in the end, end up pushing many aboriginal tribes from the plains into the mountains, large portions of the island were essentially left completely under aboriginal control. For the next two centuries or so, Taiwan was to be something of a frontier land, occupied by opportunists, maritime traders, and optimistic farmer/settlers, governed by local officials who made considerable personal fortunes managing commercial and other affairs in the Fujian/Taiwan region, while higher-level authorities remained largely hands-off.[5]

A rebellion in 1721 in which a man named Zhu Yigui declared himself King of Taiwan was quickly suppressed. Zhu came to Taiwan from Fujian as an official's servant, and soon afterward declared a rebellion; he and his hundreds of followers seized the prefectural capital and held it for two months before being defeated by a son of Admiral Shi Lang.[6] Concerned about the potential for further rebellions or uprisings, the Yongzheng Emperor subdivided several of Taiwan's counties, such that a greater number of officials would now each oversee a smaller portion of the island; he also permitted men emigrating to the island to bring their wives and children with them, making for a fuller society, and set aside some land exclusively for the aborigines, while opening up allowance for Chinese settlers to rent land in other parts of the island from the aborigines.[7]

As Taiwan gradually became more Sinified - that is, as it gradually became more settled, more controlled by Qing authorities, and more incorporated into Qing society - the island, and its people, came to be rhetorically divided into two categories. "Fresh" or "raw" "barbarians" (生蕃, shēngfān) were those peoples and lands relatively untouched by Qing influence or control, and still uncivilized from the Qing point of view; by contrast, those areas and people who had been "civilized" in the Qing view were known as "cooked" or "ripe" "barbarians" (熟蕃, shúfān).[8]

Late 19th century

Thus it was that nearly two hundred years later, in the 1870s, while there were some very long-established official, mercantile, and agricultural communities & lineages on the island, there were still significant portions of the island where the aboriginal peoples were dominant and where Qing officials had no effective power or control. This set of circumstances would have significant foreign relations impacts as the region moved into the late 19th century.

In 1871, a number of Miyako Islanders became shipwrecked on Taiwan, where they encountered and were killed by a group of Taiwanese aborigines. The Meiji government responded with a punitive military expedition, led by Saigô Tsugumichi and launched to punish the aborigines for the murder of Japanese subjects. The fighting lasted less than two months. This invasion spurred considerable tensions, however, between Japan and China, with China rejecting Japan's claims that the Miyako Islanders were Japanese subjects, and asserting its own claims over Taiwan while denying responsibility for the aborigines' actions. Woodblock prints widely circulated in Japan depicting and describing the events of the expedition are considered the first shinbun nishiki-e, or "news prints," informing the public of official contemporary events in a relatively timely and accurate manner. A treaty was signed in October of that year in which China admitted less than total sovereign control over certain areas of southern Taiwan (i.e. areas dominated by aboriginal groups), recognized the Ryukyuan peoples as Japanese subjects, and agreed to pay an indemnity of 500,000 taels to Japan. The tensions still simmered, however, and very nearly came to all-out war before the decade was up, in order to decide more definitively Chinese and Japanese claims to both Taiwan and the Ryûkyû Islands. The issue was complicated by advice from Westerners, Charles DeLong and Charles LeGendre, who suggested to the Japanese that since the Chinese did not exert effective (de facto) control over those sections of Taiwan dominated by the aborigines, that territory was essentially terra nullius, and if Japan were to occupy the territory, it could be rightfully Japan's, under Western/modern international law.

In the end, in 1879, Japan unilaterally annexed the Ryukyus over Beijing's objections, but negotiations between the two sides, facilitated in part by Ulysses S. Grant, prevented the outbreak of further violent conflict.[9]

Japanese Colony (1895-1945)

Following Japanese victory in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, Taiwan became Japanese territory. Residents were allowed a two-year period during which they were free to relocate to mainland China. Very few did so, with the vast majority remaining in Taiwan and officially becoming Japanese subjects. This fact has been used to support arguments that residents of Taiwan felt only weak loyalty to the Chinese state, and/or weak associations with Chinese identity. However, it is likely that more practical matters, such as the expense and difficulty of moving to the mainland, were significant factors for many individuals. When Taiwan reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1945, the vast majority of these Japanese subjects applied to regain Chinese citizenship, signalling perhaps that they possessed strong ties to China all along, or simply that they had strong ties to Taiwan and were determined to stay regardless of which distant government controlled the territory.[10]

The colonization of Taiwan has been described by historian Mark Peattie as "an imperial accessory, a laboratory where the 'new boy' among the colonial powers could show off his modernizing skills, not the heart of Japan's strategic concerns."[11] Those concerns lay chiefly in Korea.

The Japanese authorities in Taiwan were headed by a Governor-General, with Kabayama Sukenori being the first to hold the post, assisted by a Chief of Home Affairs. Among Kabayama's first acts was to establish a local police force, to quell anti-Japanese protests and maintain order, since it was too expensive to maintain true military units on the island. Police were stationed in nearly every village and town outside of the most remote aboriginal-dominated areas, and came to serve as low-level colonial officials, not just working to maintain the peace, but also to collect taxes, oversee public works projects, and otherwise oversee or implement colonial projects.[12] These police included many Ryukyuans, while other Ryukyuans served in Taiwan as teachers, and in other positions; these people, who had only just "become" "Japanese" a few decades earlier, and who spoke pidgin or creole Japanese, were now the representatives of the Japanese people and of the Empire, teaching Japanese language, culture, attitudes, civics, to the "colonized" Taiwanese.[13]

Though Tokyo had some experience guiding colonial administration, as it had done in Okinawa and Hokkaidô, it had no particular long-term plans for Taiwan, and at first allowed an administrative vacuum to develop; into this vacuum flowed military officials inexperienced at political and economic administration, and civilian entrepreneur adventurers and settlers simply looking to make easy profits. It was not until several years later, under the fourth governor-general, Kodama Gentarô, and his Chief of Home Affairs Gotô Shinpei, that a directed system of administration and development was more fully put into place. Eager to avoid embarrassment in the eyes of the colonial powers of the world, Gotô directed extensive research efforts which then served as the basis for administrative decisions and policies. Over the course of the next ten years or so, the Kodama-Gotô administration transformed Taiwan into a well-coordinate and economically viable territory.

Among Gotô's many reforms was the revival of a traditional Chinese village system known as bǎojiǎ (保甲, J: hokô), which was used to maintain the peace alongside the official police system, as well as for a variety of local administrative tasks, including information gathering, the search and seizure of those suspected of planning uprisings, and as militias. While this was not expanded to other parts of the empire, Japanese officials drew upon the experiment with the baojia system in Taiwan to later appropriate or make use of traditional leadership structures in other regions.[12]

State Shinto was expanded to Taiwan, with the Grand Shrine of Taiwan being established in 1901. This was the first kanpei taisha to be established overseas; in total, over 200 Shinto shrines were established in Taiwan during the colonial period.[14]

Scholars such as Torii Ryûzô and Yanagi Sôetsu began to expound on the connections between Taiwan (particularly the aboriginal cultures) and Japan. Yanagi emphasized the connections, his mingei theory suggesting Taiwan, along with Okinawa, Korea, and Hokkaidô, as storehouses of traditional culture, where that which has been lost in the modernization process in mainland Japan can still be seen; meanwhile, however, archaeologists and anthropologists like Torii found that the Okinawans and Ainu had more in common with the Japanese people than with the Taiwanese. Both of these theories, in different ways, were cited in support of Japanese colonial activities, and cultural assimilation policies, throughout the Empire.

Republic of China

A grave at the Chinese cemetery in Yokohama, inscribed with the date of death in the "Year of the Republic" dating system. The 77th year of the Republic of China (中華民国77年), i.e. the 77th year since 1911, was 1988.

Following the Japanese defeat in World War II, Taiwan was restored to Chinese sovereignty, i.e. the control of the Republic of China.[15] It remained connected to the mainland for only four years, however, before splitting off in 1949 as the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government of the Republic of China fled into exile on the island, leaving the Communist government to establish the People's Republic of China as ruling the entire Chinese mainland.

The Kuomintang initially imposed Mandarin language and other forms of Sinicization onto Taiwan, seeking to transform the island (back) into "China," and to have the people of Taiwan think of themselves as "Chinese." Few spoke Mandarin at this time: most were speakers of Japanese, a number of different regional Chinese languages or dialects, and/or indigenous Austronesian languages. Nevertheless, Mandarin language and the "Year of the Republic" dating system were made standard,[16] and Chinese-language names were assigned to most places, with a great many streets being named after Chinese people or places. The Republic named numerous streets and other locations after Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-Sen.[17]

Residents of the island were given the opportunity in 1945 to file applications to regain Chinese citizenship. Though nationality laws put in place by the Qing in 1909 (just before the dynasty's fall) had been based on bloodline (and thus on ethnicity), these applications were not. Regardless of one's ancestry, one could apply to (re)gain Chinese citizenship so long as one had formal statements accounting for one's residence in Taiwan throughout the colonial period.[10]

The Republic of China government held strongly for decades to the idea that it represented the one, true, legitimate Chinese government. The government rejected a proposal in the late 1960s that would have allowed Taiwan to remain a member state in the United Nations in exchange for allowing the People's Republic to take over the seat of "China"; in 1971, Taiwan resigned from the UN entirely, just before the organization voted to recognize the PRC as the legitimate government representing "China." Taiwan has not had a seat in the United Nations since. Taiwan further rejected in 1981 the opportunity to participate in the Olympics as "Taiwan," instead insisting that its athletes compete under a name involving the word "Chinese." As a result of this decision, and pressure from the PRC, Taiwanese athletes have ever since then competed not under the name "Taiwan," nor under the Republic of China (Taiwan) flag, nor with their own national anthem, but rather under the team name "Chinese Taipei," the Olympics flag, and a generic Olympians' anthem.[17]

Today, Taiwan is home to some 23 million citizens,[17] including roughly 520,000 members of a number of different indigenous Austronesian tribes or peoples.[18] On lists that include it as a country, Taiwan is generally regarded as the 22nd largest economy in the world.[17] The vast majority of national governments in the world, however, along with international organizations such as the World Health Assembly, do not formally recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state, due to pressure from the PRC; seventeen countries do formally recognize Taiwan, however, and a great many others maintain de facto ties, including unofficial diplomatic relations, economic agreements, educational exchange arrangements, and so forth, albeit without official recognition. Relations with the United States are conducted via the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the US Congress in 1979. Taiwan maintains "Cultural and Economic Offices" in a number of US cities which function as if they were consulates, and the US similarly maintains a consulate-like institution in Taipei known as the American Institute in Taiwan; Taiwanese presidents and prime ministers visit Washington DC periodically as a "transit stop," avoiding officially recognizing any actions or events as official state visits or diplomatic meetings.[17]

Though the country is still most officially known as the Republic of China, and though its constitution still represents itself as the rightful government over China proper, Mongolia, Taiwan, and the entire South China Sea region,[17] many in Taiwan today feel a disconnect from Chinese political, national, or even ethnic identity, and consider themselves "Taiwanese" rather than "Chinese." While Taiwanese politics regarding pro- and anti-Chinese parties, questions of how Taiwan should approach commercial relations with China and other practical matters, and so forth remain complex and hotly debated, there has nevertheless been a strong shift in recent decades away from notions that Taiwan is, or should regard itself as, "China," and towards a more distinct Taiwanese identity.


  • Mark Peattie and Ramon Myers (eds.), The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945, Princeton University Press (1984).
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 53-54.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Arano Yasunori, "The Formation of a Japanocentric World Order," International Journal of Asian Studies 2:2 (2005), 189.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Spence, 55.
  4. Spence, 56.
  5. Spence, 57-58.
  6. Spence, 68-69.
  7. Spence, 85.
  8. Ono Masako, Tomita Chinatsu, Kanna Keiko, Taguchi Megumi, "Shiryô shôkai Kishi Akimasa bunko Satsuyû kikô," Shiryôhenshûshitsu kiyô 31 (2006), 254.
  9. Uemura Hideaki, "The Colonial Annexation of Okinawa and the Logic of International Law: The Formation of an 'Indigenous People' in East Asia," Japanese Studies 23:2 (2003), 107-124.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Dan Shao, "Bloodline & Borderline: Nationality Law and Sovereignty: Contestation over Taiwan 1894-1980," talk given at Shape Shifters: Journeys Across Terrains of Race and Identity conference, University of California, Santa Barbara, 18 March 2016.
  11. Peattie, 16.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Peattie, 27-28.
  13. Mashiko Hidenori, "The Creation of 'Okinawans' and Formation of the Japanese Nation-State," Social Science Japan 14 (1998), 12.
  14. Mitsuhashi Takeshi and Sugahara Koji, "Kaigai jinja," Nihon no jinja 73. Translated on blog [https://thekojiki.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/overseas-shinto/ 天地間に Between Heaven and Earth.
  15. Peattie, 22.
  16. Much as the imperial era name is used in a variety of official and everyday contexts in Japan (for example, writing Heisei 30 instead of 2018, or Reiwa 2 instead of 2020), in Taiwan the "year of the Republic" 民国〇年 is frequently used. Year 1 in this counting system is 1911, so for example 民国90年 (Year of the Republic 90) was used to represent the year 2000.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 17.5 Chris Horton, "Taiwan's Status is a Geopolitical Absurdity," The Atlantic, 8 July 2019.
  18. Greg Dvorak and Miyume Tanji, "Introduction: Indigenous Asias," Amerasia Journal 41:1 (2015), xxi.