About Taiwan

Taiwan exists under the shadow of its giant neighbor, China. In the eyes of China, Taiwan is a rebel province that will one day be reunited with the mainland—whether peacefully or by force. But in practice, Taiwan is politically, economically and socially independent.

Taiwan is a wealthy, technologically advanced urban society with an affluent and cosmopolitan middle-class. Taiwan’s crowded cities are as modern as those anywhere in the world. Most Taiwanese people have clear goals in life: Work hard. Get rich.

On the surface, Taiwan looks both modern and westernized. However,  traditional values and religions continue to exert a powerful hold over old and young alike.

The majority of Taiwan’s people can be considered working class. They are laborers, drivers, shop-workers, farmers, hairdressers and small-business owners. Although they may not be outwardly poor, they tend to be less educated and are often plagued by family and social problems. Taiwan has one of the highest divorce rates in Asia.

 

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Most Taiwanese people have clear goals in life: Work hard. Get rich.

 

Those in the working class often prefer to speak Taiwanese, in contrast to those with higher social status, who favor Mandarin. The working class people are traditional in their approach to life and religious practice.

About 23 million people live in Taiwan.

The earliest inhabitants of Taiwan were of Malayo-Polynesian descent. Today, these aboriginal peoples only comprise 2% of the population.

The majority of Taiwanese people are of Han Chinese descent. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, throngs of people from Fujian province migrated to Taiwan. These immigrants settled in the western coast and forced the plains tribes to adopt Chinese language and customs. Other tribes were driven into the mountains where they maintained their traditional customs.

 

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About 23 million people live in Taiwan.

 

Most of these immigrants and their descendants speak Taiwanese (Hokkien/Minnan). They are part of the 49 million Hokkien-speaking Chinese people worldwide. About 15% of the early immigrants were Hakka speakers. Descendants of these early immigrants now make up about 85% of the population.

A final wave of immigration from China came after 1949, when Chiang Kai Shek and his Nationalist army fled from the Communists to Taiwan. Now, about 15% of Taiwanese people can trace their ancestry to this migration. They are Mandarin-speaking.

The official language of Taiwan is Mandarin but most people speak a mix of both Mandarin and Taiwanese, favoring one or the other depending on family background and context. Working class people tend to speak more Taiwanese, and those with more education usually prefer to speak Mandarin.

There are also about 500,000 people from South East Asia who work in Taiwan as laborers or house helpers. They come from Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Religion in Taiwan is an extremely complex mixture of various traditions. Although people vary greatly in their involvement in religious practice, most are influenced by the folk religion.

Taiwanese folk religion is animistic, polytheistic and syncretistic. It is animistic because Taiwanese people firmly believe that spiritual forces have power over their daily lives. It is polytheistic because people believe in and worship multiple gods. It is syncretistic because Taiwanese have blended many varied and even contradictory religions and folk beliefs. It also includes various occult practices like fengshui, fortune telling, relying on lucky amulets, conversing with spirits, and spirit possession.

For many people,  religion is pragmatic. Keeping the gods happy is one way to ensure peace and prosperity in their own lives.

 

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Amongst the working class majority, probably only about 0.5% are Christian.

 

Folk religion also incorporates ancestor worship, Taoism, and Buddhism. Although each religion has its own deities and teachings, they are often mixed so thoroughly that it becomes impossible to determine what is Taoist and what is Buddhist. For example, the Taiwan folk deity, Mazu (Goddess of the Sea) and the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kuanyin, are frequently worshipped in the same temple.

Religion is strongly embedded into families and communities and it is a often a difficult and painful decision for the person who wishes to abandon this and convert to Christianity.

Only about 2-3% of the Taiwanese are practicing Christians and most of these come from the more highly educated and western-influenced middle class. Amongst the working class majority, probably only about 0.5% are Christian.

Taiwan was originally settled by various Malayo-Polynesian peoples and later by migrants from south-eastern China.

In 1623 the Dutch briefly occupied parts of Taiwan. Around this time the Portuguese gave Taiwan the name by which it became known in the west: Ilhsa Formosa, Beautiful Island.

In 1683, Taiwan became an official part of the Chinese Empire for the first time. It was considered to be a county of Fujian Province. Increasing numbers of Chinese began to migrate to Taiwan, However, for much of this time Taiwan was considered the “wild west” and Chinese authorities paid it scant attention. It was often used as a base for Chinese rebels and pirates.

 

1640_Map_of_Formosa-Taiwan_by_Dutch_荷蘭人所繪福爾摩沙-臺灣

In 1623 the Dutch briefly occupied parts of Taiwan. Around this time the Portuguese gave Taiwan the name by which it became known in the west: Ilhsa Formosa, Beautiful Island.

 

In 1895, after the Japanese army defeated the Chinese army in Korea, the Treaty of Shimonoseki ceded Taiwan to the Japanese. Taiwan was a Japanese colony for the next 50 years until the conclusion of World War II.

In 1945 the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, under Chiang Kai Shek, fled from Mao’s Communist Party to Taiwan. They established the “Republic of China on Taiwan” under martial law. Since that time there has been a despite between Taiwan and the Communist government of China about who is the rightful ruler of Taiwan.

In 1987, martial law was lifted. In 1996, Taiwan democratically elected a president for the first time. Taiwan is a free wheeling democracy and continues to develop as a modern industrial power. Despite its de facto independence, Taiwan is politically isolated as China continues to consider it as rebel province and threatens war should Taiwan declare formal independence.

For a good introduction to Taiwan’s complex history, read the short online book “Island in the Stream”.

Taiwan is a small tropical island, lying 180 km off the southeast coast of China. It is less than 400 km long and about 150 km wide. A number of small islands off the coast of China also fall under Taiwan’s jurisdiction.

Taiwan lies on the Tropic of Cancer. In the south it is hot and humid for most of the year, however, Taipei has cold, wet winters. Each summer, the island experiences a number of typhoons which often lead to serious flooding and landslides.

 

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Over two-thirds of Taiwan is rugged mountains, leaving the population crowded into the western lowlands.

 

Over two-thirds of Taiwan is rugged mountains, leaving the population crowded into the western lowlands. Taiwan’s most prominent geographic feature is its central mountain range, which has more than 200 peaks over 3,000 meters high. Jade Mountain, at almost 4,000 meters, is one of the tallest peaks in East Asia. Rainfall is high providing the island with very rich vegetation. The flat west coast is densely planted with rice, tropical fruits and vegetables. The warm, wet weather means it is capable of producing three rice crops each year.

Taiwan lies at the juncture of two geological plates and, thus like Japan, frequently experiences earthquakes and volcanic activity, mainly in the form of hot springs.