Taiwan was connected to the mainland throughout the Late Pleistocene epoch until sea levels increased about 10,000 years ago. Fragmentary human remains from from 20,000 to 30,000 years old, as well as subsequent artifacts of a Paleolithic civilization, have been discovered on the island.
Austronesians originally arrived in Taiwan around 8,000 years ago. The languages of their descendants, known as Taiwanese aborigines today, are part of the Austronesian language family, which also includes Malayo-Polynesian languages spoken across a vast area stretching from Maritime Southeast Asia west to Madagascar and east to New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island. Taiwan’s aboriginal languages are much more diverse than the rest of Austronesian languages combined, prompting academics to identify Taiwan as the Urheimat of the family, from which seafaring peoples spread throughout Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Although the Han Chinese started living in the Penghu islands in the 13th century, Taiwan’s hostile tribes and lack of trade resources prized at the time made it unappealing to everyone except “occasional adventurers or fishermen engaged in barter” until the 16th century.
Opening in the 17th century
In 1622, the Dutch East India Company tried to establish a trade outpost on the Penghu Islands (Pescadores), but were militarily beaten and forced out by Ming authorities.
The corporation built Fort Zeelandia in 1624 on the coastal islet of Tayouan, which is now part of the main island of Anping, Tainan. In the 1650s, David Wright, a Scottish agent for the company who resided on the island, reported the island’s lowland regions as being split into 11 chiefdoms varying in size from two villages to 72. Some of them were taken over by the Dutch, while others remained independent. The Company started importing workers from Fujian and Penghu (Pescadores), many of whom eventually stayed.
The Spanish Empire invaded and controlled northern Taiwan in 1626, using the ports of Keelung and Tamsui as a platform to expand their trade. This colonial era lasted 16 years, until the final Spanish stronghold surrendered to Dutch troops in 1642.
Following the collapse of the Ming dynasty, Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong), a self-styled Ming loyalist, came on the island and seized Fort Zeelandia in 1662, driving out the Dutch Empire and soldiers. Koxinga founded the Kingdom of Tungning (1662–1683), with Tainan as his capital. He and his successors, Zheng Jing, who reigned from 1662 to 1682, and Zheng Keshuang, who ruled for less than a year, continued to conduct assaults on mainland China’s southeast coast long into the Qing period.
The Qing dynasty officially conquered Taiwan in 1683, after the defeat of Koxinga’s grandson by a fleet commanded by Admiral Shi Lang of southern Fujian. The Qing imperial government attempted to minimize piracy and vagrancy in the region by issuing a series of edicts governing immigration and native land rights. Immigrants, mostly from southern Fujian, continued to arrive in Taiwan. The line between taxpaying and “savage” areas moved eastward, with some aborigines being sinicized and others retreating into the mountains. Several battles erupted during this period between groups of Han Chinese from various areas of southern Fujian, especially those from Quanzhou and Zhangzhou, as well as between southern Fujian Chinese and aborigines.
The Sino-French War saw secondary operations in northern Taiwan and the Penghu Islands (August 1884 to April 1885). The French seized Keelung on October 1, 1884, but were repelled a few days later from Tamsui. The French achieved some tactical successes but were unable to capitalize on them, and the Keelung Campaign ended in a draw. The Pescadores Campaign, which began on March 31, 1885, was a French triumph with no long-term repercussions. After the war, the French withdrew both Keelung and the Penghu islands.
The Qing elevated the island’s governance from Taiwan Prefecture of Fujian to Fujian-Taiwan-Province, the empire’s twentieth, with its capital in Taipei, in 1887. This was followed by a modernisation push, which included the construction of China’s first railroad.
After the Qing dynasty was destroyed in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Treaty of Shimonoseki granted the Empire of Japan complete authority over Taiwan, Penghu, and the Liaodong Peninsula. Residents of Taiwan and Penghu who wished to remain Qing subjects were granted a two-year grace period in which to sell their property and relocate to mainland China. Few Taiwanese viewed this as a possibility. On May 25, 1895, a group of pro-Qing senior officials declared the Republic of Formosa in order to oppose Japanese control. On October 21, 1895, Japanese troops invaded Tainan and crushed the resistance. Guerrilla warfare lasted intermittently until about 1902, killing 14,000 Taiwanese, or 0.5 percent of the population. Several later rebellions against Japanese colonial authority (the Beipu revolt in 1907, the Tapani incident in 1915, and the Musha incident in 1930) were all unsuccessful, but they showed resistance to Japanese colonial power.
Japanese colonial authority was important in the island’s industrialisation, including the extension of railways and other transportation networks, the construction of an extensive sanitation system, and the establishment of a formal education system. Headhunting was prohibited under Japanese rule. During this time, Taiwan’s people and natural resources were utilized to assist Japan’s growth, and the production of cash commodities like as rice and sugar grew significantly. Taiwan was the world’s sixth largest sugar producer by 1939. Nonetheless, Taiwanese and aborigines were classed as second- and third-class citizens, respectively. Following the suppression of Chinese insurgents during their first decade of power, Japanese authorities launched a series of violent operations against mountain aborigines, culminating in the Musha Incident of 1930.
Around 1935, the Japanese began an island-wide assimilation project to bind the island more firmly to the Japanese Empire, and people were taught to see themselves as Japanese under the Kominka Movement, which outlawed Taiwanese culture and religion and encouraged citizens to adopt Japanese surnames. Tens of thousands of Taiwanese fought in the Japanese military throughout WWII. For example, former ROC President Lee Teng-older hui’s brother served in the Japanese navy and died in February 1945 while on service in the Philippines. The Imperial Japanese Navy made extensive use of Taiwanese ports. The Taihoku Imperial University in Taipei housed the “South Strike Group.” Many of the Japanese troops involved in the Taiwan-Okinawa Aerial Battle were stationed in Taiwan. Important Japanese military sites and industrial hubs across Taiwan, including as Kaohsiung, were heavily bombed by the Americans. During this period, nearly 2,000 women were forced into sexual servitude for Imperial Japanese soldiers, and were dubbed “comfort women” euphemistically.
Taiwan had 309,000 Japanese immigrants in 1938. Following World War II, the majority of Japanese were evacuated and deported to Japan.
After World War II
As part of General Order No. 1 for temporary military occupation, the United States Navy transported ROC soldiers on behalf of the Allied Powers to Taiwan on October 25, 1945, to receive the official surrender of Japanese military forces in Taipei. To complete the formal handover, General Rikichi And, governor-general of Taiwan and commander-in-chief of all Japanese troops on the island, signed the receipt and turned it over to General Chen Yi of the ROC military. Chen Yi declared that day “Taiwan Retrocession Day,” although the Allies regarded Taiwan and the Penghu Islands to remain under military occupation and Japanese sovereignty until 1952, when the Treaty of San Francisco went into force.
Under Chen Yi, the ROC administration of Taiwan was stressed by rising tensions between Taiwanese-born people and newly arriving mainlanders, which were exacerbated by economic problems like as hyperinflation. Furthermore, cultural and linguistic differences between the two groups rapidly eroded public support for the new administration. The shooting of a civilian on February 28, 1947, sparked widespread unrest on the island, which was quenched with military force in what is now known as the February 28 Incident. The number of people murdered is estimated to be between 18,000 and 30,000. Those that were assassinated were mostly Taiwanese aristocracy.
Chinese Nationalist one-party rule
Following the conclusion of WWII, the Chinese Civil War continued between the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) headed by Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong. Throughout the months of 1949, a series of Chinese Communist offensives culminated to the seizure of its capital Nanjing on 23 April and the eventual defeat of the Nationalist army on the mainland, and on 1 October, the Communists established the People’s Republic of China.
After losing four capitals, Chiang withdrew his Nationalist administration to Taiwan on December 7, 1949, and designated Taipei as the ROC’s provisional capital (also called the “wartime capital” by Chiang Kai-shek). At the time, about 2 million individuals were evacuated from mainland China to Taiwan, mostly troops, members of the ruling Kuomintang, and intellectual and economic elites, adding to the previous population of roughly six million. Furthermore, the ROC administration brought to Taipei numerous national treasures as well as a large portion of China’s gold reserves and foreign currency reserves.
After losing control of the majority of the mainland, the Kuomintang retained control of Tibet and Hainan Island until 1950, when they were seized by the Communists. The Kuomintang’s domain was limited to Taiwan, Kinmen, Matsu Islands, and two large islands, Dongsha Islands and Nansha Islands, from this moment forward. The Kuomintang maintained its claim to all of “China,” which it defined as mainland China, Taiwan, Outer Mongolia, and other territories. The triumphant Communists claimed to govern the single and only China (which they claimed encompassed Taiwan) and that the Republic of China no longer existed.
Martial law, which was proclaimed in Taiwan in May 1949, remained in force when the central government moved to Taiwan. It was not abolished until 1987, and it was used to stifle political dissent in the years before that. During the so-called White Terror, 140,000 individuals were imprisoned or killed for being anti-KMT or pro-Communist. Many people were detained, tortured, imprisoned, and killed as a result of their actual or alleged ties to the Communists. Because these individuals were mostly from the intellectual and social elite, they destroyed a whole generation of political and social leaders. In 1998, legislation was enacted to establish the “Compensation Foundation for Improper Verdicts,” which was in charge of compensating White Terror victims and their families. President Ma Ying-jeou issued a formal apology in 2008, expressing hope that a catastrophe like White Terror will never occur again.
Initially, the US supported the KMT and predicted that Taiwan would fall to the Communists. However, in 1950, the conflict between North Korea and South Korea, which had been simmering since Japan’s withdrawal in 1945, erupted into full-fledged war, and in the context of the Cold War, US President Harry S. Truman intervened once more, dispatching the US Navy’s 7th Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to prevent hostilities between Taiwan and mainland China. Japan officially relinquished all right, claim, and title to Taiwan and Penghu in the Treaties of San Francisco and Taipei, which entered into effect on 28 April 1952 and 5 August 1952, respectively, and repudiated all treaties made with China before to 1942. Because the United States and the United Kingdom differed on whether the ROC or the PRC was China’s legitimate government, neither treaty stated to whom sovereignty over the islands should be passed. The Chinese Civil War raged on throughout the 1950s, and US involvement resulted in laws such as the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty and the Formosa Resolution of 1955.
As the Chinese Civil War raged on without a ceasefire, the government fortified military defenses throughout Taiwan. In the 1950s, KMT veterans helped build the now-famous Central Cross-Island Highway across the Taroko Gorge as part of this endeavor. The two sides would continue to engage in occasional military engagements with few published specifics on China’s coastline islands far into the 1960s, with an unknown number of night attacks. During the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in September 1958, Nike-Hercules missile batteries were added to Taiwan’s terrain, along with the creation of the 1st Missile Battalion Chinese Army, which would not be decommissioned until 1997. Since then, newer generations of missile batteries have taken the place of the Nike Hercules systems installed across the island.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the ROC remained an authoritarian, one-party rule as its economy industrialized and grew more technologically focused. This fast economic development, dubbed the Taiwan Miracle, was the consequence of an autonomous fiscal system supported, among other things, by US money and demand for Taiwanese goods. Taiwan had the second fastest expanding economy in Asia after Japan in the 1970s. Taiwan, together with Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore, earned the moniker “Four Asian Tigers.” Until the 1970s, most Western countries and the United Nations recognized the ROC as China’s only legitimate government due to the Cold War. Later, particularly when the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty was terminated, most countries shifted diplomatic recognition to the PRC (see United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758).
Until the 1970s, Western opponents viewed the regime as undemocratic for maintaining martial rule, brutally suppressing any political opposition, and controlling the media. The KMT forbade the formation of new parties, and those that did exist did not compete significantly with the KMT. As a result, there were no competitive democratic elections. However, from the late 1970s through the 1990s, Taiwan underwent reforms and societal transformations that changed it from an authoritarian to a democratic state. To commemorate Human Rights Day in 1979, a pro-democracy demonstration known as the Kaohsiung Incident took place in Kaohsiung. Although the demonstration was quickly repressed by the government, it is now seen as the primary event that brought Taiwan’s opposition together.
In the mid-1980s, Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-son shek’s and successor as president, started to liberalize the political system. Lee Teng-hui, a Taiwanese-born, US-educated technocrat, was appointed as the younger Chiang’s vice president in 1984. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was established and launched in 1986 as the ROC’s first opposition party against the KMT. Chiang Ching-kuo abolished martial rule on Taiwan’s main island a year later (martial law was lifted on Penghu in 1979, Matsu island in 1992 and Kinmen island in 1993). With the onset of democracy, the question of Taiwan’s political status gradually reappeared as a contentious topic, while before, discussing anything other than unification under the ROC was frowned upon.
Lee Teng-hui took over as president when Chiang Ching-kuo died in January 1988. Lee maintained his efforts to democratize the government and reduce the concentration of government power in the hands of mainland Chinese. Taiwan experienced a process of localization under Lee, in which Taiwanese culture and history were emphasized over a pan-China perspective, in contrast to previous KMT policies that emphasized Chinese identity. Lee’s changes included issuing banknotes from the Central Bank rather than the Provincial Bank of Taiwan, as well as simplifying the Taiwan Provincial Government by transferring most of its duties to the Executive Yuan. The founding members of the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly, who were elected in 1947 to represent mainland Chinese districts and had maintained their positions without re-election for more than four decades, were compelled to retire in 1991 under Lee. The formerly notional representation in the Legislative Yuan was abolished, reflecting the fact that the ROC had no authority over mainland China and vice versa. Restrictions on the use of Taiwanese Hokkien in the media and in schools have also been removed.
Democratic changes proceeded in the 1990s, with Lee Teng-hui re-elected in 1996 in the ROC’s first direct presidential election. During the latter years of Lee’s presidency, he was embroiled in corruption scandals involving government land releases and weapons purchases, but no judicial actions were initiated. Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party was elected as the country’s first non-Kuomintang (KMT) President in 2000, and he was re-elected to his second and last term in 2004. With the establishment of the Pan-Blue Coalition of parties headed by the KMT, supporting eventual Chinese reunification, and the Pan-Green Coalition of parties led by the DPP, preferring an eventual and formal declaration of Taiwanese independence, polarized politics have developed in Taiwan.
On September 30, 2007, the governing DPP adopted a resolution claiming a distinct identity from China and calling for the adoption of a new constitution for a “normal nation.” It also advocated for the widespread usage of “Taiwan” as the country’s name, without abandoning the Republic of China as its official name. In the 2004 and 2008 elections, the Chen government also campaigned for referendums on national defense and UN membership, which failed owing to voter participation falling short of the necessary legal threshold of 50 percent of all registered voters. The Chen administration was plagued by public outrage over slowing economic development, legislative stalemate caused by a pan-blue, opposition-controlled Legislative Yuan, and corruption implicating the First Family and government officials.
In the January 2008 legislative elections, the KMT increased its majority in the Legislative Yuan, and its nominee Ma Ying-jeou went on to win the presidency in March of the same year, campaigning on a platform of increased economic growth and improved ties with the PRC under a policy of “mutual nondenial.” Ma assumed office on May 20, 2008, the same day that President Chen Shui-bian resigned and was informed by prosecutors that he might face corruption charges. Part of the justification for advocating for deeper economic relations with the PRC comes from China’s impressive economic development since entering the World Trade Organization. However, some experts argue that, despite Ma Ying-victory, jeou’s diplomatic and military tensions with the PRC have not abated.