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date: 27 February 2024

Taiwan and Modern Chinafree

Taiwan and Modern Chinafree

  • Emma J. TengEmma J. TengDepartment of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


The China–Taiwan relationship continues to be one of the most highly fraught international political issues in the post-Cold War era, and a potential flashpoint in US–China affairs. Lying 180 kilometers off the southeastern coast of China, Taiwan’s relation to the mainland has undergone numerous permutations since the 17th century, when it was a Dutch colony. In 1662, Taiwan was conquered by Ming loyalist forces who retreated to the island from China and took it from the Dutch. This loyalist regime then held the island until 1683, when Qing imperial forces crossed the Taiwan Strait to quell the insurgents. The Qing in turn ruled Taiwan until 1895, when it was ceded to Japan as an outcome of the Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1945, following Japan’s defeat in World War II, but has been divided from mainland China since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Taiwan’s evolving relationship to modern China has been profoundly shaped by three crucial factors: the island’s location along China’s strategic maritime perimeter; its role in global trade networks; and fears of its being used as an enemy base against the mainland. Taiwan has also played an important role in Chinese migration history. The island was one of the earliest destinations for overseas migration from China, and it has seen successive waves of Han Chinese migrants over the centuries, making it home to the largest ethnic Chinese population outside the PRC in the early 21st century. In addition to ancestral and cultural ties, a staggering volume of trade and investment links the two sides together economically, despite ongoing political friction, and the contemporary cross-Strait relationship is thus characterized by collaboration as well as conflict.

Important historiography of the subject has been produced in China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the United States, and Europe within the frameworks of Chinese history, East Asian regional and maritime history, comparative colonial history, and the history of international relations. It is worth noting that beyond the China–Taiwan relationship, a different strand of historiography, that of Pacific history, treats Taiwan as part of the history of the Pacific Islands, focusing on its indigenous people rather than the Han Chinese majority, and on their links to other Austronesian-speaking peoples across Oceania.


  • China
  • Migration/Immigration/Diaspora
  • World/Global/Transnational

Taiwan and Modern China: An Evolving Relationship

Taiwan and Early Modern China

In 1684, Taiwan “entered the map” of the Chinese empire for the first time in history.1 That is to say, although Chinese fishermen, traders, and migrants had long frequented the island and the neighboring Pescadores, forming settlements as early as the 7th century, it was not until this date that Taiwan was officially incorporated into the Chinese imperial territorial domain. Trade with the island’s indigenous people, currently officially designated as “Taiwan Indigenous Peoples,”2 was a prime motivator for the early cross-Strait interactions. With its strategic location between China, Japan, and the Philippines, Taiwan emerged as a vital entrepôt and smuggling emporium for Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Dutch merchants and/or pirates. Renowned as deer hunters, Taiwan’s indigenous people played a key role in the profitable East Asian maritime trade in deer products during the 17th century: Deer hides were in high demand in Japan, while the Chinese were avid consumers of venison and deer antlers (a Chinese medicinal). Europeans also developed a particular interest in Taiwan as a potential toehold from which to access China, with its wealth of coveted products and vast market for silver, and parts of the island were colonized in turn by the Dutch and the Spanish.3 Taiwan thus increasingly began to come to the attention of Chinese officials in the early 17th century largely as a “problem” for imperial interests. Indeed, it was in the context of containing one such problem—the establishment of a renegade Ming loyalist regime on the island—that the Qing dynasty sent a naval expedition against Taiwan, conquering it in 1683. The use of the island as a Ming loyalist base thus serves as the essential backdrop for understanding modern China’s relation to Taiwan.

The Zheng Regime on Taiwan

The rebel base of the Ming loyalist Zheng regime was founded on Taiwan by the renowned figure of Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong), regarded by some as an exemplar of heroic loyalism to a fallen dynasty and by others as a renegade pirate and threat to imperial order.4 Whether pirate or hero, Koxinga, and the two generations of Zhengs who succeeded him, achieved the remarkable feat of routing Dutch forces from their colonial base in Taiwan (then known as Formosa) in 1662, and establishing a successful, independent mercantile state that posed a credible challenge to the Qing.5 Recent scholarship has shown that in driving the Dutch from Taiwan, the Zhengs not only demonstrated superior military capability, but also ultimately beat out the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in terms of average annual earnings in maritime trade.6 Connecting China with Japan to the north and the Philippines and other Southeast Asian destinations to the south, Taiwan was an ideal hub for maritime trade, and also the source of valuable goods such as sugar, silk, and deer hides.7 Koxinga was perfectly equipped to take full advantage of this potential. The son of a Chinese pirate smuggler and a Japanese woman, Koxinga successfully leveraged his birth in Japan and his Japanese connections to conduct trade under the protection of Japanese law, and gained a privileged position jointly administering the Chinese trading community at Nagasaki with the shogunate. The Zhengs also gained strong support from overseas Chinese merchants and migrants in Southeast Asia. Combining mercantile with military power, the Zheng regime was able to dominate the East Asian maritime sphere and rule Taiwan during a turbulent and dynamic era of the 17th century.8

Taiwan’s economy depended on both Chinese immigrant labor as well as a thriving trade with the island’s indigenous peoples. The island’s two main exports, as established by the Dutch, were sugar and deer products. Sugar cultivation and processing, however, required Chinese immigrant labor.9 The market for sugar was global, with Taiwanese sugar being sold to China and Japan, and as far off as Persia.10 To support their large number of troops on the island, the Zheng also promoted intensive farming of rice and sweet potato in addition to other foodstuffs, again using Chinese immigrant labor. Whereas there were approximately 35,000 to 50,000 Han Chinese immigrants on the island at the end of Dutch rule in 1661, under the Zheng the Chinese settler population increased to approximately 120,000 by 1682.11 Since the majority of Han Chinese migrants to Taiwan in the Dutch and Zheng eras were men, evidence suggests a relatively high rate of intermarriage between Han men and indigenous women, a pattern that persisted through the early 18th century.12 This gave rise to a significant mixed population during this period and led to the development of cultural hybridity among Taiwanese.

Qing Conquest and Settlement

In order to quell the Ming loyalist forces and eliminate his rival, the Kangxi emperor of the Qing dynasty raised a naval campaign against Taiwan. Led by a Zheng defector, Shi Lang, Qing naval forces finally defeated the renegade regime in 1683 and took possession of the island. Following this successful conquest, the Kangxi emperor was initially skeptical about the value of holding Taiwan. As he declared: “Taiwan is no bigger than a ball of mud. We gain nothing by possessing it, and it would be no loss if we did not acquire it.”13 Conservative officials agreed that the main objective of the campaign against Taiwan, to eradicate the base of Ming loyalists, had been achieved, and that the benefits of holding the island would be outweighed by the costs. In their estimation, this small island located “beyond the seas” (haiwai) and “beyond the pale of civilization” (huawai) was nothing more than a barren wilderness of little agricultural value, and its populace nothing more than “savages” (fan) who were not worth civilizing. Their contempt for Taiwan reflected a traditional Chinese privileging of agrarian over maritime pursuits, and a territorial conception of the Chinese empire as a continental domain bounded by the seas, mountain ranges, and desert on its geographic peripheries. It also reflected a traditional view of “barbarians” as culturally and morally inferior to ethnic Han Chinese. Admiral Shi Lang, however, argued vigorously for the annexation of Taiwan on both strategic and economic grounds. With his personal knowledge of the island’s terrain, Shi testified to its abundance of natural resources, including deer hides and sulfur, and to the fertility of the land that could be brought under cultivation. Most importantly, Shi warned that foreign powers were already coveting the island, and he emphasized the threat to China’s coastal security if an abandoned Taiwan were to become once again a pirates’ lair or to be claimed by a hostile foreign power. He proposed that Taiwan could serve a vital role in “fencing off” China’s southeastern coast from outside forces.14 This was the origin of the idea of Taiwan as part of a strategic maritime perimeter for the Chinese mainland.15 The admiral’s arguments finally won out and in 1684, Taiwan was officially annexed to the Chinese empire as a prefecture of Fujian province.16

The new Qing rulers established the prefectural capital at Tainan (Taiwan-fu) in the south of the island, around the core of the old Dutch colonial and Zheng settlements. Following the repatriation of Zheng forces and remaining Ming imperial descendants, the Han Chinese population on Taiwan dropped to just below 100,000.17 After annexation, Qing imperial policy on Taiwan fluctuated between an anti-immigration policy designed to prevent Taiwan from once again becoming a rebel base, and a pro-colonization policy aimed at promoting Chinese settlement of the island and the expansion of agriculture, forestry, and other profitable economic activities.18 Whatever the government policy, population pressure and limitations on available arable land on China’s southeast coast made Taiwan an attractive destination for Chinese migrants.19 Over time, both legal and illegal Han Chinese migration to Taiwan turned the island into a significant outpost of Chinese frontier society, and a source of handsomely profitable rice and sugar exports, mostly destined for the Chinese mainland.20 Taiwan experienced rapid population growth in the 18th century and the spread of Chinese village settlements.21 Although population figures for Taiwan in this early era are notoriously difficult to calculate, one estimate gives the population of Han Chinese on the island as approximately 2 million by 1811.22

Han Chinese immigration enabled the pioneering of frontier lands and the growth of rice, sugar cane, and sweet potato farming, in addition to fishing. Rice and sugar exports became Taiwan’s most important products, displacing the earlier international deer trade which had declined seriously from overhunting.23 Indeed, by 1725, rice production in Taiwan had risen so rapidly that the government was able to institute regular shipments of rice to Fujian, helping to relieve grain shortages in this coastal area.24 Whereas economic benefits were reaped from expanding Chinese frontier settlement, increasing encroachment on indigenous land and hunting grounds also brought Han in frequent conflict with Taiwan’s indigenous groups. Managing this interethnic conflict, as well as sub-ethnic conflict among different Han Chinese settler groups, became one of the greatest challenges for the Qing administration of the island.25

In tandem with Taiwan’s political incorporation into the Chinese empire, its economy also became more closely tied to the Chinese mainland. The Qing institution of the Canton System in 1759, which restricted all foreign commerce to the southern Chinese port of Canton (Guangzhou), essentially robbed Taiwan of its former position as an entrepôt for East Asian maritime trade.26 Instead, trade was conducted within the Fujian maritime sphere, centered on Amoy (Xiamen). Taiwanese rice and sugar exports became a highly profitable component of Amoy coastal trade and contributed to the economic development of southeastern coastal China in the 18th century.27 The value of these products attracted wealthy merchants and landlords from coastal China to Taiwan, and also spurred a rapid influx of Han Chinese migrants from the mainland, especially Fujian and Guangdong provinces, from the 1780s to the 1860s. These developments aided mainland China by providing an outlet for mounting population pressure in the coastal provinces and by supplying rice and other grains to the persistently rice-deficient area across the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, by the end of the 18th century, Taiwan would be known as the “Granary of China.”28

As Taiwan was gradually transformed from a pioneering frontier society to a settled society, various features of Chinese government, society, and culture became firmly implanted in the areas under Qing control.29 Local elites sponsored the building of temples and schools, as well as the promotion of literary, theatrical, musical, and other pursuits. The growth of a local elite enabled successfully educated young men to travel to mainland China to sit for the imperial civil service examination. The worship of Mazu, a popular goddess of Fujian origin known as a protector of fishermen and seafarers, also tied Taiwan to the mainland as enacted through ritual pilgrimages to the island of Meizhou, where her main temple was located. Mazu was said to have aided Koxinga in his conquest of the Dutch, and the goddess therefore has particular Taiwanese significance.30 Yet a large portion of the island’s terrain on the east coast beyond the Central Mountain Range remained beyond Qing jurisdiction and under the control of various indigenous groups.31

The Treaty Port Era and Self-Strengthening

The Qing Canton System came to an abrupt end in 1842 following China’s defeat in the First Opium War. This defeat ushered in a century of unequal treaties for China, resulting in the loss of Hong Kong and the opening of numerous treaty ports to foreign trade and residence in China. Since foreign residents in the treaty ports were granted the privileges of extraterritoriality, this phenomenon resulted in a gradual erosion of China’s territorial sovereignty. The British victory in the First Opium War impacted Taiwan, as British and American opium dealers soon set their sights on the Taiwan market. By 1858, the two major firms of Jardine, Matheson and Co. and Dent and Co. were running to Taiwan, selling opium and purchasing camphor. Western demands for treaty ports were soon extended to the island. Beginning in 1858, when the Russians and Americans demanded the opening of Anping and nearby Taiwan-fu (Tainan) to foreign trade and residence, a series of treaty ports were established on Taiwan, including Tamsui (Danshui) and Keelung (Jilong) in the north and Anping and Takow (Gaoxiong) in the south.

The opening of treaty ports drew Taiwan back onto the stage of global commerce, and exports of sugar, tea, and camphor flourished.32 Taiwanese tea, grown in the high mountains, had long been sold across the Taiwan Strait, but it now became a global export commodity. In the second half of the 19th century, tea became the island’s most valuable export, with Americans in particular treasuring “Formosa Oolong.” Camphor also became highly profitable, and by the early 1890s, two-thirds of the world’s camphor supply came from Taiwan. The expansion of both the tea and camphor trades led to increased exploitation of upland forests and encroachment on indigenous lands, triggering interethnic conflict. Taiwan’s natural deposits of gold, coal, sulfur, petroleum, and natural gas also attracted outside attention and came under increasing exploitation during the 19th century. With gold, coal, and sulfur mining primarily located in the north of the island, the center of Taiwanese wealth and power gradually shifted from the south to the north. Indigo, turmeric, ramie, rattan, jute, fan palms, sisal hemp, pineapple, banana, paper mulberry, bamboo, groundnuts, and tobacco were among other valuable products. Yet, as Taiwan’s global economic importance grew, so too did its strategic vulnerability as foreign powers, both Western and Japanese, followed in the wake of traders and began asserting their interest in the island.

By the 1870s this vulnerability and the threat to Chinese sovereignty had become amply clear, prompting the Qing to initiate Self-Strengthening efforts in Taiwan. The Self-Strengthening movement (1865–1895) had emerged in China as a response to the mounting external threat posed by imperial powers. With the goal of strengthening China’s competitiveness in the modern world and defending the country against foreign incursions, the movement advocated the adoption of Western military and naval technology, the development of modern railways, mining, and telegraphy, the modernization of agriculture, industry, and commerce, and various institutional and educational reforms. Three famous Self-Strengtheners served in Taiwan: Shen Baozhen, Ding Richang, and Liu Mingchuan.33 The director of the Fuzhou Navy Yard, where the modernization of China’s navy was first carried out, Shen Baozhen led the way in improving Taiwan’s naval defenses and implemented various aspects of technological modernization, including the development of modern coal mining in northern Taiwan. In addition to launching a number of infrastructure projects, Shen also instituted the policy of “opening the mountains and pacifying the savages” (kaishan fufan), a genocidal campaign against the indigenous peoples, which was designed to bring the island’s Central Mountain Range and eastern terrain more fully under Qing government control, recruiting Han Chinese immigrants to open and settle new lands. Succeeding Shen, Ding Richang continued his Self-Strengthening program and most famously proposed construction of a railway from Keelung in the north to Hengchun at the island’s southern tip. Taiwan’s most celebrated Self-Strengthener was Liu Mingchuan, who steered Taiwan through the crisis of the Sino-French War of 1884–1885, and the French naval blockade of Keelung. Earning high praise for his defense of the island, Liu undertook a thorough overhaul of Taiwan’s civil and military organization. Liu advocated various modernization schemes including the revival of modern coal mining, the establishment of a railway line, a steamship line, and cable and telegraphic infrastructure. Unfortunately, various obstacles prevented the full realization of his vision.34

In recognition of the island’s increased strategic and economic importance, the Qing court promoted Taiwan to a province of China in 1885. A new capital was established at Taipei, in the island’s north, shifting the balance of power away from the old historic capital in the south.35

The Japanese Occupation of Taiwan and the Short-Lived Republic of Formosa

A mere decade after Taiwan achieved provincial status, the island was abruptly ceded to Japan at the conclusion of the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895.36 Whereas some Qing elites in 1683 had dismissed Taiwan as a “ball of mud” unworthy of incorporation into the Chinese empire, now the loss of this valuable terrain set off vigorous protest in China. Led by late Qing reformer Kang Youwei, imperial civil service examination candidates from across China, who had traveled to the capital for the annual exams, signed a protest petition against the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which concluded the war. Their petition called for the cancellation of the treaty and a refusal of peace talks with Japan. When the petition was refused, thousands of scholars, students, and others rallied in front of government buildings in protest.

China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War was a watershed event. More than any other military defeat since 1842, this defeat at the hands of a rival East Asian power—one whom the Chinese had for centuries regarded as inferior—was particularly humiliating. Many Chinese elites believed that the Qing had “sold out the nation” in capitulating to Japanese demands in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The loss of Taiwan became symbolic of this larger national humiliation and thus drew impassioned outcry.37

When efforts to protest the treaty failed and it looked like Taiwan had been abandoned by the court, a local resistance movement emerged in Taiwan, determined to oppose the Japanese takeover. On May 23, 1895, leaders of the resistance declared Taiwan an independent Republic of Formosa, with the Governor General of Taiwan, Tang Jingsong, as president and a capital in the old southern center of Tainan. The strategy was to ward off the Japanese takeover of Taiwan by convincing foreign powers to intercede on behalf of the independent republic to protect its sovereignty, and it won the approval of figures such as the Self-Strengthener Zhang Zhidong. Chen Jitong, erstwhile Qing diplomat to France, was recruited to serve as the Republic’s foreign minister and to promote this idea among Europeans. Chen helped to draft the Republic of Formosa’s Declaration of Independence, translated versions of which were sent to Europe and the United States. Unfortunately, despite valiant armed resistance, the new Republic was defeated in less than six months, and key leaders fled to mainland China—though guerrilla warfare continued for at least seven years.38

After the Japanese takeover, Chinese on Taiwan (numbering roughly 2,545,731)39 were offered the option of becoming Japanese imperial subjects or remaining Qing subjects, in which case they were given until May 8, 1897 to repatriate to the mainland. Scholars estimate that roughly 23 percent of the Han Chinese population returned to China. Among those who remained, feelings of being cast off by the Qing court resuscitated Ming loyalist sentiments.40 After the passage of the 1897 deadline, ethnic Chinese remaining in Taiwan were no longer Qing subjects, but rather Japanese nationals. In the economic sphere as well, Taiwan’s development was reoriented toward Japan during the course of the colonial era, which lasted until 1945, as the new rulers exploited the island’s natural resources and agricultural output for Japan’s benefit. Commodity agriculture, especially sugar cane and rice production, was modernized and intensified under the Japanese, and exports diverted from mainland Chinese markets to Japan.41 This contributed to Taiwan’s detachment from mainland China in the Japanese colonial era.42

Yet resentment against Japanese colonial rule aroused interest among many educated Taiwanese in the reform and revolutionary movements emerging in China in the early decades of the 20th century. Influenced by ideologies of Chinese nationalism, the notorious Twenty-One Demands of 1915, which Japan issued to China during World War I, drew a heated response in Taiwan and attracted many intellectuals to the New Culture Movement that emerged in China in the wake of this humiliation. Such nationalist sentiments, however, also fueled resentment among Taiwanese elites of their abandonment by the Qing court. Expatriated by China and yet not fully incorporated into the Japanese empire as equals to Japanese citizens, many Taiwanese colonials came to view Taiwan (and themselves) as the “Orphan of Asia,” as made famous in the autobiographical novel by Taiwanese journalist Wu Zhuoliu (1900–1976), who had sojourned in mainland China during the early 1940s. Wu’s Orphan of Asia was completed in 1945 and originally published in Japanese.43

Taiwan and Post-World War II China

Return to Chinese Rule: 1945

Japan’s defeat in World War II marked another turning point in Taiwan’s relation to China, as the island along with the Pescadores was returned to Chinese control. Taiwan’s valuable rice and sugar exports were redirected back to the mainland, helping to ease the massive shortages suffered there during the war.44 Chinese—this time modern Mandarin—was reintroduced back into the schools. Chinese historical sources refer to this period of Taiwan’s history as the “Glorious Retrocession” (Guangfu), yet the island’s reintegration with the Republic of China, established after the Chinese Revolution of 1911, was far from smooth. Tension emerged between the locally rooted Han Chinese population, whose families had been on Taiwan for generations, and newcomers who arrived with Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) forces who assumed control from the Japanese. These tensions erupted in the infamous February 28 Incident of 1947, as an altercation between a female cigarette vendor and an official from the government tobacco monopoly office sparked a widespread public uprising against KMT corruption, and economic and political exploitation. Chinese government attempts to put down the uprising resulted in a large-scale massacre and harsh political repression.45

The Divide Across the Taiwan Strait

The close of the war with Japan had also brought on the resumption of the Chinese Civil War between KMT forces and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which came to a head with the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949, and the CCP’s final victory over the KMT-led Republic of China, marked the major watershed in the history of modern Taiwan–China relations. The defeated KMT regime under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek followed the example of Koxinga, retreating to Taiwan with troops, government personnel, civilians, and resources, including nearly 700,000 artifacts from China’s National Palace Museum. On December 8, 1949, Taipei was officially established as the provisional capital of the Republic of China in exile. Approximately 1.5 to 2 million Chinese refugees fled to Taiwan with the KMT, adding to the existing population of roughly 6 million. In order to stabilize control over the island, which the KMT planned to use as a base from which to retake the mainland, martial law was declared in May 1949.46 Under martial law, Chiang Kai-shek served as president of the Republic of China from 1950 until his death in 1975.47

With the CCP now controlling the mainland and the KMT controlling Taiwan and neighboring islands as the “Free area of the Republic of China,” the “Two Chinas” problem was brought into being.48 Both “Red China” and “Free China”—in Cold War era parlance—claimed sole legitimate sovereignty over all of China, and fought for recognition in the international arena.49 Western Bloc countries were slow to recognize the PRC, and the Republic of China continued to represent China in the UN until 1971. In the face of this Two Chinas problem, both sides insisted that there was only one China, and shared a common goal of reunifying the national territory, though on different terms. The hostility between the two regimes threatened to become a major Cold War flashpoint, and following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 the US government sent the Seventh Fleet of the US Navy into the Taiwan Strait in order to neutralize any conflict between the two sides. The US presence insured relative stability in the region, and although a series of Taiwan Strait crises erupted in 1954–1955, 1958, and 1995–1996, active military engagement largely ceased, giving way to the ideological battles of the Cold War. From this point forward, the China–Taiwan relationship can best be viewed as a triangular China–Taiwan–US relationship.50

Economic development diverged sharply during this era, with Taiwan pursuing rapid export-led industrialization, and the PRC a command economy under Communist Party rule. The political and economic differences between the two sides also gave rise to pronounced cultural variance as each developed a distinct way of life. Communication and interaction across the Strait were tightly restricted.51

Bridging the Divide

A gradual thawing in the China–Taiwan deadlock took place beginning in the late 1970s, shaped by transformations on both sides of the Strait.52 As post-Maoist China initiated the Reform and Opening policy of 1978, the PRC made a series of overtures to Taiwan, seeking to open up communication, person-to-person contact, and economic exchange. The shift away from the bellicose Cold War stance was done for both political and economic motives. That is, it was calculated to attract Taiwanese investment and trade as a means of fueling China’s modernization efforts, and also at drawing Taiwan closer to China through peaceful means. In 1979, the PRC promulgated a “Declaration to Taiwan Compatriots,” calling for “peaceful unification” of Taiwan with the mainland, and touting “three communications” (commerce, navigation, post) and “four exchanges” (academic, culture, sports, and science and technology). Beginning the following year, the PRC set up special economic zones to facilitate Taiwanese investment across the Strait, with Taiwanese industrial and managerial expertise being especially sought after. In 1982, Beijing introduced the “one country, two systems” policy for Hong Kong and Macau, with the suggestion that this could be applied to Taiwan under a scenario of peaceful reunification. Nonetheless, the PRC did not renounce the use of force, “if necessary,” to reunite Taiwan with the mainland under certain conditions—chiefly, if Taiwan were to declare independence.53 The One China principle remained a keystone of Beijing’s Taiwan policy.

Increasingly isolated on the international stage since 1971, Taiwan was also undergoing dramatic change, fueled by both external and internal pressure. Taiwan is well known for its “economic miracle” of rapid industrialization and modernization after the 1960s, achieved with relatively low income inequality.54 These successes in the economic realm, and the expansion of the middle class, were followed by increasing demands for democratization. In the wake of the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, martial law in Taiwan was finally lifted by President Chiang Ching-kuo (Chiang Kai-shek’s son) in 1987, paving the way for the rise of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as the main opposition party to the KMT and robust public discourse concerning Taiwan’s political and cultural identity. Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996, which was won by native Taiwanese KMT candidate Lee Teng-hui. Taiwan’s “political miracle” of rapid but peaceful democratization gained global recognition.55

This post-martial law shift away from authoritarianism was also accompanied by a liberalization in policy toward the mainland. In response to overtures from Beijing, Taipei had to grapple with competing concerns. On the one hand, various sectors were pushing for openings across the Taiwan Strait, some motivated by a desire for family reunification, or peace between the two sides, and others by the lure of economic opportunity. On the other hand, diverse interest groups cautioned against the risks entailed by expanding intercourse and shifting the status quo. In 1987, the government began allowing individuals to travel to China for family visits. In 1990 some indirect investment in China was permitted—largely in recognition of the fact that this investment was already taking place illicitly under the active fostering of the PRC.56 Especially in the wake of the Tiananmen Incident of 1989, when other international investors withdrew from China, Taiwanese economic investment and trade with China soared, and the two economies became intimately intertwined. In 1991, Taiwan began allowing direct investment into China.57

An Unstable Consensus

In order to provide a channel for unofficial contact and to negotiate business and technical matters between mainland China and Taiwan, the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) was established as a private organization in Taiwan in 1991. The PRC then established a counterpart, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS). A major milestone in cross-Strait relations was reached in 1992 with the development of what became known as the “1992 Consensus.” In this consensus, both sides agreed to adhere to the “One China” principle, whereby there is only one China and Taiwan belongs to China, but agreed to disagree on the “meaning” of One China, with each side having its own interpretation. This broad consensus served to break the stalemate between the two sides, establishing a foundation for discussing practical matters such as postal communication and document notarization. It also formed the basis for deepening economic and cultural ties across the Taiwan Strait, though political relations were not always smooth. In particular, a growing movement of Taiwanese nativism on one side, and of Chinese nationalism on the other, led to tensions across the Strait and heated debates over the question of identity: Taiwanese nativist discourse supports the notion of a separate Taiwanese identity, whereas Chinese nationalists vociferously object to such “splittism.” The historic election in 2000 of Chen Shui-bian as Taiwan’s first president from the DPP marked a distinct downturn in the relationship as Beijing feared his support for Taiwanese independence. However, the KMT won back power in the 2008 election, with pro-unification candidate Ma Ying-jeou taking the presidency. Ma worked actively to foster cross-Strait ties, and in 2010 the two sides signed the watershed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a preferential trade agreement lowering tariffs and other barriers in bilateral trade.58

Signaling a new era in China–Taiwan relations, in November 2015 a momentous summit took place in Singapore between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping, the first face-to-face meeting of top leaders from Taipei and Beijing since 1949. The summit aimed to further develop peaceful relations and economic cooperation between China and Taiwan. However, the meeting drew popular backlash in Taiwan from those who feared Ma was moving too fast toward reunification, a Cold War era goal for which public support was waning.59 Widespread opposition to the step caused the KMT to be unseated in the next elections, enabling the DPP to reassume control in 2016. In a historic election, the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, a London-educated lawyer, was elected Taiwan’s first female president.60

Following Tsai Ing-wen’s election, relations between Taiwan and China became tense once again, especially after Tsai’s telephone call to American president Donald Trump in 2016. The PRC continued to insist that Taiwan should return to the 1992 Consensus, which Tsai repeatedly refused to publicly endorse. In order to preclude Taiwan from asserting independence, China attempted to exert various forms of pressure on the island, and to increasingly isolate it internationally. Reversing the previous liberalization, China began to restrict tourist and student travel to the island. While increasing military capacity toward the island, China also seeks to employ soft power to draw Taiwan closer to the mainland through increasing economic, cultural, scholarly, and other ties. Indeed, China has become Taiwan’s largest trading partner in the early 21st century, and more than 1 million Taiwanese live and work in mainland China.61 This has given rise to a unique dilemma of economic interdependence coupled with the specter of war across the Taiwan Strait.62

China continues to view reunification with the “renegade province” of Taiwan as essential to its interests. Nationalism, and a desire to erase the historical humiliation of losing the island to its rival Japan, is one key factor, but so are the factors that have broadly shaped the cross-Strait relationship over the course of modern Chinese history. Taiwan’s location along China’s strategic maritime perimeter (an area defined by the contemporary “nine-dash line”) makes it vital to China’s defense as well as its projection of maritime power in the region.63 Fears that an independent Taiwan might be used by foreign powers as a base for military operations against the mainland make the island a potential risk to Chinese security. And finally, the role of Taiwan in global trade networks, with major partners being China, Japan, the United States, the European Union, and Hong Kong, and its importance in foreign direct investment (FDI) in the mainland, have also powerfully shaped the relationship. Thus, there are several key continuities in addition to the dramatic differences in relations between Taiwan and modern China from the Qing until the early 21st century.

Discussion of the Literature

Lively scholarly debate has characterized the historiography of Taiwan’s relation to China since the Qing. The literature on the Zheng regime, for example, has been divided, with some lauding Koxinga and his successors as nationalist heroes and others condemning them as outlaw rebels and bearers of an anti-Confucian heterodoxy against central authority. Official Qing dynasty historiography propounded the latter view, whereas informal narratives circulating in Taiwan, Fujian, and among the Hokkien diaspora celebrated the former. From the 19th century on, the history of the Zhengs has been used variously as a lens onto contemporary issues: On the one hand, they have been portrayed as exemplars of loyalism who defeated a Western imperialist power; on the other hand, they have been portrayed as traitors and harbingers of Taiwanese independence. More recent Chinese historiography emphasizes the Zhengs’ global connections and their legacy for contemporary Chinese aspirations of naval expansion. Important new work moves beyond the question of the Zhengs’ political legitimacy and reassesses the character of their autonomous territorial state on Taiwan and the Zhengs as key players in the East Asian maritime trade of the early modern era.

The historiography of China–Taiwan relations during the Qing has traditionally centered on the narrative of Han Chinese settlement of the island, the spread of Chinese agriculture and other economic activities, and the evolution of frontier society. Such narratives frequently presumed that Han Chinese settlement pushed the indigenous people off Taiwan’s plains and into the mountains, and that they were marginal at best to this history. More recent scholarship has emphasized the experiences and perspectives of the indigenous population, and the three-way interactions among Han settlers, indigenous peoples, and the state in a complex process of frontier management. Scholars have debated whether Qing policy on Taiwan was characterized by neglect, or was in fact informed by carefully honed statecraft, which fluctuated in response to the demands of the time. Continuity and change have been important themes of the historiography, as scholars have assessed the relative success of the Qing state in the civil and military administration of this island frontier relative to the Dutch and Zhengs before them. Comparative scholarship has also considered the Taiwan frontier against other Qing frontiers within the broad context of Chinese imperial expansionism.

Turning to the late Qing, scholars have debated whether the period of Taiwan’s history from the 1870s on represents a process of “mainlandification” (neidihua) or one of “localization” (bentuhua).64 Mainlandification describes Qing efforts to bring the island more fully in line with “China proper” (neidi), by asserting territorial control over mountainous and remote areas, pacifying indigenous groups that did not recognize Chinese sovereignty, advancing “civilization” through educational and other efforts, developing infrastructure and defense, promoting the opening of lands by Han Chinese settlers, and elevating Taiwan to provincial status. The goal of these efforts was to strengthen Taiwan as a “fence” against foreign imperialism. Localization, in contrast, describes the process whereby Han Chinese settlers became rooted in Taiwan, with diminishing sub-ethnic rivalries fueled by differences in regional origins in China, and increasing identification with Taiwan as their new homeland.65 Generations of intercultural contact and intermarriage with the indigenes also contributed to localization and the production of a new, hybrid local culture that absorbed indigenous influences.

The loss of Taiwan to Japan in 1895 spurred not only the development of Japanese scholarship on the island but also the production of retrospective works on Taiwan’s historical relationship to China. The classic English-language work in this vein is James W. Davidson’s The Island of Formosa: Historical View from 1430 to 1900; History, People, Resources, and Commercial Prospects; Tea, Camphor, Sugar, Gold, Coal, Sulphur, Economical Plants, and Other Productions; with Two New Maps, Frontispiece in Colour, One Hundred and Sixty-Eight Illustrations from Photographs, and Coloured Reproductions of Two Chinese Posters, published in London in 1903. Davidson’s massive volume surveyed the island’s history under a succession of regimes, drawing on a wide variety of sources, and has been continuously reprinted until this day. In 1920, a foundational Chinese-language work of Taiwanese history, Lian Heng’s General History of Taiwan (Taiwan tongshi), was published. A local Taiwanese scholar who mourned Taiwan’s cession to Japan, Lian Heng (1876–1936), wrote his history in order to recount and preserve the island’s ties to China. He paid particular attention to collecting materials about the ill-fated Republic of Formosa. Although not always factually accurate, Lian’s opus magnum on the “beautiful island” was the most comprehensive history of Taiwan and its relation to China that had ever been written, and it remains of interest as a literary and historical text.

Historiography of the Japanese colonial era is generally divided in its assessment of the impact of Japanese rule. One school emphasizes the overall benefit to Taiwan in terms of the numerous modernization efforts undertaken by the Japanese, including infrastructure, sanitation, and educational initiatives, as well as the development of industry. Another school counters that these improvements came at great cost in that the Taiwanese suffered colonial oppression and police brutality in addition to forced assimilation policies at the hands of the Japanese. Scholars have compared Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan not only with the preceding centuries of Qing rule, but also with the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea, asking why the legacy of Japanese colonialism has been so different in the two places. Others have analyzed the Japanese colonization of Taiwan in terms of the empire’s southward push into Southeast Asia. Pertinent to the issue of Taiwan’s relation to China is the question of the degree to which the Han Chinese majority became “Japanized” during this era.

Reflecting the strong ideological divide between the PRC and Taiwan in the post-1949 era, the historiography has often sharply diverged on the question of the cross-Strait relationship. Scholarly debate has addressed the question of Taiwan’s potential unification with China, its possible independence, or the desirability of maintaining the status quo, with historical evidence marshaled in favor of these three positions. Others have focused on the divergent economic, political, and societal development of the two sides under different systems, and on assessing the relative success of the CCP and KMT. As may be expected, much of the literature has focused on changing cross-Strait policy under different leadership on both sides and how the sensitive issues of sovereignty and the One China policy have been negotiated. Scholars have also examined renewed cultural ties, as well as emergent cultural tensions, between the two sides since the Reform and Opening era. Since the 1980s, scholars have often employed the concept of “Greater China,” encompassing China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, as a putatively politically neutral framework to advance study of the area.

Primary Sources

One of the most important collections of Chinese-language historical primary sources is the Taiwan Collectanea (Taiwan wenxian congkan 台灣文獻叢刊‎), complied by a team of scholars who collected a broad range of texts covering the time span from the Tang dynasty to the Japanese occupation, and relating to the island’s history, geography, economy, local culture, literature, and other topics. Drawing from Chinese imperial documents, local gazetteers, and private collections, the sources were gathered from libraries and collections in Taiwan, as well as from Japan, Hong Kong, the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, and were reprinted in the Taiwan Collectanea series, comprising 309 titles with 595 volumes, published by the Bank of Taiwan between 1959 and 1972. The series has been digitized by United Digital Publications and is available as the “Encyclopedia of Taiwan.” To extend the original collection, United Digital Publications has compiled the Taiwan Wenxian Congkan Continuation database. This new database contains 204 volumes (half of which are rare books and manuscripts), covering geography, local customs, government documents and political archives, war records, records of coastal defenses, important historical events, and literature.

For the study of Taiwan under the Qing and Japanese colonial eras, a vital resource is the Taiwan Studies Collection held at the National Taiwan University (NTU) Library. Initiated during the Japanese colonial period under the auspices of the Taihoku Imperial University (the precursor to NTU), the collection comprises thousands of books, periodicals, newspapers, and maps published up until the end of World War II. The holdings comprise both Japanese- and Chinese-language materials, and include various other valuable archival materials, administrative and judicial records, rubbings, manuscripts, and special collections. NTU has digitized portions of these collections as the “National Taiwan University Digital Taiwan-Related Archives Project.” At Academia Sinica, the Archives of the Institute of Taiwan History contain diverse holdings, from government documents to private diaries, mostly covering the Qing and Japanese colonial eras.66 Taiwan Historica (Guoshiguan Taiwanwenxianguan) has two significant archival collections, one relating to the Japanese colonial era, and the other to the post-World War II era. It also houses folk artifacts, stone rubbings, and other objects relating to Taiwan’s indigenous people, the Han Chinese, and Japanese.67

Taiwan has also produced a significant number of digital archives. For example, the Taiwan History Digital Library (THDL), commissioned by the Council of Cultural Affairs, contains three main collections: a database of Ming and Qing court materials related to Taiwan, collated by NTU Libraries; a collection of local land deeds housed at the former Japanese Colonial Archives; and the Danxin Archives, a rare and important collection of local administrative and judicial records from 1789 to 1895. NTU’s Research Center of Digital Humanities subsequently continued the digitization initiative of Ming and Qing court documents and local Taiwan documents.

For the post-World War II period, the Academia Historica (Guoshi guan) in Taiwan is the official repository for ROC presidential and vice-presidential records and artifacts. In addition, it holds a spectrum of primary sources, including the Foreign Ministry Archives and other foreign relations documents, the Chiang Kai-shek Papers, records and historical materials from the National Resources Commission and the Council of Agriculture.68 The Kuomintang (KMT) Central Party Headquarters in Taipei holds the Kuomintang Party Archives. For government documents, the National Archives Administration National Development Council is a chief resource. The National Archives in Taipei has important holdings for documents on foreign relations collected from government entities. The Taiwan Provincial Assembly archives contain written records of public affairs between the Taiwanese provincial parliament and the Governor General’s Office, the Taiwan Provincial Government, and several provincial governments in China between 1946 and 1998. Another significant collection for the study of post-World War II Taiwan–China relations is the White Terror Dossiers, recently made available by the Ministry of Culture. The collection comprises over 10,067 individual dossiers from the “White Terror” period of Taiwan’s martial law era.69 NTU Library’s V. S. de Beausset Collection includes documents relating to US aid to Taiwan in the Cold War era, including films, photographs, letters, diaries, and newspaper clippings.

For China–Taiwan relations since the 1980s, the Mainland Affairs Information and Research Center maintains vital collections, including over 30,000 books on the PRC and cross-Strait relations studies, and hundreds of periodicals and newspapers from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macao.70 On cross-Strait affairs, the Straits Exchange Foundation has a range of documentation of key statements and policies.71

Beyond these specific collections, significant archival sources are held at the Academia Sinica, the National Central Library, the National Taiwan Museum, the Taiwan Provincial Consultative Council, and the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.72 In order to provide an integrated search platform for diverse archival holdings, Taiwan’s National Archives Administration has created the Archives Cross Boundaries (ACROSS) platform, which enables searches across collections, including those of Academia Historica, Taiwan Historica, Academia Sinica, National Central Library, National Taiwan University, the National Taiwan Museum, the National Science and Technology Museum, the National Library of Public Information, the Li-Tien-Lu Puppet Theatrical Foundation, and the Council for Cultural Affairs, among others.73

On the mainland, the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Xiamen University is the leading university center for Taiwan studies, while the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is the PRC’s leading think tank for China–Taiwan issues. The Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits also maintains historical resources.74 Vital information can also be obtained through the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council of the PRC.75 Foreign relations documents can be found at three archives: First Historical Archives, National Palace Museum (pre-1912); Second Historical Archives, Nanjing (1912–1949); and the Foreign Ministry Archives, Beijing (post-1949). The CCP Central Party Archives in Beijing houses a wealth of sources on CCP history and policy. In Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong Library has special collections on Taiwan.76

In Japan, scholars have begun the massive undertaking of cataloging archives such as the holdings of the Japanese Governor-General of Taiwan’s Office (Taiwan Sotokufu Monjo), which extend from 1895 to 1945. Takushoku University holds the Archive of Materials Related to the Former Colonies, including a substantial collection of government bulletins, economic reports, statistical studies, posters, magazines, and travel guides dating from the Japanese colonial era.77 Hitotsubashi University’s Institute of Economic Research Library houses collections relating to economic development in colonial Taiwan, including statistical compilations on trade and industry, reports, and pre-war journals. The Japan Center for Asian Historical Records at the National Archives of Japan has created a digital database of historical records, including those relating to China and Taiwan, utilizing archival documents provided by the National Archives of Japan, the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, the National Institute for Defense Studies of the Ministry of Defense of Japan, the Japanese Cabinet, and the Army and Navy.78

In the United States, the National Security Archive at the George Washington University maintains an archive of declassified US government documents, including a significant number related to China–Taiwan affairs, for example, declassified documents on President Richard Nixon’s trip to China, and on nuclear weapons development in Taiwan. The Thurgood Marshall Law Library at the University of Maryland houses the Papers of Professor Hungdah Chiu—1970s–1990s. This special collection contains a wealth of Chinese-language and English-language primary sources from the 1970s to the 2000s on the topics of Chinese law, China–Taiwan relations, and the Taiwan Independence movement.79 The US Department of State Archive website has useful links to diplomatic archives of various administrations.80 The Library of Congress has the largest Chinese collection in the West, numbering nearly 800,000 volumes. The Law Library houses the premier collection of Chinese legal materials outside Asia. The Hoover Institution at Stanford University houses many important Chinese- and English-language primary sources relating to KMT history, including the diaries of Chiang Kai-shek, the George Kerr Papers, the Charles Maynard Cooke Papers, and copies of KMT party records. The Taiwanese Subject Collection contains pamphlets, leaflets, flyers, election campaign literature, audio-visual materials, and other sources relating to political, social, and economic conditions in Taiwan. Hoover’s is also well known for its Chinese collections, especially the holdings on pre-1949 Republican China, including KMT government and Chinese Communist Party materials.81

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Allee, Mark A. Law and Local Society in Late Imperial China: Northern Taiwan in the Nineteenth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.
  • Andrade, Tonio. How Taiwan Became Chinese: Dutch, Spanish, and Han Colonization in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
  • Andrade, Tonio. Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • Brown, Melissa J. Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power, and Migration on Changing Identities. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
  • Campbell, William. Formosa Under the Dutch. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1903.
  • Chao, Linda, and Ramon Hawley Myers. The First Chinese Democracy: Political Life in the Republic of China on Taiwan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
  • Chiu, Hungdah. China and the Question of Taiwan: Documents and Analysis. New York: Praeger, 1973.
  • Christensen, Thomas J. New Challenges and Opportunities in the Taiwan Strait: Defining America’s Role. New York: National Committee on United States–China Relations, 2003.
  • Chu, Ming-chin Monique, and Scott L. Kastner. Globalization and Security Relations Across the Taiwan Strait: In the Shadow of China. London: Routledge/Taylor and Francis Group, 2015.
  • Croizier, Ralph C. Koxinga and Chinese Nationalism: History, Myth, and the Hero. Cambridge, MA: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University, 1977.
  • Davidson, James Wheeler. The Island of Formosa, Historical View from 1430 to 1900: History, People, Resources, and Commercial Prospects. Tea, Camphor, Sugar, Gold, Coal, Sulphur, Economical Plants, and Other Productions. London: Macmillan & Co., 1903.
  • Dittmer, Lowell. Taiwan and China: Fitful Embrace. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017.
  • Gold, Thomas B. State and Society in the Taiwan Miracle. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1986.
  • Hang, Xing. Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, c. 1620–1720. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Ho, Sam P. S. Economic Development of Taiwan, 1860–1970. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978.
  • Kastner, Scott L. Political Conflict and Economic Interdependence Across the Taiwan Strait and Beyond. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.
  • Kerr, George H. Formosa Betrayed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
  • Knapp, Ronald G. China’s Island Frontier: Studies in the Historical Geography of Taiwan. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1980.
  • Lin, Syaru Shirley. Taiwan’s China Dilemma: Contested Identities and Multiple Interests in Taiwan’s Cross-Strait Economic Policy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.
  • Meskill, Johanna Menzel. A Chinese Pioneer Family: The Lins of Wu-feng, Taiwan, 1729–1895. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.
  • Myers, Ramon Hawley. Two Societies in Opposition: The Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China After Forty Years. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1991.
  • Rigger, Shelley. Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.
  • Rubinstein, Murray A. Taiwan: A New History. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2007.
  • Shepherd, John Robert. Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier, 1600–1800. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.
  • Teng, Emma. Taiwan’s Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683–1895. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004.
  • Wachman, Alan. Why Taiwan? Geostrategic Rationales for China’s Territorial Integrity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.
  • Wills, John E. Pepper, Guns, and Parleys: The Dutch East India Company and China, 1622 [i.e. 1662]–1681. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.