Taiwan’s History of Migration: Why it Matters Today

Taiwan Tamsui © happypixel19/ Public domain/ Pixabay

Taiwan, otherwise known as the Republic of China (ROC), has been in the public eye of late. However, the perspective employed by experts of international politics to talk about Taiwan often overlooks the history and culture of the island, relegating its story to a subset of that of China. Sure, Taiwan is one of many geopolitical pawns in the competition between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States. But it is also important for observers of EU-China relations to consider who the people of Taiwan are and, quite literally, where they came from. This last question - the “where” - is crucial for the understanding of modern Taiwan. Consecutive waves of migrants and colonists have been the protagonists in Taiwan’s story. Each of these waves shaped the island’s culture and identity in ways that are still relevant today. The analysis of its migration history is thus key to understanding contemporary Taiwan.

The seven waves of migration

According to historical records, the island currently known as Taiwan may have been inhabited for 30,000 years. Yet, before the 16th century, it was “terra incognita” (Andrade, 2008). The island’s aboriginal people occasionally traded with outsiders, but even the nearby Chinese Empire knew very little about the island. Despite being only 130 kilometres away from the mainland, the sea separating China from the island is treacherous - and few sailors dared to try and make the journey across. Then, around 1544, passing Portuguese sailors named the island Ilha Formosa (beautiful island), a name that would stick in Western countries for centuries to come.

The first wave began - as will be a recurring theme in this article - with Chinese people escaping the troubles of the mainland. Merchants and fishermen, but also criminals and pirates, made their way to the island in small numbers during the second half of the 16th century and the first decades of the 17th. Most returned to the mainland as soon as they could, but some stayed. These were the first Chinese migrants to Formosa.

The second wave can be considered to mark the beginning of Formosa/Taiwan as we currently know it - as an island of trade. The Dutch East India Company founded a small colony in the south of Formosa in 1624. The colony was never much more than a trading post, where goods like sugar, rice, pepper, silk, or porcelain, were traded and stocked. But it did also establish the island’s first plantations employing modern agricultural techniques, using Chinese labour to grow rice and sugar. This also fueled demand for manpower from China and integrated Formosa into global trade systems (Lin, 2012). In 1626, Spanish merchants established their trading posts in the north of Formosa. They were eventually ousted by the Dutch in 1642, leaving the latter as the major economic force on the island. However, neither the Spanish nor the Dutch came with the purpose of prolonged occupation. As a result, the population of the island remained mainly composed of Chinese migrants and aboriginal people. Formosa’s position as an important trade location in South East Asia, however, was cemented.

The third wave was a result of the collapse of the Ming dynasty in 1644. A military general and fervent supporter of the Ming dynasty named Zheng Chenggong, also known as Koxinga, gathered other Ming loyalists and sought to oust the newly established Qing dynasty from the south of China. After suffering several military defeats, he eyed Formosa as a place where he could recoup. In 1662, his forces overthrew the Dutch and effectively colonised the island, bringing with them thousands of ethnically Han Chinese soldiers. The State he created in Formosa, the Kingdom of Dongning, lasted only 21 years. However, it did bring the first significant Han Chinese presence on the island.

The Qing had now replaced the Ming, and the new dynasty was not keen on allowing a state of Ming loyalists to roam free on a neighbouring island. Qing forces attacked in 1683, and Formosa became part of the Chinese Empire. The fourth and largest migration wave could now begin. Driven by the scent of commercial opportunities and the demand for labour, hordes of Fujianese and Guangdonese left the mainland for Formosa. Fujian and Guangdong are both mountainous provinces where the amount of arable land is small. This explains why the overwhelming majority of Chinese migrants not only to Formosa, but abroad in general, come from this area (Taiwan Today, 1963). Among these migrants were the Minnan and Hakka people - subgroups of the Han Chinese ethnicity, with their distinctive customs and languages.

Interestingly, Formosa was not declared an official province of the Qing Empire before 1885: until that date, it was treated as a part of Fujian. Formosa was barely administered by the Qing, and without an effective ruling government, it was essentially a lawless place: China’s very own “Wild West” (Wang, 2017). Or in this case, the Wild East. Banditry, piracy, and criminality were widespread. Violent ethnic conflicts between the Hakka, Minnan, aborigines and other groups or gangs were common as well. By the late 19th century, as this wave of migration ended, Formosa had become an island of two million inhabitants. Because of intra-ethnic marriages, ethnic differences had practically disappeared. An ethnically homogenous group of “islanders” now lived on the territory.

Following their defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the Qing government signed the treaty of Shimonoseki, by which it ceded the sovereignty of Formosa over to Japan. The Japanese ruled the island until 1945. Like the Dutch and the Spanish, the Japanese did not contribute a significant number of migrants. But they did leave their marks on the island, thus making this the fifth wave of migration. They closed Formosa from migration, putting an end to the influx of Han Chinese migrants. Like most colonial powers, the Japanese were mainly interested in Formosa’s natural resources and aimed to use the island as a strategic military post. They did, however, bring order to the island. A local government and administration were established, public health was improved, and roads and railways were built. By the time they left in 1945, Formosa had been completely modernised and industrialised (Lin, 2012).

With the Japanese gone, Formosa became part of the Republic of China, which had been established in 1911 on the mainland when the Qing dynasty was overthrown. This is when Formosa officially became Taiwan. The ROC was ruled by the Kuomintang (KMT, Guomindang) and led by the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi). In 1949, the KMT lost the civil war over the mainland to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. And so began the sixth wave of migration. The KMT government relocated to Taiwan, followed by over 1.5 million Chinese. One more time, the island of Formosa/Taiwan had become a refuge from the troubles on the mainland. The KMT established Taiwan’s current political and economic systems. Martial law and a strict authoritarian style of rule were the political norms, while the island remained economically liberal (Ma, 2007). Finally, in the 1980s, the political system was liberalised as well.

The seventh, and last wave of migration came in the 1980s. Both the mainland and Taiwan opened their borders to one another and families, long separated, were able to reunite. It is estimated that there are now over 300,000 mainland Chinese and foreign spouses in Taiwan (Ma, 2007).

From the Dutch and Spanish, the island of Formosa inherited the identity of a trading island. From Koxinga and his followers, it inherited the identities of a place of “recoup” for mainland refugees, and of a Han Chinese territory. From the Qing, the island inherited the cultures of various southern Chinese peoples, many of which are on full display today in terms of food, music, accents, and temples (Ma, 2007; Wang, 2017). From the Japanese, Formosa inherited both the public buildings that are today landmarks in Taipei and elsewhere, such as the current National Museum of Taiwan Literature, and a strong attachment to Japanese cuisine, culture, and fashion (Lin, 2012). From the KMT, Taiwan inherited its current political and economic systems, together with a strong Chinese Nationalist and Republican spirit (Ma, 2007). Finally, from the seventh wave, it inherited a more open relationship with the mainland.

The island of Taiwan has gone through waves of migration and colonisation. It was a place of refuge for many, but also a prized strategic location for others. It was a trading island and a lawless no man’s land. Above all though, it was, and still is, a welcoming place for the mixture of cultures. Ma Ying-jeou, former President of the ROC (2008-2016), asked in a 2007 essay: «So what does it mean to be local?.» His answer:

«Being local means being the sum of these seven waves of migration. The ‘local’ is therefore not a static definition. It has a life. It is a continuous process of re-birth and re-creation. Thus, the food tastes, the living habits, the artistic creativity, the local character, the linguistic accent and popular culture of Taiwan became a synthesis of these traits with a tolerant characteristic.» - Ma Ying-jeou, 2007.

Taiwan’s current political divisions and the evolution of its national identity

Taiwan’s migration history has marked the current political situation on the island. While the different waves of migration have contributed to a rich multiethnic culture, they have also sparked more recent divisions within Taiwan’s political realm. Indeed, the island does not have a single position vis-à-vis mainland China.

Currently, Taiwan’s population is composed of the following major groups: the “original settlers”, or the aborigines of Austronesian lineage; the “islanders” or local Taiwanese, the Hakka and Minnan Chinese who migrated from Fujian and Guangdong during the Qing Dynasty; and the “mainlanders”, descendants of those who migrated to Taiwan in the late 1940s from all over China (Hsieh 2005, 14; Storm 2008, 42-43). Apart from the aborigines, which make up less than two percent of the population, the other groups share the same Han Chinese lineage. The major differences between them are not sociocultural, but rather political and economic. There is evidence of a mainlander-islander rivalry dating back to the second half of the 1940s, when the Kuomintang took control over the Island and remained there after losing the civil war with the Chinese Communist Party (Hsieh 2005, 14-15; Storm 2008, 40, 42).

Every time a new wave of migration occurred on the island, the “newcomers” took a dominant position towards the “host” society. Curiously, this is a reversal of the matrix according to which immigrants are marginalised and the dominant power resides in the host society. Such a situation manifested itself again during the sixth wave of migration when Japan returned Taiwan to the ROC as a province (Storm 2008, 43-45). The major event which sparked the rivalry is known as the “228 Massacre”. The inefficiency and corruption of the new rulers - the KMT - led to conflicts between mainlanders and local Taiwanese, culminating in an uprising that was brutally suppressed on February 28, 1947. From 1949 onwards, the KMT’s regime secured its hegemony on the island, with the mainlanders filling the major positions in the government and the military; nonetheless, the islanders seemed to be predominant in the economic sphere (Hsieh 2005, 15; Dreyer et al. 2003, 12).

The “1979 Kaohsiung Incident” was another stepping stone in the formation of Taiwanese identity: it resulted from a demonstration by pro-democracy activists and its subsequent crackdown by the KMT. Both the Kaohsiung Incident and the lifting of the martial law, which impeded the formation of new political parties since 1949, led to the formation of the Democratic Progressive Party in 1986 (Dreyer et al. 2003, 2; A - Government Portal of the Republic Of China (Taiwan)).

The democratisation process broke the tacit rule of political affiliation according to the “mainlander-islander” divide, and islanders - or local Taiwanese - took over political positions, as well as within the KMT leadership itself. In addition, among successive generations the terms “mainlander” and “islander” have lost their intrinsic meaning, turning into de-essentialized discursive concepts, independent of an individual’s heritage or origin. As Storm puts it, «They are not about what people are, but how they construct themselves» (Hsieh 2005, 15; Storm 2008, 40-41).

Today, Taiwan’s political future, as well as cross-strait issues and relations, are at the core of the intense debate between the two main political parties (Liao, 2019). Although the nationalist KMT is labelled as the “pro-unification” party in Taiwanese politics, looking forward to greater and tighter relations between Taiwan and mainland China, it actually pushes for the status quo. An in-between position is supported also by the current ruling party, the DPP (Nachman and Hioe, 2020; B - Government Portal of the Republic Of China (Taiwan)). It would be wrong to affirm that the DPP is a pro-independence party, since it considers Taiwan to be already independent, hence it wishes to maintain the current status quo. This stance took ground at the end of the 1990s and has been consolidated since, as the “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future” replaced the DPP’s former “Independence Clause” (Nachman and Hioe, 2020). Although consensus on nationality is lacking, there is consensus among Taiwanese people on the process by which decisions should be made, and it is democracy. Whether it is to support reunification or independence, the commitment to democracy is the cornerstone (Dreyer et al. 2003, 20).

Ultimately, while it could be affirmed that Taiwan’s history has been often intertwined with that of China, we have also observed how the Ilha Formosa has been subjected to many peculiar events, which eventually contributed to the formation and evolution of the Island’s own identity throughout the centuries until today.

Lukian De Boni is currently a PhD candidate at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg. His research focuses on the behaviour of authoritarian regimes China and Russia in global governance, particularly in the field of human rights. You can find him on LinkedIn and at GIGA.

Giulia Secci holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations, with a focus on Diplomacy and International Organizations. She graduated from the University of Milan with a thesis on China’s strategy in the Arctic and its legal and geopolitical implications. She is currently studying Standard Chinese (HSK1) at the Confucius Institute in Milan. You can find her on LinkedIn and Instagram.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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All Historical data, including dates, names, and events, was taken from the Government Portal of the Republic of China (Taiwan):

(A) https://www.taiwan.gov.tw/content_3.php; (B) https://www.taiwan.gov.tw/content_4.php.

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Dreyer, June Teufel, and Gold, Tomas B., and Rigger, Shelley (2003). “The Evolution of a Taiwanese National Identity”, in Asia Program Special Report, no. 114: 1-24.

Hsieh, John Fuh-sheng (2005). “Ethnicity, National Identity, and Domestic Politics in Taiwan”, in Journal of Asian and African Studies, vol. 40(1/2): 13–28, SAGE Publications.

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Nachman, Lev, and Hioe, Brian (2020). “No, Taiwan’s President Isn’t ‘Pro-Independence’. Calling Tsai Ing-wen “pro-independence” isn’t just lazy; it’s wrong.”, The Diplomat. Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/no-taiwans-president-isnt-pro-independence/ [Accessed 20/01/22].

Storm, Carsten (2008). “Dominant Migrants in Taiwan. Migrant Discourse, Settlement, and Identity”, in The Documentation and Research Centre for Modern China, vol. XXII (1): 39-65, Leiden University.

Taiwan Today (1963). “How the Chinese came to Taiwan”. Available at: https://taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=12,20,29,33,35,45&post=23407 [Accessed 29/10/2021].

Wang, Donna (2017). History of Taiwan: Chinese Immigration [Online], Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/donnawangtw/history-of-taiwan-chinese-immigration-a4f3c200c6d9 [Accessed 29/10/2021]

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