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Taiwan - History & Background

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceTaiwan - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


Taiwan, or the Republic of China (ROC), is an island nation located nearly 161 km (100 miles) off the southeast coast of mainland China. It is approximately 395 km (245 miles) long from north to south and 145 km (90 miles) across at its widest point. Since 1949, its largest city, Taipei, has been the seat of the Nationalist Chinese government, which is called the Guomindang (GMD) or Kuomintang (KMT); spellings differ because there is no direct translation from Chinese to English. In addition to controlling this main island, the Nationalist government also has jurisdiction over the 22 islands in the Taiwan group and the 64 islands to the immediate west in the Pescadores Archipelago, which is a total area of 36,179 sq km (13,969 sq miles). Taiwan is bounded by the East China Sea on the north, which separates it from the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa, and Japan. To the east is the Pacific Ocean, and to the south, Taiwan lies the Bashi Channel, which separates it from the Philippines. Finally, on the west, the Taiwan (Formosa) Strait separates the island from mainland China.

The population in 2000 was estimated to be just over 22.3 million, of which slightly more than half was under the age of 30. During the first half of the twentieth century, the population of Taiwan tripled. However, from its peak at about mid-century, the rate of growth has steadily declined from about four percent to less than two percent per year. During this period, modern health measures decreased the death rate, while the birth rate temporarily increased due to increased rural employment opportunities and Nationalist land reform. More recently, however, in response to increasing urban opportunities, families have begun concentrating more resources on fewer children. In addition, the government has begun to actively promote family planning and birth control.

The population is divided into three main groups: Malayo-Polynesian aborigines, who are the island's original inhabitants (two percent of the population); those now called Taiwanese, who are descendants of the original immigrants from the mainland Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong (83 percent of the population); and much more recent immigrant who were adherents to the former mainland Nationalist government (15 percent of the population). The aboriginal population is now organized into nine diverse ethnolinguistic groups. The largest of these groups are the Ami, Atayal, and Paiwan. Chinese immigrants largely displaced or assimilated the plains aborigines and carried on a protracted conflict with the mountain aborigines, who were subdued only by the Japanese in the early twentieth century. Nearly all of the aborigines now live in the foothills and highlands of the island. Although several aboriginal dialects and many tribal customs have been retained, the aborigines have increasingly become assimilated—linguistically and culturally—into modern Taiwanese society.

The Taiwanese, who comprise the majority of the population, consist of two major ethnolinguistic groups. The Hokkien—or Southern Min—are originally from southern Fujian and constitute the larger of these groups; their dialect of Chinese is often referred to as the Taiwanese dialect. The Hakka, originally from northern Guangdong, are also prominent, and they have their own distinct Hakka dialect. The most recent immigrants to Taiwan, who arrived from all parts of China in the late 1940s, speak mainly Mandarin. Because those recent immigrants have had a disproportionately prominent presence in the ruling Nationalist government, Mandarin has become Taiwan's principal language.

Soon after discovering Taiwan at the beginning of the seventh century C.E., the Chinese named the island Liuqiu and began settling it no later than the twelfth century. However, the first permanent settlements—actually, trading posts—were established only as early as the late Ming period (1368-1644). At that time, settlers from the Fujian coast—mainly Chinese and some Japanese fishermen—began to land on and settle the western coast of Taiwan. The Portuguese arrived in 1590 and named the island Formosa (meaning "beautiful"); they also attempted to disrupt the preexisting trends in colonization. The Portuguese were displaced by the Dutch, who arrived in 1624 and established a colonial government at the southern end of the island near present-day Tainan. The Dutch had to reckon with a comparable foothold at the northern end of the island that was established by Spanish colonists, who occupied that land in the wake of the Portuguese. The Dutch succeeded in ousting the Spaniards in 1641 and conquered the entire island in 1642. However, within just two decades, the Dutch were defeated at the hands of the Chinese Ming loyalist renegade Zheng Chenggong (also called Koxinga or Coxinga), who expelled them from the island in 1661.

Zheng Chenggong's victory over and expulsion of the Dutch coincided with the consolidation of the newly established Qing dynasty (1644-1911) on the Chinese mainland, and those factors led to an acceleration in Chinese immigration to Taiwan. That surge in immigration continued even after Manchu forces arrived in 1683 to incorporate the island into the Chinese empire as part of the Fujian province. Chinese settlers soon appropriated Taiwan's fertile western plains and drove the aborigines who lived there into the mountains. Taiwan was made an independent province in 1886 and progressed rapidly toward modernization. However, in 1895, China abruptly ceded Taiwan to Japan as part of the treaty terms that concluded the humiliating Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895.

During its five-month campaign to occupy Taiwan during that war, Japanese troops encountered staunch resistance from elements of the native population—both aborigines and Chinese—who opposed the takeover out of fear and resentment. Japanese soldiers indiscriminately victimized and terrorized the general population because of their inability to distinguish members of the resistance from neutral citizens. Killing, burning, and looting was widespread, and, by antagonizing the population, the Japanese greatly incited the opposition tha was already aligned against them. For a span of three years that concluded in 1898), rebellious bands of Chinese residents defied the Japanese forces, and a defiant public refused all contact with the invaders.

Despite this troubled and turbulent beginning, during its half-century as a Japanese possession (1895 to 1945), Taiwan made its most important formative strides in the area of education. In fact, education was just as integral to the Japanese colonial enterprise as was military conquest, for it was viewed as an indispensable tool in pacifying any newly acquired foreign territory. At the time of the Japanese takeover, the first pieces of the traditional Chinese education system were already well-established in Taiwan. Since the mid-1600s, Confucian schools had been established and civil service examinations held at regular intervals. However, even after two centuries of existence, these institutions serviced only the tiny sprinkling of literati and affluent merchants who were among the droves of immigrants that had moved to the island; most colonists remained poor, illiterate, and unable to participate in the transplanted education system.

The Japanese primarily sought to impose the recently developed educational paradigm and principles of the Meiji Restoration era (1868-1912) upon Taiwan. This paradigm consisted of two main components. The first was a small number of secondary institutions and an even smaller number of postsecondary facilities. The second was a much larger and more widely dispersed number of elementary education institutions. It was the latter of these two components—the elementary institutions—that served as the education model that the Japanese imposed on Taiwan beginning in 1895.

Thus, the initial Japanese contribution to education in Taiwan was taking the education system that had earlier been transferred from mainland China—one that the Japanese themselves regarded as "backward"—and supplanting it with one that was more progressive and less elitist. This task was accomplished in many ways. During the first half of the twentieth century, the Japanese installed a democratized education system that extended primary education to ordinary Taiwanese in an effort to cultivate a loyal citizenry and produce literate workers for their colonial empire. The motivation behind this effort was of course highly imperialist, but the result was that individuals who would formerly have had no access to a primary education now received one. Nevertheless, throughout this period, the old, Chinese system continued to exist residually, and the Japanese continued to regard Chinese classical studies with suspicion because of their close association with Taiwan's past under Chinese rule. Confucian morality was meticulously divorced from its historical context: when classical tradition nurtured loyalty and deference to one's superiors, it was encouraged, but when it nurtured cultural identification with China, it was forbidden. The end result was that, under Japanese patronage and direction and by the standards of the time, Taiwan was on its way to becoming one of the best-educated populations in Asia, second only to Japan itself.

In 1945, with Japan's defeat in World War II, Taiwan was returned to China as an independent province under the conditions of the former 1886 arrangement. However, years of acculturation to Japanese rule made the population considerably resistant to the Chinese Nationalist government, or Guomindang. Beginning on February 28, 1947, the Nationalists brutally and harshly suppressed a series of uprisings by Taiwanese residents. Only in 1949 did the island come firmly under Nationalist control, and this only after the Chinese Communists drove the Nationalist government—along with nearly two million people—off the mainland, forcing it to relocate to Taipei, Taiwan.

Sustained in its early years by generous aid from the United States and defended by U.S. military power, the Nationalist regime oversaw noteworthy advances in Taiwan's economy. Those advances directly influenced the substance and direction of Taiwanese education. The most fundamental trend upon Taiwan's return to Chinese control was the adoption of a conciliatory stance toward the values and heritage associated with Confucian classical education. The general view that evolved was that the content of classical education could complement and coexist with the modern aspects of the Japanese education infrastructure and curriculum.

The Guomindang (GMD), beginning with president Chiang Kai-shek in the 1950s, has historically taken consistent steps to facilitate this hybrid form of education, a trend that continues to the present day. Moreover, even the opposition Democratic Progressive Party(DPP), which was founded in 1986 and was first successful in the elections of 1989, shares a perspective similar to that of the GMD concerning education. Consequently, the efforts to consistently adhere to the established education path have become concerted. The two most recent presidents of Taiwan—Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shuibian—have both promoted education and are highly successful examples of the benefits of the democratic trend in education that began under Japanese domination. Lee, who is a Hakka and was the first native-born president of Taiwan and the first winner of a direct popular election in 1996, attended both Kyoto University (in Japan) and National Taiwan University as an undergraduate; he completed his graduate studies in the United States. Chen, who is also native-born to a poor farming family, was the first member of the opposition party to win the presidency when he claimed 39.3 percent of the vote in 2000. He is a National Taiwan University law school graduate who served as the lead defense attorney for the accused democratic activists involved in the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979.

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