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Taiwan’s history in a nutshell

An island nation in East Asia next to China, Japan, and the Philippines, Taiwan is at the top of many travel destination lists, known to most foreigners for its stunning landscapes and leading place in the tech industry.

To many tourists or newcomers in Taiwan however, it is easy to forget how much our country has been through when you first see the dazzling neon lights in the Taipei metropolitan area or the busy crowds you find at shopping malls and markets. In reality, our road to modern Taiwan as a beacon of democracy in Asia has not been an easy one!

For the past four centuries, Taiwan’s journey from being home to indigenous peoples to becoming a vibrant democracy has been a testament to its resilience and adaptability. In this blog, join us as we recount Taiwan’s history from our earliest inhabitants to the latest political events, offering a glimpse into the island's complex and fascinating past!

The original Taiwanese: Austronesian peoples and their expansion

Before external powers set foot on Taiwan, the island and surrounding regions were inhabited by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. These Austronesian-speaking groups in Taiwan had a rich culture with distinct languages, customs, and social structures. The island is seen as the linguistic homeland of the oceanic migration to Maritime Southeast Asia and as far as Easter Island, Madagascar, and New Zealand.

Today, Indigenous peoples still make up about 2.5% of the total population in Taiwan (excluding those without official status), with 16 officially recognized ethnic groups, many of whom reside in the mountainous areas in central and eastern Taiwan, and continue to play a vital role in the island's cultural and social landscape.

European colonization during the Age of Exploration

Fort San Domingo

In the 16th century, European powers began to show interest in Taiwan. Earning the name “Ilha Formosa” from the passing Portuguese ships, it was the Dutch who first established a presence in Taiwan, when they built Fort Zeelandia in 1624 in the southwestern part of the island, in present-day Tainan. Hoping to control trade routes and establish a base for commerce in Asia, the Dutch East India Company brought administrative changes, agricultural development, and the spread of Christianity to Taiwan.

During this period, the Spanish briefly occupied northern Taiwan from 1626 to 1642, establishing Fort San Domingo in present-day Tamsui. However, the Dutch eventually ousted the Spanish, consolidating their control over the island until 1662.

Chinese regimes: Ming loyalists and Qing Dynasty

In 1662, the Dutch were expelled by Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong), a Ming loyalist fleeing the Manchu conquest of China. Koxinga established the Kingdom of Tungning on the island, using it as a base to launch attacks against the Qing Dynasty in an attempt to restore Ming rule. His rule marked the beginning of significant Han Chinese immigration to Taiwan.

By 1683, the Qing Dynasty defeated Koxinga's grandson, integrating Taiwan into the Qing Empire. Under Qing rule, Taiwan saw a steady influx of settlers from the Chinese mainland, leading to economic development and cultural assimilation. However, Qing governance faced challenges, including indigenous uprisings and administrative difficulties for the next two centuries.

Was Taiwan a part of Japan?

In 1895, following the First Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The Japanese colonial period (1895~1945) was transformative for Taiwan. The Japanese invested heavily in infrastructure, education, and public health, modernizing the island significantly. However, their rule was also marked by harsh suppression of dissent and efforts to assimilate the Taiwanese populace into Japanese culture, which played a role in the dynamics leading up to and following World War II.

Post-World War II political turbulence and 38 years of martial law

After Japan's defeat in World War II, Taiwan was handed over to the Republic of China (R.O.C.) in 1945 as one of the winning allies of WWII and the regional successor to the Qing Dynasty in China, leading to further political complications.

The initial post-war period was tumultuous, culminating in the 1947 February 28 Incident, during which thousands of Taiwanese were killed and executed. In 1949, led by the Chinese Nationalist Party Kuomintang (KMT), the R.O.C’s loss in the Chinese Civil War ended with the government’s retreat to Taiwan after the Communist Party took control of mainland China.

Under Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan was placed under an order of martial law that lasted from 1949 to 1987. This period, known as the White Terror, was characterized by political repression, censorship, and the persecution of dissidents. At the time of its lifting, it was the longest martial law in the world.

1990s: Decade of reform

The lifting of martial law in 1987 marked the beginning of Taiwan's transition to democracy. After the death of Chiang Ching-kuo (son of Chiang Kai-shek), his successor Lee Teng-hui led significant political reforms in the 1990s, which included the implementation of direct elections and the re-election of the national assembly (later abolished in 2005). As a result, the first direct presidential election was held in 1996, solidifying Taiwan's democratic governance.

Since then, Taiwan has continued to develop its democratic institutions and civil society, with power peacefully transferred between different political parties. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) have been the two main political forces, reflecting a vibrant and democratic process.

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