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Taiwan: Historical Background
Country Study > Historical Background


Prehistory: Taiwan has had human settlement for at least 15,000 years, dating to the Paleolithic age, and evidence of Neolithic agrarian settlements, similar to those of coastal China, dating from 4000 to 2500 B.C., have also been found. Because there was no land bridge to mainland Asia, the supposition is that these Neolithic peoples were seafarers as well as agriculturalists. There are several theories as to the origins of the aboriginal, Austronesian-speaking peoples living in Taiwan today. Some scholars believe that the first people to populate Taiwan were Malayo-Polynesians, specifically from Indonesia—peoples of a southern origin. Others argue for a northern origin—tribal peoples from southeastern mainland China—in support of the argument that Taiwan has always been a part of China. Some have posited Taiwan as the origin of the Austronesian languages, a position supporting an early Neolithic migration from southeastern China followed by independent development in Taiwan.

Mainland and European Arrivals: Mainland Chinese began to trade with the aborigines around the fourteenth century. Substantial numbers of Chinese migrants did not arrive until after the arrival in Taiwan in 1624 of the Portuguese, who called it Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island). Spain established fortified harbor outposts in northern Taiwan in 1626 and 1628, followed by the construction of connecting roads and missionary activities. The Dutch arrived in 1632 and established themselves at several outposts, with trade with the mainland as their main goal. By 1642 the Dutch had easily supplanted the Spanish presence, but then both the Portuguese and Dutch were expelled by a Chinese pirate and trader, Cheng Ch’eng-kung (Zheng Chenggong; also known as Koxinga), in 1662. Under Cheng’s administration, emigration, mostly from Fujian (Fu-chien) and Guangdong (Kwang-tung), was encouraged, and by 1664 the Chinese population had reached about 50,000; within 20 years, it had doubled. Mainlander settlement forced the aborigines from their traditional lands in the western plains up into the central mountains. There they fought to keep Chinese settlers out, and occasionally they raided lowland settlements.

Qing Period: Cheng Ch’eng-kung and his descendants, who were loyal to the former Ming Dynasty (1368–1643), controlled Taiwan for 20 years. In 1683 military forces of the new Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) took control of the P’eng-hu (Pescadores) Islands and wrested Taiwan from the Cheng family. Two years later, they made it a prefecture of Fujian Province. Although the Qing banned migration to Taiwan, many mainlanders were still attracted to its fertile soil. The economy was based on trade, and expansion shifted from the southwestern coast and plains around T’ai-nan (which had become a treaty port) to the north around Taipei, the new provincial capital. As Taiwan opened to foreign trade, European and American treaty port officials, merchants, and missionaries arrived in significant numbers. Economic and social transformation was accompanied by population growth and urbanization and, in 1885, Taiwan was raised to provincial status.

Japanese Colonial Period: Under the Treaty of Shimonoseki (April 17, 1895) following China’s defeat by Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), Taiwan and the P’eng-hu Islands were ceded to Japan. Tokyo saw Taiwan as a source of raw materials for Japan’s industries, a colonial market for Japanese goods, and a model for economic growth. Taiwan also provided Japan with an important strategic outpost and southern defensive position. However, in May 1895, a short-lived Taiwan Republic was proclaimed by the Chinese governor with the hope of Western intervention. After the governor quietly departed, remnant Qing troops, militia forces, and armed partisan bands engaged in a five-month-long resistance that brought further wartime damage. Over the next seven years, Japanese forces continued to pacify the island.

Japanese administrators conducted land surveys and brought order to the landholding system. The tax base began to improve as urban enterprises developed and a new class of owner-cultivators developed in rural areas. By the early twentieth century, railroads linked the northern and southern parts of the island, and new roads served interior areas. The Japanese-owned sugarcane industry became important. The population grew during the Japanese period from 3 million in 1905 to 9 million in 1945. Some of this growth came from the continued influx of laborers brought from the mainland. In 1920 the first Taiwanese-inspired political movement was formed, ultimately advocating a form of autonomy for the island. The reaction from Japan was negative, but the movement, led briefly by the New People’s Society and then the League for the Establishment of a Taiwan Parliament, continued until 1934, when it was suppressed by Japan’s emerging ultranationalist forces. Even though an increasingly skilled and better-educated population had emerged, Taiwan’s population was kept from political participation throughout the colonial period. Rule at times was harsh and repressive, especially after the end of the rule of civilian governors-general (1915–36). When Japan went on a war footing against China (1936–45), Taiwan became a staging area for the invasion of southern China. The wartime economy brought construction, growth of heavy industry, use of modern technology, and development of a skilled industrial labor force. Taiwanese troops and medical personnel were sent to various parts of the wartime theater. The sudden end of the war was troubling to many Taiwanese. Some had been loyal to Japan; others, full of hatred of colonial rule, looked forward to the return of Chinese rule. Taiwan self-determination was not offered as a consideration. Nevertheless, modern Taiwanese scholars see this period as an intrinsic part of their historical legacy, a period that brought the island into the modern age and began to define a separate identity from mainland China.

Postwar Occupation: The military forces of the Republic of China under the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party—Chung-kuo Kuo-min-tang—usually shorted to Kuomintang, KMT) arrived in Taiwan after the war and started to erase all vestiges of Japanese rule and to bring the island under Nationalist Chinese political, economic, and cultural influence. Rather than treating Taiwan as a liberated area, the KMT forces confronted the local population as enemy collaborators. Businesses were looted and goods were seized as KMT military officers and politicians took charge. The abolition of the use of widely spoken Japanese and the imposition of Mandarin Chinese led to communications and political problems. Taiwanese political groups and the media sought influence, but mainlanders predominated in the key provincial administrative positions. Provincial and local assembly elections took place in 1946, but the Taiwanese found their elected bodies had only limited powers. Decolonization and reintegration were proving difficult, and the KMT regime was turning out to be just as exploitative and controlling as the Japanese had been but less competent. Resentment was on the rise. When unarmed demonstrators protested the corrupt KMT occupation and overthrew the provincial administration in early 1947, they were violently suppressed in what has become known as the February 28 Incident. A military reign of terror ensued, and an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 (some say 100,000) people were killed and some 30,000 wounded. To commemorate this bloody event, February 28 has, since 1995, been marked as a national memorial day.

Taiwan under KMT Rule: Following the KMT defeat by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the mainland in 1949 and faced with instability on the island on which he had to reestablish his base, KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, 1888–1975) and his party reformed their regime politically and established a “socialist-minded state control” over heavy industry. Mainland refugees took over most aspects of governance, the economy, and the education system. The “loss of China” in 1949 and the onset of the Korean War (1950–53) against communist-run North Korea and its Chinese ally impelled the United States to help the Republic of China on Taiwan to become a bulwark against communism. The U.S. 7th Fleet was assigned to patrol the Taiwan Strait to prevent an invasion of Taiwan. The United States provided economic and military aid, and in 1954 a mutual security treaty was signed with the Republic of China as part of Washington’s Cold War policy of containment of the Beijing regime. But military aid was limited to what Taiwan needed to defend itself against the People’s Republic of China and not to support Chiang Kai-shek’s dream of “returning to the mainland.”

The government established on Taiwan in 1949 had national and provincial levels. The national level, with elected and appointed officials brought from the mainland, represented itself as the Republic of China in international forums and ostensibly prepared for a return to rule over all of the mainland. At the onset, the KMT controlled Taiwan, small offshore islands belonging to Fujian and Zhejiang provinces on the mainland, and Hainan Island, south of Guangdong Province. Although they lost control of Hainan and Zhejiang’s Chou-shan Islands in 1950 and Zhejiang’s Ta-chen Island in 1955, the islands appertaining to Fujian—Kinmen (Chin-men, Jinmen, or Quemoy) and Matsu (Ma-tzu)—were still under the control of the Republic of China in 2005. Beginning in the early 1950s, county, municipal, and provincial—but not national—elections were held. In 1959 the Taiwan Provincial Assembly was established, a situation that gave the Taiwan people an opportunity to participate in provincial life even though the central government maintained three parliamentary bodies—the National Assembly, the Legislative Yuan, and the Control Yuan, with seats largely held by mainlanders who had been elected prior to 1949—whose interests were not local but concerned a national territory that they no longer controlled. The tenures of these holdover representatives were extended by presidential order, but as they died off, the regime was forced to hold an election in 1969 to fill the empty seats. The two-term limitation on the presidency was amended by the National Assembly in 1960 to allow Chiang Kai-shek to remain in office during “the period of communist rebellion.” Local politics were controlled by the KMT through influence exerted on local politicians and manipulation of elections.

In the 1950s, the government transferred industries seized from the Japanese in 1945 to private management. Land reform also took place and greatly reduced tenancy. By the 1960s, following a decade of manufacture of consumer goods for domestic consumption, Taiwan shifted to the export trade, using low-paid labor to produce consumer electronics and other desirable goods.

Americans and Japanese invested heavily in Taiwan’s industries, and export processing zones were established in Kao-hsiung and T’ai-chung, replete with tax incentives and export-tax exemptions. The Second Indochina War (1954–75) also stimulated the island’s economy. As further shifts to heavy industries, such as steel and petrochemicals, took place, the island became increasingly urbanized. Exports grew eightfold during the 1960s, as Taiwan became the world’s fastest growing economy. Personal income also increased, and the government began investing more in education. In 1965 the population stood at 12.6 million, and by 1985 had reached 19.2 million. By 1988 Taiwan’s gross national product (GNP) had reached US$95 billion, and per capita GNP, at US$4,800, was 10 times that of mainland China.

Despite these substantial economic advances—which brought Taiwan the characterization as one of the “Four Tigers” (along with South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore) of economic prowess in Asia—the Republic of China did not fare well in the international political milieu. Although a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council when the UN was formed in 1945, the Republic of China was ousted from the China seat in 1971 by a vote of the UN General Assembly. At the same time, the United States was changing its own policy of containing the People’s Republic of China, which led to further isolation of Taiwan. Washington’s recognition of Taipei ended in 1979, but quasi-official relations continued under other arrangements.

On the domestic front, the prosperity Taiwan enjoyed brought increasing pressure for political reform. As the original generation of mainlanders retired from positions of authority in the party, government, and military, they increasingly were replaced by Taiwan-born individuals. Even though a few independent Taiwanese politicians were elected to local and provincial positions, the KMT continued to hold a monopoly of central power. When Chiang Kei-shek died in 1975, he was succeeded by his son, Premier Chiang Ching-kuo (Jiang Jingguo), as head of the party and president of the Republic of China.

The younger, more liberal Chiang began “Taiwanizing” the KMT and the government, bringing in those who shared his views on socioeconomic modernization. The political door was cracked open, and soon independents (non-party—tang-wai or dangwai) were winning numerous seats in the Taiwan Provincial Assembly and in local elections. Things did not always go well, however. On December 10, 1979, there was a violent clash between tang-wai demonstrators and KMT-hired troublemakers and local police in Kao-hsiung. During the next eight years, government attempts to repress political activism were met with renewed middle-class activism, which eventually led to reform within the KMT. Emboldened, the tang-wai activists defied the government’s ban on establishing new political parties and founded the Democratic Progressive Party (Minzhu Jinpu Dang, abbreviated as Minjindang; DPP) in September 1986. Chiang resisted his conservative colleagues in the KMT and allowed the DPP to stand. In October 1986, Chiang facilitated a resolution to end martial law, which had been in effect since 1948. In December 1986, the first legal two-party Legislative Yuan election was held, and the DPP won 12 of the 73 open seats. Chiang also made liberalizing gestures to Beijing by allowing Republic of China citizens to visit the mainland.

When he died in January 1988, Chiang Ching-kuo was succeeded by his vice president, Lee Teng-hui, a Taiwanese-born and Japanese- and American-educated academician who had previously served as the appointed governor of Taiwan Province. Although the KMT won the most seats in the 1989 elections, the DPP made major advances. The KMT, however, was becoming increasingly factionalized over political reform and foreign policy. Lee was elected president by the National Assembly in his own right in 1990, but a conservative career military man—“one-China” policy supporter and law-and-order advocate Hau Pei-tsun—was elected premier. This situation further factionalized the KMT and emboldened the DPP to issue statements promoting Taiwan independence. Lee Tung-hui continued his reforms by transforming the National Assembly to a smaller (327 seats instead of 613), popularly elected legislature with four-year instead of six-year terms. Another parliamentary body, the Legislative Yuan, was reduced from 220 seats to 161. The DPP’s platform called for a plebiscite on independence, but voters, uneasy with this concept, overwhelmingly supported KMT candidates in the December 1990 National Assembly elections (254 seats for the KMT to 66 for the DPP).

KMT factional politics eventually meant losses for the conservatives led by Hau Pei-tsun and victory for Lee Tung-hui. In 1991 Lee declared an end to the hostilities with the mainland regime, abandoned the long-standing claims that the Taiwan authorities governed mainland China, and stated that Taiwan no longer disputed the fact that the People’s Republic of China controlled mainland China. KMT power was slipping, as it won only 102 seats to 50 seats for the DPP and 9 other seats for tang-wai candidates in the 1992 Legislative Yuan elections. The DPP then joined with the New KMT Alliance, a coalition of anti-Lee, reform-minded, pro-reunification KMT legislators, to pass the Sunshine Bill, an act to force legislators and bureaucrats to disclose their financial assets. In July 1993, the New KMT Alliance broke with the KMT to form the New Party (Hsin Tang or Xindang, initially the Chinese New Party or Zhongguo Xindang). An amendment to the constitution in 1994 led in March 1996 to the election of Lee Tung-hui as Taiwan’s first popularly elected president, with Premier Lien Chan as vice president and the KMT winning 54 percent of the vote. In the National Assembly elections held at the same time, the KMT won only a slim majority, 183 seats to the DPP’s 99 seats and the New Party’s 56 seats. During his second term, Lee said that a “special state-to-state relationship” existed in Taiwan’s relations with China. In doing so, he incurred the wrath of Beijing, and new cross-strait tensions set in.

A New Political Era: The presidential election of March 2000 was a momentous one for Taiwan. DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian, who had served as the elected mayor of Taipei from 1994 to 1998, defeated KMT candidate Lien Chan and the more-than 50-year era of KMT dominance was over. Although the DPP won the larger share of seats in the Legislative Yuan, the KMT’s alliance with the People First Party (Qinmindang, a KMT breakaway party) gave the KMT de facto control. Thus, the new era also meant one of divided government and impediments for the new DPP administration. Further complications arose to thwart the DPP’s efforts soon after Chen’s inauguration in May 2000, when the international high-technology industry began experiencing severe problems and orders from Taiwan quickly and substantially decreased. In 2003, as the economy began to recover, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis hit Taiwan, temporarily shaking confidence. Despite the inauguration of Lunar New Year tourist flights from Taiwan to China via Hong Kong and Macau, Beijing continued to be wary of the DPP and refused to engage in suggested government-to-government talks or anything else relating to direct links that might improve Chen Shui-bian’s chances at winning a second term in 2004. Chen ran a successful campaign, and, despite an assassination attempt on March 19, 2004, he went on to win a second term in the March 20, 2004, election. In the December 2004 Legislative Yuan elections, the DPP won more seats than any other party and was allied with another major party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (Taiwan Tuanjie Lianmeng; TSU) in the Pan-Green alliance. However, the KMT-People First Party coalition (known as the Pan-Blue alliance) had greater strength in overall numbers and thus continued to control the legislature.

Last Updated: March 2005

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Taiwan was first published in 2005. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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