The Secret History of Taiwan

Taiwan Aboriginal skull wall. Source

I’ve been meaning to write a post on Taiwan for a long time. I decided to rush one out before it’s too late.

The intention of this post is to correct common misapprehensions about Taiwan’s fascinating history. It is not to argue that the island does or does not belong to the PRC. That is to be decided by their willingness and ability to defend themselves. As Stalin supposedly said of the Pope, how many divisions does historical truth have?

The common, misleading version of Taiwanese history goes like this: Taiwan was once a province of China. Toward the end of the Civil War, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces fled there and that’s how it ended up out of CCP control.

The real history goes more as follows. Obviously this must be a brief summary so pipe up in the comments if you think I’ve missed something vital or just interesting. I’ll also get things wrong because this is partly from memory.

In the beginning

Taiwan was ruled by warring Aboriginal tribes almost until modern times. Many made a custom of headhunting and decorating their villages with impressive skull walls as pictured above. Other tribes along the coast were more peaceable and lived by fishing.

Small groups of Chinese and Japanese sometimes visited the coast, often pirates hiding out from their respective governments. At this time, Taiwan was considered a wild and barbarous place by Chinese authorities and they had little interest in doing anything with it. Han imperial expansion went in every direction but east.

The first successful colonizers were the Dutch, who set up trading posts along the west coast. You can see the remains of a Dutch fort in the southern city of Tainan. They never controlled the whole island, only parts of the western plains. The inland mountains and wild east coast continued to be ruled by Aboriginal tribes.

It was the Dutch who first brought over large numbers of Chinese as labourers and farmers. The western plains, suitable for rice cultivation, became more Chinese. It is unclear how peaceful or otherwise this transition was, but there was much mixing between Chinese and Aborigines at this time. To this day, many old stock ethnic Chinese in Taiwan have some Aboriginal ancestry.

Modern Taiwanese Aborigines. Source

There were also some other, small European colonies here and there. The Spanish were a presence for a while. Europeans needed to ally with some tribes in order to fight off others.

Koxinga

Meanwhile in China, the Ming dynasty foolishly let Manchurians through the Great Wall as hired help to put down a local rebellion and soon enough the Manchus had become the Qing dynasty.

Guys, don’t do that.

Some remaining forces loyal to the Ming headed for Taiwan, perhaps to use it as a base from which to continue the struggle on the mainland. Through superior numbers and tactics their celebrated leader, Koxinga, seized the west coast from the Dutch. Chinese hail this victory as proof that they really can defeat Westerners if only they have the proper arms and leadership. This fact only seems to startle the Chinese themselves.

The Aborigines were mostly on the side of the Chinese, having become sick of Dutch proselytizing and other disputes. The ethnic Chinese settlers, of course, largely favoured Koxinga too. There were exceptions.

The rump Ming dynasty of Taiwan was short-lived, however. Koxinga died after a couple of decades and the island officially fell to the Qing dynasty in 1683. The main Chinese motivation for controlling the island after millennia of ignoring it seems to have been preventing any more pirates, Europeans or opposition groups settling there.

Like the Dutch before them, the Qing were unable to control the whole island. While authorities expanded their reach, much of the rugged east coast and all of the inland mountains was still ruled by various Aboriginal tribes.

Farmers continued to migrate across the straight. There was frequent conflict between Chinese and the tribes. The government made a law banning Chinese from going up into the mountains because whether it was unfair trade or some other offence, such contact always seemed to end up with enraged tribes pouring out of the mountains and taking Chinese heads, which they thought particularly powerful additions to their skull walls.

There were also many local Chinese rebellions against Qing authorities due to their kleptocratic nature. Taiwan was considered about the worst backwater an administrator could be sent to so they made up for it by pinching more stuff. At one point they tried to ban bamboo so that the locals could no longer make sharpened bamboo spears, but obviously that didn’t work.

There was also fighting between the various Chinese clans and ethnic groups. All up a bit of a shit-show but the island did start exporting rice and sugar so I suppose that’s something.

One enlightened leader late in the piece tried to modernize the island with railways and telegraphs but the eunuchs in the capital didn’t approve of that as they thought it might disrupt the feng shui.

Japan

While the Sino-Japanese war did not take place in Taiwan, the island was handed over to Japan in 1895 as part of the settlement. The Taiwanese did not take this lying down. Chinese rule was bad enough but at least they were ethnic Chinese. The Japanese were complete foreigners. Slighted at having been abandoned by the Qing Dynasty, some attempted to form a Republic of Formosa and repulse the Japanese but this effort quickly failed.

This was Japan’s first real colony and they wanted to prove that they were an advanced nation like the European powers so they set about developing it, greatly expanding the railways, wiping out tropical diseases and setting up schools. They also, finally, seized control of the highlands and east coast, wiping out tribal rule, banning headhunting and directly administering 100% of the island. This was not easy. You can still walk parts of the cross-mountain tracks they built for police and they are seriously tough hikes.

Today the Taiwanese view of Japanese rule is mixed. On one hand, they were the first masters of the island to care about the place and make a sustained and effective effort to develop it. On the other hand, their rule was brutal as they crushed stubborn tribes and ethnic Chinese rebellions. Life eventually improved for most locals but they were never treated as equals of the Japanese, even if they spoke Japanese and graduated from Tokyo University.

A surviving Japanese building in Taipei. Source
Chiang Kai-shek

This is the part you know. Following Japan’s Pacific War defeat in 1945, surviving world powers agreed that Taiwan would be handed over (back?) to China. But which China? The Nationalists were fighting a civil war against the Communists.

As the US was now in full control of the Pacific, they decided to hand control over to the Nationalists, the Republic of China (ROC).

This time there was no major resistance from the Taiwanese. Most saw this as a reunification with their own people. However, the Nationalists were much more interested in seizing anything that wasn’t nailed down for their war effort on the mainland than they were in further developing the island. This plus inflation, a lack of elections and other problems led to widespread protests.

What happened next is vital to understanding the present situation in Taiwan. Nationalist forces brutally crushed dissent across the island in a wave of murder, torture and rape that would continue for decades in the form of the White Terror against any political opposition to Chiang Kai-shek’s rule. Broadcasting in any language other than Mandarin was forbidden, effectively locking out those speaking locally used Chinese dialects like Taiwanese, Hakka and Hokkien. To the Taiwanese mind, this was yet another betrayal by the mainland and contributed to the formation of a non-Chinese identity.

Nevertheless, after the Nationalist forces had lost the war back home and they and their supporters had fled to Taiwan, they stopped pinching everything and started properly administering the place. Industrialization quickly expanded. This was the time when all our toys said “MADE IN TAIWAN”.

There were two main ‘types’ of Taiwanese during this period: the old Taiwanese who mostly spoke Taiwanese and the recently-arrived mainlanders who mostly spoke Mandarin. This division continues to some extent today, with the south mostly populated with the former and the north with the latter. However, the groups have mixed over time.

The Aborigines are still around, living mostly in the mountains and along the east coast, and they speak mostly Taiwanese. Some indigenous languages also survive. Like Australian Aborigines, they are only about 2% of the population but quickly become the majority once you go into remote areas. Thanks to Qing laws that limited contact, they still live somewhat traditional lives, farming and sometimes working in the cities for cash. Their post-headhunting culture is largely intact. They seem to be doing much better than many indigenous groups around the world, perhaps because the mountains provide a buffer that allows them to integrate on their own terms.

Independence

After Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, Taiwan was in a tricky situation. Most countries had already recognized the PRC as the only China and did not recognize the ROC. They had a legitimacy problem, which was an existential problem.

The Nationalist Party realized that continued one-man rule would hardly help. The island held its first free elections and Taiwan-born Lee Teng-hui became the first democratically chosen leader. To many Taiwanese, this was the beginning of their independence. After the Dutch, the Qing, the Japanese and the Nationalists, they were finally masters of their own destiny.

From an already strong base, Taiwan rapidly developed. Once you take into account purchasing power parity (PPP), Taiwan now has a per capital GDP greater than Germany, Australia, Canada, the UK and Japan. There is good infrastructure, little corruption, okay healthcare and an extremely low crime rate.

The Taiwanese have done well for themselves and they’d like to keep it that way.

Taipei. Source

Although it must also be said, the fertility rate is 1.1. Even if they tow their island to a safer location down next to the Galapagos, the Taiwanese will struggle to survive this century.

Conclusion

In Taiwan, there is only one political issue: China.

I would guess about 10% of the population would like to rejoin the mainland for ease of doing business and so on, 20% want to formally declare independence right now, and the rest would rather maintain the awkward status quo for as long as possible.

You can see why most Taiwanese are not keen on joining up with the mainland this time around. They were treated like crap under the Qing and the Nationalists, and they have proven that they can do a better job on their own.

However, they do not see the Chinese as totally foreign and for a long time may have been open to some sort of Hong Kong style deal where they put up the Chinese flag but otherwise get on with managing their own affairs.

Recent events in Hong Kong have made that idea much less palatable and have increased the chances of war.

There really ought not be a war because the issue can be resolved through a reasonable compromise and a war would be in nobody’s interests. However, one could have said the same about Ukraine.

I fear that Neocons in the Global American Empire are using Taiwan as a cat’s paw against China, just as they used Ukraine against Russia. The consequences might be similar.

But what is the alternative for Taiwan? Give up the lovely country they’ve built after centuries of mismanagement, poverty and violence? Accept arbitrary and corrupt CCP rule, which they fear would be the latest iteration of mainland bullying that they’ve suffered twice before?

Yet I’m uncertain how many Taiwanese are willing to fight over it.

Once a war starts, as we’ve seen, it’s hard not to fight. Once it’s on, it’s on. The best time to cut a deal is before a conflict breaks out.

I’m not sure how long that window can stay open, or whether it is still open today.


Selected bibliography
Highly recommended book for fleshing out all the interesting details that couldn’t fit in this article. Find out why some people in southern Taiwan have red hair and about the time Japanese forces attacked a village with poison gas.
President Lee led a busy life prior to politics, including studying in Japan and fighting with their Imperial forces.

The Wikipedia page is also surprisingly balanced if you’d like an alternative summary.

19 comments

  1. lemmiwinks · 14 Days Ago

    Very interesting, thanks.

    This was the time when all our toys said “MADE IN TAIWAN”.

    I clearly recall reading “Made in Taiwan ROC” and wondering what ROC (rock to a kid) meant.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Kentucky Headhunter · 14 Days Ago

    What “reasonable compromise” would be suffiecient to avoid a war there?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stefan · 14 Days Ago

    Interesting. I’ve read that there were several levels of conquest, and a few thousand years ago the locals there were negritos (DNA proven), like the ones on the Andaman islands and on some Philippine islands, but were mostly wiped out and some mixed with later waves. Taiwan of course developed only because they recently imported a high IQ population from China. Similar to postwar Germany, they uickly build up wealth and infrastructure – if you kidnap them and drop them in Papua, they will eventually start making semiconductors.

    In my opinion, war and conquest of Taiwan by the mainland are inevitable and a question of time. Few countries are in worse geopolitical locations – perhaps only Korea and Poland will be worse off (as unified state entities) in the long term, squeezed between greater powers.

    Without Taiwan, the US will not be able to control the Western Pacific (euphemism for threatening commercial shipping). And the rest of the US local coalition (Korea, Japan, Singapore, Australia) will start to crumble. The Chinese just cannot allow rockets pointed at the mainland from there. We may expect an old-school Cuban crisis there, or years of “hybrid wars”, in this case, American propaganda aimed to brainwash their youth until at some point the majority of Taiwanese become culturally separate and are willing to fight their cousins.

    The question of when, in my opinion, depends on two factors – when the Chinese general staff will say they’re ready (the US is monitoring from the skies and listening, but do they have people on the ground? I’m not confident they have good human intelligence, from what I’ve read in recent years).

    The second factor for the invasion is choosing a politically good moment for it – meaning waiting for and encouraging some serious internal crisis in the US. Contrary to popular internet belief, not all wars unite the population against a common enemy – history is full of the opposite examples.

    By the way, the Chinese threatened Australia last year right after the Aukus deal – a very high-leveled official said they can nuke Adelaide and Melbourne. Why Melbourne, a city with no military value (Adelaide at least has shipyards) – perhaps just to intimidate Australia not to get involved in case of war, and would they actually do it if it comes to that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • lemmiwinks · 13 Days Ago

      By the way, the Chinese threatened Australia last year right after the Aukus deal – a very high-leveled official said they can nuke Adelaide and Melbourne.

      After their neurotic behaviour over the last 2.5 years, that might be the only way to fix Melbourne (apologies to those with family and friends there – prove me wrong Melbourne, prove me wrong). Interestingly, when you look at it like that, Australia has no defence against such a strike, and the generally accepted deterrent – as soon as we detect your missiles in the air we launch ours – is also absent.

      Our military alliances are somewhat like a CCTV system. After the fact someone can review the footage and maybe go and have a stern talk with the perpetrator, but frankly I’d be shocked if any of our allies would risk all out nuclear war and/or a strike on their own soil if a CCP sub launched some fire from the sea just off the east coast of Australia.

      Like

      • Nikolai Vladivostok · 13 Days Ago

        An unstated and often forgotten principle of international brinkmanship is that nuclear weapons are a 1940s technology. Any developed country or large developing country that doesn’t have them has made a choice, including Australia and Taiwan.
        If the GAE falters, that choice may change.

        Like

        • lemmiwinks · 13 Days Ago

          Indeed. At this point Australia would need help from Iran to get a nuclear program off the ground. We’d be speaking Mandarin before the first centrifuge was powered on.

          Like

        • Array · 13 Days Ago

          I’m not sure it’s only a choice – it’s not an easy task even for a large country to do it.
          There are four ways to develop nuke warhead materials: centrifuges, gaseous diffusion, plutonium reactors, and mass spectrometers, all of which are either hard to engineer (centrifuges – you need heaps of them), ineffective (mass spectrometers – the Manhattan project used a large chunk of the US electricity), very expensive (gaseous diffusion – you need very large facilities), or dangerous (plutonium reactors). It’s a huge budget commitment and you also need lots of good engineers and physicists.
          Few countries have both money and brains to sustain that.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Kentucky Gent · 13 Days Ago

      “Taiwan of course developed only because they recently imported a high IQ population from China. Similar to postwar Germany, they uickly build up wealth and infrastructure – if you kidnap them and drop them in Papua, they will eventually start making semiconductors.”

      China learned how to make semiconductors by getting access to US technology

      Like

  4. Kentucky Gent · 14 Days Ago

    “To the Taiwanese mind, this was yet another betrayal by the mainland and contributed to the formation of a non-Chinese identity.”

    Hmm. Wish I’d known this before. A couple of years ago, when we were all locked down and working from home, I tried to chat up a Taiwanese girl on Linkedin. When I mentioned that we (in the West) are taught that “Taiwanese are Chinese, so aren’t you Chinese?”, she abruptly ended the conversation

    Like

    • Nikolai Vladivostok · 14 Days Ago

      They generally describe themselves as ethnic Chinese, even claiming to preserve true Chinese culture that was destroyed on the mainland, but not politically Chinese.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. jewamongyou · 13 Days Ago

    Perhaps they should bring back headhunting; it might be useful against the Communists. Young Taiwanese can visit Syria for training.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nikolai Vladivostok · 13 Days Ago

      Imagine giant skull walls along the beaches of Taiwan. Why don’t modern countries do this.

      Like

  6. Kentucky Gent · 13 Days Ago

    Koxinga made me think of Kaw-Liga: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaw-Liga

    Like

  7. Pingback: The sleeping dragon awakens | Phil Ebersole's Blog
  8. mblanc46 · 13 Days Ago

    Thanks for this. Very informative.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Gunner Q · 12 Days Ago

    It sounds like the politics of nearly every island country. You keep playing the foreign aggressors off each other, then when they go to war against each other you pick a side quickly. “Leave me alone” doesn’t work for small populations in strategic locations.

    Like

  10. William of Ockham · 12 Days Ago

    Fascinating and, yes, I didn’t know the pre ROC parts

    Liked by 1 person

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