Taiwan - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Taiwan: the Bradt Guide

Juguang Tower Jincheng Taiwan by Richie Chan Shutterstock Juguang Tower in Jincheng was built in the 1950s as a memorial to fallen soldiers from Taiwan’s long history © Richie Chan, Shutterstock

Cession to Japan

In August 1894 China and Japan went to war over Korea. For centuries Korea’s kings had been paying tribute to China, but Japan – then in the throes of radical reforms which would lead to its emergence as a powerful industrial nation – forced the country to open itself to external trade. In June 1894 a Japanese expeditionary force installed a puppet Korean government which immediately asked Japan to remove Chinese soldiers from Korean soil. The Chinese, who were already leaving, were no match for well-trained, well-equipped Japanese units. By February 1895 the Japanese were pressing on into Manchuria; the following month they seized the Penghu Islands. The war came to a formal end on 17 April with the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Even though the Qing Dynasty controlled no more than half of Taiwan, they ceded the entire island, plus Penghu, to Japan in perpetuity.

With the tacit encouragement of the imperial court – or at least a faction in it – Qing officials in Taiwan declared the island’s independence. Between 24 May, when the Republic of Taiwan was proclaimed, and 23 October, when the Japanese Army occupied Tainan, the state designed its own flag, had two presidents and issued postage stamps (they’re considered quite collectable). It was not, as often claimed, Asia’s first republic, but it was certainly another step in creating Taiwanese identity. The takeover was expensive in human lives with over 10,000 soldiers and civilians on the Taiwanese side dying; 164 Japanese soldiers were killed in combat, and another 4,642 died in accidents or from disease. Prince Yoshihisa Kitashirakawa, nominal commander of the expeditionary force, succumbed to malaria in Tainan on 5 November.

Japanese rule

The deaths of Prince Yoshihisa and a third of the men under his leadership made it clear that, if the Japanese were ever to benefit from their conquest, public health would have to improve. Yoshitaka Mori, a professor at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, has argued that the Japanese gained political legitimacy through infrastructure and public health improvements, and that Goto Shinpei (1857–1929), chief of civilian affairs in the colonial government from 1898 to 1906, was one of the era’s most important personalities. Mori comments:

‘Goto was the first person who understood the importance of controlling the population not only by coercive force but also through a kind of consensus. By introducing a way of Western urban planning, in particular the idea of public sanitation, he established magnificent governmental buildings, hospitals and schools to display Japanese authority. New buildings… functioned to stabilise upheaval… while he ordered the destruction of old traditional buildings which might evoke memories of Taiwanese past.’

Goto thought major public buildings should be ‘soldiers in civilian clothes’ that would impress upon the local population the wisdom and might of the Japanese. He also established a system whereby opium could be sold only by licensed retailers and purchased only in limited quantities by registered smokers. There were 200,000 of the latter in 1904; by the end of 1922 that number had dwindled to fewer than 43,000. Goto’s approach was both effective at curbing addiction and a way of aiding pro-Japan merchants, as the authorities made sure lucrative retail licenses went only to supporters of the colonial regime. Camphor, salt, alcohol and tobacco monopolies ensured the colonial government’s finances stayed in the black. Many Taiwanese recognise that, when it came to modernising their island, Japan did much of the heavy lifting.

When Japanese forces arrived in 1895 they found an island almost totally bereft of roads. The new rulers got to work right away; between early 1896 and the end of 1897 the total length of Taiwan’s roads more than tripled. Kaohsiung and Keelung harbours were dredged and connected to the north–south railroad; bridges were built and schools were established; the lowlands were surveyed for tax purposes. But despite the power of the Japanese government machine, the colonial regime had no control over the mountainous interior and much of the east coast.

To keep the indigenous population under control, the Japanese decided in 1914 to confiscate the rifles used by indigenous people to hunt deer and other animals. Between hunting expeditions, all guns were to be kept under lock and key in police stations. This policy and the deceitful methods the Japanese used in executing it outraged a Bunun chief called Raho Ari. In 1915 he and his clansmen massacred a police platoon at Dafen and then went into hiding near the upper reaches of the Laonong River, in what’s now Yushan National Park. Tamaho, the village they founded there, grew into a community of 266 people as disaffected Bunun from elsewhere joined the rebels. Raho Ari remained a thorn in the side of the colonial authorities for two decades; he was able at will to breach the ‘guardline’ (a network of police stations and electric fences separating those areas under Japanese control from the wild interior) and launch guerrilla attacks on police stations, to kill Japanese and seize weapons and ammunition.

In the early years, Han insurgencies were also frequent. This prompted some Japanese parliamentarians to urge the sale of the island to whomever would take it off Tokyo’s hands. In 1915 anti-Japanese factions in the southwest launched a rebellion that led to the deaths of over 1,000 Taiwanese plus hundreds of Japanese policemen and civilians. Many of those who participated in what came to be known as the Tapani Incident wore talismans which they believed made them invulnerable to modern weapons.

Inspired by the emergence of newly independent countries in eastern Europe and a Korean movement that pushed for self-determination and national identity, Taiwanese intellectuals and gentry founded the Taiwanese Cultural Association on 17 October 1921. The establishment of the TCA is seen as a landmark in the island’s intellectual development and the emergence of a distinct Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese or Japanese) identity. The association was suppressed in the late 1930s.

By autumn 1930 Mona Rudao, the educated son of a Sediq chief, was seething with rage. One of his sons had been insulted by a Japanese official and his youngest sister had been abandoned by her Japanese husband. Many other aborigines felt aggrieved: the colonial regime had taken away their guns and some of their ancestral lands, felled sacred trees and compelled tribesmen to labour for low wages on government projects. Japanese officers were notorious for expecting sexual favours from indigenous women. On 27 October 1930, Mona Rudao led a 300-strong band of warriors into the mountain town of Wushe where they attacked Japanese attending a school athletics event. The tribesmen were murderous but focused: 134 Japanese were killed but only two Han died. In response the Japanese assembled a massive force: 800 soldiers, 1,163 police officers and more than 1,300 paramilitaries recruited from other indigenous tribes. After two months of fighting, during which Japanese aircraft dropped poison gas on indigenous holdouts, the rebellion petered out. Mona Rudao ordered his people to commit suicide rather than surrender. Some 290 killed themselves. Of those who didn’t at least a hundred were put to death after laying down their arms. They were beheaded by other aborigines in the pay of the Japanese as the latter awarded a bounty for each head. To ensure his enemies wouldn’t have his head as a trophy, Mona Rudao took his own life in a remote cave on 1 December. His remains were found four years later and put on public display in Taipei. He wasn’t given a proper burial until 1981.

After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Japanese government launched the ‘Kominka Movement’, an attempt to erase Han identity in Taiwan and promote loyalty to the emperor in Tokyo. Over a thousand shrines were demolished or confiscated as part of an ineffective effort to replace local religion with Japanese beliefs. (Several had been destroyed earlier in the colonial period to make way for roads or public buildings.) Local periodicals were ordered to stop publishing Chinese-language supplements. The movement’s promotion of the Japanese language and Japanese names was fairly successful: by 1945, two out of three Taiwanese could speak Japanese, and one in 14 had taken Japanese names. Among the latter was Lee Teng-hui, ROC president from 1988 to 2000, who until 1945 was known as Iwasato Masao.

Natural history

Taiwan has fantastic natural diversity in terms of topography, climate and soils. Of the world’s 12 major soil types, 11 can be found in Taiwan. Consequently there’s a wide range of habitats and these in turn nurture an astonishing variety of animals, birds, insects and plants. Rates of endemism are exceptionally high throughout the biosphere. A quarter of the country’s 4,300 vascular plants are found nowhere else on Earth, and 55 of the 85 terrestrial mammals are endemic. A third of its reptile species and subspecies are unique, as are 42 of its 265 freshwater fishes, 11 of its 35 bats, 34 of the island’s 56 stag-beetles, and 70% of its snails.


One of the easiest animals to spot is Taiwan’s only primate, the Formosan macaque (Macaca cyclopis). Also known as the Formosan rock monkey, this endemic is distributed island-wide from sea level to at least 3,000m above sea level, but is most often spotted in foothills in the south and east. Macaques, who live in family groups usually numbering 20 to 40, have light brown fur often speckled with grey. Deep in the mountains there are larger animals such as Formosan sambars (Rusa unicolor swinhoei), a kind of deer, and Formosan black bears (Ursus thibetanus formosanus). The latter have distinctive V-shaped white marks on their chests and don’t hibernate. Even though they’ve been known to steal food from hikers’ packs while the humans are sleeping, they tend to keep a very low profile. Researchers fear this endemic subspecies will suffer the same fate as the Formosan clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa brachyura), a metre-long cat which hasn’t been sighted since the late 1980s. Once hunted for its skin, it’s now believed to be extinct.


Steere's babbler Taiwan by phdwhite ShutterstockTaiwan is known for its fabulously varied birdlife © phdwhite, Shutterstock

Thanks to its position on the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, Taiwan has fabulously varied birdlife. Fifty-three internationally recognised Important Bird Areas (IBAs) cover more than one-sixth of its land area. According to the most recent checklist issued by Taiwan’s Chinese Wild Bird Federation, 657 avian species, including vagrants and migrants, have been recorded in Taiwan and its minor islands. Among them, 28 are endemic species, while a further 55 are endemic subspecies. Many visiting birders have been able to add a dozen or more endemics, including the Taiwan partridge (Arborophila crudigularis) and the mikado pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado), to their ‘life lists’ during fortnight-long tours.

Throughout the western lowlands, visitors will notice white-headed birds in parks and larger white birds near rice fields and rivers. The latter are egrets. There has been some hybridisation between the former, light-vented bulbuls (Pycnonotus sinensis formosae), and an endemic variant, the black-capped Styan’s bulbul (Pycnonotus taivanus). The Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) is ubiquitous, and in foothills the crested serpent eagle (Spilornis cheela hoya) is an important predator.


Many of Taiwan’s most common wild flowers are invasive species. Among them are lantana of various colours, especially white, yellow and orange, the daisy-like cobbler’s pegs (Bidens pilosa) and the flossflower (Ageratum houstonianum). The former, an aggressive weed, is used by some Taiwanese as a folk treatment for diabetes. The last has delicate pink blooms. Mimosa pudica is also widespread; this species isn’t very interesting to look at but it does have touch-sensitive leaves that curl up when brushed.

People and culture

Travellers passing through Taiwan can be forgiven for assuming it’s a homogeneous society. Compared to Japan or Hong Kong, Taiwan’s Western and Asian expatriate populations are small and there are very few people of African origin. Taiwanese society has often and recently fractured along ethnic lines. The aborigines tried to defend their land against Han Chinese settlers. Within the Han majority, Hoklo from one county in Fujian fought Hoklo from another county. For decades after World War II, there was considerable friction between the Hoklo majority and the ruling class dominated by recent immigrants from the Chinese mainland.

Ethnic relations are now fairly harmonious and intermarriage, along with internal migration, is blurring the lines between population groups. However, children of ‘mixed marriages’ often fail to learn languages other than Mandarin and Taiwanese.

The indigenous people

Taiwan’s original inhabitants number just over 560,000 and make up nearly 2.4% of the population. The ROC government recognises 16 tribes, the largest being the Amis with around 210,000 members, the Paiwan (101,000) and the Atayal (90,000). Other groups are lobbying for similar status, as it opens the door to subsidies and other benefits. At the time of writing, the Siraya in Tainan were nearing the end of a court battle that may well result in central government recognition of the tribe. 

Indigenous hunter Taiwan by Rich MathesonTaiwan’s indigenous people are of Austronesian origin and traditionally hunted in the lowlands of the island © Rich Matheson

Taiwan’s indigenous people are of Austronesian origin. In fact, some scholars claim Taiwan is where the Austronesian branch of humanity started out. Formerly classified as ‘mountain compatriots’ – and still often stereotyped as hard-drinking, poorly educated but kind-hearted mountain-dwelling folk – the indigenous people farmed and hunted on the lowlands until Han settlers forced them to relocate to the interior. There was a great deal of intermarriage between early settlers and indigenous people. Also, many of the latter abandoned their original names and languages to better fit into Han-dominated mainstream society.

The Japanese were intolerant of cultural practices they regarded as barbaric, such as the tattooing of faces and hands. A few very elderly Atayal, Sediq and Truku women still bear the traditional cheek tattoos of their tribes. Indigenous cultures survive in villages in mountain areas and in east Taiwan. However, few indigenous people under the age of 40 speak their ancestral tongue fluently, even among those who participate enthusiastically in the many and varied tribal festivals. Traditional clothing is worn only on special occasions and most indigenous homes resemble the concrete boxes found in lowland towns.

Taiwanese who have indigenous ancestry are now less likely to hide the fact. Despite affirmative action and other government help, indigenous people continue to be considerably poorer and less well educated than other Taiwanese, although they’re prominent in pop music and professional sport.

The Hoklo people

A unified Hoklo (‘Taiwanese’) identity is a relatively recent thing. Well into the 19th century, many Hoklo people identified themselves as being Quanzhou folk or Zhangzhou folk rather than Hoklo or Taiwanese. (Quanzhou and Zhangzhou were prefectures in Qing-era Fujian.) During the Japanese occupation and the subsequent Nationalist dictatorship, these sub-ethnic groups coalesced. Taiwanese of Hoklo descent account for around 70% of the population. Some call themselves ‘true Taiwanese’ or even ‘native Taiwanese’ to the annoyance of Austronesian indigenous people.

The Hakka people

Like Hoklo Taiwanese, the Hakka are Han Chinese. Their origins are unclear but it’s believed they emerged as a distinct sub-ethnic group, speaking their own language and following a unique set of customs, as they moved en masse from central China to the south in a series of migrations between the 4th and 17th centuries. Unlike most Han Chinese, the Hakka never practised foot-binding. Because they’ve had to relocate so often and they’ve sometimes faced persecution, the Hakka are often compared to the Jews. Like the Jews, they’ve a reputation for working hard, living frugally and encouraging their children to study hard. Hakka started arriving in Taiwan in the early 18th century.

Taiwan’s Hakka are concentrated in the hilly region between Zhongli and the Dajia river, and in a few towns in the south, notably Meinong. Since the late 19th century many Hakka have migrated to the big cities or to east Taiwan. English-language information about Hakka culture can be found at www.hakka.gov.tw.

The mainlanders

In the 1950s, officials, soldiers, civilians and their families who fled from the mainland – together with their Taiwan-born children – accounted for a quarter of the island’s population (9.4 million in 1957). This diverse group included Shanghai tycoons, Buddhist monks and Muslims from China’s far west. In traditional Han thinking, one’s ancestry and identity comes from one’s father; for this reason, many ROC citizens who have a Taiwanese mother and have never visited the PRC are considered mainlanders. Most mainlanders settled in the larger cities but some ended up in remote mountain areas where they worked on road-building projects or did farmwork. All but a few of the old soldiers have passed away and the military dependants’ villages where they lived have been demolished. Owing to high rates of intermarriage, coupled with a reluctance to highlight mainlander ancestry now that the political wind blows from a different direction, the distinctive ‘mainlander demographic’ that dominated the government and military has more or less disappeared, even though over 300,000 PRC citizens have married Taiwanese in recent years.

Asian immigrants

For decades, ethnic Chinese from Malaysia, Myanmar and other countries have been coming to Taiwan to study. Many have stayed on, found jobs, married and had children. Since the 1990s, many Taiwanese men have sought wives abroad, especially from Vietnam. There are also contingents of Filipinos, Thais and Indonesians. Mainland Chinese who’ve relocated to Taiwan in recent years, usually because they’ve married an ROC citizen, are another minority. In recent years, one in 11 of the island’s newborns has had at least one non-Taiwanese parent.

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