What is Taiwan?

By David Marshall Published on March 2, 2023

If we’re going to tussle China over Formosa, let’s get to know the place first!

When I think of my years in Taiwan, memory flashes with images.

An Atayal tribal man stopping his pickup to give me a lift. He was heading into the mountains with his dog to hunt wild pigs, with a machete on the seat near him to slash undergrowth.

Spear-fishing in a creek with an aboriginal family on a picnic. (The fish escaped without wounds or mental trauma.)

Little blue fish poking around me among the marine hoodoos of Peace Park on the north end of the island.

Girls from indigenous villages lining up in Snake Alley as crowds of men file past. Nearby, hawkers selling exotic fruits or the blood of snakes mixed with alcohol as an aphrodisiac.

A female cult leader with a Bible marked in all the colors of the rainbow, telling me her home is the New Jerusalem and she alone is without sin, as she chain-smokes one cigarette after another. Finally she runs me out of the café for the sin of doubt.

Sitting with one of her disciples in her sixth-floor apartment in a well-healed neighborhood of Taipei, as she explains how her lifestyle of sleeping around meshes with her love of the Bible. Later she would become famous as the Madonna of Taiwan, writing a kiss-and-tell book about all the affairs she had had, and running for office (apparently) on a libertine platform.

Taiwan: Quirky, Complex and Beautiful

Before Americans and Chinese go to world-ending war over Taiwan, perhaps we should learn about one of the world’s quirkiest, most complex, and beautiful islands. It was in Taiwan that, in some ways, I grew up. I got kicked out of seminary there. I proposed to my girlfriend (now wife of more than 30 years) on that island. I took a team on a 300 kilometer “prayer hike” north to south and across the towering spine of the mountain.

Formosa is laid out a bit like a shoe, with a volcanic toe pointing north, towards Okinawa and Japan. (Hiking Seven Star Mountain just north of Taipei, you can smell sulfur from underground vents.)

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Crowded? If California were as densely populated as Taiwan, all Americans outside Texas could live in that state. Yet most of the island consists of forested north-to-south ridges, rising in waves well over 10,000 feet, with nary a human footprint to spy. Mainland Chinese mountains opposite are less organized and shorter, like a pot of dumplings bowling up granite peaks here and there. But in subtropical Taiwan, you can have a snowball fight among the dwarf bamboo and rhododendrons on the island’s highland “tundra.”

During the Japanese occupation, the tallest mountain “in Japan” (of which Formosa was then considered a part) was Taiwan’s Jade Mountain (they called it Niitaka), almost six hundred feet taller than Fuji. These soaring peaks then plunge dramatically like a wall, down to a narrow plain on the east coast where people from aboriginal communities plant peanuts, sugar cane, and papaya. A steep gorge cuts through marble to the sea.

In one of the world’s most crowded countries, one can find not only wild pigs, but deer, bear, monkeys, and uncounted serpents. (Including the “One Hundred Steps Snake,” whose ominous name forecasts your life expectancy after a jab from its fangs.)

Those jungled mountains might complicate China’s invasion plans: Hundreds of military aircraft are protected in two underground bases, for instance.

Taiwan is a People Place

But Taiwan is primarily a people place. To understand the politics of this complicated little land and its relationship to China and America, meet the people, and hear their stories.

As a young missionary, I shared an apartment with three young men from Taiwan’s original communities. One was aboriginal. Taiwan is believed to be the original home of the peoples we now know as Polynesians. From this island they set sail and peopled first the Philippines, then the Pacific islands. Indeed, a Samoan missionary told me he could communicate a little with some Taiwanese aboriginals in his own language.

Officially, Taiwan now recognizes 16 indigenous tribes, the largest being the Ami on the eastern coast. (I once escorted an Ami pastor who had once been a missionary to aboriginals in Malaysia to Mainland China, meeting hill tribes there.)

Many Taiwanese “hill people” were long found in entertainment, shipping, construction, and about 40% of the girls in Snake Alley were aboriginal. One in 40 Taiwanese belong to these groups, many still living in mountain hamlets or along the coast.

Both my other roommates belonged to the majority Han Chinese ethnic group, but did not speak Mandarin as their native tongues. They were from southern Chinese communities that had crossed the Straights of Taiwan beginning more than four centuries ago.

One was “Southern Min,” meaning his ancestors came from southern Fujian Province. Southern Min make up about 70% of the people of Taiwan, and the difficult tongue they speak is often simply called “Taiwanese.” Those who have become Christian are mostly Presbyterian.

Do All Religions Teach One to Do Good?

When I surveyed passengers on trains, I asked a question that echoed a popular cliché: “Do all religions teach one to do good?” One person replied, “Yes, except the Presbyterians. They dabble in politics.” This is because the Presbyterian Church was long a hotbed of Taiwanese nationalism.

Our other roommate was from the Hakka (“Guest families”) sub-ethnicity. Hakka are Han Chinese with a long history tracing back to earlier dynasties, and a unique culture. When most Chinese bound the feet of women, Hakka declined to do so. Deng Xiaoping, the communist leader who opened China to the outside world in the 1980s, was Hakka, as were the leaders of the great Tai Ping Rebellion in 19th Century China.

Together, Southern Min and Hakka communities have decorated the island with tiled temples festooned with wildly colored dragons, phoenixes, lions and figures from Chinese stories like the Romance of Three Kingdoms.

Aborigines were pushed into the mountains by waves of Chinese immigrants, but some came down to take the heads of lowlanders and thus establish their manhood. In the 19th century missionaries like George MacKay came to Taiwan (his story is still a wonderful introduction to the island). He was one of the first western missionaries to marry a local girl. Renowned still today for his medical achievements, he sowed seeds of the Gospel that fell among fertile soil in the hills.

Those seeds yielded fruit even in the rockier (figuratively speaking) soil of the lowlands. My roommates belonged to Banchiao Gospel Church. But while most aboriginals are Presbyterian, Catholic, or True Jesus, only about one percent of Minnan and Hakka ARE Christian.

The Politics of the ‘Republic of China’

I have yet to mention the people who dominated the politics of the “Republic of China,” as it was called when I lived there: “waishengren,” or people from Mainland provinces. Only about one in five Taiwanese were waishengren, and many of those were actually born on the island. Their parents were Chiang Kai-shek’s troops, officials and family members who fled Mainland China when Mao Zedong took over in 1949, and established their romantic version of China out of Mao’s reach.

After a riot or two, that is. Taiwanese still remember how the Nationalists killed hundreds to suppress a riot that broke out the last day of February, 1947. China had endured decades of warfare by that time, and the sweet gentility of troops on either side (to paraphrase Mary Poppins) was less than crystal clear.

Chiang Kai-shek established a virtual Leninist dictatorship under one-party martial law in Taiwan, until his son Jiang Jingguo began to democratize politics in 1987. A Hakka named Lee Teng-hui carried the transition the rest of the way to democracy.

Lee exemplified his island’s complexities: a former officer who had manned an anti-aircraft gun in the Japanese army, then a communist, Lee was educated in Japan, then at Iowa State and Cornell in agricultural economics. He converted to Christianity and became a Presbyterian preacher. He rose in the ranks of the Nationalist Party until he ruled the island and established its present democracy.

The person who complained about Presbyterians dabbling in politics was probably a waishengren, since Mainlanders have long resented the notion that Taiwan was its own country. The error of the communists was not to want China unified, but to want to do that unifying themselves.

Many Taiwanese and Hakka thus prefer not to be called “Chinese,” though their ancestors came from China, and they speak Chinese dialects. This is not just because they dislike the communists. (As most everyone in Taiwan does.) Many also perceive Mandarin as the language of their Nationalist conquerors.

Out of Many, One

Never mind that aboriginals might fairly see Southern Min and Hakka as squatters who ran the original inhabitants off to the mountains. And were the aboriginals really original? Taiwan’s past is as murky as its forests are dense and its mountains forbidding.

So while Taiwan may seem like Sparta challenging the mighty Persian Empire which seeks to swallow it, the country is itself immensely complex and quarrelsome. Fistfights used to break out in the Legislative Yuan.

One Christmas I wandered the streets of Taipei to take the edge off of homesickness, and came instead across a mass demonstration not far from the Parliament, contained by a wall of barbed wire and police, an oddly festive protest, with vendors selling fried octopus and other treats.

But love can make short work of ethnic distinctions, and many Taiwanese speak three or four languages. I proposed to my Japanese girlfriend in a tribal mountain village at Christmas. I spoke to her in English, she spoke to our host in Japanese, and the host spoke to me in Chinese, though our host’s native tongue was Atayal.

Such conversations are an everyday occurrence in Taiwan, which continues to coalesce into its own version of “E Pluribus Unum,” out of many, one. Immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines are now adding to the mix.

All of which makes Taiwan a great place to eat! Mouths water even in Mainland China at thought of Taiwanese night markets. Try tianbula, oyster omelets in brown sauce, or papaya milkshakes — or just point and say “wo yao na ge,” “I want that!”

May Taiwan Remain What It Is

So are the people of Taiwan “Chinese”? Yes — in roughly the same sense that I am “English.” Chinese describes the family of languages that the people of Taiwan speak as first, second, or third tongues, as well as the culture that forms the Taiwanese passion for education and the classics. But very distinct cultures have emerged over decades, even centuries, of separation. (The famous Dragon Mountain Temple in Taipei was founded the year America declared its independence!)

Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese for 50 years, while the Mainland was occupied by Maoist vandals who attacked the very beauties of traditional culture in which the refugees in Taiwan most gloried.

It is like one of those islands to which the last woolly mammoths fled before going extinct. Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Zi still raise their massive trunks and trumpet loudly in Taiwan.

Visit this beautiful land, while it remains like this! (Or read more stories from my “How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture.” If you go, avoid the heat of summer.) If America can help Taiwan remain what it is, without sparking a nuclear war, that will be more important to the world, and to the Chinese people, than merely saving Taiwan’s chip factories.


David Marshall, an educator and writer, has a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia. 

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