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Located in the southeastern corner of Eurasia, Taiwan sits in the middle
of the Western Pacific festoon of islands. It faces the East China Sea
to the north (600 km from the Ryukyu archipelago), the Bashi Channel to
the south (350 km from the Philippines), the Taiwan Strait to the west
(averaging 200 km from the Chinese mainland), and the Pacific Ocean to
the east. Situated at the western rim of the Pacific Basin, the island
plays an important role as an East Asian crossroad.
The greater area of Taiwan includes the island of Taiwan, the 64 islets
of the Penghu archipelago, and more than 20 other outlying islets. Taiwan
also has jurisdiction over the Kinmen archipelago and Matsu archipelago
of Fukien Province and the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea.
Despite having a total area of only about 36,000 sq. km, Taiwan spreads
across 5°16' 27" in longitude and 4°11'5" in latitude. Its extreme
western edge (Penghu) lies at 119°18'3"E, eastern edge (I-lan) at
124°34'30"E, northern (I-lan) at 25°56'30"N and southern (Hengchun)
C. Physical Geography
The island of Taiwan is one part of the southeastern edge of the Eurasian
plate. At the end of the Tertiary period (12 million years ago), the plate
where today's Taiwan Strait is located collapsed, thus making Taiwan a
continental island which shared its fauna and flora with Eurasia.
The Tropic of Cancer (23.5° N) running across Taiwan's middle section
divides the island into two climactic zones, tropical in the south and
subtropical in the north. The island's average annual temperature is about
24 degrees Celsius in the south and 22°C in the north. The main stream
of the northward-moving Kuroshio Current passes up the eastern coast of
Taiwan, thus bringing in warm and moist air. Summer and winter monsoons
also bring intermittent rainfall to Taiwan's hills and central mountains.
As a result, more than 2,500 millimeters of rain fall every year.
(c) Topography and Pedology
The Central Mountain Range is Taiwan's major watershed. The elevation
of the land gradually decreases as we move westward and eastward from
this north-south ridge. On this mountainous island, mountains account
for 30% of the total area, hills and plateaus for 40%, and plains for
the remaining 30%. Surrounded by seas, Taiwan's coastline is approximately
1,566 kilometers long. There are four types of coastal landscape: eastern
fault coast, western emergent coast, northern mixed coast and southern
Soil develops under various influences: its origins and component materials,
the local climate, the surrounding topography, hydrology and biology,
as well as human activities and time. There are ten types of soil in Taiwan.
Mountainous areas (over 1,000 meters) are covered with lihosol and podzol.
Hills (100-1,000 meters) and plateaus (below 100 meters) are capped with
reddish-yellow podzol, brown forest soil and yellowish-brown latosol.
The plains are covered with reddish-brown latosol, alluvial soil, saline
soil, planosol-like soil and regosol.
(d) High biodiversity
Despite its small size (36,000 sq km), Taiwan is home to a wide variety
of flora and fauna, including many endemic species. According to 1990
statistics regarding plants there are 3,579 angiosperm species, 31 gymnosperm,
638 fern, 521 lichen, and 1,129 bryophyte species in Taiwan. As to animals,
there are 62 mammalian species, 29 amphibian, 80 reptilian, 450 bird,
60 fresh-water fish and 50,000 insect species.
D. Human Geography
Taiwan was occupied by the aborigines before the Han Chinese moved in.
These early residents were not many in number, so the Han Chinese have
dominated Taiwan's population growth ever since. In 1650 (near the end
of Dutch rule), Taiwan's population was 50,000; thirty years later (near
the end of Ming Zheng rule), it reached 120,000. In 1811 (in the middle
of the Ching Dynasty), it grew to 1,945,000. In 1905, at the beginning
of Japanese colonial times, there were three million residents in Taiwan;
the number had doubled to almost six million by the time the Japanese
withdrew from the island in 1942. Ever since, Taiwan's population has
grown even faster, reaching 22,101,000 in the year 2000. With an average
of 688 persons per sq. km, Taiwan has become the second most densely populated
area in the world.
Taiwan, like many other developed countries (and most notably Japan),
is becoming an "aging society" as the population growth rate
goes down and the elderly live longer lives. It is also becoming an increasingly
urban society with its population concentrated on the northern and southern
ends of the island, in Taipei and Kaohsiung.
Agriculture: Due to the limited amount of arable land, Taiwan has developed
a typical form of intensive agriculture. In the future, in order to cope
with the impact of the new two-day weekend policy and entrance into the
World Trade Organization, the island will need to adapt its agriculture
to leisure and commercial purposes.
Mining: Taiwan has a wide variety of mines but their reserves are very
limited. After a long period of extraction, the coal, sulfur, petroleum
and gold reserves are almost exhausted. Only marble and limestone remain
rich in reserves and output; these have become the main mine resources.
Industry: Taiwan transformed from early light industry to heavy industry
in the 1970s and to high-tech electronics after the 1980s. The government
currently aims at developing strategic industries and speeding the upgrading
process so as to catch up with the most advanced countries.
Trade: Taiwan's early trade deficits turned into trade surpluses in the
1970s but the amount of surpluses gradually diminished after 1987. The
main imports are machines, electronic devices and plastics; the main exports
are electronic devices, machines, chemicals and steel. The leading export
markets are the US, Hong Kong and Japan; the largest sources of imports
are Japan, the US and Germany.
As an East Asian transportation hub, Taiwan started to build its modern
transportation facilities in the late nineteenth century. Due to its more
mountainous topography in the center and east, the island has a much greater
concentration of infrastructure and traffic in the west. Transportation
is by sea, air and overland routes (highways and railways).
There have been two stages of settlement in Taiwan: first by aboriginals
and much later by Han Chinese. As for the aborigines, Pinpu and mountain
tribes have had different types of settlements due to their different
lifestyles. Pinpu tribes tend to live in compact communities for reasons
of water, safety and public ownership of the land. As for mountain tribes,
those in the north (Atayal and Saisiyat) live in scattered villages, those
in central and southern Taiwan (Paiwan, Ami, Tsou) in compact communities,
and Bunun and Lanyu-based Yami in settlements combining these features.
According to a Japanese geographer, the Han Chinese in southern Taiwan
tend to live in compact communities while those in the north are prone
to reside in scattered villages. It appears that the southern settlements
are bound by blood relationships, their northern counterparts by geographical
A modern Western style of urban system was planned for Taiwan in Japanese
colonial times. However, many construction projects undertaken then were
damaged during the Second World War. After 1945, because of industrial
and commercial development, Taiwan 'has become gradually more urbanized.
With up to 80% of the population living in cities, three metropolitan
areas appeared: Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung.
Taiwan's political geography can be divided into the following four historical
stages: (i) before the 17th century, Austronesian aborigines lived in
their own tribes; (ii) in the 17th century, the Dutch, Ming Zheng and
Ching Dynasties came to rule in succession; (iii) between 1895 and 1945,
Taiwan was a colony of Japan; (iv) since 1945 Taiwan has been a province
of the Republic of China, which separated from mainland China in 1949.
The most renowned travel book about Taiwan was written by Yu Yung-ho in
1697. After ports were opened in the Ching Dynasty, many people came to
the island from overseas for missionary work and for surveying the natural,
ethnic or business environments. Before and after Japan took over Taiwan,
it also systematically sent scholars to carry out comprehensive investigations
for political and economic reasons. Their documents have enabled us to
glimpse the original look of Taiwan before it was developed. In Japanese
colonial times, the island was famous for eight scenes: the moonlight
on Sun Moon Lake, cloud sea on Mount Ali, snow on Mount Jade, spring on
Mount Tatun, sunset in Anping, the tranquility of Taroko Gorge, cliff
at Chingshui Cliff and fishing boat lights of Penghu.
Taiwan used to be a part of the widespread Austronesian culture. However,
at the beginning of the 17th century, Dutch settlers occupied the island
for 38 years (1624-1662), thus bringing in their European culture. Later
a great number of Han Chinese moved in, developing an agricultural and
fishing culture akin to that of the south of China. And after fifty years
of Japan's colonial rule (1895-1945), certain elements of Japanese culture
became part of Taiwan's everyday life. Obviously, today's Taiwanese society
is a result of various cultural influences over a long period of history.
Before the 17th century, Taiwan was a purely Austronesian society living
in the Austronesian way. But after the 17th century, with the arrival
of Han Chinese, conflicts arose not only between the new immigrants and
native Austronesians but also between different groups of immigrants and
between old immigrants and new ones. However, as the island has faced
new challenges under new leaders, the concept of individual origin has
become much less important; instead, a new sense of community and of Taiwanese
cultural identity has taken shape. After three hundred years, Taiwan is
no longer a society of immigrants but a socially and multi-culturally
integrated island nation.