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Taiwan History - A Brief History of Taiwan

Early History, Modern Era, and Cold War Period


Chiang Kai-shek

Chiang Kai-shek views the American destroyer 'Hollister' through the periscope of the US nuclear submarine 'Swordfish', the first nuclear powered submarine ever to visit Taiwan. Chiang cruised with the submarine for three hours.

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Located 100 miles off the coast of China, Taiwan has had a complicated history and relationship with China.

Taiwan History - Early History:

For thousands of years, Taiwan had been home to nine plains tribes. The island has attracted explorers for centuries that have come to mine sulfur, gold and other natural resources.

Han Chinese began crossing the Taiwan Strait during the 15th century. Then, the Spanish invaded Taiwan in 1626 and, with the help of the Ketagalan (one of the plains tribes), discovered sulfur, a main ingredient in gunpowder, in Yangmingshan, a mountain range that overlooks Taipei. After the Spanish and Dutch were forced out of Taiwan, Mainland Chinese returned in 1697 to mine sulfur after a huge fire in China destroyed 300 tons of sulfur.

Prospectors looking for gold started arriving in the late Qing Dynasty after railroad workers found gold while washing their lunch boxes in the Keelung River, 45 minutes northeast of Taipei. During this age of maritime discovery, legends claimed there was a treasure island full of gold. Explorers headed to Formosa in search of gold.

A rumor in 1636 that gold dust was found in today’s Pingtung in southern Taiwan led to the arrival of the Dutch in 1624. Unsuccessful at finding gold, the Dutch attacked the Spanish who were searching for gold in Keelung on Taiwan’s northeastern coast, but they still didn’t find anything. When gold was later discovered in Jinguashi, a hamlet on Taiwan’s east coast, it was a few hundred meters from where the Dutch had searched in vain.

Taiwan History - Entering the Modern Era:

After the Manchus overthrew the Ming Dynasty on the Chinese mainland, the rebel Ming loyalist Koxinga retreated to Taiwan in 1662 and drove out the Dutch, establishing ethnic Chinese control over the island. Koxinga’s forces were defeated by the Manchu Qing Dynasty’s forces in 1683 and parts of Taiwan began to come under the control of the Qing empire. During this time, many aborigines retreated to the mountains where many remain to this day. During the Sino-French War (1884-1885), Chinese forces routed French troops in battles in northeastern Taiwan. In 1885, the Qing empire designated Taiwan as China’s 22nd province.

The Japanese, who had had their eye on Taiwan since the late 16th century, succeeded in gaining control of the island after China was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). When China lost the war with Japan in 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan as a colony and the Japanese occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Japan relinquished control of Taiwan and the government of the Republic of China (ROC), led by Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), reestablished Chinese control over the island . After the Chinese Communists defeated ROC government forces in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), the KMT-led ROC regime retreated to Taiwan and established the island as a base of operations to fight back to the Chinese mainland.

The new People’s Republic of China (PRC) government on the mainland, led by Mao Zedong, began preparations to “liberate” Taiwan by military force. This began a period of Taiwan’s de facto political independence from the Chinese mainland which continues today.

Taiwan History - The Cold War Period:

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the United States, seeking to prevent the further spread of communism in Asia, sent the Seventh Fleet to patrol the Taiwan Strait and deter Communist China from invading Taiwan. US military intervention forced Mao’s government to delay its plan to invade Taiwan. At the same time, with US backing, the ROC regime on Taiwan continued to hold China’s seat in the United Nations.

Aid from the US and a successful land reform program helped the ROC government solidify its control over the island and modernize the economy. However, under the pretext of on-going civil war, Chiang Kai-shek continued to suspended the ROC constitution and Taiwan remained under martial law. Chiang’s government began allowing local elections in the 1950s, but the central government remained under authoritarian one-party rule by the KMT.

Chiang promised to fight back and recover the mainland and built up troops on islands off the Chinese coast still under ROC control. In 1954, an attack by Chinese Communist forces on those islands led the US to sign a Mutual Defense Treaty with Chiang’s government.

When a second military crisis over the ROC-held offshore islands in 1958 led the US to the brink of war with Communist China, Washington forced Chiang Kai-shek to officially abandon his policy of fighting back to the mainland. Chiang remained committed to recovering the mainland through an anti-communist propaganda war based on Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (三民主義).

After Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975, his son Chiang Ching-kuo led Taiwan through a period of political, diplomatic and economic transition and rapid economic growth. In 1972, the ROC lost its seat in the United Nations to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In 1979, the United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing and ended it military alliance with the ROC on Taiwan. That same year, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the U.S. to help Taiwan defend itself from attack by the PRC.

Meanwhile, on the Chinese mainland, the Communist Party regime in Beijing began a period of “reform and opening” after Deng Xiao-ping took power in 1978. Beijing changed its Taiwan policy from armed “liberation” to “peaceful unification” under the “one country, two systems” framework. At the same time, the PRC refused to renounce the possible use of force against Taiwan.

Despite Deng’s political reforms, Chiang Ching-kuo continued a policy of “no contact, no negotiation, no compromise” toward the Communist Party regime in Beijing. The younger Chiang’s strategy for recovering the mainland focused on making Taiwan into a “model province” that would demonstrate the shortcomings of the communist system in mainland China.

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