The Basics

If you don’t know anything about Taiwan, this is where you should start: some basic facts that does not involve the complicated political situation.

So where is Taiwan anyway?

Taiwan 臺灣 or 台灣 is an island at the west of the Pacific Ocean, by the southeastern coast of China, north of the Philippines, and southwest of Japan. The actual territory currently controlled by government of Taiwan also includes the Penghu islands 澎湖群島 in the Taiwan Strait, the islands of Kinmen (Quemoy) 金門 and Matsu 馬祖 along the coast of southeast China, and some small islands in the South China Sea. Its area is about 35980 sq km, almost about the same size area-wise as the Netherlands, a little bigger than the American state of Maine and a little smaller than Kentucky. It takes about 5.5 hours to drive from the northern to southern tip of the island on highway (~473 km/294 mi).

Okay, so what are the people like?

Taiwan is home to more than 23.5 million people. By population size, Taiwan would be the 52nd largest country in the world (just a bit fewer people than Australia). The population is generally classified into five groups: the indigenous peoples 原住民族, the Hoklos 閩南人, the Hakkas 客家人, Mainlanders 外省人, and newer immigrants 新住民.

Original distribution of indigenous Taiwanese peoples

The indigenous peoples (2.3% of Taiwan’s population) have lived on the island for more than 8000 years and are Austronesian peoples (原住民 means original inhabitants). Currently 16 tribes are recognized by the Taiwanese government, and many more are seeking recognition. The indigenous peoples speak different Formosan languages. It has been suggested that the migration and dispersion of Austronesian peoples first started in Taiwan and eventually spread throughout the south Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The Hoklos and Hakkas are Han people who migrated to the island from southeastern provinces of China starting 17th century until late 19th century for various reasons. The Hoklos came from Fujian 福建 and speaks Min Nan (and because 70% of Taiwan’s population is Hoklo, Min Nan 閩南話 is also commonly known as Taiwanese 台語). The Hakkas (15% of Taiwan’s population) came from eastern Guangdong 廣東 and speaks Hakka 客家話. Some within these two ethnolinguistic groups in Taiwan claim indigenous ancestry due to marriage in prior generations, and inter-Hoklo-Hakka marriages were/are not uncommon.

In 1949, when the Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists in mainland China, they retreated to Taiwan, bringing Han people (and some minorities) from all parts of Mainland China. They were considered as late-comers and speak a great variety of Chinese dialects. They and their descendants now account for 14% of Taiwan’s population. In recent years, newer immigration to Taiwan from Southeast Asia countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, etc.) as well as Mainland China has become more and more common.

I must emphasize that while it’s helpful to put people into different groups to understand their history, cultures, and languages, the generalizations remain labels. At the end of the day all are humans, and should be treated with equal respect and dignity, Taiwanese or otherwise.

Do they speak Taiwanese or Chinese?

Here’s the thing about Chinese: it’s not a single language, but rather a language group within the Sino-Tibetan family consisting related but often mutually unintelligible language varieties.

There are two forms of written Chinese: traditional 繁體中文 and simplified 簡體中文. Traditional Chinese uses characters that have evolved from the ancient time, up til about  the Han Dynasty when the form for characters became what they are today. It includes more strokes in each characters compared to Simplified Chinese, and is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Simplified Chinese characters were created in the 1960s by the government of People’s Republic of China, not only as part of the Cultural Revolution to abandon traditions, but also in hope to increase the literacy rate of people at that time. Simplified Chinese characters are simplified version of Traditional Chinese characters, meaning even though the characters look different, they still have the same meaning and pronunciation (within each dialect). It is currently used in the People’s Republic of China, Malaysia, and Singapore. The two forms have enough similarities that a person educated in one written form usually don’t have much trouble reading in the other.

As for spoken Chinese, there are countless varieties, or what many call “dialects”, that exist today. People of different dialects pronounce words differently (the written word does not change), sometimes use different sentence structure, and in most cases cannot understand each other. The most widely spoken Chinese dialect today is Mandarin (what most people meant and considered as Standard Chinese), which was based on the dialect of Beijing, and is the one non-native speakers learn in Chinese classes around the world. It is also the official language of both Taiwan and China. Other major dialect groups include Wu, Min, Yue (includes Cantonese), Jin, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Huizhou, Pinghua, etc.

It should be noted that the indigenous Formosan languages are Austronesian languages and not considered to be in the Chinese language group.

So it breaks down to this: in Taiwan people speak Mandarin as the main way of communication and learn to read and write Traditional Chinese in schools, but people also speak other dialects (including Min Nan and Hakka), the Formosan languages, and other languages. It all depends on someone’s particular family heritage and history.

What about religions?

Most of Taiwan’s population believes in ancestral worship and traditional folk religion, which is a mix of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Confucianism is more of a philosophy rather than religion, yet because Confucius’ teachings are blended into lives of Taiwan’s people so much, and there are actual temples that treat Confucius the same as other gods and goddess, it pretty much became part of the traditional belief. Official statistics suggest that 35% of Taiwan’s population is Buddhists, 33% Taoist, with significant overlap between the two groups. Christianity is of minority in Taiwan (all denominations combined account for 4% of population), but a very large percentage of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples identified themselves as Christian because missionary from Spain and the Netherlands had successfully converted them in the 17th century. There is a small Muslim community and six mosques in Taiwan (about 0.2% of population).

Mengjia Longshan Temple 艋舺龍山寺

How did missionary from European countries come to Taiwan? What happened after they left?

Here’s an incredibly brief overview of the history of Taiwan:

In the 17th century, Taiwan was occupied by the Dutch and Spanish. The Ming Dynasty of China didn’t care much about Taiwan and didn’t really consider Taiwan as part of the Chinese Empire, so the Dutch and Spanish set up trading posts in Taiwan. Eventually the Dutch drove the Spanish out of the island and used Taiwan as a base for trading with China and Japan, known as Dutch Formosa.

40 years after the Dutch occupation, the Ming Dynasty was conquered by Manchurians, who established the Qing Dynasty. One of the remaining general of Ming’s aimed to rebuilt the Ming Empire and decided to use Taiwan as a base. Led by Koxinga, his army drove the Dutch out of the island in 1662.

After 20 years, the Qing Dynasty manged to defeat the army in rebellion in Taiwan, and formally annexed Taiwan in 1684 into the Qing Empire, in which Taiwan was a part of the Fujian province.

As foreign interests in China grew and Taiwan’s strategic position was recognized, in particular during and after the Sino-French War (1884-1885), Taiwan was upgraded to the status of province in 1885.

In 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan after Qing lost the First Sino-Japanese War. For 50 years, Taiwan was a colony of the Japanese Empire.

After Japanese rule, it all got complicated. Please go read Taiwan the Complicated :)

I found this infographic from Visually:Taiwan