Taiwan boasts some very impressive scenic sites, and Taipei is a vibrant center of culture and entertainment. The island is also a center of Chinese pop culture with a huge and vibrant entertainment industry. Taiwanese cuisine is also highly regarded. The Japanese enjoy taking short trips to come over and stay and enjoy its neighboring hospitalities. Lately with the relaxation of restrictions there is an increasing number of mainland Chinese visiting the Island nation.
National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
Taiwan has been populated for thousands of years by more than a dozen non-Han Chinese aboriginal tribes. Written history begins with the partial colonization of Taiwan by the Dutch and then the Portuguese in the early 17th century. (The old name of Taiwan, Formosa, comes from the Portuguese Ilha Formosa for “beautiful island”.) Han Chinese immigrants arrived in significant numbers with the onset of European trade. Although controlled by the Dutch, the Ming loyalist Koxinga (鄭成功) defeated the Dutch garrisons and set up Taiwan as a rump Ming Empire with the hope of reconquering Qing China. His grandson surrendered to the Qing in the late 1600s. Although contact between China and Taiwan dates back thousands of years, it was not until larger numbers of Han residents arrived during the Qing dynasty that Taiwan was formally integrated into the rest of China as part of Hokkien (Fujian) province. It became a separate province in 1885. Defeated by the Japanese, the Qing Empire ceded Taiwan to Japan under the terms of the treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. Japan ruled the island all the way until the end of World War II in 1945, and exerted profound influences on its development. The island’s entertainment and pop culture was and still is heavily influenced by that of Japan. Much of the Japanese-built infrastructure can still be seen on the island today, and has been in fact continuously used up to the present day (e.g. rail-road crossing gates, administrative buildings, and the old port at Kaohsiung).
In the early 20th century, the Nationalists (Kuomintang, KMT 國民黨) and Communists fought a major bloody civil war in mainland China. Although the two sides were briefly united against Japan during World War II, they quickly began fighting again after the war was over. Eventually, the Communists were victorious in 1949. The Nationalist government, the remnant of their army, and hundreds of thousands of supporters then fled to Taiwan. From Taipei, they continued to assert their right as the sole legitimate government of all China. Initially very repressive, the government began to loosen control in its fourth decade under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo. Taiwan also experienced rapid economic growth and modernisation under the leadership of Chiang Ching-kuo, becoming one of the world’s richest and most modern economies and earning it a place as one of the East Asian Tigers. Taiwan still remains a leader in consumer electronics and is home to well-known computer brands such as Acer, Asus, Garmin, Gigabyte and HTC. Democratization began in earnest through the 1980s and 1990s, culminating with the first direct presidential elections in 1996, and the first peaceful transition of power between two political parties in 2000.
Taiwanese politics remain dominated by the issue of relations between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, which still claims Taiwan as a “renegade province” and regularly threatens military action if Taiwan attempts to break away from the current awkward One China status quo, where both sides agree that there is only one Chinese nation, but disagree on whether that one nation is governed by the PRC or the ROC. To summarize a very complex situation, the Pan-Blue (泛藍) group spearheaded by the KMT supports eventual unification with the mainland when the political climate is right, while the Pan-Green (泛綠) group led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supports eventual independence under the name “Taiwan”. The split extends down to trivial issues like Chinese romanization — the KMT prefers the mainland’s Hanyu pinyin, the DPP prefers a Taiwan-made variant called Tongyong pinyin — and political demonstrations and rallies, always turbulent, on occasion even turn violent.
Taiwan was originally populated by indigenous tribes that spoke various Austronesian languages, which are related to Malay, Tagalog and Indonesian. Today the remaining tribes make up only about 2% of the population, while the other 98% are considered ethnically Han Chinese. The ethnically Han Chinese are further split into Taiwanese, who make up about 84% of the population and whose culture is derived from people who migrated during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, as well as mainlanders, who make up about 14% of the population and whose families fled to Taiwan from the mainland after the communist takeover in China in 1949. Among the Taiwanese group, Hoklo (Minnan) speakers form the majority, which is about 70% of the population while the remaining 14% are largely Hakka speakers. There is also a sizeable Japanese community, with many of its members working in the entertainment industry.
It should be noted that the Taiwanese (who make up 84% of the Taiwan’s population and are culturally Chinese) are to a large extent the descendents of immigrants from the mainland in recent centuries who intermarried with indigenous people. As a result, the genetic makeup of the Taiwanese is noticeably different from that of the mainlanders. In recent years there are also Vietnamese, Indonesian and Filipino migrant workers living harmoniously with other Asian minorities as well as Mainland Chinese immigrants. As for the 14 millions post 1949 immigrants, they come from every province and consist of many non-Han residents.
Lowland Taiwan has a marine tropical climate during the summer, with sweltering, humid weather (above 30°C, 86°F) from Jun-Sep. In the winter the weather is influenced by the nearby continent, and in the northern areas the temperature can go as low as 8°C at night. The best time of year to visit is from Oct-Dec, although the occasional typhoons can spoil the fun. Spring is also nice, although it rains more than during autumn. During the typhoon season, the east coast bears the brunt of the damage as it is facing the Pacific Ocean.
On the other hand, when you head into the mountainous regions you will encounter more moderate temperate conditions. Rapid weather change can endanger unprepared visitors, so advice on proper preparation should be obtained before visiting those areas. In fact, it snows every year on Taiwan’s highest mountains and occasionally even on mountains like Alishan.
The Minguo calendar, counting years from the establishment of the ROC (1911), is commonly used in Taiwan. To convert a Minguo date to A.D., just add 1911. Months and days are according to the standard Gregorian calendar. 2012 is 101st Minguo. However, most locals also keep track of Lunar calendar for holidays.
Chinese New Year dates
2012 is the year of the Dragon
2013 Snake – 10 February
2014 Horse – 31 January
2015 Goat – 19 February
As Taiwan is dominated by ethnic Chinese, traditional Chinese festivals are celebrated by the Taiwanese. Among the most notable are:
Chinese New Year. This is the most important festival for the Taiwanese and many shops and restaurants close on the first three days so it is not an ideal time to visit. However, the days leading up to the festival as well as the fourth to fifteenth days are ideal for soaking up the atmosphere and listening to Chinese New Year songs.
Ching Ming Festival. This is when many Taiwanese would pay respects at their ancestors’ graves.
Dragon Boat Festival. This festival honours Qu Yuan, a patriotic official from the state of Chu during the Warring States period of Chinese history who committed suicide by jumping into a river when Chu was conquered by Qin. To prevent the fishes from eating his body, villagers threw rice dumplings into the river to feed the fishes and rowed dragon boats with drums being beaten on them to scare away the fishes. Since then, dragon boat racing has been carried out on this day and rice dumplings are also eaten.
Hungry Ghost Festival. This festival runs throughout the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. It is believed that the gates of hell open during this period and hungry ghosts are allowed to roam freely into our world. In order to appease the ghosts and prevent misfortune, many Taiwanese will offer food and burn joss paper for them. In addition, traditional Chinese performances such as Chinese opera and puppet shows are held to appease these wandering spirits.
Mid-Autumn Festival. Legend has it that on this day, a woman known as Chang E swallowed some divine pills to prevent her power hungry husband from becoming immortal. Afraid of being killed by her husband, she fled to the moon and it is believed that the moon shines brightest on this day. This is when many lanterns will be put up for decoration in various parks and shops, which is quite a beautiful sight. Mooncakes are also eaten on this day so it would be an ideal time to try some.
Cliffs meet the eastern coast of Taiwan, Hualien County
Taiwan is largely mountainous with a chain of mountains running from north to south at the centre of the island. The west coast is largely plains and unsurprisingly is where most of the population is concentrated, and is where all the larger cities like Taichung and Kaohsiung are located. The east coast also has some plains but are more sparsely populated due to the higher typhoon risk, but is also home to the cities of Hualien and Taitung with significant populations.
Baseball was brought to Taiwan by the Japanese during the colonial period. Its popularity rose greatly when the Taiwanese baseball team finished second in the Japanese national championships. Today, baseball retains a strong following and remains by far the most popular team sport in Taiwan. Several Taiwanese players have also gone on to successful careers in the U.S and Japanese Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Taiwanese national baseball team is considered to be one of the strongest in the world.
Besides baseball, basketball also has a sizeable following in Taiwan and is quite popular among teenagers. When the class is over, the basketball courts inside schools are not only open to students but also the public.
Billiard is another popular sport in Taiwan. It’s easy to find billiard rooms throughout the country and there are also many championship-winning players in Taiwan, most of whom started training when they were still teens.
Other sports which are popular include Taekwondo, table tennis and golf.