If you are like me, it is really easy to get countries mixed up. There are 193 official nations (as recognized by the United Nations), and we all know that the US does not do a stellar job at teaching geography to its students. I’m pretty sure that when I told people I was going to Taiwan, at least 30% pictured the beaches and jungles of Thailand. Both in Asia, but very different historically, culturally, and geographically. I thought I would, through a very humble and over-simplified blog post, help to shed a little light on Taiwan’s history and place in the world.
One of the most interesting facts about Taiwan is that it is not a country. At least it does not figure into the 193 countries officially recognized by the United Nations, or one of the 194 countries recognized by the U.S. State Department (the US recognizes Kosovo but the UN does not yet). Why is an independently governed island of 20+ million people not an official country? The first clue is that the official name of the country is not Taiwan, it is the “Republic of China”. Here is a little history for those (like myself) who did not get much in the way of World History in public school.
The island of Taiwan had a long history of inhabitation by indigenous people related to Polynesians, with a great deal of linguistic and cultural diversity. The first colony on the island was founded by China during the Qing dynasty as a trading outpost. Portuguese and Dutch traders also had outposts at various times, and the island was known as Formosa (“Beautiful Island”) on European maps. Chinese traders and fisherman remained on the island, slowly growing their influence, until the Chinese lost the Sino-Japanese war in the late 1800’s. The island of Taiwan was handed to the Japanese empire and Japan exerted strong control over the island. This had some positive effects – development of railroads, educational system, and sanitation system – but also some very negative ones – stifling the indigenous cultures and their traditional ways of life. When Japan lost WWII in 1945, the island again became part of China, but since China was in the middle of civil war, its status was in limbo.
The civil war in China was fought between the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists, led by Mao Zedong. As we all know, the communists were eventually victorious, which led to the Mao founding the “People’s Republic of China” based out of Beijing. The Nationalists were forced to flee to – you guessed it – the island of Taiwan. Of course the ever-confident Nationalists did not see their retreat to Taiwan as a defeat, just a temporary set-back. They operated as the Chinese government in exile, founded the “Republic of China” which became known as “Free China” to distinguish themselves as the rightful rulers of the entire mainland. Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists continued to claim the mainland as their territory, which led to some awkward foreign policy positions for the rest of the world. Of course the United States during the height of the Cold War chose to only recognize Taiwan’s ROC as the rightful government of China, despite the fact that it exerted no control over the vast territory of mainland China. This changed in the 1970’s when Richard Nixon switched recognition from the Nationalist ROC to the Communist PRC – which led to his famous visit with Mao and the opening of trade with China.
The recognition of communist China came as a huge blow to Taiwan. Until this point, Taiwan was still operating under martial law and was not a democracy. It was operating as a country at war and tolerated no political dissent or opposition parties. This changed in the 1980’s, when the Taiwanese government realized that taking control of the mainland was a remote possibility. Now Taiwan is a multi-party democracy with civil liberties for citizens and free speech. A great deal of debate takes place about what Taiwan’s position should be in regard to reunification and how to structure relations with the PRC.
There is a tenuous calm between Taiwan and China. The Taiwan Strait, the part of the China sea dividing Taiwan from China, is one of the most militarized regions in the world. War is not likely since Taiwan has many Western allies, including the US, that would jump in to defend its territory, thereby escalating into a global conflict. China and Taiwan both are aware that a conflict would hurt both sides greatly, and the current arrangement is working out just fine.
I hope this little history diatribe has been interesting to someone. Taiwan is a fascinating place – it is Chinese culture without the baggage of communism, the Cultural Revolution, and political repression. I believe this is why the Taiwanese people are so relaxed and friendly – they have not been exposed to traumatic social upheavals and government sponsored propaganda meant to create fear of Western influences. Taiwan also has a much higher standard of living than in mainland China, which always helps to make people more affable.
Taiwan’s status in the world may be shaky, but the people carry themselves with great worldliness and confidence. I’m glad that I am able to call this “country” home for a while.