How did Taiwan get its name?
Portuguese explorers, back in the mid 1500s, named Taiwan, “Isla Formosa,” meaning “Beautiful Island.” Many still use the name today; “Formosa”, and “Ihla Formosa,” are used as well.
It was the Dutch who got the name “Tainan” from the indigenous aborigines who lived there when they arrived to colonize the island in 1624. How the name Tainan originally came to be has many theories. Most believe it was the name of an actual indigenous tribe.
In 1684, the Chinese officially changed the name to Taiwan, which has remained ever since. Taiwan is officially known as the Republic of China. Taiwan is self-governing, but China considers Taiwan its 23rd province.
Where is Taiwan Located?
Taiwan is located in southeastern Asia. Taiwan is a group of islands; the main island of Taiwan, plus several smaller islands, known as the Pescadores archipelago. The main island is bordered by the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Taiwan lies about 100 miles off the coast of southeastern China. Several of the islands are disputed and claimed by other nations.
The oval-shaped, main island of Taiwan is about 245 miles long and 90 miles wide. Almost two-thirds of the island is covered by beautifully forested mountains with 258 peaks that rise over 9,850 ft. high. The largest, is Jade Mountain, peaking at 13,042 ft.
The mountainous terrain is the result of the island’s location. It sits on the fault line of two tectonic plates and was formed after a dramatic geological upheaval four to five million years ago. It also sits on the Tropic of Cancer, placing it at the same latitude as Hawaii. Taipei is the capital city and located in the north.
As mountains dominate the center and rugged east coast, most of the population lives on the island’s western third, in an alluvial plain. Taiwan suffers from typhoons. The season usually comes into effect in late summer and can be devastating.
A Brief History of Taiwan
Taiwan aborigines have inhabited Taiwan for over 5000 years. They largely kept to themselves until the Dutch invaded them in 1624 and founded a small colony on the southwest coast of Taiwan. The Dutch found the island to be very profitable and it was used for trading a variety of products like: sugar, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, rice and silk.
It didn’t last long, as a strong, military leader, named Zheng Chenggong, was eyeing Taiwan for himself. He was hoping to destroy the newly founded Qing Dynasty. The Dutch were forced to surrender in 1662. However, the victory did not last long. Zheng died shortly after the conquest, from malaria and the Qing forces attacked the island in 1683. Taiwan then became part of the Chinese Empire.
The Qing were going to abandon Taiwan completely, deeming it a worthless territory, but ended up keeping it. During this time, there was mass famine and poverty in China. So, although the Chinese were banned from migrating from the Chinese mainland, many fled, mostly from nearby Fujian province, in search of a better life. Many ethnic Chinese Han from Fujian started to marry the Taiwanese aborigines. In fact, most Taiwanese today have aboriginal blood.
Due to the strategic location of Taiwan, it started to draw attention from other powers in the west and also from Japan. In was late 1871, was the first Japanese invasion. The French, when they were fighting with China over Vietnam, arrived and occupied Keelung and the Penghu islands. Beijing took notice and was forced to improve the island with forts and a railway. It was during this time that Taiwan earned its status as a province. Prior to 1885, Taiwan was considered part of Fuijian.
As a result of war between China and Japan, (which had nothing to do with Taiwan), the Qing Empire ceded Taiwan and the Penghu Islands, giving control to Japan in 1895. The Japanese takeover changed Taiwan’s history forever. Many Taiwanese were not happy with this arrangement and resisted and many died.
Despite this, the Japanese made many improvements to life in Taiwan. They tackled widespread disease, expanded railways and built roads. Many improvements of this time can still be seen in both the culture and architecture of Taiwan. At the end of World War II, Japan renounced its colonies and Taiwan became part of the Republic of China.
In 1949, Chinese communist armies defeated Nationalist forces on the mainland and established the People’s Republic of China. The Nationalist government and armies fled to Taiwan, resulting once again in a separation from the mainland. The Republic of China claimed jurisdiction over the Chinese mainland as well as Taiwan. Although in the early 1990s, Taiwan’s government dropped this claim to China.
The Chinese government in Beijing maintains that they have jurisdiction over Taiwan. To this day, it remains to be seen if, when, or how the two entities will be reunited. Today, the Democratic Progressive Party holds power in Taiwan and they have just re-elected their first female president, for a second term.
Taiwan is home to nearly 24 million people and is in the top 20 most densely populated countries in the world. The population is made up of 97.7% ethnically Chinese, with 2.3% indigenous people. The official language is Mandarin Chinese, however, Taiwanese is also commonly spoken. English is taught as a second or third language in schools. Japanese was the official language during their reign over Taiwan. The vast majority, 93 % of the population, is Buddhist, with 5% being Christian.
In addition to the western calendar, they also go by the lunar calendar and many of their traditional holidays are based around important dates like: the Chinese New Year, the Dragon Festival, Chinese Valentine’s Day, Ghost Month and the Full Moon Festival, to name a few. The famous Lantern Festival concludes the Lunar New Year season, when thousands of paper lit lanterns are released into the air with messages. These paper lanterns are a treasured souvenir.
The entire seventh month of the lunar calendar is considered to be Ghost Month. The gate to the “underground” opens on the first and closes on the 31st. This is a time for people to be extra careful because all ghosts come to earth. Food is prepared for the ghosts so they are well-fed and satisfied. People don’t move about or swim during Ghost Month.
Convenience stores in Taiwan are everywhere, especially 7-11s. They do much more than just sell snacks. People do banking, drop off their dry cleaning, mail packages, pay utilities, plus, get delicious quick food to eat.
The number four is considered unlucky, as in Chinese it sounds similar to the word for death. For this reason, hospitals, buildings and apartments may not have a fourth floor at all and if they do, it is typically cheaper to inhabit.
The indigenous tribes have managed to keep many of their traditions alive. The Ear-shooting Festival, is where the Bunun people show off their archery skills to the people who live on Orchid Island, which is known for their flying fish traditions and boat making.
Politeness, honor and respect for elders is the most valued custom in Taiwanese culture.
It is no surprise that Taiwan’s cuisine is heavily influenced by both China and Japan. Specifically, Taiwanese cuisine is most often associated with influences from the mid to southern provinces of China and especially the southern Fuijian (Hokkien) cuisine.
Pork, seafood, chicken, rice and soy are the most common ingredients. Being an island, seafood figures prominently into the cuisine. However, it is a beef noodle dish that is considered to be the national dish of Taiwan. American food aid following WWII forever changed the Taiwanese diet, which primarily consisted of wheat based noodles. Breads and dumplings took more of a central role. Rice of all types and colors plays an important role and Taiwan has enjoyed a renaissance with both growers and consumers.
Taiwanese cuisine is also known for their use of all sorts of spices and seasonings, like soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, fermented black beans, pickled mustard greens, radish, peanuts, chili peppers, cilantro, basil, garlic and green onion.
Taiwan’s sub-tropical location has an abundant supply of various fruits such as: papayas, mangos, melons and citrus fruits. Pineapples are beloved (especially in their famous pineapple cake) and recently China banned the export of them. There is a worldwide effort to buy them up, using #freedompineapple. Fresh fruits and vegetables are abundant and available fresh in markets.
Speaking of markets, Taiwan is most famous for its magnificent, night street, markets. Nearly every neighborhood has one. The most famous night market is in Taipei, called Shilin, where all of Taiwan’s most famous dishes can be found. Dishes like: stinky tofu, soup dumplings, oyster omelets, scallion pancakes, Taiwanese popcorn chicken and beef noodle soup, abound. Hot pot is also ubiquitous. Boba (brown sugar, milk tea) is said to have been invented in Taiwan and can be found on nearly every block.
So let’s enjoy a Taiwanese meal:
We set the scene with the colors of Taiwan’s flag; red, blue and white. We placed a bear statue, as the Formosan black bear is the only bear found on the island and is their national animal. The plum blossom represents the national flower. A butterfly was placed as the island is known as the “Butterfly Kingdom,” home to over 400 species. A baseball bat was added to represent their national sport. A teapot, representing their famous oolong tea, used in their tea ceremonies, was added and lastly a mask, as Taiwan has been dubbed the “face mask capital of Asia”. It is no surprise that Taiwan faired as one of the best nations on earth in dealing with the Covid-19 Pandemic.
We began our meal with a very popular street food called, “Popcorn chicken” which can be found in all the night markets in Taiwan. These are crunchy, little bite-sized, pieces of chicken. They are dusted in a spiced up five-spice seasoning, as well as a salt and pepper powder. The secret to these delicious morsels, is frying them twice; making them super tender bites on the inside, with a nice, crunch on the exterior. They are served with pieces of fried basil leaves, which are a delicious addition.
For the main course, we savored every bite of the national dish; beef noodle soup. This dish takes some time to make but is worth every minute. The tender pieces of beef are cooked in a rich and slightly spicy broth, served with noodles, pickled mustard, fresh cilantro and scallions. This type of one pot meal, is truly my favorite type of meal. The complex flavors touch on every note and it is completely satisfying.
For dessert, we had the famous brown sugar, bubble, milk tea called Boba. It has a caramel like flavor and the small tapioca balls are a delight. Boba is a luxurious sweet drink and was a perfect ending to our Taiwanese meal.
After dinner, we sat in the hot tub and dreamed of being in one of the over 150 hot springs in Taiwan, as they have, second to Japan, the highest concentration of hot springs in the world. There we discussed the meaning of ren qing wei, which loosely translated means “human touch or feeling.” Friendliness and generosity to strangers, duty and correct behavior, are all part of what it means and it is an important cultural characteristic of Taiwan.
Until next time,
Chi bao le ma? (Have you eaten?) This is how you are greeted in Taiwan, their way of asking how you are. (I love that!)