by John Fotheringham
Before we get into living in Taipei, let’s quickly set the historical and cultural stages on which this vibrant city rests.
Throughout this site, I use the term “Taiwan” loosely to refer to the island on which Taipei City is located. If you still confuse “Taiwan” with “Thailand,” please invest in an atlas immediately, and request a refund from your Alma Mater.
There are two other names, however, that we need to keep straight: “R.O.C.” and “P.R.C.” If you watched the Beijing Olympics, you know just how controversial these names can be. But what’s the big deal, anyway? Below is a quick look at some significant historical events and figures that molded modern Taiwan and China, and the tense political situation between them. Buckle your seatbelt folks, things are about get a little bumpy…
The R.O.C. stands for the “Republic of China” (中華民國 ZhōngHuá MínGuó), the nation created by Dr. SUN Yat-Sen (孫中山 SŪN Zhōngshān) and the KMT (國民黨 GuóMín Dǎng “Nationalist Party”) after overthrowing the Qing Dynasty government (清朝政府 Qīng Cháo ZhèngFǔ, also known as the Manchu Dynasty) in 1911.
Over the following four decades, China lived through a number of nation-changing events, each worthy of a Discovery Channel mini-series in their own right:
Following the death of Dr. SUN Yat-Sen on March 12, 1925, a power struggle emerges between CHIANG Kai-Shek (蔣介石 JIǍNG JièShí) a.k.a. 蔣中正 (JIǍNG ZhōngZhèng), a right-leaning military leader who at the time was only a mid-ranking official in the KMT, and the left-leaning WĀNG JīngWèi (汪精衛), then chairman of the KMT.
In the lead up to World War II, Japan invades Manchuria, establishes a puppet state called Manchukuo (滿洲國 MǎnZhōu Guó), and installs Puyi (溥儀 PǔYí) as its leader. Puyi, you may recall, was the previously ousted Qing emperor and the inspiration for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film The Last Emperor.
With promises of equally bad clothes and food for everyone, Communism begins to gain popularity across China, laying a foundation for future friction between CHIANG Kai-Shek and MAO Tse-Tung (毛澤東 MÁO ZéDōng).
With Japanese forces inching closer and closer, the KMT and Communist armies decide to put aside differences of opinion on property ownership and tunic styles, and work together to keep China in the hands of the Chinese. After Japan’s defeat, the KMT and Communist Army go back to killing each other.
Weakened by their fighting with the Japanese, and boxed in by the ever-growing Communist Army, CHIANG Kai-Shek moves the R.O.C.’s government to Taiwan where he intends to wait until he can mount an effective counter attack. This day never comes, and the R.O.C. government remains in Taiwan to this day.
Taiwan (台灣 TáiWān) is for all practical purposes synonymous with the R.O.C. However, the island’s official name, national identity and statehood remain highly contested issues. Controversy abounds…
Under former president CHEN Shui-bian (CHÉN ShuǐBiǎn 陳水扁), the executive branch carried out a campaign to change many institutional and geographical names referencing China or the KMT.
- “Chiang Kai-shek International Airport” (中正國際機場 ZhōngZhèng GuóJì JīChǎng) was renamed “Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport” (台灣桃園國際機場 TáiWān TáoYuán GuóJì JīChǎng).
- “Chunghwa Post” (中華郵政 ZhōngHuá YóuZhèng, a.k.a. “China Post”) was changed to “Taiwan Post” (台灣郵政 TáiWān YóuZhèng).
- “Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall” (中正紀念堂 ZhōngZhèng JìNiàn Táng) was renamed “National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall” (國立台灣民主紀念館 GuóLì TáiWān MínZhǔ JìNiàn Guǎn). Alledgly, the name will change back soon.
This controversy is largely a product of Taiwan’s mixed cultural identity and turbulent history. From aboriginal tribes to KMT troops, the island has gone through more owners than a ‘57 Chevy.
Taiwan’s original inhabitants began setting up shop about 10,000 years before the birth of Christ. Most of these early settlers came from southern China and Austronesia. Many millennia later, the island’s aboriginal population is joined (some would argue “displaced”) by boat loads of Fujian (福建 FúJiàn) emigrants hoping to escape the political and social turmoil of 15th century China.
Shortly thereafter, another group from the mainland begins arriving on the island in droves: the Hakka (客家 KèJiā). The word Hakka literally means “guest,” a name that reveals much about the rough history faced by this ethnic group.
The Portuguese discover Taiwan in 1544, and proceed to name it Ilha Formosa (lit. “Island Beautiful”). In quick succession, the Dutch and Spanish also “discover” the island. Quite aware of Taiwan’s geographic significance for East Asian trade, each attempt to secure access to, and through, the Taiwan Straight.
The Dutch originally seize the Pescadores Archipelago (澎湖群島 PéngHú QúnDǎo), located off the western coast of Taiwan, but are later pushed off the islands by Ming (明朝 Míng Cháo) forces. In an ironic twist of history, the Dutch are allowed to re-establish in southern Taiwan.
The Spanish take control of much of northern Taiwan in 1626, all the way from present day Keelung (基隆 JīLóng) to Tamsui (淡水 DànShuǐ). Unfortunately for the Spanish, anti-malarial drugs, DEET and Kevlar hadn’t been invented yet: over the next ten years their forces are ravaged by malaria and aboriginal spearheads.
After the Spanish pull up stakes in 1638, the Dutch fill the imperial vacuum in no time flat, gaining control of all Taiwan. At the same time the Dutch were gaining ever-greater control of Taiwan, the Ming government was losing control of Mainland China. After being overthrown by Qing forces, surviving Ming supporters make a mad dash for Taiwan.
One such survivor is CHENG Ch’eng-Kung (鄭成功 ZHÈNG ChéngGōng), also known by the name “Koxinga” (國姓爺 GUÓ XìngYé). After amassing an army in Kinmen (金門 JīnMén), an archipelago just off the coast of Mainland China, he sails to Taiwan and overthrows the Dutch. Much like CHIANG Kai-Shek hundreds of years later, CHENG hopes to eventually return to the mainland and overthrow his ousters. He dies just one year after arriving in Taiwan, and his heirs go on to plunge the island into severe poverty.
With the island in chaos, the Qing government easily retakes control of Taiwan in 1683. Over the next few hundred years, they govern Taiwan in an extremely laissez-faire manner, and do little to respond to repeated complaints from traders about the unruly behavior of the islands inhabitants.
Shipwrecks are common along Taiwan’s coast during this period, as are subsequent beatings and executions by aboriginal tribes that may happen upon shipwrecked crews. In one historically significant event, a tribe executes the entire crew of a shipwrecked Japanese junk ship in 1872.
The Qing government does nothing to appease the Japanese over the event, let alone take measures to prevent future reoccurrences. Fuming, Japan decides to take the matter into their own hands, and invades Taiwan in 1874. They soon pull out forces, however, once the Qing government finally promises to bring civil order to Taiwan and compensate the families of slain sailors.
This first mini-occupation must have left a good taste in their mouths, because the Japanese retake control of Taiwan in 1894. They go on to occupy the island for five decades, during which time they industrialize the island, building roads, highways, railways, schools and hospitals. They take serious strides to “Japanify” the island: those attending school or working in government or commercial posts are forced to learn and use Japanese, and prevented from practicing any non-Japanese customs.
Then just as Japan’s iron fist is removed following their defeat in World War II, it is quickly replaced by that of the KMT as they flee Mainland China. But as brutal as life may have been under the Japanese, some argue that things were even more brutal under the KMT…
The People’s Republic of China (中華人民共和國 ZhōngHuá RénMín GòngHéGuó) was established in 1949 after Communist forces took control of the country (at the same time, you’ll recall, that the R.O.C. government relocated to Taiwan.) Since this time, tension has existed between the P.R.C. and R.O.C. with both claiming to be the “real China.” Both nations claim ownership of Taiwan, with the former calling it “Taiwan Province” (台灣省 TáiWān Shěng). As you can imagine, many Taiwanese find this moniker less than flattering.
With the passing of UN Resolution 2758 on October 25, 1971, the R.O.C. was ousted from the U.N. and the P.R.C. was placed on the Security Council in one fell swoop. In 1979, the U.S. officially cut ties with the R.O.C., opting to support the other nearby Chinese three-letter acronym. Today, only 23 nations retain official diplomatic relations with the R.O.C., with the remainder supporting a “One China” (i.e. pro-P.R.C.) policy.
That said, many countries still retain unofficial, albeit practical, ties with Taiwan. The U.S., for example, provides visas and other consulate-like services through the AIT (American Institute in Taiwan). Likewise, the R.O.C. has set up similar quasi-governmental institutions called “TECOs” (Taipei Economic and Cultural Offices) around the world. These are where you can get your Taiwanese visa.