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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

TAIWAN: THE COUNTRY THAT ISN’T


Just off the coast of the Chinese mainland is a large island. Historically it gained the name Formosa (beautiful) during the 16 th Century from a passing Portuguese ship, but even before that, it’s already been inhabited by aboriginal tribes. This tranquil island became a battleground throughout those hundreds of years the land was settled by other peoples, gained the Chinese name Taiwan and even became a bloody battlefield at several points. Even today the island remains the setting of a warm- and-cold conflict between its government and that of the mainland, a difference of opinions that doesn’t appear to end soon.

Taiwan is roughly divided into two geographical parts, the plains on the west and the forested mountains to the east that cover about two-thirds of the island’s land area. Due to being in the Tropic of Cancer, Taiwan enjoys a subtropical climate that gets humid in the summer and is visited by the monsoon winds. Owing to its unique location, the island runs the gamut of forest types, from tropical forests in the plains and temperate forests in the highland slopes. Some of these wondrous natural locales would be preserved somewhat in the several national parks established in recent times.

Of a very special interest for those who wish to know more about Taiwan is the story of their indigenous population, the Chinese aborigines. While these days one easily assumes a Taiwanese to be ethnic Chinese, in truth they still have a remnant of their original island inhabitants that form 2.3 of their current total population. These aboriginals at close inspection don’t quite look so Chinese at all, for they are actually descended from Austronesians, the general stock of people from whom come some of the ethnicities of Southeast Asia (Malay, Indonesians, Filipino), as far west as Madagascar off eastern Africa, and spread far to the east as the Polynesians of Oceania, much like the voyaging people from Disney’s “Moana”.

Having settled in the island since around the late Ice Age, the Taiwanese aborigines lived peacefully on the mountains and the plains, until the Portuguese ship sighting brought the first significant foreign presence in their abode. Colonies were established there by the Spanish, then the Dutch, both of which opened the way for Han Chinese people of the Ming Dynasty to cross the strait from the mainland and begin settling in Formosa in increasing numbers. Things won’t remain that way.

When the Manchus began conquering the Ming to set up their own Qing Dynasty, a Ming official named Zheng Chenggong led a force that threw out the Dutch colonists and set up the Chinese presence there as the Kingdom of Tungning, which Zheng planned to use as a powerbase for Ming loyalist forces to try reconquering the mainland from the Qing. When Zheng died without his goals accomplished, the island also fell under Qing control. From there a new status quo was maintained until the first Sino- Japanese War. Qing China lost dominion over the island of Taiwan to the Japanese, which renamed it as Takasago.

The attempt of Japan to establish its presence on the island led it into conflict with the aborigines, who have been largely left to their own devices under previous rulers. When new regulations begin to systematically wipe away the aboriginal culture, some of the more militant tribes began armed conflict with the Japanese forces, leading to some violent incidents wherein Japanese and Han Chinese were killed. Eventually the revolts were put down and Japan began to develop and industrialize Taiwan.

Once more conflict visited the island during World War II. As a Japanese colony, Taiwan was targeted by Allied forces. Finally, with the 1945 Japanese surrender, the island was ceded back to the then-Republic of China. But more trouble was brewing. Chinese communists won victories over the ROC Nationalist government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Expelled from the mainland by overwhelming forces, the Nationalists established themselves in Taiwan while the Communists declared the People’s Republic. When war in nearby Korea brought the ideological conflict between communism and democracy to the forefront, the US would lend support to Taiwan and recognized its government as the legitimate China over the PRC.

Eventually both the United Nations and the US would transfer recognition from Taiwan to the mainland as the representative China. From here eventually rose the “One China” policy wherein both governments in Taipei and Beijing agree that there’s only one China in the world, and countries can only recognize one or the other, but never both, especially as separate entities. Despite this political quagmire, Taiwan was able to develop completely into a “Tiger” economic powerhouse until the PRC’s own economic renaissance. This has enabled Taiwan to become a well-off economic and cultural player in the world scene, despite no longer quite considered to be an actual country.

Photo Credit to www.pinterest.com

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