Taiwan has a difficult and little-known story. First of all, it is not China but it is a state in itself, although not always recognised by other countries. Taiwan maintains the millenarian Chinese culture that the People’s Republic of China attacked and partially destroyed with the advent of Mao. But not only that, Taiwan is a very progressive state: it is the only one in all Asia to have recognised the homosexual union and in which gays can marry. There are no restrictions that exist in China and freedom is one of the cornerstones of Taiwanese politics, as recent elections have shown. Unfortunately, few people know of its existence and in particular, the Italians still believe that it is part of China (with the recent Coronavirus problem, they have blocked flights to China including Taiwan which has just 18 infected and no deaths). This article is to make it better known.
A little bit of history
“ There is only one China. Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that remains our policy, our firm policy.”Colin Powell
Prehistory and ancient history
It is known for certain that Taiwan has been inhabited for about 30,000 years. The first inhabitants had Indonesian origins (technically called Austronesians, related to the peoples of the Philippines, Malaysia, Oceania and aforementioned Indonesia. Taiwan is considered the original home of the Austronesian language family). They lived undisturbed until the arrival of the Han Chinese in the 17th century. These settled slowly in the western part of the island, pushing the Aborigines to the eastern areas. It took a long time for the Chinese Empire to recognise Taiwan as part of its territories.
In 1544 the Portuguese arrived in Taiwan and baptized it with the name of ilha formosa, which means beautiful island. They stayed there for a short time. In 1623 the Dutch landed there and made it a base for trade with Japan and China. They exercised their power on the island until 1662. During this rule, the first migrants from the coast of Fujian (China) began to arrive, fleeing from the Qing authorities. In 1662 the Dutch were expelled from the army of Koxinga, a loyalist of the Ming dynasty overwhelmed by the Manchus.
In 1683 Taiwan was annexed to the Qing Dynasty Empire but the island was always considered uninteresting and the Chinese who lived there returned en masse to the continent, leaving only those who had married Aboriginal women. Immigration to Taiwan was strongly opposed by the Qing and few were those who moved there illegally, especially from Fujian, a land devastated by wars. The government slowly became more permissive and in 1811 there are two million Han Chinese in Taiwan. Continued feuds between clans made it difficult to rule the island. In 1840 it was attacked by the British for the Opium War and in 1883 by the French engaged in the Sino-French war. When China lost the Sino-Japanese war, Taiwan was ceded to the Japanese in 1895.
Japanese rule lasted until 1945, imposing itself with harsh repressions against the rebellion movements. They were also the first to occupy the areas left by the Chinese in the hands of the Aborigines. Japan made many structural improvements in transport, infrastructure, the economic system. When the Japanese empire signed the surrender after the second atomic bomb, Taiwan returned to the Chinese rule, administered by the Kuomintang, a Chinese nationalist party led by Chiang Kai-shek.
With the victory of Mao and the Communist Party and the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China, Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan carrying the country’s gold reserves and what remained of the air force and navy. He also had as many artefacts transferred from the Forbidden City of Beijing and the Nanjing Imperial Palace as possible and they are now housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. This became the capital of Chinese nationalists. They considered themselves the only legitimate authority representing the whole of China.
Non-recognition by the USA
Despite the fact that the People’s Republic of China officially governed China and was recognized as the only authority, only in 1971 did Taiwan lose its seat as a representative of China and in 1979 the USA, reneging on the previous policy, stopped recognizing Taiwan as a legitimate state. After countless protests, the martial law established by the Kuomintang was abolished by Chiang Kai-shek’s son in the 1980s.
In 2000 Chen Shui-bian won the elections and went out of his way to draft a new constitution declaring Taiwan as a sovereign and independent state. China reacts by threatening military intervention but an agreement with the US obliges the latter to intervene in defence of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. Until now the tension between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan has been high but the population has made its voice heard by re-electing Tsai Ing-wen from the progressive democratic party fighting for Taiwan’s independence.
The soul of Taiwan
“ We are curious creatures, we Taiwanese. Orphans. Eventually, orphans must choose their own names and write their own stories. The beauty of orphanhood is the blank slate.”Shawna Yang Ryan
I stayed there for more than two weeks and I must say I had a great time. Although it is the capital and has 2,600,000 inhabitants, it is a fairly livable city, apart from traffic (a problem that is partially avoided with a scooter). Beyond Taipei extends New Taipei City which has almost four million inhabitants. Mixed with tradition and modernity, its architecture is made up of different influences: colonial, Chinese, Japanese and contemporary. It houses the Lungshan temple, the oldest Taoist shrine in the city and the Taipei 101 skyscraper which until 2009 held the record for the highest building in the world.
Taiwan’s commercial, industrial and cultural centre, it has created new fashions by exporting them all over the world, starting from Asia. In fact, the first Cat Café in history, called The flower garden of cats (猫 花園), was opened in Taipei in 1998. Only in 2004 did it appear in Japan, Osaka, and then spread to the rest of the world. Instead, the home of Bubble Tea is in the Tainan area, born in the 1980s and which has gone viral in Japan in recent years.
The inhabitants of the capital are extremely friendly, sociable and curious. I met many people with a high level of English with whom it was easy to get in touch. The hospitality and welcome are by far the highest I have ever received, even more than the Japanese, which I didn’t think possible. I became friends with many locals and I am still in contact with some. Also in other cities, I have been hosted, through Couchsurfing, by exquisite people. Although the cultural background may seem identical to the Chinese one, in reality, they are very different.
First of all, they don’t eat everything as it does in China, but the only strange thing I saw in restaurants was the snake. They have a respect for personal space and neighbour similar to the Japanese while being much more relaxed and warm. With them, you can talk about everything, from politics to sex, from art to travel, from cartoons to food (which is not exactly granted, given that in many Asian countries certain topics are taboo, like politics). Without a doubt, I think its inhabitants are the most beautiful part of Taiwan ever and I consider it one of the few countries where I would like to live.
After the inhabitants, food is the most sensational thing. Definitely cheap, it has a huge variety thanks to the various cultural influences. We go from luxury restaurants to street food to eat on plastic outdoor chairs, with all the variations in the middle. It can be consumed at all hours, with restaurants open 24 hours a day or stands that sell their specialities until late at night. Famous night markets (there are more than one for each city) where you can eat practically everything, drink natural juices from tropical fruits, buy clothes and play traditional amusement park games.
Needless to list all the dishes, I carry over what I liked most: tofu. Taiwanese know thousands of ways to cook it. For Westerners (especially us Italians) tofu is something tasteless that vegans eat as punishment. Nothing more wrong! In Taiwan, they always do it very well, apart from the famous stinky tofu that I just couldn’t eat (they are crazy about it).
Another delicacy is the century egg, fantastic! This is a chicken egg kept for weeks, sometimes months, in salt, lemon and ash and when it is ready the white has become gelatinous and transparent, brown in colour. The yolk is dark brown, almost black. My favourite dessert is the pineapple cake, which is a kind of pineapple filled pastry, very tasty. The tropical fruit is oddly huge and very good. My favourite fruits are Dragon Fruit and passion fruit. Finding vegetarian restaurants is extremely easy (much easier than in Japan and Korea) and they usually cost less than normal restaurants (as they should be)!
Unlike many Asian countries, Taiwan is a fairly religious state. The most widespread belief is Buddhism (35%) followed closely by Taoism (33%) and at a distance from non-believers (18%). Christianity is at 3.9% and then follows a whole series of new religious movements of Taoist or syncretist inspiration. There is also the Chinese folk religion which is very popular and merges with Taoism. There is no lack of Confucianism, always assimilated to Taoism. Finally, Aboriginal cults survive in indigenous communities. The type of Buddhism that is most popular is the Humanistic Buddhism of the Fo Guang Shan temple. Here an in-depth article about it and my experience as a volunteer.
What characterizes the Taiwanese religion, as in many Asian countries, is the strong syncretism. Buddhist temples often feature altars dedicated to Taoist deities or vice versa. There is no clear separation between the cults, which intertwine and influence each other. Depending on personal needs, the devotee prays to one or the other deity, goes to Buddha, Immortals or ancestors according to the necessity. The same happens for religious holidays, in which various elements mix harmoniously with each other. The link between mafia associations and religious movements is very strong, as in all the countries on the other hand (Italy is no exception).
Religion is often associated with folklore and superstition. The festivities related to sacred celebrations are very folkloristic, full of colours, costumes, parades, performances, dances, rituals and many, many, many fireworks. The Taiwanese often pray for something: money, work, protection, luck, love, children, passing an exam and so on.
One of the most common customs in temples is to pick up two pieces of wood in the shape of a half-moon (called Jiaobei) that have a flat side and a rounded side, purify them by turning them three times over the smoke of incense, kneel in front of the divinity, say your name, date of birth, residence while shaking the blocks in your hand, formulate a specific question and throw the pieces of wood on the ground: if they fall with the rounded part at the top the answer is no; if one falls with the rounded part and the other with the flat part, the answer is yes; if they both fall flat on the top, the answer can be varied: sharp no and the gods laugh at the question, or they laugh because the applicant should know the answer or because the question is trivial. This is just one example of the many superstitious practices.
Public school and English language
One of the best experiences was to be invited to various Taiwanese schools to speak, strictly in English, about my country, my culture and my travels. Everything happened thanks to Couchsurfing: I met people who worked at school as English teachers or who had contacts with principals or teachers. It was extremely quick and easy since the bureaucracy in Taiwan, at least for these things, is really lean. In some cases, it was enough to say it the night before for the morning after. I went to three schools in Keelung (elementary and junior high schools), one in Kaohsiung (senior high school) and one in Tainan (junior high school). The schools were large and well equipped for both sport and technology (I have seen 3D printers and smartboards everywhere).
They care a lot so that students learn English well, knowing how important it is and above all that they see other cultures besides their own. Being a small island on the edge of the world, it often remains off the tourist and commercial routes. Many still think that it is part of China and is not taken into account in their travel itineraries, this prevents those who perhaps do not have much opportunity to travel to see foreigners and learn about new realities. Principals and teachers use all possible means, including Couchsurfing, to attract foreigners to take to schools. One school principal, in particular, managed to get travellers once a week for a year. The following year it reduced to once every two weeks because it is actually demanding.
The inhabitants who lived the longest on the island are the Austronesian Aborigines. There are still several populations descended from these natives although many have mixed with the Chinese and Japanese; all, in any case, have become almost civilized, although they struggle to maintain their languages of origin, their rites and their culture. There are at least 12 different indigenous languages although some studies claim that they go as far as 26. The ethnic groups currently recognized are 16 but there are other 11 not yet recognized. Despite the numbers, the natives represent less than 2% of the total population, which has 23 million. Much is being done in our days to raise awareness among the population of the existence of this reality (which I discovered only by visiting the island) by organizing Aboriginal music festivals, traditional art exhibitions, village tours and so on.
A list of “strange” or “particular” things (at least for us Westerners) that I met in Taiwan. One of these is almost the total absence of toilet paper. The Taiwanese, in fact, prefer to use paper tissues, those that sell in large packages that are pulled one behind the other. This is in private homes as well as in public places such as restaurants, hotels, etc.
Despite the rapid economic, technological and cultural development, there are many traditions that still remain on the island. It is not uncommon to find people in their thirties still living with their parents and subject to rules such as curfew within a certain time and so on. In general, respect for parents and older relatives is very high, even on the facade.
The vast majority of traffic lights in cities have a timer that shows how many seconds are left until green or red is triggered, both for cars and for pedestrians, making traffic flow easier and pedestrian crossing safe.
The “traditional” vegetarian restaurants, that is not born under the push of the recent vegan/vegetarian fashion but with the need to feed Buddhist monks or devotees in general, in addition to having very low prices, are marked by the symbol of the swastika, which is the Buddhist symbol par excellence.
The parks are always full of people, children, families but above all the elderly who meet, socialize and do gymnastic exercises in the open air: be they a common gym, tai chi, qi gong or other. I also saw group dance and Japanese drums courses.
A nice video where I drink snake venom and other fluids unknown to me
Taiwan is a country unknown to most, especially in Italy, who mistakenly identify it with China. Yet it contains many of those treasures enclosed in a limited space that makes it a country not to be missed: mountains that touch 4000 meters, wonderful gorges, tropical forests, succulent food, unique beaches, various endemic species of animals, so much culture that varies from the Aboriginal one to the Chinese one but above all the wonderful people ready to welcome you and make you live an unforgettable experience.
For the article on my trip to Taiwan with original photos, I refer here.
I remind you that it is possible to finance my travels and therefore my articles! Thank you!