The Origin of Taiwan

The Island Formosa and the PescadoresTaiwan, so familiar a name to us today, has a history that is as complex as can be.

The island rests at the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, off the east coast of China. Ancient Chinese texts do mention a number of islands in the "Eastern Seas," but there is no concrete description of these places. They are often referred to in the texts in such mythological terms as mountains of immortals drifting in endless seas. On the other hand, the information early Chinese maps give is either tantamount to nothing at all or inaccurate at the very best.

While such names as I-chou (憭瑕?) and Liu-ch'iu (??) are documented in early Chinese texts, scholars disagree as to whether or not these names refer to present-day Okinawa and Taiwan. Even as late as the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the knowledge of the Chinese of Taiwan was extremely vague. It was regarded as a foreign land, well beyond the reaches of Chinese control.

The Kingdom of ChinaIt was not until the 16th century when Taiwan, hidden for ages in the trackless sea, finally began to attract the attention of powers beyond her shores. A number of foreign forces, both European and Chinese, came and shaped Taiwan's destiny. The European Age of Exploration began in the late 15th century, and Portuguese explorers seized the initiative and explored down the coast of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope, thereby discovering a route to the East. In the 16th century, they extended their travels to the coasts of China, and on the peninsula of Macao founded a permanent settlement. Macao soon became an important international trading post, which the Portuguese used as a base for trading expeditions between India and Japan.

Coast of China and FormosaIn 1542, Portuguese sailors on their way to Japan came across an island not identified on their maps. Amazed at the forest-cloaked land, they shouted, "Ilha Formosa," meaning "Beautiful Island." The island had thus come to be known as Formosa, which was to become what we know today as Taiwan.

While the Portuguese discovery had put Taiwan on many European maps, its shape and size remained a mystery. European maps printed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries generally divided Taiwan into two separate islands known as Formosa and Lequeio Minor.

Outline of FormosaThe earliest known accurate depiction of Taiwan's coastline was printed in the Netherlands in 1625. This map refers to the island as "Packan," a derivation from the name Pei-kang (?皜). We realize then that Europeans also came to know the island by the name of Packan.

And what of the origin of the name Taiwan? In the beginning, it was only the name of a small place in the An-p'ing (摰撟) region of present-day Tainan (?啣?). Some believe that the name itself was derived from the term given to the area by the aboriginal Siraya tribe.

The landscape of islet TaiwanAn-p'ing was one of the sandy peninsulas off the coast of Tainan. Known as K'un-shen (攳方澈) to the Taiwanese, the peninsula faced the Taiwan Straits to the west, while its eastern shore looked out across the T'ai-chiang (?唳?) inland sea that separated it from the hinterland of Taiwan. Because the surrounding region was the first area settled by Chinese, Japanese, and Dutch immigrants, the name of Taiwan was thus adopted to designate the entire island. Historical literature of the late Ming records several other names, including Ta-yuan (憭批), T'ai-yuan (?箏), Ta-yuan (憭批?), Ta-wan (憭抒), and T'ai-wan (?箇), which are all written variations of one and the same place name in the South Fukien (蝳撱) vernacular.