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Country of the Week: Taiwan

In Countries by Kyle RammlerLeave a Comment

Off the coast of Mainland China you will find another country that lays claim to the name. Whether you call it the Republic of China, or just Taiwan, there’s no denying it has a fascinating story behind it.

  • Capital of Taiwan: Taipei
  • Largest City in Taiwan: New Taipei
  • Population (2015): 23,476,640 (52nd)
  • Total Area: 36,193 km² (136th)
  • Official Language: Mandarin
  • Currency: New Taiwan dollar (NT$) (TWD)
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View over Taipei, including the skyscraper Taipei 101

History of Taiwan

Until the early modern age, the history of Taiwan was relatively unremarkable. Austronesians (early descendants of Taiwanese aborigines) settled here thousands of years ago, and may have spread out across Southeast Asia. While some Chinese attempted to settle Taiwan during the Middle Ages, the native population and other difficulties made this problematic and undesirable.

A European Opening

It wasn’t until the 16th century when Taiwan finally began to open up to the wider world. The Dutch East India Company was the first to establish a base (in 1624, after an earlier attempt failed) and began to spread its influence across the island. The Spanish also attempted to claim northern parts of the island, but were thwarted by the Dutch. The Dutch era in Taiwan ended in 1662, when Ming loyalists from Mainland China conquered the island and used it to raid the ruling Qing dynasty for about 20 years.

Qing Rule in Taiwan

Of course, this didn’t sit well with the Qing dynasty and, after defeating loyalist forces, they took over control of Taiwan. For over 200 years, the Chinese ruled Taiwan – first as a part of the Fujian Province, and later as its own entity. While there were threats, such as a military defeat to France, Taiwan remained a part of the Qing dynasty.

Japanese Taiwan

That is until Taiwan was granted to Japan in 1895 following China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War. Residents loyal to the Qing dynasty were given a two-year period to sell their assets and move to the mainland if they chose – something that wasn’t so simple in practice. There was ultimately widespread opposition to the Japanese occupation, but little that the residents could do to overthrow it. Japan was the driving force behind the industrialisation of Taiwan but it came at the price of brutal repression and forced assimilation.

When World War II broke out, Taiwan served as an important military centre for the Japanese and as such suffered Allied bombing. After the war, the Japanese surrender was accepted by the Republic of China (on behalf of the Allies), who then took over administration of the island. The regime, led by Chen Yi, came into conflict with the local population as well, with widespread distrust between the two factions.

The Republic of China

Meanwhile, Mainland China was in the grips of a civil war between the nationalists (and leader Chiang Kai-shek) and the communists led by Mao Zedong. After the nationalists were defeated in 1949, Chiang and his forces (along with many others, particularly elites) fled to Taiwan, and quickly named Taipei as the temporary capital of the Republic of China (ROC). Each side, the ROC and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), claimed both Taiwan and the mainland – viewing themselves as the only legitimate government.

With Mainland China under communist rule, the United States and other Western countries viewed Taiwan and the ROC as a strategic partner in the fight against communism. For many years, the ROC was the internationally recognized Chinese state until the US and Taiwan ended their military treaty. During these years, the ruling party (the Kuomintang) was an authoritarian regime, resulting in a protest movement beginning in the 1970’s.

Modern Taiwan

Thanks in part to these protests, throughout the 80’s and 90’s, Taiwan began the process of liberalization and democratization. While the issues of Taiwanese independence and disputes with Mainland China continue, the country has a highly developed free market economy that is important both regionally and worldwide. Diplomatic recognition remains a problem with many countries viewing the PRC as the sole Chinese representative, however there are still many positives to take from the Taiwanese story.

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Teahouses on the hill in Jiufen

Culture of Taiwan

Taiwanese culture is a mix of various Chinese and Confucian traditions alongside other influences including Japanese and general Western customs. There remain questions over how much variation there is between Taiwan and the mainland – though it is undeniable the island has developed its own unique traditions. The ruling party for many years promoted traditional Chinese arts and culture, which has allowed these (painting, opera, calligraphy, etc.) to remain in the public consciousness.

Food in Taiwan

Taiwanese cuisine consists of many traditional Chinese dishes, with some regional spins and Japanese influences as well. Tea and tea culture has a major place in Taiwanese life, with oolongs the most commonly consumed variety. Teahouses are commonplace and the culture is based on many of the aspects of traditional Chinese tea culture.

Sports in Taiwan

Some of the most popular sports in Taiwan are baseball, basketball, soccer, and softball. Various martial arts are also practiced throughout the country.

Famous Taiwanese People

One of the most well known people from Taiwan is the film director Ang Lee. He is famous for movies including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi, and many more. Basketball player Jeremy Lin (of Linsanity fame) is of Taiwanese heritage.

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A Taiwanese meal with pork

Geography of Taiwan

The island of Taiwan is found just shy of 200 kilometres southeast from Mainland China. The eastern part of the island (about two thirds of it) is predominantly mountainous and rugged. However the Chianan Plain, a region where most of the country’s population lives, dominates the western part of Taiwan.

The largest city in Taiwan is New Taipei, which surrounds the capital of Taipei. Together they make up a large portion of the Taipei-Keelung metropolitan area, which is home to just over 7 million people.

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A stunning landscape in rural Taiwan

Facts About Taiwan

  • In school, teachers switch between classrooms instead of the students
  • Garbage trucks play music to announce their arrival. Think a smellier, less enjoyable ice cream man
  • White is common at funerals instead of black
  • You can have sit down meals in 7-Elevens
  • The Portuguese called Taiwan ‘Formosa’, which means ‘beautiful’
  • There are 14 recognized aboriginal tribes in Taiwan
  • Taiwan has the lowest birth rate in the world
  • Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest building from 2004 until 2009
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A bridge along the coast

Last Word

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned this week as we explore the island in our Travel Guide and learn a bit more about the country’s currency later on.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE).

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