May 10, 2014

The Modern History of Taiwan - a Complicated Affair

The modern history of Taiwan, the way it was told to me

I started writing about the history of Taiwan a billion times, and every time I get lost in my own
words, because the history is so long and so full of twists, so this time I thought I'd get right to the point – the modern story of Taiwan, and some historical insight to why the relation to China isn't an easy one...  I wrote about it before, both here on the blog and on "The Stinky Tofu" - but to connect the dots, I need to explain about about the history of Taiwan. 

And to understand the modern history of Taiwan, you have to understand the modern history of China. This is a story that needs to be told as it lays the foundation to the understanding of what is going on today.

China, or as it is officially referred to, "The People's Republic of China" (中國人民共和國 – Zhongguo RenMin GongHeGuo in Pinyin) has in its current shape and form existed since 1949. October 1 that year Mao Tsedong, aka Chairman Mao proclaimed The People's Republic of China and China the way we know it today was born. But before Mao came to power, there was a civil war, or a revolution going on – and this is where you need to pay attention;

China had been ruled by emperors under a long long time but 1911, just a few years before WWI started in Europe, the Chinese party KMT – Kuomintang – started a revolution which lead to the last emperor of China stepping down 1912.

The revolution threw China into turmoil and during the years following 1912, China was anything but a stable country. KMT, founded by Dr Sun Yat Sen, and the communist party of China, CPC, lead by Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) were fighting over power. 1925 a man named Chiang Kai-Shek took over KMT, and this is where it starts to get really interesting, if you know anything about Taiwanese history. You see, it is not a coincident that the name KMT and the name Chiang Kai-Shek appears first in China and later in Taiwan, as you may have guessed already it is indeed the same party and the same man – a Chinese party, a Chinese man.

During this time, when the emperor had lost his power in China, Taiwan was under Japanese rule. The country had been taken over by the Japanese 1895, after a short war, and the Japanese stayed in power until 1945 – a year that changed the maps of the world dramatically, across the globe.

1938-1945 the world was in a terrible state, with World War II going on, a war that had started when Germany annected Austria and occupied Poland, but then had spread over the world, with Japan stepping in as well. WWII ended 1945, and with the Japanese being on the loosing side, Japan had to withdraw from Taiwan.

Meanwhile in China, the situation had gotten worse, and 1946 a full civil war broke out, a war that KMT eventually lost, and CPC, the communist party, came to power. And so, October 1 1949, four years after WWII ended, and three years after China had been thrown into a civil war CPC Mao declared The People's Republic of China and Chiang Kai-Shek and his party fled to Taiwan.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial in Taipei, Taiwan
When KMT first came to Taiwan, it was to lick its wounds and build strength to return to China and take back the power, however this never happened – KMT were never able to go back become a real threat to Mao, and instead KMT took over Taiwan. The official name of Taiwan, The Republic of China, ROC ((中華民國 – ZhongHuaMingguo) is actually remaining from the time when KMT ruled in China, it is not a name that came from Taiwan; Taiwan had been known under other names until this time, the Portuguese "Isla Formosa" – the beautiful Island – just being one of them. The Republic of China was instead a name that Chiang Kai-Shek and his KMT brought with them – so it isn't very strange that there are Taiwanese people who don't like using the name, it's not just that it's long and often confused with the official name of China (The People's republic of China), it also, to many, is a name they don't identify with, the majority of the people in Taiwan had been Taiwanese for generations before Chiang Kai-Shek and his followers came to the country, and while Mandarin is the official language of Taiwan, to many people, it is their second language – in southern Taiwan you mainly hear Taiwanese, not Mandarin.

It's easy to think that when the Chinese party came to Taiwan, all was smooth sailing, and everything went well, after all KMT is nowadays one of the two big parties (DPP, Democratic Progressive Party being the other one), and Chiang Kai-Shek is the man who's face appears on the money, but that was not at all the case. Instead the first years of the Chinese rulership via KMT was hard on the Taiwanese people, during what's know as "the White Terror" many Taiwanese mysteriously disappeared or were killed.

Taiwan was unlike China industrialised, while China was still mainly a farmer's society, and the country had been doing relatively well under the Japanese era. While there were traditions shared with China, there were cultural clashes when KuoMinTang, KMT, came to power, and while there is no doubt that Chiang Kai-Shek and his followers later on also did a lot of good for Taiwan, it was not uncomplicated. Not that it ever is, changing governments...

At the same time one should also remember that while KMT was indeed a Chinese party and Chiang Kai-Shek was Chinese, not Taiwanese, during the KMT era Taiwan's economy grew and Chiang Kai-Shek became an important figure, Taiwan did become a stronger nation during this time, and after his death 1975 Taiwan eventually became a democracy.

Politics are never easy, but in the case of Taiwan, it's possibly even more complicated than elsewhere. 


Taiwan is officially referred to as "The Republic of China" (中華民國 – ZhongHuaMingguo) shortened ROC.
Yes, It adds to the confusion with two countries having such similar names, especially in English. 

China on the other hand – "The People's Republic of China" (中國人民共和國 – Zhongguo RenMin GongHeGuo). 



Part from the stories that I have been told I have also read various books about Taiwan. Furthermore I have used, among other websites, these, to get the details and years right.  Still, this is not a historical document that have been checked by historians, this is the story of Taiwan the way I have learnt it. 

Among the books:
Taiwan Under Japanese Colonial Rule, 1895-1945: History, Culture, Memory (Link to Amazon)

New Challenges for Maturing Democracies in Korea and Taiwan (Link to Amazon)


Taiwan under the Japanese era, on the offical Taiwan page

The history of China (The People's Republic of China) from the Chinese side:

History of Taiwan as told by New Taiwan, history website.

"If you don't say something, who will". Talking Politics in Taiwan, The Stinky Tofu

History of China, as told on History.Com

People's Republic of China history, China through a lense , about

BBC:s Special Edition on China 50 years

TeaLeaf Nation on Taiwan and it's citizens and their future

About the White Terror: 
Remembering the White Terror, by Amber Parcher, published by FP (Foreign Policy) 

Taipei Times on the White Terror 

No comments :