Located off the southeastern coast of Mainland China, sandwiched by Okinawa and the Philippines and shaped roughly like a sweet potato, Taiwan is home to more than 23 million people, making it one of the most densely populated regions in the entire world. This land of rolling greenery and gleaming skyscrapers is home to an interesting mix of traditional Chinese culture and Western influence, and outside of its crowded bustling cities, it’s well known for its steep mountains, lush forests, pristine beaches and wonderful night markets.
Taiwan’s aboriginal inhabitants were Austronesians who first arrived in the area some 30,000 years ago. Han Chinese first began to settle the land in the 13th century, and later, in the 16th century, the Portuguese landed and called the island Formosa (meaning Beautiful Island). By the 17th century, the Dutch had opened a colony as a trading post for their Dutch East Indian Company, and the Spaniards even got their hands on a few cities in the north.
In 1683, the Qing Dynasty officially annexed Formosa, opening the way for many opportunity-seeking Chinese immigrants (mainly from Fujian Province right across the Straights of Taiwan) to flood the island. It wasn’t until 1885 that the Qing officially named the region Taiwan Province.
Then the Japanese arrived. The Qing Dynasty, known as the “Sick Man of Asia” at the time, was defeated by the Japanese in 1895 during the first Sino-Japanese War, resulting in the relinquishment of Taiwan to Japan. The Japanese wasted no time in implementing their “assimilation project,” outlawing Chinese culture, language and religion while simultaneously promoting Japanese customs.
The Qing Dynasty was eventually toppled in 1911 by Chinese nationalist forces, and the country was united under the Kuomintang (KMT) political party. Dr Sun Yat-Sen, leader of the KMT nationalist revolution, became the first president of China by proclaiming the Republic of China (ROC) with its capital in Nanjing, and he soon opened the country’s gates to the world, conducting business with North American and European powers. Unfortunately, Dr Sun didn’t live long to see his vision of new China prosper, passing away in 1925. After his death, General Chiang Kai-shek took control of the KMT and the country.
Soon after Chiang became the leader of China, the Japanese (who already controlled all of Korea and Taiwan at that time) returned to the Mainland in an attempt to take over the entire country in the early 1930s, igniting the second Sino-Japanese War and plunging the Orient into a conflict that would eventually become the Asian theater of WWII.
After years of fending off Communist rebels in the countryside and fighting with the Japanese, the KMT was on the brink of collapse by the end of WWII. But in August 1945, Japan signed an unconditional surrender to the United States after suffering mass casualties from the two atomic bombs dropped by the US. With the end of the Japanese threat, Communist rebels under the leadership of Mao Zedong were able to focus all of their effort toward defeating the KMT, who were struggling to recover from their massive losses.
Between 1945 and 1949, the Chinese Civil War raged between Chiang’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists. As city by city fell from the grip of the KMT over the course of four years, the Nationalists made their last stand in Beijing, which was taken from them in mid-1949. With the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, Chiang Kai-shek and an estimated 2 million Chinese fled the Mainland to the tiny island of Taiwan, making Taipei their “temporary capital” with the hope of rebuilding their forces.
The PRC had initially planned an attack on Taiwan, but this was brought to a halt when war broke out in the Korean peninsula in 1950. Backing the Korean communists of Kim Sung Il, troops were diverted to the Korean War, and plans to invade Taiwan were put on hold. The subsequent alliance between the democratic states of South Korea, the US and Taiwan further deterred the PRC from attacking.
Upon the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975, his son ascended to power, and over the following decades, he worked to open Taiwan to the world, softening the assimilation reforms, loosening his party’s political monopoly on power, and liberalizing the economy. Today, Taiwan enjoys one of the highest ratings for freedoms in the world, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Besides the 98% of its population that are Han, the remainder of Taiwan’s peoples are of aboriginal descent, hailing from 12 officially recognized ethnic minority groups. Most minorities speak their own distinct language, though nearly everyone can speak Mandarin.
The official language of Taiwan is Mandarin, but many of the locals also speak Taiwanese (also called Hokkien, it’s very similar to the local dialect of Fujian Province) or Hakka dialect. Much of the older generation who grew up in Japanese-controlled Taiwan can also still speak Japanese, though this minority is diminishing by the year. If you have a command of the Chinese language, you’ll be able to communicate with the locals with ease, but there is a big difference in the written language.
Mainland China uses simplified characters and Taiwan uses traditional characters. Traditional characters are the same Chinese logograms that have around for 2,000 years and are still used today in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Chinese communities throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and the West.
Simplified characters, on the other hand, come from long-used forms of some of the most complex characters. They were adopted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Mainland during the 1950s to increase literacy rates, and actually only affected some 500 characters (the rest were left unchanged).
Due to political issues, appreciation for history, and pure pride, many Taiwanese don’t use simplified characters even though they are easier to use and more efficient. Oddly enough, the official Taiwanese-adopted written form for "Taiwan" uses one simplified and one traditional character. The “Tai” (台) character is actually simplified, and if the name were to be written in fully traditional form, it would look like this, “臺灣,” as opposed to “ 台灣.”
Be aware that throughout this chapter all characters are written with traditional characters, which you will find throughout Taiwan. In addition, you should remember that the Taiwanese do not usually use the pinyin romanization system to spell out their characters (though it was recently adopted on street signs throughout Taipei), but instead use the Wade-Giles system. Not all spellings are different between these two systems, but many are. One example is the capital Taipei, which is a Wade-Giles spelling. Using pinyin, Taipei becomes Taibei.
It’s important to note that Taiwan does NOT use Chinese RMB (¥). Instead, they use their own currency called the New Taiwan Dollar (NT$). RMB will not be accepted anywhere in Taiwan, so it’s important to exchange your bills beforehand. Please keep in mind that all the prices listed in our Taiwan chapter are in NT$.
At the time of writing, the exchange rates were:
1 RMB (¥) = 5 NT$
1USD ($) = 29.5 NT$
1 Euro (€) = 40.5 NT$
1 GBP (£) = 48 NT$
Go to www.xe.com for the most up-to-date rates.
Luckily for travelers, Taiwan has a much more lenient visa policy than the Mainland. Actually, there’s no visa process at all for nationals of several countries.
Residents of the European Union, Canada, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, the United States and the Vatican City can enter visa free and stay up to 90 days, while citizens of Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea can enter without a visa and stay up to 30 days.
Keep in mind that if you have a single-entry Chinese visa and leave China to go to Taiwan, you will not be able to return to Mainland China unless you get a new Chinese visa. For this reason, we recommend either ending or starting your trip in Taiwan, or getting a multi entry Chinese visa, which will allow you to go back and forth freely if you wish to explore both sides of the strait.
There is no Chinese embassy or consulate in Taiwan, so if you need to purchase a Chinese tourist visa you must go through a special agency. We recommend Interlink Travel Service since they are the most reliable and one of the only companies that can register Chinese visas on the island.
Interlink Travel Agency
11F-1, 68 Kuangfu North Rd, Taipei (光復北路68號11樓之1)
Phone: (02) 2578 0611