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Taiwan Travel Guide

Last updated by fabiowzgogo at 2015/11/30

Taiwan Overview

The island of Taiwan is located across the Taiwan Straits from Fujian Province on China's mainland. Taiwan is thus situated on the southern fringes of the East China Sea, where the latter borders the South China Sea. The island seems to have first been discovered by a Westerner in 1542 by a Portuguese trading vessel that ran across a large, plush island that was not listed on any existing (Western) map of the time. Impressed by the verdant, mountainous island, the captain of the Portuguese merchant ship is said to have referred to the "new" island as Ilha Formosa ("Beautiful Island"), a name that stuck, "Formosa" being an alternative name for Taiwan that is still in use today.

The first known (Western) map to include the island, a Dutch map printed in 1625, refers to the island as Packan, a name that is believed to stem from the sound bastardization of "Pei-kang", which would make "Packan" a bastardization of a bastardization, since "Pei-kang" is itself a bastardization of Beigang (think: "Peking" versus Beijing). The old settlement of Beigang (now a large city, of course) is situated well inland (about 15 kilometers from the shore), which was probably owing to the fearful, defensive nature of the island's inhabitants, whose first contacts with outsiders did not turn out well - for the outsiders - as will be seen presently.

The origin of the name "Taiwan" is equally convoluted and in fact not at all clear, since it was apparently the name - perhaps another bastardization - of a place on a peninsula along the island's western shore near the present-day city of Tainan ("South" Tai, in Chinese) that somehow came to be the name used to refer to the entire island, since this peninsula was the  first place to be repeatedly frequented by newcomers to the island (including the Chinese - more on this development below), and hence the name for the entire island came to be synonymous with the name of this first, westward-facing "outpost". Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty historical records indicate a long string of names to refer to the island, including the name "T'ai-yuan", of which "Taiwan" might well have been a Western bastardization. A completely different etymological theory holds that the name derives from the language of one of the aboriginal tribes that occupied the island before the Chinese set foot on it.

One thing is certain, however: the island was inhabited by non-Chinese, aboriginal peoples long before the Chinese people arrived, and the anthropological record suggests that there was an even more ancient people who lived on Taiwan...

Taiwan's Prehistory and Early Sino-Japanese History

Many Westerners are surprised to learn that the island of Taiwan has a non-Chinese prehistory. It turns out that the Chinese history on Taiwan is in fact rather recent, stemming primarily from the 17th century, when large groups of Han Chinese people belonging to what came to be known as the Hakka people ("Guest People", though the Hakka themselves interpret the word as "Us"), and later, even larger groups of Han Chinese people of the Hoklo language group of neighboring Fujian Province (the Hoklo are a variant of the Min Nan (southern Min) ethnic and language group) began to arrive on the island of Taiwan. Prior to the arrival of the Hakka and the Hoklo, the hostility of the indigenous tribes toward outsiders kept mainlanders at bay, as it were, but this hostility eventually gave way first to trade, then to cohabitation. About 85 % of the non-aboriginal population on present-day Taiwan is of Hoklo origin, while the remaining 15 % are of Hakka origin.

There are several indigenous tribes living on Taiwan. These include: the Ami, the Atayal, the Bunun, the Paiwan, the Puyuma, the Rukai, the Saisiat, the Tsou and the Yami.  They all speak languages that are interrelated (belonging to the Austronesian language group) but are not mutually comprehensible. There may have been still other indigenous Austronesian groups living on Taiwan, but if so, they became assimilated into the mainstream, Hoklo-Hakka Chinese society on the island, just as many individual members of the named indigenous tribes through time became assimilated. Before the indigenous tribes moved into the mountains to live, most of them had namely lived on the plains, where they came into increasing contact - and conflict - with the newcomers from the mainland.

Today, though most of Taiwan's indigenous minority groups still speak their own respective native languages, most also speak Mandarin. However, islanders who were educated during the period 1895-1945 learned Japanese instead of Mandarin as their second language, since Taiwan was under Japanese rule during this period, the island having been acquired from China as part of the 1895 peace treaty between China and Japan (the Treaty of Shimonoseki) at the close of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). There is only a very small, rapidly declining population of such individuals left on Taiwan. The languages of Taiwan's indigenous tribes belong to the Austronesian language family, as indicated, and the fact that they vary, yet belong to the same language group has led some researchers to suspect that the island of Taiwan might have been the source of all of the various tribes belonging to the Austronesian ethnic and language group, from the Indonesians to the Micronesians to the Polynesians.

This theory is quite plausible, since if the Austronesians have a common origin - which is the logical assumption - then they would have to have stemmed from some place where they could have developed semi-independently, yet from the same source, which would by definition almost have to be a large island, rich in topological features (read: natural barriers) that would facilitate such a development. The only other candidate would be a piece of mainland that was sufficiently cut off from the surrounding area as to act as a cultural barrier between the inhabitants and the outside world, plus there would have to be further "physical barriers" (mountains, rivers, etc.) that culturally subdivide the isolated area, and one struggles to imagine where this might have been either in China, in Indochina or in India.

A competing theory insists that the seeming plethora of indigenous Austronesian groups living on Taiwan is nothing but a recent political construct that emerged after the government of Taiwan, some 50 years ago (not unlike the mainland government of the PRC), decided to recognize the cultural identities of its various ethnic minorities, which, in some cases, required a reconstruction of the identity, since many if not most of the minority's salient features had been lost. These sociologists insist that the Hakka ethnic group, which is supposed to have been Han Chinese people who migrated to and settled in the Guangdong-Fujian-Taiwan area during the 4th century CE due to warring in the north, preserving their unique Han Chinese identity among the then majority Hundred Yue people of the area, can also be put in this same "cultural construct" pot. The rationale for the cultural construct is of course that it confers rights, including political and land rights, as well as laying the foundation for possible future pecuniary compensations.

The combined population of the indigenous Austronesian groups living on Taiwan is only about 2%, the rest being considered "native Taiwanese", or benshengren ("home-province persons"), i.e., the original Han Chinese people of  Hoklo and Hakka origin who eventually inhabited the island. Historical sources from the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period suggest that the Chinese court at least knew of the main island of Taiwan, while some of the surrounding islands had even been given names, such as Greater (and Lesser) Liuqiu, which name is believed to have an etymological relationship to the Japanese name for the same places: Ryukyu, suggesting that the ancient Japanese too knew of this island.

The first official contact between mainland China and the island took place during the 15th century, when a Ming Dynasty admiral visited the island in 1430. However, some of the outlying islands, such as the Penghu Islands, began to be inhabited on a small scale by the Han Chinese as early as the 12th century, since these islanders, also members of the same Austronesian ethnic and language group, were less hostile toward outsiders - perhaps because the were more in need of trade with outsiders - than were their brothers from the main island, who practiced what is known as headhunting, or chopping off and preserving (shrinking) the heads of their enemies, which was a ritual practice aimed at conferring power over one's enemies.

Forces under the Imperial Japanese military command attempted to take Taiwan for the Japanese crown in 1592, but were repelled. The Tokugawa Shogunate then permitted a group of Japanese traders to conduct an exploratory mission to the Kingdom of Ryukyu ("Taiwan"), as it was known by the Japanese, as indicated, in 1609 as part of Imperial Japan's efforts to continue to exert expansionary influence in the region. This was followed in 1616 by an unofficial attempt to invade Taiwan on the part of a Japanese merchant-adventurer, Murayama Toan, who armed a small fleet of junks with the express purpose of taking the island. Unluckily for Murayama Toan and his little party, they "atoned" for their "sins" in the most gruesome fashion: they were ambushed by headhunters. Later still, in 1871, a merchant ship from the Japanese island of Okinawa was driven ashore on Taiwan in bad weather and shipwrecked; its entire crew of 54 were beheaded by headhunters of the indigenous Paiwan tribe.

The indigenous tribes of Taiwan, not unlike the plains Indians of the Western USA, did not take kindly to being invaded by outsiders, perhaps because they recognized that outsiders were ultimately a mortal threat to their culture, to their way of life.

In more recent times, the indigenous Austronesian tribes on Taiwan have sought to have their status changed from "mountain people" (shan pao) to "original inhabitants", since the former term came to be considered derogatory. However, before this new title could be conferred on the aboriginals, a team of anthropologists and archeologists would have to inspect the evidence in support of and against the claim. This investigation led to further archeological excavations and subsequent analyses of the evidence unearthed, the net result of which suggests that there was an older tribe living on the island of Taiwan before the present-day Austronesians arrived, and that for some reason (war, disease, etc.) the older, original humanoid population on Taiwan had died out, perhaps even before the arrival of the Austronesians.

In any case, the scientists concluded that this older, extinct tribe of humanoids are deserving of the title "original inhabitants" - i.e., aboriginals - so when we here use the term "aboriginals" to describe the Austronesians, we are in fact committing a scientific error, even if it feels semantically correct, at least in a relative sense, to do so, and even the use of the term "indigenous" is correct only in a very relative sense when applied to the Austronesians of Taiwan.

The Hakka-Hoklo History of Taiwan

The Hakka, as indicated, are believed to have migrated to the Guangdong-Fujian-Taiwan area during the 4th century CE due to warring in the north. Accordingly, it is claimed that at the turn of the 17th century, times were extremely harsh in the Guangdong-Fujian area, the already poor soil was being rapidly depleted, and droughts and floods only added to the misery of the Hakka, who were highly dependent on the lands that they farmed, therefore many of them hazarded the journey across the Taiwan Straits (the story does not report on how they were received by their headhunter hosts, but it would have been impossible to have decapitated so many people). In any case, the Hakka kept migrating to Taiwan where they found rich soil. In fact, they sent back family members to fetch impoverished relatives in Guangdong and Fujian, urging them to migrate to Taiwan. Eventually, a large population of Hakkas had settled on Taiwan, where they thrived.

A half century later, at the close of the Ming Dynasty, large swaths of southern Fujian Province, which was inhabited by Han Chinese people of the Hoklo ethnic and language group, followed in the footsteps of the Hakkas and emigrated to Taiwan where they too met with prosperity and where they got along well both with the indigenous tribes and with the Hakkas.

During the early part of the 18th century, there was widespread discontent among the Han Chinese with the Manchu-led Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty government, and this discontent spread to Taiwan, with the result that both the Hakkas and the Hoklos rose up against the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty. Since the Hoklos were by far the majority group on the island, the Hoklo leader suddenly announced that he intended to rule Taiwan independent of Beijing, as the island's new king. This led to a split between the two Han Chinese groups, with the Hakkas switching sides and allying themselves with the Qing government.

The Qing government bequeathed prime aboriginal lands to their new allies, the Hakkas, which meant that in order to take possession of the new lands, the Hakkas had to drive the indigenous tribes off the land, which in turn resulted in considerable strife between the Hakkas and the indigenous groups who thus lost their lands, retreating to the mountains. In the end, the Qing-Hakka alliance on Taiwan won, but the enmity between the Hakkas and the Hoklos continued for another century, though the enmity between the Hakkas and the indigenous groups was soon settled, as both groups found trade with the other to mutual benefit, and the indigenous tribes had quickly adjusted to their new home in the mountains.

The strife between the Hakkas and their neighbors - both the Hoklos and the indigenous groups - influenced the way in which Hakka architecture developed thereafter: in order to protect themselves, the Hakkas built their housing compounds, in which an entire clan (fofong) would live, in a "U" shape, with only a single entrance from which they could fend off would-be intruders. An example of this housing compound can be seen today in the ancient village of Meinung in Kaohsiung County.

The Hakka prize knowledge above simply earning money in order to consume. There is accordingly a disproportionately large percentage of highly educated Hakkas in the villages, towns and cities of Taiwan. Another feature that distinguishes the Hakka is that their women enjoyed higher status than that of traditional Chinese women. This is because the Hakka women worked the fields alongside the men, and therefore the Chinese tradition of binding a woman's feet, effectively reducing her to a plaything, was absent from Hakka culture, with the result that Hakka women earned themselves a place of respect in Hakka society.

Not all Hakkas occupy prime agricultural lands on Taiwan. A later group of Hakkas settled in the mountainous region of Maioli County, about 2 hours drive south of Taipei. They worked hard to terrace the bits of the mountain that could be adapted to this use, and they were very successful, combining agriculture with the pastoral way of life typical of mountainous regions. The Hakka villages of Maioli County are still alive and well, though today the pastoral way of life has given way to an emphasis on growing prime mountain teas such as Sweet Pengfeng Oolong Tea and Oriental Beauty Tea. The typical Maioli County tea picker is a straightforward, smiling Hakka woman.

Taiwan's Highlights

The beautiful landscapes of Ilha Formosa are the island's main tourist draw. Taiwan is divided east to west by mountain ranges that run north-south. The mountain ranges occupy the eastern two-thirds of the island, with fertile, rolling plains to the west, which are home to the bulk of Taiwan's population of some 23 million, including the survivors and descendants of the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek who fled mainland China in 1945 and who numbered some 2 million at the time (besides the members of the Kuomintang came also the families of several business tycoons as well as numerous intellectuals, though an even larger number of intellectuals remained on the mainland and supported the Communist Revolution). Taiwan's highest point is Mount Yu, whose highest peak reaches 3952 meters above sea level. There are an additional five peaks among Taiwan's mountain ranges that each exceed 3500 meters above sea level. Thanks to Mount Yu, Taiwan is ranked as the world's fourth-highest island, measured in terms of the highest (above sea level) natural feature.

The landscapes of Taiwan, beautiful in themselves, are also home to some unique flora and fauna specimens, including the Taiwan macaque monkey and the Taiwan bear. Though not necessarily unique, there are hundreds of species of butterflies that inhabit the gorges and valleys of Taiwan, especially Taroko Gorge's Tunnel of Nine Turns, a narrow stretch of the gorge - more like a slit in the marble "bedrock" of this famous gorge - that is so narrow and deep that the sky above, viewed from the base of the Tunnel of Nine Turns is only a thin stripe. Taroko Gorge is a part of Taroko National Park. In general, Taiwan's mountains, valleys and gorges are a hiker's paradise.

The main tourist sites on Taiwan are:

Alishan (Mount Ali) - which is part of the Yu Mountain Range and which offers some of the best views on all of Taiwan, and is also said to be the best venue for observing the island's sunrise (to learn more about Alishan, click here);

Sun Moon Lake - Taiwan's largest lake (and largest natural lake), in the center of which is situated a small island, Lake Lalu, that is holy to Taiwan's indigenous Thao tribe... the island formerly divided the lake into two main parts, Sun Lake and Moon Lake (their names being suggestive of their shapes), but after the tectonic shifts associated with the 1999 earthquake on Taiwan, the island sunk further, rendering it a very small island and changing forever the shape of the lake - or at least until the next tectonic shift occurs (to learn more about Sun Moon Lake, click here);

Tailuge (Taroko) National Park - which comprises several deep, marble cleavages whose exposed faces exhibit some of the most beautiful rock patterns seen anywhere on earth, and is in general a hiker's paradise, as indicated (to learn more about Tailuge National Park, click here); and

Penghu Liehtao (aka the Pescadores) - the set of islands just off "mainland" Taiwan's west coast (i.e., located in the Taiwan Straits) whose southernmost reaches lie roughly on the same latitude as the city of Tainan and whose northernmost reaches lie roughly on the same latitude as the mouth of the Choshui River, where the latter empties into the Penghu/Pescadores Channel (to learn more about Penghu Liehtao, click here).

If you would like to visit Taiwan's indigenous tribes to get a taste of original Austronesian culture, the following sites can be considered broadly representative: Wulai Village, situated an hour's drive southeast of the capital, Taipei; Taiwan Aboriginal Culture Park in the city of Peiyeh, Pingtung county; the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village near Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County, situated in the geographical center of Taiwan; and the island of Lanyu, located about 75 kilometers due east of the southern tip of Taiwan and home to the Yami tribe, where, thanks to the island's relative isolation (even though tourism is making its presence felt here too), the natives, whose livelihoods depend on the sea (as were their ancestors since time immemorial, they are hardy, loincloth-clad fishermen), still live a life-style reminiscent of that of their forefathers - it is in any case the most secluded, most "untouched", aboriginal experience one can have on a visit to Taiwan.