December 5th 2015

  Buy Issue 2962

Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Well designed same-sex marriage law no solution

CANBERRA OBSERVED Kidman hectares to stay in local hands ... for now

EDITORIAL How to respond to Islamic State's latest outrages

OPINION What's left if Malcolm is in the middle?

LIFE ISSUES Feminists, conservatives unite against surrogacy

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Turnbull government is not serious about defence

HISTORY Geography the great shaper of Taiwan

PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICS Green ideology balances illogic with contradiction

SOCIETY Cultural displacement and the new terrorism

PUBLIC POLICY Cannabis for R&D has precedent in poppy trade

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Swedish daycare: paradigm or cautionary tale? Part I

CINEMA Not your average psychopath: James Bond: Spectre

BOOK REVIEW Fantastical Four


Books promotion page

Geography the great shaper of Taiwan

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, December 5, 2015

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997), Jared Diamond described a form of geographical determinism that shaped the past, present and future of humanity. Now, it is not necessary to believe that geography totally determines the way we humans act to observe that human societies are at least partially shaped by geography. Taiwan is one society that has been more than usually shaped by its surroundings.

Taiwan’s east coast is wild and rugged.

Taiwan is an island pushed up out of the sea by the collision of a number of tectonic plates. These plates are still in action. In geographical terms, Taiwan is a relatively new island. Australia is an ancient, worn down land by comparison. Taiwan’s highest mountain, Yushan (Jade Mountain), is 3,952 metres tall. Yushan is the second highest mountain in East Asia. Mount Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest peak, is a relative pigmy at 2,228 metres tall, by comparison, barely half the height of Yushan.

Taiwan’s climate is mild as it is moderated by the ocean. It rarely gets boiling hot or freezing cold. The north is temperate but the winter can be cold, with winds blowing straight off Siberia. The south is subtropical.

The climate, combined with the island’s fertile volcanic soils, makes Taiwan ideal for agriculture.

The central spine of Taiwan is mountainous. These are not gentle rolling hills, but rugged peaks that do not invite habitation. In the recent past, Taiwan’s aboriginal people, who inhabited this wilderness out of necessity, were known as shan di ren (“mountain people”). The eastern edge of Taiwan plunges into the ocean, often in dramatic cliffs. Settlement there is sparse. Taiwan’s population is concentrated in the densely settled western plain.

The western plain lends itself to intensive agriculture. Irrigation allows the intensive cultivation of rice. Unlike the Indonesians, who place great importance on the texture and flavour of their rice, the Chinese do not seem to care much about their rice as long as fills their bellies. The most popular rice is the ponlai variety, which was developed from the combination of japonica rice and local cultivars.

Due to the high mountains, intensive rains and short, rapid rivers, irrigation is not easy and, until the Japanese constructed the irrigation networks, irrigation was comparatively primitive.

Rain is not normally a problem in Taiwan. Annual rainfall averages 2,100 millimetres (82 inches). Australia, as we know, is a land of droughts and flooding rains, but an average for Australia would be around 475 millimetres (18 inches). Moreover, Taiwan is assaulted by three or four typhoons annually. Many people, especially children, enjoy them as they get “typhoon holidays”. A typhoon can dump 15 or more inches of rain on the island in one day. Landslides and flooding are common, especially in the mountains. Deaths are frequent.

Droughts are unusual but because rainfall is so reliable reservoirs can be depleted in a relatively short time if the rain does not arrive as expected. Most people are very conscious of the need to conserve water. The Shihmen Dam (Stone Gate Dam) not far from Taipei is a favourite day’s outing for many city dwellers.

In the past, rivers were vital transportation links. Today, ports are modernised and capable of handling large container vessels. The east coast is not well served by ports due to the mountainous nature of the coast. Hualien, famous for its marble, is the only east-coast port of much consequence. The major ports of Kaohsiung, Taichung and Taipei are all on the west coast and take great advantage of their naturally suited locations.

Taiwan has always been married to the sea. When the first Chinese settlers began arriving in the 16th and 17th centuries, they dreaded the “black water” of the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwan Strait is not very wide – around 130 kilometres – but the “Black Ditch” can be very temperamental. The sea is shallow and the Taiwan Strait can become very choppy very quickly if the wind blows up, much as happens in the Baltic Sea.

Taiwan was not always an island. In the Stone Age, sea levels were around 140 metres lower than they are today. People and animals could cross the exposed bed of what is today the Taiwan Strait – and they did. Even today, the Taiwan Strait is comparatively shallow, which has consequences for things such as submarine warfare.

China has it in mind to connect Taiwan to the mainland again by means of a multibillion-dollar bridge. Taiwan does not seem to be enthusiastic. The Taiwan Strait is a handy restraint on Chinese ambitions.

The island abounds in hot springs. The hot springs at Beitou, near Taipei, are a famous recreational area. But not all the consequences of volcanic activity are as benign. Sitting on a seismic hornets’ nest is not always comfortable for Taiwan. Few days go by without some form of seismic rumble. Taiwan has been plagued by earthquakes throughout its history. Some are minor, while others are devastating, such as the “921” earthquake in 1999, during which 2,415 people perished. The people of Taiwan are understandably nervous of earth tremors.

Taiwan is sometimes, incorrectly, called Formosa. Portuguese navigators named it Ilha Formosa (“beautiful island”). Like many things about Taiwan, the name “Formosa” has political implications. The name was adopted by the Taiwan Independence movement during the rule of the two Chiangs. It has retained controversial overtones.

Taiwan is above all an island nation. The name Taiwan is said to be derived from the description “terraced bay”, though a satisfactory explanation for why this is so is hard to come by. The attachment of Taiwan to the Chinese empire is relatively recent. Towards the end of the 17th century, it served as a retreat for Koxinga, a Ming Dynasty loyalist, after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, who were Han Chinese. The Ching Dynasty was composed of Manchus from North China. Traditionally, the five Chinese races were Han, Manchu, Mongols, Muslims and Tibetans.

Taiwan is a small island. Apart from the main island, “Taiwan” usually includes Penghu (the Pescadores), Kinmen (Quemoy). Matsu, Ludao (Green Island) and Lanyu (Orchid Island). Taiwan, as the Republic of China, claims several islands in the South China Sea. Taiwan’s interpretation of its exclusive economic zone is a source of friction with its neighbours.

Strategically, Taiwan is not an unimportant island, quite the opposite. As the government of Taiwan never failed to remind the United States whenever it contemplated recognising the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan is an unsinkable aircraft carrier, similar to Britain. Moreover, Taiwan is a pivot between northeast and Southeast Asia. Taiwan is a glittering strategic prize. Any power that wishes to control Asia and its maritime environment must control Taiwan. This has not escaped China – or the United States. The United States Navy periodically transits the Taiwan Strait to assert that it is in international waters, with right of free passage.

Taiwan is often said to resemble a tobacco leaf. Putting it in an Australian context, Taiwan is less than half the size of Tasmania. Taiwan is 394 kilometres long, and 144 kilometres wide. Its area is 35,883 square kilometres; Tasmania’s area is 90,754 square kilometres. Into this area is packed a population of 23.4 million people. Australia, the sixth biggest nation on earth (and largest island), has a population of 23.1 million.

What does this entail? Only a small proportion of Taiwan is habitable. Almost all the population of Taiwan lives in the western plain, with Taipei at the top, Taichung in the middle, and Kaohsiung at the bottom. Taipei is a city of commerce and government; Kaohsiung is a “city of broad shoulders”. These cities are densely packed. The older buildings are mostly around five storeys, the practical height for buildings without lifts. Newer buildings are taller.

Almost every corner has a convenience store. People learn to get on with each other from an early age. Sociability is important. The highest value is education. Education is the surest avenue to social mobility. The opinions of scholars are valued highly; scholars are respected.

The aboriginal people of Taiwan have been there for a long time: experts believe that the Malayo-Polynesian people arrived around 3,000 BC. They may have displaced earlier groups. Archaeological evidence shows that people have lived in Taiwan since the Stone Age. The Chinese did not begin arriving in numbers until the 16th and 17th centuries. They were mainly from Fujian Province in mainland China. They were Han Chinese who spoke the Southern Min dialect, known as Min Nan Hua, which is also known as Hoklo or Hokkien, of which there are several dialects.

They are known as the “Taiwanese”. Also arriving were a separate ethnic group, known as Hakka or in Chinese as Ke jia ren (“guest people”) due to their nomadic lifestyle. Many prominent Chinese have been Hakka, including founder of modern China Dr Sun Yat-sen and paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. The Hakka are famous for their hard work, scholarship and parsimony.

The final ethnic group to arrive in Taiwan were the “mainlanders”; around 2 million refugees from all over China who accompanied the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan after the fall of mainland China to the Communists. This was said to be the largest elite migration in history. Contrary to popular belief, Mao Zedong was not an intellectual; he hated intellectuals. Most of China’s intellectuals ended up in Taiwan. Those that didn’t ended up in prison.

Some dispute exists about friction between “the Chinese” and “the Taiwanese”. The mainlanders and the locals are both Han Chinese. Indeed, the locals can – and do – trace their roots back to their ancestral homes in Fujian Province. It will, however, be a long time before the people of Taiwan put conflict about ethnicity behind them.

Listen to
News Weekly Podcasts

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

Join email list

Join e-newsletter list

Your cart has 0 items

Subscribe to NewsWeekly

Research Papers

Trending articles

ROYAL COMMISSION Hatchet job on Cardinal Pell breached basic principle of fairness

COVER STORY Gearing up to ditch free-trade policy

CANBERRA OBSERVED Regret over our rushed marriage to China

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Crucial to get Virgin Australia flying again

CANBERRA OBSERVED What's China's beef with our barley?

EDITORIAL Rebuilding industry won't just happen: here's what's needed

EDITORIAL Post-covid19, create a national development bank

© Copyright 2017
Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm