(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


Taiwan, an island in the western Pacific Ocean between the East and South China seas. China's largest island, it is separated from the southeast mainland coast by Taiwan Strait, about 90 miles (145 km) across. The government of the Republic of China (ROC) moved to Taiwan in 1949, following the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. Since then, Taiwan and the mainland have continued under separate governments. Smaller than Switzerland in area, the island has shown spectacular economic growth and its people enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Asia.

The island extends 245 miles (394 km) from north to south and up to 89 miles (144 km) from east to west. Its area, including the 13 smaller islands of the Taiwan group, is 13,847 square miles (35,863 sq km). Together with the 64 islands of the Penghu (Pescadores) Archipelago in Taiwan Strait, the Island of Taiwan—exclusive of the municipal areas of Taipei and Kaohsiung—constitutes China's second smallest province, after Hainan. Taipei, the largest city on Taiwan island and seat of the ROC government, was elevated in 1967 to the status of a special municipality outside the boundaries of the province. Kaohsiung, the second largest city and chief port, was made a special municipality in 1979. The area of Taiwan province is 13,731 square miles (35,564 sq km).

Taiwan is noted for its rugged terrain and the majestic beauty of its mountain ranges. Its name means "terraced bay" in Chinese. Westerners long called the island Formosa, from Ilha Formosa ("beautiful isle"), the name given to Taiwan by the Portuguese when they sailed past in the 16th century.

The Land

Mountains cover fully 63.5% of Taiwan's surface, with foothills and tablelands occupying another 11%. Plains, chiefly in the west, account for 24% of the total area; urban and waste land, the remainder. The generally moist, subtropical climate varies locally with elevation, proximity to the sea, and exposure to prevailing winds.

Surface Features

Taiwan's backbone is a massive north-south mountain barrier called the Chungyang Shanmo, or Central Range, which includes four lofty subsidiary ranges and rises at the summit of Yü Shan (Jade Mountain) to an elevation of 13,113 feet (3,997 meters). These mountains, occupying about half the island's area, have steep eastern slopes. Along the northern part of the east coast, they drop abruptly into the Pacific, forming some of the world's highest sea cliffs. Farther south they are separated from the lower but steep Taitung Shanmo, or East Coast Range, by a long, narrow valley. The mountains of the Tatun Shan in the extreme north are volcanic in origin. Hot springs and fumaroles abound in this region.

Westward the high central mountain chain descends gradually through foothills and natural terraces to extensive alluvial plains. The fertile west-coast plains, reaching a maximum width of 27 miles (43 km), are Taiwan's most densely populated and agriculturally productive areas. Tidal flats along the western shoreline, bordering the shallow Taiwan Strait, have been reclaimed from the sea to add to the island's farmland.

Taiwan has few natural deepwater harbors to accommodate its voluminous overseas trade. Numerous rivers, rising as torrential mountain streams, carry silt down to the plains, where they meander through multiple shifting channels and have built up alluvial deltas. They are not navigable, and none is longer than 110 miles (170 km). In the mountains the rivers are useful for power generation; in the flatlands many have been linked by irrigation and drainage canals.

Taiwan lies in the earthquake belt of the western Pacific island arc. Tremors are frequent on the island; they relieve tectonic stresses and rarely cause severe damage.


Straddling the Tropic of Cancer and surrounded by warm ocean currents, Taiwan has a generally subtropical climate. Frost is almost unknown in lowland areas, and rainfall is the most abundant of any Chinese province. The annual rainfall averages between 60 and 80 inches (1,500–2,000 mm) in most parts of the agricultural lowlands and more than 200 inches (5,000 mm) on some mountains.

The climate is influenced by the monsoon system, a seasonal reversal of prevailing winds. In the summer the winds blow from the southwest, bringing heavy rain to the exposed coastal plains and windward mountain slopes, often in the form of destructive typhoons. In the winter, when the winds come from the opposite direction, they are blocked by the central mountain barrier and provide appreciable rain only to the island's northeastern corner.

Vegetation and Wildlife

The landscape of Taiwan features a profusion of vegetation, ranging from tropical to alpine. Forests once covered the island and still occupy about half the land, mainly in the mountains and hills. Some 200 species of trees have commercial value. Subtropical and temperate hardwoods grow at lower levels, and conifers at higher elevations. Acacias (used for charcoal) and bamboo are particularly abundant. The island's varied fungi have valuable markets locally, and also in Hong Kong and on the mainland, because of their reputation for medicinal and other highly regarded properties.

Animal life also varies with elevation. Deer, goats, and wild pigs range over mountainous areas, while bands of monkeys inhabit the humid forests of the south. Less evident are the 37 species of snakes, 12 of which are poisonous. Butterflies are so varied and numerous that they have made certain areas—notably, "Butterfly Valley" in the western foothills—a tourist attraction. Taiwan also has rich offshore fisheries.

The People

With 22,920,946 inhabitants according to the 2008 estimate, Taiwan and its associated islands had about the same population as Australia and New Zealand combined. Average population density was 1,647 people per square mile (636 per sq km) in 2004. The highest density, 25,188 people per square mile (9,725 per sq km), was in Kaohsiung municipality, and the lowest, 151 per square mile (58 per sq km), was in Taitung county in the east. About 77% of the total populace live in urban areas, with the four largest cities being Taipei (2,624,257), Kaohsiung (1,493,806), Taichung (989,047), and Tainan (725,985).

Since the early 1950s the birth- and death rates have declined steadily. By 2006 the correspondingly reduced rate of natural increase was about 0.6% annually (the world average was 1.14%), representing a population doubling time of about 79 years if that rate were to continue. More likely the birthrate will keep decreasing as living standards continue to rise.

Population Groups.

The descendants of Taiwan's pre-Chinese population, which reached the island thousands of years ago, are the diverse and physically distinct aboriginal peoples given the general name Kaoshan. Although many have intermarried with Chinese or adopted Chinese speech and customs, a small number have preserved their traditional social patterns in remote central and eastern areas, where they hunt game and grow millet. The aboriginal languages, such as Ami, Yami, Paiwan, and Atayal, are believed to be offshoots of proto-Malay languages that have died out elsewhere. Aboriginal peoples constitute about 1.8% of the population.

The Chinese, who constitute 98% of the population, began arriving in significant numbers only in the 17th century. Before 1945 virtually all Chinese on Taiwan were the descendants of immigrant rice farmers and fishers from nearby Fukien and Kwangtung provinces. The majority of Chinese who came to this country spoke Min dialects or Cantonese, but some were Hakka, the "guest people" of southern China, whose dialect derives from the Mandarin Chinese of the north, their presumed homeland.

The latest and very significant influx occurred after 1945, bringing people from every mainland province. It peaked in 1948–1950, when the Communists overran the mainland and some 2 million newcomers arrived. Besides a substantial portion of the ROC governmental leadership, this immigration included many landlords and business owners, the latter particularly from Shanghai. The largest group, totaling perhaps 500,000, consisted of ROC armed forces.

For decades the mainlanders played the predominant role in the central government and leadership of the military and security forces. They also held a commanding position in education and in the media of public information. Business, on the other hand—including manufacturing (except for government monopolies)—was controlled primarily by the Taiwanese, as descendants of the earlier Chinese immigrants were now called.

In the early 1950s Taiwanese outnumbered mainlanders by four to one. Inevitably, tensions and misunderstandings developed between the two groups: for one thing, the Taiwanese spoke dialects that most mainlanders could not readily understand. Although communal rivalries still exist, they are less divisive than those in many Western countries. They have been greatly reduced by such developments as land reform, greater participation of the Taiwanese in government (the first Taiwanese president was inaugurated in 1988), and a general rise in the standard of living. Even the distinctions between Taiwanese and mainlanders, and among mainlanders of differing regional origins, became blurred through intermarriage and the common use of Mandarin Chinese, the official language. But after 1987 a movement arose to teach and use various Chinese dialects and indigenous languages of Taiwan as a way to preserve the island's pluralist cultural heritage.

Religion, Education, and Cultural Life

Most people on Taiwan embrace, at least nominally, a combination of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist beliefs. A Christian minority of about a million is divided between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, both of which support schools through the university level.

Taiwan has made extraordinary progress in education, greatly increasing the number of schools, student enrollment, and years of free instruction. Although the constitution guarantees six years of free education, nine years are provided. Citizens over school age who have not received primary education are guaranteed free supplementary instruction. About 40% of the students at the secondary level of education attend vocational schools. Taiwan has about 150 universities, colleges, and junior colleges. About two-thirds of the applicants are admitted to a college or university.

In the early decades of the ROC on Taiwan, a major responsibility of the primary schools was to ensure that all pupils had a command of Mandarin Chinese. By the early 21st century, that goal had been largely achieved and there was an increasing emphasis on the teaching of "Taiwanese" (Chinese) dialects, "Formosan" (indigenous) languages, and foreign languages.

The ROC government regards itself as a trustee of Chinese culture. It strives to present to the people representative theatrical performances, art exhibitions, and the like, in order to preserve and nurture an appreciation of traditional Chinese artistic values. It has also supported newer media of expression, such as a modern ballet company, shows of contemporary painting and sculpture, and fine performances of Western music.


For decades the government of the Republic of China, under the leadership of the Kuomintang ("National People's Party"), refused to abandon its commitment to return to the mainland and reunite China under its authority. In 1991 the ROC explicitly abandoned its claim of governing the mainland, stating that it did not "dispute the fact that the PRC controls mainland China." The PRC considers Taiwan a renegade province in a still unconcluded civil war and anticipates eventual reunification.

Because of the unsettled status of the Chinese civil war, Taiwan was ruled under martial law until 1987. Legislative elections were introduced in 1991 and presidential elections in 1996, and an opposition candidate was elected president for the first time in 2000. To eliminate redundancy the Taiwan provincial government was phased out starting in 1998. Taiwan is divided into 16 counties (hsien), five municipalities (shih), and two special municipalities (chuan-shih). There are elected administrations and councils at each of these levels.

The Economy

Taiwan's economy suffered during World War II and did not recover until the 1960s, when the effects of wise domestic programs supported by substantial U.S. aid began to be felt to a significant degree. Since then, the pace of economic growth has been astonishing. The booming economy, fueled by high rates of saving and investment, was spearheaded by manufacturing, which progressed from labor-intensive industries producing mainly for domestic needs to technology-intensive, export-oriented enterprises. Agriculture declined in relative importance, but it too made rapid gains, through land reform, technological improvements, and commercial organization. By 2000 the gross national product (GNP) had reached the $314 billion mark and the GNP per head topped $14,188. Although real growth had slowed from the 10% annual average for most of 1961–1981, it was still a respectable 6.4% in 2000. The regional financial crisis of 1997 reduced the value of the Taiwan dollar, although the nation fared better than many of its neighbors. Whereas Taiwan was a recipient of foreign aid in the 1950s, it was a donor nation in the 2000s.

The island is singularly lacking in natural resources. It has good but limited farmland and abundant but not easily accessible forests. It does have rich fishing grounds in the neighboring seas. But it has virtually no petroleum and not enough coal for future needs. Waterpower is relatively abundant, but most of the potential has already been exploited. The island produces few industrial metals. The skills of its labor force as well as the talents of its business management account for a great deal of of its economic success. And, as Nobel laureate economist Lawrence R. Klein observed, so too do "devotion to a work ethic, excellent educational attainment, thriftiness, population restraint, and acceptance of [income] equalizing tendencies."

Economic Structure and Development

Some striking changes have occurred in Taiwan's economic structure since the industrial boom that began in the 1960s. Between 1960 and 2000, industry's share of gross domestic product grew from 26% to 31.2% (after peaking at over 50%). The share of agriculture declined from 32% to 2%. The rate for services, including government, transportation, commerce, and banking, increased from 40% to almost 66.8%. Similar changes occurred in the composition of the workforce. Taiwan consistently has had a low unemployment rate (just under 3% in 2000) compared with most industrial countries.

A well-conceived land reform, implemented in the years following 1949, laid the groundwork for an agriculture consisting of small but intensively cultivated family farms. The grievances of a disadvantaged tenantry, a central social and economic problem, were substantially eliminated. The way was also cleared for improved agricultural methods. Nevertheless, in recent years the government has encouraged consolidation of landholdings to gain from economies of scale. The growth of agricultural productivity did not match the rapid pace seen in some other sectors of the economy, yet the island achieved virtual self-sufficiency in important commodities, such as rice and pork, despite the fact that not more than 25% of the land is arable. Imports of agricultural products grew as the island's living standards improved and especially after Taiwan's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2002.

The land reform brought a second major benefit. Former landlords were partially compensated with shares in four large public corporations, and the shift of their capital from land to industry helped finance the development of manufacturing. The new industries provided jobs for a burgeoning urban population as people were encouraged to leave the overcrowded land. Industrial production for overseas markets earned foreign exchange that enabled the island to import raw materials and finished goods not available locally. Today Taiwan is a key trading partner of the United States, Japan, and (through Hong Kong) the People's Republic of China.

The government initially took an active role in the economy, but its role in guiding investment and foreign trade has declined. A program to privatize large government-owned banks and industrial enterprises was introduced in 1989 and accelerated in 1997 in anticipation of membership in the WTO, which came in 2002. With the accumulation of wealth on the island, Taiwan became a source as well as a recipient of foreign investment; Taiwanese investment abroad first exceeded foreign investment in Taiwan in 1993.


Taiwan's economic planners recognized that, because of the lack of natural resources, the island must depend more on the ability of its economy, especially the manufacturing sector, to stay in the technological vanguard. That would ensure its competitive position in world markets and make the most effective use of its skilled, disciplined, and relatively low-cost labor.

Initially, however, government encouragement went primarily to labor-intensive industries, such as those concerned with textiles, clothing, food processing, and building materials. These were stimulated as a means not only of reducing imports but also of "soaking up" surplus labor as agriculture moved from subsistence to commercial, labor-saving production. In the 1960s the emphasis shifted to new, export-oriented industries, such as the production of electronic parts and components. The government liberalized trade in order to reduce the costs of imports and encourage domestic and foreign investment to help finance them.

By the 1970s it had become necessary to improve the expanding and increasingly diversified industrial structure by developing basic-metals and heavy industries, by establishing enterprises producing intermediate goods such as auto parts, and by improving the overburdened transportation infrastructure. A thriving petrochemical industry was developed, for example, based entirely on imported raw materials.

Anticipating a rise in labor costs, Taiwan then moved into high technology fields, such as microelectronics, biotechnology, and information and financial services. Between 1987 and 1996 the Ministry of Economic Affairs increased its spending on technology development two and a half times. By 2000 the most important branches of manufacturing were electronics, plastic goods, synthetic yarns, and motor vehicles.


Taiwan's energy requirements have risen rapidly with industrialization. To relieve dependence on imported oil, the island embarked on a major effort to develop nuclear power, but a new government in 2000 deemphasized nuclear development. In 2004 oil accounted for 48% of Taiwan's total energy use, coal for 34%, nuclear power for 9%, and natural gas for 8%. Hydroelectric power represented a small residual. The establishment of less energy-intensive industries, such as those in high-technology fields, is part of the government's policy of making energy use more efficient.


Mechanization has been a significant factor in Taiwan's agricultural growth since the early 1960s. Farmers' associations pool the purchase and maintenance of machinery and allocate its use.

Rice is the staple food and principal crop. Sweet potatoes (the "poor man's rice") and peanuts (for cooking oil) are also major food crops, as are soybeans and maize (corn) for animal feed. Export crops include sugarcane, tea, tropical fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, and pork.

Government-sponsored agricultural experts have played a constructive role in agricultural development in numerous developing countries. In addition, the World Vegetable Center is headquartered in the city of Tainan. An international not-for-profit research institution, the center works to improve vegetable production in developing countries.


Taiwan fishing boats ply the world's oceans as well as rich coastal and inshore grounds. Factory ships of this technologically advanced industry make long voyages and often process the catch on the high seas. Fish culture, especially of eels and shrimp, is commercially valuable. Taiwan supplies many of the eels consumed in Japan. The newly hatched larvae are nurtured in circular tanks, which are a familiar sight in southern Taiwan.

Trade, Transportation, and Tourism.

Taiwan's foreign trade exceeds $350 billion a year, with raw materials constituting a large portion of imports and industrial products over 90% of exports. Textiles, electronics, electrical appliances and machinery, and metal and plastic products are the leading exports. The United States and Japan account for about a half of Taiwan's imports and a third of its exports. The island generally has a substantial trade surplus, as a result of which Taiwan has one of the world's largest reserves of foreign currency. In 2001 Taiwan was admitted to the World Trade Organization as Chinese Taipei, a customs territory separate from the People's Republic of China, which was admitted to the WTO that same year.

Transportation improvement has been a top priority of economic development since the early 1970s. Major projects have included a new port for Taichung, international airports for Taipei and Kaohsiung, a rapid-transit system in Taipei, railroad extension and electrification, highways, and a high-speed rail connection between Taipei and Kaohsiung. The chief seaport, Kaohsiung is one of the world's largest container ports and is a center for converting unused ships into scrap. The longest underground road tunnel in Asia, the Hsuehshan (Snow Mountain) Tunnel, opened to traffic in 2006; it was part of efforts to promote economic development in eastern Taiwan.

Most foreign visitors arrive by air. The largest number are from Japan, but Hong Kong, the United States, and Southeast Asia make substantial contributions to the annual influx of more than 2.6 million tourists and other arrivals. Tourist visits from the Chinese mainland were legalized in 2001, as were direct trade links between the mainland and Taiwan.


The prehistoric settlement of Taiwan, doubtless involving many migrations, may have begun 10,000 years ago. One main group of early settlers is thought to have branched off from forerunners of the Miao (Meo) peoples of southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. Another group is believed to have been of proto-Malay origin and likely ancestral to most of the present Taiwan aboriginal peoples.

Chinese records of about the 3d century B.C. refer to a "land of Yangchou," which probably was Taiwan. In the 3d century A.D. the southern Chinese kingdom of Wu sent an exploratory force to the island. Some ethnic Chinese settlement appears to have taken place before 1000 A.D., and it was initiated mainly by Hakkas, a southern Chinese minority of northern origin. The newcomers began driving the aboriginal hunting and millet-growing peoples from the western plains into the mountains.

Until the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Taiwan was not yet clearly identified in Chinese court records, but about 1430 the admiral-explorer Cheng Ho determined its exact location, after which its present name was used in official sources. Although the Ming banned emigration from China, settlers continued to arrive in Taiwan from Fukien and Kwangtung, nearby mainland provinces. Though still not numerous, they laid the foundation for a rice-growing and fishing economy.

After the Portuguese sighted but bypassed Taiwan in the 16th century, the Dutch (in 1624) and the Spaniards (in 1626) began setting up trading stations, missions, and forts on the island. The Dutch, who encouraged Chinese immigration, drove out the Spaniards in 1641 but were themselves expelled in 1662 by the Chinese patriot Cheng Ch'eng-kung (Kuo Hsing-yeh). Called Koxinga by the Dutch, he established on Taiwan the last outpost of Ming authority, for the rest of China had been taken over by the Manchus ruling as the Ch'ing dynasty. The Manchus conquered the island in 1683 and annexed it to Fukien province the following year.

In the 1620s the Chinese on Taiwan numbered about 30,000. By the 18th century, when population pressures were already being felt on the narrow coastal plains of the southeastern mainland, emigration to Taiwan was permitted and accelerated. By the latter part of the 19th century, the island had an overwhelmingly Chinese population of 2.5 million. Western traders were attracted by its exotic commodities such as camphor and tea, and in the 1860s four ports were opened to them and to Christian missionaries. Meanwhile, the imperial government neglected the island, tolerating misrule by mainland officials. After a serious rebellion in 1883 and an unsuccessful French invasion in 1884, the Ch'ing took greater notice of Taiwan. In 1886 they made it a separate province, and the first governor initiated various reforms.

Japan, under a new, modernizing leadership bidding for world-power status, had shown an interest in Taiwan as early as 1874, when it briefly invaded the island. The Japanese saw Taiwan as a valuable source of raw materials, such as timber and camphor, and of agricultural products, including rice, tea, and sugar. The island also provided an indispensable stepping-stone for adventure and conquest toward both China and Southeast Asia. After Japan humbled China in the one-sided war of 1894–1895, its principal gain was the acquisition of Taiwan.

During the period of Japanese rule in the following 50 years, improvements were made in Taiwan's transportation and communications, agriculture, education, and health. A few modern industries were started as well. The Japanese administration was harsh, however, and numerous rebellions indicated the resentment of a people under foreign domination.

One consequence of Japan's defeat in World War II was its relinquishment of Taiwan in 1945 to the Republic of China. A disturbed period followed the transfer to Chinese administration, continuing for a few years after the establishment of the Communist People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland and the relocation to Taiwan of the ROC government and 2 million soldiers and civilians. The ROC administration, dominated by the Kuomintang, was at first welcomed by the Taiwanese, but stresses developed as misrule and corruption spread through the island. For their part, the mainlanders at first viewed the Taiwanese with some suspicion because of their long association with the Japanese.

After the more corrupt and overbearing element among the mainlanders was weeded out in the 1950s, the two major population groups cooperated effectively, creating a prosperous and relatively egalitarian society. There persisted a small political current favoring the island's independence from China, but most Taiwanese simply sought a larger voice in the government of their island.

With the passing of time, economic success, and a reduction of tensions with the PRC, the regime gradually eased its rule. In the 1970s began an active recruitment of Taiwanese into the party and bureaucracy. Lee Teng-hui, a native-born Taiwanese, was named vice president in 1984, and four years later he succeeded to the presidency. In 1987 the government lifted martial law, legalized free speech, ended the ban on travel to the mainland, and permitted opposition parties to compete in elections for the National Assembly. The first direct election for president was held in 1996. An opposition candidate, Chen Shui-bien of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was elected president in 2000 for the first time.

Economic relations with the PRC improved; however, they remained informal, while tensions continued in the political sphere. The mainland became an enormous market for Taiwan exports and investments, which usually moved through Hong Kong. Both sides officially adhered to the position that Taiwan remained part of one China and would eventually be reunited. The Communists remained suspicious of any move by the island toward "separatism," and especially suspicious of the DPP, even though the two parts of China led very separate existences. The PRC conducted military exercises, including live missile firings, near the island just prior to the 1996 elections, and it reacted strongly when Taiwan's president appeared in 1999 to move away from the "one China" policy. After 1997 it offered Hong Kong as a model for successful reunification.

Having frequently warned Taiwan against declaring "independence," the PRC stated in 2000 that military action could result if Taiwan declared independence, were occupied by a foreign power, or indefinitely postponed negotiations on reunification. In March 2005 it passed an "antisecession law" mandating a military response in such circumstances. Meanwhile, Chen had narrowly won a second term on March 20, 2004. Taiwanese voters subsequently frustrated his efforts to accelerate his pro-independence policies by awarding a legislative majority to the rival Kuomintang in the December 2004 legislative elections. As the impasse with the mainland continued, Chen faced mounting opposition at home, owing to allegations of corruption that swirled about members of his family and his administration. In 2006 he survived three unprecedented efforts by the legislature to remove him from office.

The PRC, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, regularly vetoed the ROC's application for UN membership. After 15 such rejections, Chen announced plans in 2007 to hold a referendum on the subject of applying for UN membership under the name Taiwan rather than Republic of China. The referendum, which would impose no legal obligation on the UN, was expected to excite nationalistic sentiments in advance of presidential elections scheduled for the same day, March 22, 2008. Mainland leaders spoke of the two governments entering a high-risk period, and the United States sought to dissuade Taiwan from holding the referendum for fear of escalating tensions.

Taiwanese voters evidently also wished to reduce tensions. The Kuomintang, calling for better relations with the mainland, dominated parliamentary elections in January 2008, winning 81 seats in the Legislative Yuan to the DPP's 27. Prior to the presidential election in March, both candidates rejected separatism. Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang—who had called for the negotiation of confidence-building measures and increased economic interaction with the PRC—won the presidency with 58.45% of the vote. The referendum on UN membership failed, winning barely 36% of the vote. Ma was inaugurated on May 20, 2008. The following month the ROC and the PRC agreed to establish permanent representative offices in each other's capitals and to expand direct charter flights.

Leonard Unger
Tufts University;
U.S. Ambassador (retired) to the Republic of China


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