Taiwan (traditional Chinese: 臺灣/台灣; simplified Chinese: 台湾; pinyin: Táiwān),[II] officially the Republic of China (ROC),[I][f] is a country in East Asia. Neighboring countries include the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the northwest, Japan to the northeast, and the Philippines to the south. The main island of Taiwan has an area of 35,808 square kilometers (13,826 sq mi), with mountain ranges dominating the eastern two-thirds and plains in the western third, where its highly urbanised population is concentrated. Taipei is the capital as well as the largest metropolitan area of Taiwan. Other major cities include New Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taichung, Tainan and Taoyuan. With 23.57 million inhabitants, Taiwan is among the most densely populated countries.
Austronesian-speaking Taiwanese indigenous peoples settled the island of Taiwan around 6,000 years ago. In the 17th century, partial Dutch colonization opened the island to mass Han Chinese immigration. After the brief rule of part of southwestern Taiwan by the Kingdom of Tungning, parts of the island were annexed in 1683 by the Qing dynasty of China, and ceded to the Empire of Japan in 1895. The Republic of China, which had overthrown and succeeded the Qing in 1911, took control of Taiwan on behalf of the World War II Allies following the surrender of Japan in 1945. The resumption of the Chinese Civil War resulted in the ROC’s loss of mainland China to the Chinese Communist Party and retreat to Taiwan in 1949. Although the ROC government continued to claim to be the legitimate representative of China, since 1950 its effective jurisdiction has been limited to Taiwan and numerous smaller islands.
In the early 1960s, Taiwan entered a period of rapid economic growth and industrialisation called the “Taiwan Miracle“. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ROC transitioned from a one-party military dictatorship to a multi-party democracy with a semi-presidential system. Taiwan’s export-oriented industrial economy is the 21st-largest in the world by nominal GDP, and 20th-largest by PPP measures, with major contributions from steel, machinery, electronics and chemicals manufacturing. Taiwan is a developed country, ranking 15th in GDP per capita. It is ranked highly in terms of political and civil liberties, education, health care and human development.[g]” (WP)
Taiwan, pronounced ty wahn, is a mountainous island in the South China Sea, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) off the Chinese coast. In Chinese, Taiwan means terraced bay. The island’s wild, forested beauty led Portuguese sailors in 1590 to name it Ilha Formosa, meaning beautiful island.
After the Chinese Communists conquered mainland China in 1949, the Chinese Nationalists moved to Taiwan. Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek declared Taipei the capital of the Republic of China and refused to recognize China’s Communist government. The Nationalist government also controls several islands in the Taiwan Strait, which separates Taiwan and China. These islands include the Quemoy, Matsu, and the Pescadores groups.
Government. The Chinese Nationalist government is based on a Constitution adopted in 1946 on the mainland. It provides for five branches of government-executive, legislative, judicial, control, and examination. Each branch is headed by a yuan (council).
The president is Taiwan’s most powerful government official. The president is elected by the people to a four-year term. The president appoints a prime minister to head the Executive Yuan, which carries out the operations of the government. The Legislative Yuan makes most of Taiwan’s laws. The National Assembly is elected and convened only when the Legislative Yuan proposes amending the Constitution, impeaching the president, or altering the boundaries of the country.
After moving to Taiwan in 1949, the Nationalist legislative bodies were made up of members who had been elected on the mainland in 1947 and 1948. The members were allowed to keep their seats indefinitely and became known as “life-term” members. Beginning in the 1960’s, some elections were held for new members. A 1990 judicial decision declared the system of life-term members unconstitutional. All remaining life-term members retired at the end of 1991.
Members of the Legislative Yuan serve three-year terms. Most are directly elected, but some are elected by proportional representation. This system gives a political party a share of seats in the legislature according to its share of the total votes cast in an election. When the National Assembly is convened, its members are appointed by proportional representation based on the latest legislative election.
The Judicial Yuan is Taiwan’s highest court. The Control Yuan reviews activities of government officials and has power of impeachment. The Examination Yuan gives tests for hiring and promoting government workers.
Although Taiwan is the seat of the Chinese Nationalist government, it is administered as a province of China. The president appoints a provincial governor who serves an indefinite term. The people elect the members of a provincial Assembly to four-year terms. The people also elect county and city government officials.
Taiwan’s leading political parties are the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The KMT was Taiwan’s only legal party until 1989.
People. Almost all the people of Taiwan live on the coastal plain that makes up the western third of the island. Most Taiwanese are Chinese whose ancestors came to the island from Fujian (also spelled Fukien) and Guangdong (Kwangtung) provinces on the mainland. More than 11/2 million more people fled to Taiwan from the mainland after the Communist take-over in 1949. A small percentage of the population are non-Chinese native peoples, sometimes called aborigines, related to Indonesians and Filipinos.
Almost all the people of Taiwan live on the coastal plain that makes up the western third of the island. Rapid industrial development in this region has led to problems with air and water pollution. Most of the native peoples live on reservations in the mountains.
About 70 percent of Taiwan’s people live and work in urban areas. Most city people wear Western-style clothing. About 10 percent of Taiwan’s people farm the land. Farms on the island average only 2 or 3 acres (0.8 to 1.2 hectares) in size. Most of the farmhouses are made of brick, with tile roofs and central courtyards of packed earth or cement. A typical Taiwanese meal includes rice, served with vegetables and chopped meat or fish. Farmers and others who work in the hot sun wear cone-shaped straw hats.
The Taiwanese people speak various Chinese dialects. But almost all the people also use Northern Chinese (Mandarin), which is the official Chinese dialect. Most adults can read and write. The law requires children to have six years of elementary school and three years of high school.
About half the people practice a local traditional religion that involves the worship of special gods and goddesses. Buddhism and Taoism are also popular. A small fraction of the people follow Christianity or I-Kuan Tao, another traditional religion.
Land and climate. Taiwan, including the Pescadores islands, covers about 13,900 square miles (36,000 square kilometers). This area does not include the Quemoy and Matsu island groups, which are part of Fujian province. Thickly forested mountains run from north to south and cover about half of Taiwan. The highest peak, Yu Shan (Mount Morrison), rises 13,113 feet (3,997 meters) above sea level. On the eastern coast, the mountains often drop sharply to the sea. Short, swift rivers have cut gorges through the mountains. In the west, the mountains slope to gently rolling hills and level land.
Taiwan has a subtropical climate, with hot, humid summers and an average annual rainfall of more than 100 inches (250 centimeters). Temperatures average about 80 °F (27 °C) in summer and 65 °F (18 °C) in winter. Summer monsoons bring strong winds and rain to Taiwan. In winter, monsoons bring rain and cooler weather to the north. Typhoons occur almost every year.
Economy. Taiwan has few natural resources except its forests. Cedars, hemlocks, and oaks are the most valuable timber trees. Other forest products include bamboo, camphor, paper, and plywood. Taiwan’s economy relies heavily on manufacturing and foreign trade. Factories produce cement, clothing and textiles, computer equipment, furniture, iron and steel, plastic goods, processed foods, ships, shoes, sports equipment, sugar, televisions, radios, and toys. Many manufactured goods are exported, especially clothing and textiles, electronics, plastic goods, plywood, and toys. Taiwan’s main trading partners include Germany, Japan, and the United States. Taiwan also trades with Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China.
Only about a fourth of Taiwan’s land can be farmed. The farmers have terraced many hills to provide more fields for growing rice. By using fertilizers, farmers are able to harvest two or three crops a year from the same field. The chief crops include asparagus, bananas, citrus fruits, corn, mushrooms, peanuts, pineapples, rice, sugar, sweet potatoes, tea, and vegetables. Farmers also raise hogs, chickens, and ducks. The fishing industry catches such ocean fish as shrimp, snapper, and tuna. Carp, eels, and other fish are caught in inland ponds.
Coal is Taiwan’s most important mined product, but the island has only small deposits. Copper, limestone, natural gas, petroleum, salt, and sulfur are also mined.
Taiwan has a good network of roads, including an expressway that connects Taipei and Kaohsiung. The country has an average of about 1 car for every 30 people. Bus service is excellent. The government operates several railroad lines. Kaohsiung and Chilung are Taiwan’s chief seaports. Taiwan has two international airports, one near Taipei, another in Kaohsiung.
About 30 daily newspapers are published in Taiwan. Most families own a TV set and one or more radios.
History. Aborigines were the first inhabitants of Taiwan. Some Chinese came to the island from the mainland as early as the 500’s, but large settlements did not begin until the 1600’s. Dutch traders occupied a Taiwanese port from 1624 until 1661. Koxinga, a Chinese Ming dynasty official, drove them out. Manchu conquerors had overthrown the Ming dynasty in mainland China, and Koxinga hoped to restore the dynasty to power. He wanted Taiwan as a base from which to attack the Manchus. However, the Manchus conquered Taiwan in 1683.
In 1895, Japan gained control of Taiwan as a result of the first Chinese-Japanese War. The Japanese developed Taiwan’s agriculture and industry and expanded its transportation networks. Chinese Nationalists took control of the island after World War II ended in 1945. Their harsh rule led to violent resistance by native Taiwanese. Troops arrived from the mainland and put down the revolt in what came to be known as the White Terror.
In 1949, the Chinese Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces and took control of the mainland. Chiang moved his government to Taiwan on Dec. 8, 1949.
After the Korean War began in 1950, the United States said it would protect Taiwan against possible attack from mainland China. It sent air and naval forces to patrol the Taiwan Strait (then called the Formosa Strait). The U.S. and Chinese Nationalist governments signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. The Chinese Communists repeatedly shelled Matsu and Quemoy during the 1950’s. Taiwan received about $11/2 billion in U.S. economic and technical aid up to 1965. That year, Taiwan said its economy could stand on its own. But it continued to receive U.S. military aid.
In the early 1970’s, Taiwan expressed concern over improved relations between the United States and Communist China. In 1971, the United States announced it favored United Nations (UN) membership for Communist China. But the United States also said that Nationalist China-a charter member of the UN-should retain its UN seat. In October 1971, the UN expelled the Nationalists and admitted Communist China.
During the 1970’s, a number of nations ended their diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established ties with Communist China. The United States ended its diplomatic relations with Taiwan at the end of 1978 and established diplomatic relations with Communist China at the start of 1979. The mutual defense treaty between the two countries was ended on Dec. 31, 1979. But the United States agreed to continue to give Taiwan some military aid. Also, the two countries agreed to carry on unofficial relations through nongovernmental agencies.
President Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975. Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo had become prime minister in 1972. He became the country’s most powerful leader after his father died. He was elected president of Taiwan in 1978 and was reelected in 1984. Chiang died in 1988. Vice President Lee Teng-hui succeeded him as president.
Also in the 1980’s, the government began political reforms that increased democracy in the country. In 1987, it ended martial law, which had been in effect since 1949. Under martial law, the military had some legal and political powers. Until 1989, the Nationalist Party had been the country’s only legal political party. Opposition parties were legalized that year. Multiparty elections were held in 1991 for the National Assembly and in 1992 for the Legislative Yuan. The Nationalist Party won a majority of seats in both elections. It thus remained in control of the government.
In 1995 elections for the Legislative Yuan, the Nationalists won a slim majority. In 1996, for the first time, Taiwanese voters directly elected their president. In the past, the National Assembly had elected the president. Voters elected President Lee Teng-hui to a four-year term.
In 2000, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected president, ending 50 years of Nationalist Party rule. Chen had always advocated Taiwanese independence, and Chinese officials warned that any moves toward independence would provoke war. In elections in 2001, the DPP took control of the Legislative Yuan.”
Contributor: Murray A. Rubinstein, Ph.D., Professor of History, Bernard M. Baruch College, City University of New York.
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