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Mapping Taiwan History

Mapping Taiwan Journey Through Today Williamcfox Thaiwan Republic Of Exploring Historz Vs Peoples Part Image Taiwantoday Images Content

Today we’re going to be exploring Taiwan, starting in the 3rd century. That’s when the first Chinese expedition to Taiwan was sent by an emperor, returning with the conclusion it wasn’t of much value. Boy would the centuries prove him wrong. Taiwan is a 13,000 square mile hilly and forested island roughly 100 miles from mainland China 1). Sea and air lanes pass by and over Taiwan, as it’s strategically located southwest of Japan, north of the Philippines, and northeast of Vietnam.

It’s also the vital northeast corner of the hotly contested South China Sea. To the south, the Bashi website sits between Taiwan and the Philippines 3). Between mainland China and Taiwan lies the Taiwan Strait. Within the Taiwan Strait are a series of small islands known as the Penghu, controlled by Taiwan. But one of the things that makes Taiwan unique is that many islands between the main island and mainland China, the People’s Republic of China, are in dispute.

Notable examples: Taiwan claims and controls the Matsu Archipelago and Kinmen islands, though as well later see, these islands so very close to the Chinese mainland are not only disputed, but have been subject to artillery bombardment, fortification, and even invasion. Just above Taiwan lies Yonaguni Island, one of Japan’s most southern islands- far closer than the 600 mile-away Japanese mainland. I like how author Jonathan Manthorpe in his History of Taiwan described Yonaguni as a quote “period dot at the base of the question mark formed by Japan’s island chain,” 12,25). So, a geographical conundrum accompanies a cultural one we’ll address later: depending on your perspective, Taiwan can appear close to both China *and Japan. An important detail, as we’ll see.

And with that, welcome explorers, to the first episode of ‘Mapping History’. Writing, producing, and animating a article about the intersections of geopolitics and history takes a long time. So if, and only if you’re financially able, consider going to patreon dot com slash william c fox. Thanks to Frank, the most recent Patron to join. In this article we’re going to talk about Taiwan from the start of recorded history until now, and I’m gonna take a swing at answering the question: is Taiwan part of China? Dynasties and governments in exile have fled there.

Invasions have been launched there. Western powers have tried to root themselves in the East there. Trading posts have been.posted there. Taiwan is a naval crossroads- crosscurrent, whatever the naval term for that would be. It’s mountainous ranges prevented full control of the island by any outside power for at least centuries- that’s what we have records of.

Its people reflect this heritage as well. It has an indigenous population separate from Han Chinese, though Neolithic sites indicate a shared heritage 2,86). Those Indigenous people make up about 2% of the population today, commingled, conquered, sharing the island with early southeast asian ocean nomads, Han settlers, Japanese fisherman, Mainland Chinese refugees, and more. As mentioned, Chinese records reference Taiwan beginning in the 3rd century BCE 7). But until the 1600’s, outside visitors to Taiwan were mostly fishermen, with a sprinkling of outcasts and pirates too.

This all changed in the 17th century, when the Dutch, English, Spanish, Japanese, and two different Chinese dynasties set their eyes on the valuable island. The first outsiders to have a go at controlling all of Taiwan were the Dutch, specifically the Dutch East India Company, who constructed a fortification on the island in 1630. They estimated just a thousand Han Chinese were living on the island at that time, who had settled alongside indigenous people in the preceding centuries 2,87;7). This number would increase rapidly after 1644, as the collapse of the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty on the Chinese mainland sent refugees over the Taiwan Strait. Zheng Chenggong, a holdout leader of Ming forces, was able to keep territory in Southeast China until 1662, but then was forced by the Ching to retreat off the mainland.

As a last resort, he laid siege to the Dutch-controlled Taiwan, succeeding in taking the island from the Europeans, and establishing mainland-originated Chinese control over Taiwan for the first time 3). Ming control of Taiwan lasted 20 years, until 1683, when the Qing Dynasty finally left the mainland and conquered Taiwan 4&5). Taiwan was now an integrated part of mainland China. To date, the Ching rule over Taiwan was longer than any other power that had, or would come to control the island- over 200 uninterrupted years. And this is a critical period for understanding the fluctuating national identity of the Taiwanese.

It is during this period when some identity with the mainland was able to develop. That’s going to be important when looking at three other periods. First, the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the end of the Chinese Civil War, and the modern day. Let’s start with the Japanese. During the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894, between China’s Qing Dynasty and Japan, the surgent Japanese had eyes for many Qing possessions, including Taiwan.

The war demonstrated the weakness of the Qing, which was forced to sue for peace in 1895. And in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan 2,202). Now, I’m just gonna spoil it here so we can have a productive conversation about this period in Taiwan’s History: The Japanese held control of Taiwan from 1895 until their World War II surrender to the US and Allied Powers in 1945. 1895 to 1945- that means during a 50-year period in relatively recent history, Taiwan was controlled not by the Chinese, not by imperial western powers, but by an imperial Eastern power- Japan- something that left a distinct mark on the island and the identity of its inhabitants, a mark which the Taiwanese debate and define to this day. When the Republican Chinese government arrived in Taiwan after World War II, they found a people who could speak Japanese, dressed Japanese- culturally they looked like the enemy that had ravaged mainland China in the war.

But how did the people of Taiwan come to see themselves during this period? Upon acquisition of Taiwan in 1895, Japanese political leaders were faced with a 5-month war of resistance, and once concluded, a Taiwan in difficult circumstances- the ravages of war, disease, ethnic tensions. To deal with this, the Japanese chose harsh governing policies, and coupled that with repressive cultural policies- they had foreign governors, and they forced Japanese culture onto the inhabitants. The Japanese felt a paternal superiority to their colonists, forcing people to speak Japanese, take Japanese names, wear Kimonos and other traditional garb. But here’s the rub. Economic development came under the Japanese as well.

Agricultural exports were expanded with new farming practices and subsidies, then diverted from their previous destinations on mainland China to Japan. They brought education reform and new schools, banking, currency, taxed previously untaxed land for use in expanded postal, energy, information and road infrastructure 2). The colonizers invested in public health, disease treatments, hospitals- a medical university. There’s a solid rundown of all this in Murray Rubinstein’s Taiwan: A New History, listed in the description. Before we get to World War II, an important change in mainland China.

In 1912, the Qing Dynasty, the dynasty which ceded Taiwan to the Japanese, was replaced by the Republic of China, the ROC. During the second world war, western allies like FDR and Churchill would come to see the Republic of China, and its leader Chiang Kai-shek not only as the rightful government of mainland China, but of Taiwan as well 10). A return of Taiwan, a retrocession, was planned should the allies prevail. But while this retrocession was planned in cigar-filled rooms, World War II was proving disastrous for Taiwan. Geographically like a natural aircraft carrier, Taiwan was strategically located near the coast, a launch point for Japan’s ambitions in mainland China and the Philippines.

200,000 Taiwanese men fought for Japan in the war, 40,000 died 9). Some were patriotic, others were motivated by increased food rations. Encouraged volunteerism eventually turned to conscription. Taiwanese women were sent as ‘comfort women’ for Japanese soldiers. It became clear as the war progressed into 1945, and the focus drifted from Europe and onto the Pacficic, that control of Taiwan would be returning to China.

The Cairo Declaration, produced when Chiang Kai-shek met with FDR and Churchill proclaimed: “all the territories The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.” In August of 1945, Japan’s unconditional surrender went into effect, and the Cairo Declaration’s implementation began. Taiwan would be part of China once more. In October 1945, Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China ended Japanese colonial rule and instituted a new governing structure for Taiwan. While there was excitement about the end of colonial rule, the young and unprofessional Republic of China soldiers that came to replace the Japanese soldiers foreshadowed the difficulty of ROC governance. In a documentary I readed on this, one guy described it as, “the dog leaves, but the pig comes.” 9) We’re flirting with dangerous territory here, but just imagine a normal person looking at the previous group, the harsh Japanese.

And then the new and corrupt Republic of China. What were the Taiwanese supposed to feel about their situation? Nostalgia for their former colonizers? Things were uncomfortable. Stangely, Taiwan was ahead of the mainland which came to rule over it: trains, phone line, energy production and consumption- metrics indicative of economic development- metrics which wouldn’t be matched per capita on the mainland until the 80’s. Now you can see the dilemma. Maybe why some Taiwanese would eventually come to desire independence.

Steven Phillips put it a little better: quote “both Taiwan and mainland China had changed so much between 1895 and 1945 politically, socially, and economically that the retrocession was less the restoration of historical ties than the attempt to forge an entirely new relationship.” 2,275). I’ve already alluded to the amateurish, sometimes shoe-less boy soldiers of the ROC that landed on Taiwan. They acted like conquerors of a foreign people, looting, supplemented poor pay with stolen property from Taiwanese homes. But this was a mere symptom of Chiang Kai-shek’s corrupt governance, and general disregard for Taiwan- a place, might I spoil the story a little, Chiang Kai-shek is going to very desperately need very soon. Taiwanese were largely excluded from the new governing structure.

Administrators reappropriated business, property, industry to themselves 12,190). In this way, it was like a new form of colonialism rather than a reuniting with China. Ordinary Taiwanese started going hungry, and getting sick. Every source I read in preparation for this article spends time talking about just how bad, corrupt, incompetent, cruel, indifferent to suffering the ROC officials and their enforcers were. Even the US State Department would come to recognize the problems internally.

But the US didn’t stop helping Chiang Kai-shek because: on the mainland, standing opposite of Chiang Kai-shek were Mao’s communists. So every source mentions the mal governance. And then all the sources zoom in on a moment when the tensions between the Taiwanese and their.administrators boiled over. A cascade of violent political repression- decades of it, and it all traces back to some cigarettes. On February 27th, 1947, a widow in Taipei was caught selling contraband cigarettes.

The ROC enforcers took her cigarettes and her cash, and tried to arrest her. The widow begged for leniency, and the soldiers, well, they bashed her on the head with the butt of a rifle. With a crowd forming, the soldiers realized they had stepped in it, and tried to leave. But they were followed, and ended up firing into the crowd. They hit several people- one died.

From here the violence grows. The next day, as news of the incident spread, protests formed against the Republic of China rule. Crowds that gathered around the governor’s residence were met with machine gun fire. Mass protests nationwide follow. Taiwanese civilians appropriated government offices, took control of their island.

Chiang Kai-shek declared martial law, sending in thousands of mainland Kuomintang troops to put down this uprising. But they didn’t just put down the movement in the streets- they started something that would come to be known as ‘the White Terror’, the Kuomintang soldiers imported from the mainland killed Taiwanese by the thousands: first the people in the streets questioning their rule; next, they rounded up intellectuals, professionals, students- anyone who posed, in their eyes, a potential threat to mainland rule. At least 10,000 were rounded up and murdered- some estimates go as high as 28,000 13). What started after the cigarette scuffle is known as the February 28th incident, 2-2-8. The martial law declared in this moment lasted 38 years, long after Chiang Kai-shek’s death.

And keep in mind, this is before Chiang Kai-shek is expelled from mainland China by Mao, so this is the relationship developed between the Nationalists and the Taiwanese without any knowledge of what was to come- that the Nationalists, like the Ming Dynasty, would flee from the mainland, expelled, relying entirely on Taiwan for their future very soon. And by soon, I mean two years, 1949. The communist forces of Mao found themselves in an advantageous position against Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang Nationalist forces. From 1945-1949, the Nationalists lost ground to the communists. By the end of 1948, over 30,000 refugees from the mainland were arriving in Taiwan every day 2,299).

Mao controlled both Beijing and Nanking, and Chiang Kai-shek had to retreat from the mainland to. well, we know: to Taiwan. "Hey guys, ni hao. Know we were repressing y'all and - violence. But I was wondering if you know, my army and I, and around 2 million refugees could crash on the couch for a couple nights, set up a base of operations against the communists…?." And that was that, here are the two China's: the Republic of China still claiming control of the entire mainland) was now contained on the island of Taiwan.

And everyone was waiting for the new People's Republic of China under Mao, which now controlled the mainland, to come across the Taiwan Strait, and put an end to the whole thing, to eject Chiang Kai-shek, control Taiwan, and conclude the Chinese Civil War. Any day now. The governing system established from the fall of the Japanese empire between 1945 until 1949, the quasi-colonial rule from the Nationalist mainland, then the move of that Nationalist power from the mainland onto the island itself- this system established in the interlude period set the tone for the following decades. The people of Taiwan would not have a say in their governance, any attempt to acquire it would result in the dissidents disappearance, and any overtures from the Republican leadership to indicate the Taiwanese might have a bit of representation in their government was a facade, a display for Chiang Kai-shek’s new benefactor- the United States. Why am I belaboring this point? Well, this is what surprised me in my research.

When we hear about Taiwan, if we ever do, we get this super condensed version: Taiwan is the last bastion of Republican resistance against communist rule. But at the start, the Republicans that ruled over Taiwan and evacuated to Taiwan were not doing so with the excited consent of the people already there- the arrival and stay of this government in exile was painful, and it took decades of repression and eventually, reconciliation, to achieve democratization, and for the Taiwanese to have a real hand in their government. As the Taiwanese were waiting for these processes to play out, their island was a prominent pawn in geo-politics. So, as this series is about the intersection of geography, history, and politics, let’s return there. When Chiang Kai-shek and his exiled government arrived on Taiwan, World War II was a few years in the rearview mirror.

But so much was in flux. In particular, the relationship between two massive powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and the ideologies underpinning their power. Across the globe, the US and the soviets believed that no conflict was too small. The Soviets would arm and equip anyone willing to ally with them, the US did the same. The Cold War, as I’m sure you know, was actually quite hot in some places.

And southeast Asia was one of them. Both the US and USSR involved themselves in China’s Civil War, and had stakes in the outcome. When Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan, the US thought they had lost the whole game in Asia. Mainland China was gone, and the USSR would have an ally in Mao: a new huge communist power was on the map. The moment Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan, the US counted him out completely.

But Kai-shek, though he seemed clearly down for the count, took an aggressive posture, one of temporary exile on Taiwan; this was a tactical retreat; it would be a regrouping of Nationalist forces which would eventually lead to the Republic of China retaking the mainland with Taiwan as a base of operations. This was, to be clear, posturing, but no one ever said posturing doesn’t occasionally lead to form. Some countries like the Soviet Union went ahead and recognized Mao's People's Republic of China. Others waited to see if Chiang Kai-shek would succeed. The United States? Well, they eventually bought into his narrative that Kai-shek would retake the mainland, perhaps cynically so.

Sure, Chiang Kai-shek had this framing of retaking the mainland any day now, but even if he didn’t, might the endeavor of keeping Taiwan anti-communist be worthwhile? Every inch and mile in the Cold War seemed to matter. And with a new conflict emerging on the Korean peninsula, the Americans decided to double down. President Truman moved naval vessels into the Taiwan Strait in 1950 2,321). It was meant to stop Mao’s forces from invading Taiwan while the US was preoccupied with the Korea War. In the meantime, US Aid bolstered the Republic of China’s grip on the island for the international stage, even allowing them to hold the China seat on the UN Security Council.

And the government's land reforms, forcing large landowners to sell to small farmers in exchange for government industries, set the stage for economic expansion domestically. Despite the rhetoric of retaking the mainland, a status quo was emerging. This mini Cold War between Mao’s People’s Republic of China and Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China inside the larger US-Soviet Cold War heated up notably in 1954. After the Korean conflict ended in a stalemate, preventing Mao from having an American force directly on his border, Mao set two goals: first, to take the China seat on the UN Security Council, and two, to fight Chiang Kai-shek’s rule indirectly, by retaking islands between the mainland and Taiwan. Shelling of offshore islands began in summer 1954; and People’s Republic of China soldiers actually landed on the Dachen islands in 1954 14).

The conflict was heating up. President Eisenhower even publicly floated the use of nuclear weapons on mainland China during this period, but eventually decided to restrain US involvement. Mainland shelling of various Taiwanese-controlled islands would continue on occasion all the way through 1979 15). Since we mentioned the 70’s, let’s hop there. In the early 60’s, President Kennedy saw the status quo of these two China’s as ridiculous, particularly having Chiang’s ROC holding the China seat on the Security Council.

But it wasn’t until 1971, during the Nixon Administration, that the US approach to China relations transformed rather fundamentally. Nixon saw past the bipolar world of the rivalrous US and Soviet Union. What Nixon foresaw was a world with somewhat cooled stable relations between the US and Soviet Union, but with new relevant rising players on the geopolitical board: Europe, Japan, mainland China. He wrote, quote “We simply cannot leave China forever outside the family of nations.” 16,437). What this meant, in effect, was that the United States needed to accept reality: Taiwan’s government was Taiwan’s government, not mainland China’s government; it’s name, Republic of China, was a misnomer.

And the sooner the US accepted this reality, the sooner it could normalize relations with mainland China, and engage with an emerging power on the world stage. Nixon had designs for this during his run for the White House in 1968, and his ambition became fruition in 1971. In that year, the U.S. supported the People’s Republic of China in taking the China seat in the UN Security Council. The Republic of China, Taiwan, was ejected completely from the UN.

At roughly the same time, the Nixon Administration began normalizing relations with mainland China, while sidelining the aging Chiang Kai-shek. The 70’s were a turning point for Taiwan, the end of an era. The loss of the UN Security Council seat was the start. Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975 ended his era. And then in the late 70's, domestic political pressure foreshadowed a fatigue with the one party rule over the island, a new period of Taiwanese democratization was on the way.

You see, when the Nationalist forces, the Kuomintang, retreated from the mainland and set up a government in exile in Taiwan, they kept the governing structure they had on the mainland. Even though, in reality, they were governing an island, they postured that they would take the mainland again soon, and so maintained this shadow mainland governing structure, and mostly disincluded the Taiwanese. After they retook the mainland, Taiwan would be a county of a province of China, so why should the Taiwanese enjoy outsized representation in a government for all of China? This was obviously silly, and over the years it became increasingly clear that this was a rationale- a justification to maintain one party Kuomintang rule over Taiwan. But the pressure increased to make change. At some point the people of Taiwan- that is to say, the indigenous people and the Han Chinese who lived on the island before the end of the Civil War, would need to be involved in their own governance.

The four groups here-- the indigenous, the Han Chinese that lived on the island before, the soldiers and families and offspring that arrived or were born on the island after the civil war, and the Kuomintang political establishment that ruled with an iron fist, these four would have to figure it out- develop a new system. At a minimum, it was becoming clear that the one party rule was bizarre for a so-called republican bastion. As Chiang Kai-shek's health faded, his son Chiang Ching-kuo increasingly took on the responsibility of governance. It looked like an attempt to set up dynastic rule in Taiwan. Thank God we can oppose the communists by showing them the true republican way- establishing a monarchy! It looked like an attempt to set up a dynasty because it was.

With Chiang Kai-shek's death in 1975, Chiang Ching-kuo took over as president. Taiwan’s new king-err, president was looking spectacularly weak, and a new clash with protesters would weaken him further. Taiwan had been under Martial law for thirty years, and it was illegal to form an opposition party against the Kuomintang. But despite this prohibition, a set of demonstrators marched on Human Rights Day 1979, a fledgling opposition group, the tang-wai. On December 10th, 1979, secret police confronted and engaged these tang-wai Human Rights Day marchers.

Violence broke out. It led to the arrest of many opposition figures, and a crackdown from the Nationalist government. But this incident, despite the suppression, is seen by many as the birth of the democratization movement in Taiwan. It raised the profile of many tang-wai figures, planted further resentment of Kuomintang rule among a segment of the population, and to use flowery language, inspired a new generation. Democratization protests became more bold as the years went by.

By 1986, many of the tang-wai leaders went on to form the Democratic Progressive Party. Though formally forbidden from forming an opposition party, they did so anyway, and critically, won votes in elections. Martial law was finally lifted in 1987. The seed of a pluralistic Taiwan far more recognizable to us today was planted in this moment. Democratization continued- continues in Taiwan.

But that doesn’t quite end our story. Through the 90’s, aughts, 10’s, Taiwan remained a small knight on the geopolitical chessboard- Playing Beijing and Washington off each other is a skill each Taiwanese leader learns. Bill Clinton sent aircraft carriers into the Strait of Taiwan in 1996 to deter mainland missile provocations. George W. Bush publicly opposed Taiwan independence in 2003 when he, busy with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, perceived the provocations of the Taiwanese president as too extreme 18).

Arms sales and bilateral trade increased during the Obama years. And of course, then president-elect Trump made news in 2016 when he took a congratulatory call from the Taiwanese president, the highest ranking American to do so since 1979, though it’s still unclear if there was intent to upend the “One China” policy- that is, to think of China and Taiwan as an ‘it’ and not a ‘they’, and to treat it diplomatically as a single entity. A perfect transition: we still haven’t answered a critical question, one that underlies this whole article. Is Taiwan part of China? Administratively, the answer is clearly no. In our language, it’s hard to follow the diplomatic and grammatical minutiae.

“The two Chinas are China” - “China AND Taiwan ARE one” - it starts to have the same belabored language as the tripartite father, son, and holy ghost. But beyond the administration and geopolitical entanglements, should we perceive Taiwan as part of China? Chinese records don’t really note Taiwan until the 16th century. The first to control outposts there were the Dutch. The Qing Dynasty saw Taiwan as a bit of an afterthought, though they did control it longer than any other power, including Japan. But by the 20th century, Taiwan was quite distinct from the Chinese mainland because of Japanese colonialism.

Tensions arose when they reunited with the mainland for a small interlude between 1945-1949. And then there’s a decent argument to be made that the Nationalist rule in 1949, though obviously Chinese, and proclaiming itself mainland-- it lead Taiwan down yet another, extremely different path than, well, here’s the trouble, than the ‘rest’ of China. I personally find Taiwan to be distinct, perhaps in a similar way to the distinction between North and South Korea and their different culture and dialects. To extend the comparison, North and South Korea have expressed in words for decades a desire to reunify. The South Korean government has a whole department to help handle it based on the reunification of Germany in 1990.

So too have the Taiwanese over the years expressed a desire for reunification. Obviously at the beginning Chiang Kai-shek wanted to retake the mainland, but we’re talking about something more tangible now- something perhaps chosen and negotiated, or perhaps forced across the Strait by mainland China’s military might. The People’s Republic of China obviously wants to control Taiwan, for Taiwan to be part of it or recognize that it is already part of it), though that seems an expression of power rather than an intellectually serious examination of shared culture. Support for reunification on the island is hardly unanimous. The people of Taiwan often choose leaders that say they will stand up to China, defend Taiwanese sovereignty, pursue representation in the UN as a separate nation.

It might be time for the rest of us, like Nixon did in 1971, to recognize reality. There is China, and there is Taiwan. read this article next. I don’t even know which article website put there, but hey, give it a shot. I’m sure it’s not embarrassing and pretentious.

Thanks for reading episode one of this new series, mapping history. If you have a suggestion for more spots on the map for us to ‘historize’ together, tweet me @williamcfox. Later y'all..

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