Wed, Jun 28, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Taiwan: ‘Ocean nation’

Once seen as an appendage of China, historians today are re-considering Taiwan in the broader context of regional history and global trade

By Gerrit van der Wees  /  Contributing reporter

A color painting of the view of the Fort Zeelandia located in today’s Anping District in Tainan.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

During the past three decades, the perception of Taiwan’s history has undergone a significant change. In the traditional perspective, Taiwan and its history were closely linked to China, particularly its coastal province of Fujian, from where the majority of the population migrated in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This linkage with China was reinforced after 1949 during the period of rule by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) who wanted to strengthen their perception that Taiwan had historically been an integral part of China. In high schools and universities, children were taught Chinese history and geography, while the KMT authorities neglected, or even suppressed, Taiwan’s history.

This started to change after the nation’s momentous transition to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) initiated educational reforms that included history and geography of Taiwan in the curriculum. In 2015 there was an effort by the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration to return to a Sino-centric perspective, but this ran into strong opposition from high school students who went into the streets to block Ma’s moves.

TAIWAN at the center of its HISTORY

So, what is new in the history of Taiwan as we see it now, and how is this different from the previous perspective? There are three aspects. First, the close connection between Taiwan’s Aboriginal population and the original people of the Pacific islands, including New Zealand and Hawaii, going back more than 3,000 years.

Secondly, the fact that during the period of Dutch colonial rule (1624-1662), Taiwan — and in particular the harbor of Tayouan (Anping District (安平) in present-day Tainan) — was a major and prosperous international trading post, linking Taiwan to Japan, Southeast Asia, and as far as India and Persia. Taiwan was “connected to the world” in that first phase of globalization.

Thirdly, it wasn’t until the rule of Koxinga (Cheng Cheng-kung, 鄭成功), the Ming-dynasty warlord and pirate chieftain, that Taiwan — for the first time in its history — became more closely connected with the Chinese coastal provinces. Prior to the Dutch era there had been scant interaction with the coastal provinces.


During the past three decades, linguistic and DNA research has presented evidence that Taiwan was the main source of “The Great Migration,” starting around 3,000 BC, which eventually populated almost all of the Pacific. This research placed Taiwan’s indigenous people to be at the origin of almost all original inhabitants of the Pacific archipelagos such as Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia.

In addition, archaeological work in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia has shown the existence of extensive trading networks between Taiwan and Southeast Asia as early as 2,800 BC to 2,200 BC. Taiwan’s early connections to the Pacific and Southeast Asia are thus well established, and are the basis for seeing Taiwan as an “Ocean nation.”


Much more has become known about the period of Dutch colonial rule of Taiwan in the 17th Century. In the mid-1980s, a team of researchers headed by Leonard Blusse of Leiden University started to publish the official records of the Dutch East India Company’s reports by the Dutch governors and local officials at Fort Zeelandia (in today’s Tainan), the headquarters of the “Vereenigde OostIndische Compagnie” (VOC, Dutch East India Company) in Formosa (Taiwan) from 1624 to 1662.

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