Taiwan: A Simple Historical Timeline (pre-1600s to 1945)

Pre - 1600s:

Taiwan was settled by people of Austronesian descent more than 50,000 years ago. They belong to the same language family as those in Southeast Asia, Oceania and Madagascar. Taiwan’s first people initially inhabited the low-lying coastal plains. After the Dutch arrived along with waves of settlers from China during the 17th century, many retreated to the hills and mountains, and became the "mountain people."


The island's modern history can be traced back to around 1544, when the first Western ship - from Portugal - passed by the island. The Portuguese named it Taiwan Ilha Formosa meaning "Beautiful Island." In 1622, the Dutch took control of parts of Taiwan. There were no signs of any Chinese Imperial government administrative structure. The Dutch encouraged Chinese people to move there. During the time of Dutch control, the Spanish briefly held parts of northern Taiwan until the Dutch forced them out in 1642.

In 1662, the Dutch were defeated by Cheng Cheng-kung (Koxinga), a Ming dynasty loyalist. He died shortly afterwards, and his son Cheng Xi  took over. In 1683, he was defeated by the Qing dynasty troops. The Qing dynasty ruled Taiwan for the next 212 years. This period was marked by increased immigration from southern China, and continual conflict with indigenous Taiwanese.

1700s - 1800s:

Qing dynasty control of Taiwan was uneasy at best: According to McCulloch’s Universal Gazetteer (1846) speaking of Qing military control from 1643: “The authority of China has been ever since maintained over the island, though assailed by repeated insurrections,” and that Chinese authorities “maintain only a very precarious sway over them. The Formosans having frequently risen in open rebellion against their mother country.” During the 1870s, Taiwanese pirates captured American, Japanese and French ships passing the island. These governments protested to Peking, but the Manchu emperor reportedly replied: "Taiwan is beyond our territory."The Frenchfinally sent a navy fleet to the island, and for nine months in 1884-85, the northern part of Taiwan was occupied by the French. In 1887, the Manchu Imperial authorities declared Taiwan to be a "province" of their empire, a status that lasted for a total of seven years.

1895 – 1945:

In 1895 the Japanese defeated Qing dynasty troops in the First Sino-Japanese War. In the Treaty of Shimoneseki, signed on April 17, 1895, China ceded Taiwan to Japan. Articles 2 and 3 of the treaty state that China cedes to Japan the Pescadores group of islands and Formosa “in perpetuity” (forever). The former Qing Governor, Tang Jing-song, declared Taiwan an independent country on May 23, 1895 naming it the Formosa Republic. Shortly afterward, more than 12,000 Japanese troops invaded northern Taiwan, and began to crush the new independence movement. They finally succeeded on October 21, when Japanese soldiers captured Tainan, the southern capital of the Formosa Republic.


Flag of the Formosa Republic, 1895.
Source: Jeff Dahl, via Wikipedia.

The Japanese governed Taiwan as a “model colony” from 1895 until 1945.  The years of Japanese occupation were harsh. They forced Taiwanese to speak Japanese and show respect for the Imperial government. They also declared war against indigenous Taiwanese, many of whom put up fierce resistance. At one point after occupation, the Japanese government even considered selling Taiwan to France because of difficulties governing the island.

Yet they remained, and made many positive changes: the educational system was built up to a level approaching that of  Japan, and   infrastructure -  roads, railways, hot springs, hospitals and clinics, agriculture projects (including dam construction and irrigation systems) and industry – were developed extensively. This is one reason why many Taiwanese continue to have positive feelings towards Japan to this day. Taiwanese (especially members of the younger generation) tend to follow cultural trends from Japan more than from China or America. After the disastrous Tōhoku earthquake in Japan in March 2011, more contributions arrived from Taiwan than from any other country.

According to a 2021 survey of 1068 Taiwanese aged 20 to 80 by the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, 46 percent - an all-time high - believe that Taiwan should give priority to Japan in terms of forging closer economic, cultural and political ties, while about 15 percent think China should be given precedence. Among people under the age of 45 and those over 65, more than 50 percent said they "liked" Japan, with those in the 30-39 age group expressing the strongest preference. Meanwhile, the percentage of people in Taiwan who said they "liked" China slid from 31 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2021.


A map of Japanese Prisoner of War Encampments, 1945.
Source: United States Department of Defense.   

As a colony of Japan, Taiwan played a strategic role both before and during the Pacific War (1941 – 1945). The Japanese trained soldiers in jungle warfare in Taiwan during the late 1930s and more than 200,000 Taiwanese enlisted in the Japanese military after the war began. Taiwan’s factories were important suppliers of iron, aluminum and copper, and many of Taiwan’s sugar refineries were converted during the war to produce butanol, a hydrocarbon used in the manufacture of aviation fuel. Keelung (in the north) and Kaohsiung (in the south) were both important commercial ports and naval bases, and early Japanese amphibious attacks on the Philippines and Malaya were launched from these two cities. In addition to having more than 50 military airstrips, Taiwan was home to at least eight prisoner of war camps that were notorious for their brutality and poor living conditions. Allied air raids (especially on Taipei, Keelung and Kaohsiung) were frequent, and resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, especially during the final years of the Pacific War. In 1943 the Allied Powers (the United States, Nationalist China and Great Britain) held the Cairo Conference, and agreed with Chiang Kai-shek, the head of the Kuomintang (KMT) party and leader of the Republic of China, that Taiwan be "returned to (Nationalist) China." This occurred without any participation or agreement of representatives of the Taiwanese people. Taiwan was turned over to Nationalist China after the Japanese surrender in August, 1945.


© 2022 by Nathaniel Altman

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