The Historical Geography of Taiwan

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A. Prehistory

Taiwan is geologically connected with China. The dividing Taiwan Strait is a shallow continental shelf with few spots deeper than 80 meters. Several times after the Pleistocene period it even became a land bridge connecting Taiwan and China as the sea level descended during the ice age. The same situation occurred in the Holocene period, the most recent 10,000 years. As a result, ancient Chinese culture entered the island. Many relics found in Taiwan correspond to those found in China, such as the Fengpitou relics in Kaohsiung, the Dabankeng remains in Taipei, the Tsochen skull fossil in Tainan and the Changpin traces in Taitung. These are evidence that quite a few Taiwan's earliest residents actually came from the Asian continent.

B. Third Century A.D. and After

In ancient Chinese documents, Taiwan was once referred to as "peng lai," "dai yu," "ying zhou," "dao yi," "yi zhou" or "liu chiu." The exploration of Taiwan started in the Sanguo period (230 A.D.). In the first half of the 12th century, some Chinese immigrated to Penghu for trade and temporary residence. The Yuan Dynasty (1281-1367 A.D.) set up an official department in Penghu to take care of local affairs. In the second half of the 14th century, the islands of Penghu and Taiwan became a stronghold for Chinese and Japanese smugglers and pirates.

Many scholars believe that the so-called "liu chiu" in the Yuan Dynasty and "xiao liu chiu" in the Ming Dynasty in fact indicated Taiwan. The name "Taiwan" came from "taiyuan," as it was termed near the end of the Ming.

C. Dutch Rule

At the beginning of the 16th century, when the Portuguese sailed to the east to expand their trade relations, they caught sight of Taiwan on their way to Japan. Stunned by its beauty, they named Taiwan the "Ilha Formosa" ("beautiful island"). This second name has become a well-known paraphrase for Taiwan and consistently appears on world maps.

In 1624, Dutch settlers landed at Anping in the south and made Taiwan their trading center on the international sea route as well as a center for their Christian missionary influence. Their colonial rule lasted 38 years and left behind several historical sites such as Chihkan and Zeelandia. During the same period, the Spanish occupied Keelung in the north and built citadels in Tamshui. In 1642, the Dutch settlers advanced northward, crushed the Spanish and gained control of the island.

D. Ming Zheng Rule

In 1661, the Ming Dynasty's diehard Koxinga (Zheng Cheng-kung) gathered his 25,000 soldiers and crossed the Taiwan Strait. He landed in Tainan, defeated the Dutch and forced them to surrender the next year. Five months after his victory, Koxinga died and his son Zheng Ching succeeded. The Ming Zheng rule continued for 23 years down to Koxinga's grandson Zheng Ke-shuang.

The Zhengs reclaimed and cultivated the undeveloped land mainly through the force of their army, along with civil and government assistance. Then the Ching Dynasty imposed an economic blockade on Taiwan, cutting off all its commercial and financial relations. Under these severe circumstances, the Zhengs managed to recover the smuggling business with the China coast and strived to trade with other countries. Britain was one of the European countries most eager to trade with Taiwan. A trade treaty was signed with the East India Company, allowing British business centers to be set up in Taiwan for the export of cane sugar and deerskin and the import of ammunition and cloth. Besides, the Zhengs also kept close trade relations with Japan. At that time Taiwan's principal exports to Japan were cane sugar, deerskin, rice, and Chinese silk fabric; its main import from Japan was munitions.

E. Ching Dynasty

In 1683, the Ching Dynasty captured Penghu and brought Taiwan under its rule. The next year, Taiwan officially became a prefecture of China's Fukien province. In 1885, its status was elevated to that of a province, with Liu Ming-chwen appointed as its first imperial inspector.

After Taiwan's unification with China, an increasing number of Han Chinese from the southeastern coast of China started to immigrate to this nearby island. However, with its headquarters in Tainan, the Ching administration was unable to govern the scattered settlements on the western plains. Local officials thus asked some of the more powerful settlers to take charge of their own peasants and their own community security. With settlers constantly fighting for water and land, serious armed conflicts occurred from time to time; Taiwan's society was therefore in considerable turmoil under Ching rule. The tension did not ease until late in the 19th century.

As a result of the Han Chinese long-term settlement in Taiwan, some aboriginal tribes shrank back into the mountains (becoming the "mountain tribes") while the Pinpu tribes stayed and became assimilated into Han Chinese culture.

F. Republic of China

After the Second World War, Japan announced its unconditional surrender to the Republic of China in 1945 and returned to it Taiwan and Penghu. In 1949 the ROC government moved to Taiwan and prepared itself to fight its way back to China. Then-president Chiang Kai-shek consolidated Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu and carried out various political, economic and social reforms.

When the ROC administration began to move to Taiwan, the islanders were not happy about the loose discipline and rude attitude of some of the military and government officials. Intensified discontent finally erupted on the evening of February 27, 1947, when government officials violently clamped down on tobacco smuggling at Tamshui. This "2/28 incident" was a forbidden topic for forty years. In February 1987 the 2/28 Peace Promotion Foundation was established. In 1989 the first monument was built in Chiayi to commemorate those who lost their lives in the incident. In 1990, the Legislative Yuan said a silent prayer for the victims for the first time. Taipei's New Park was renamed the "2/28 Peace Park" in 1996.

Several agricultural reforms after 1949 not only increased agricultural production and brought prosperity to rural areas but also pushed forward industrial and economic development. Beginning in 1953, six four-year economic plans were implemented. The initial three plans promoted industrialization so as to make the island less dependent on imports; the final three emphasized an export-oriented policy so that it could achieve a favorable balance of trade. These plans boosted Taiwan's economy while keeping prices steady. Therefore the ROC, considered an "economic miracle," has been ranked as one of the four "Asian Tigers."


When we analyze Taiwan's historical development we note the crucial importance of its situation, as an island, near the Asian mainland and on a major international sea-route. As a multi-cultural society, Taiwan has been closely connected with neighboring areas from prehistoric times to the present. Due to the island's limited resources, the people of Taiwan have always had to trade with others in order to survive: thus Taiwan has long been a base for international trade. Furthermore, because starting from the 17th century the Han Chinese risked their lives to explore this island and created a new world there, their descendents inherited their courage and perseverance, thus shaping the unique Taiwanese character.

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