Former Name of Taiwan: Isla Formosa and Taiwan History

Former Name of Taiwan: Isla Formosa and Taiwan History

Taiwan history – what’s the story?

Isla Formosa

Isla Formosa

When discussing the former name of Taiwan, Formosa, Isla Formosa, and Ilha Formosa all come up as previous terms used to refer to the island between mainland China and Japan that we know today as Taiwan.

Situated between two big powers, and in a great position for import and export trade, many countries and powers have fought over Taiwan over the years.

Consequently, Taiwan has an interesting history dating back thousands of years – back to the times of Taiwanese aboriginals. This Taiwanese aboriginal population still are a percentage of the population today.

Let’s take a brief look into Taiwan history, or rather Isla Formosa history.

Former Name of Taiwan: Where did “Taiwan” come from?

If the former name of Taiwan is Isla Formosa, where did ‘Taiwan’ come from as a name for Taiwan? To find this out, we have to delve deep into Taiwanese history (see below).

In short, it comes from the Dutch East India Company which attempted to colonise the island to compete against Spanish merchants in the prosperous Asian market.

The Dutch got the name from the indigenous Taiwanese aborigines who referred to it as ‘Taioan’. The name, however, wasn’t used by the Chinese after their victory against the Dutch company in Taiwan.

Former Name of Taiwan: What did Taiwan used to be called?

Former Name of Taiwan - Isla Formosa

Former Name of Taiwan – Isla Formosa

The former names for Taiwan are actually still in use today. What did Taiwan used to be called?

There are several names, including; “Formosa”, “Isla Formosa”, and Ilha Formosa”. These names derive from Portuguese, meaning “beautiful island”.

It was named this by Portuguese explorers in the mid-1500s.

This name stuck and gradually also crept into English literature over the years – and can still be seen today.

Former Name of Taiwan: Taiwan History

Taiwan aborigines have inhabited Taiwan for over 5000 years. They were very private people, and until the Dutch invaded they were left largely untouched and undisturbed. They would only trade occasionally with outsiders, and even China knew very little about the indigenous population on the island.

1624 – Tainan

The Dutch then came to the island in 1624 and founded a small colony on the southwest coast of Taiwan. At this time, the island’s name was ‘Tainan’. The Dutch arrived for trade purposes.

They traded a variety of products, including sugar, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, rice, pepper, and silk.

The Dutch found the island very profitable. It’s a great location for trade import and export. They would’ve stayed longer, however soon the Chinese invaded.


A strong military leader known as Zheng Chenggong was eyeing up Taiwan for himself. He needed a place to regroup his warriors as he was looking to destroy the newly founded (1644) Qing Dynasty.

He ambushed two forts; Fort Zeelandia and Fort Provintia.

Fort Provintia fell straight away, but Fort Provintia remained strong for nearly two years. However, disease and hunger plagued the Dutch military and they were forced to surrender in 1662.

The victory didn’t last long, however. Zheng Chenggong died shortly after from malaria, and Qing forces came to attack the island in 1683. After this, the island of Taiwan became part of the Chinese empire.

1683 – Taiwan part of the Chinese Empire

Taiwan was now in possession of the Qing Empire. They were unsure what to do with the island and were tempted to abandon it as a worthless territory. They ended up keeping it and making it a part of the Chinese empire.

Chinese people were banned from migrating from the Chinese mainland.

During this time, there was mass famine and poverty in the Chinese empire. So, despite the law, many people from nearby Fujian on mainland China fled to Taiwan in search of better lives.


taiwan aboriginal

Taiwan History: Taiwanese Aborigines

By 1811, Taiwan had become an established territory. The cities Taipei, Chiayi and Hsinchu are now much more developed. Many people began building temples throughout the island, some of which are still visible today.

The island remained largely lawless. Consequently, crime was widespread. Due to wide migration from Fujian, the population at this time was over 2 million.

Ethnic Chinese Han from Fujian started to marry Taiwanese aborigines, and this became very common practice. In fact, studies today have shown that most Taiwanese people have aboriginal blood in their veins.


During the second half of the 19th century, the island drew lots of attention from other powers from the West, and also Japan. Because of the placement of Taiwan, it’s in a very good spot both for economic and strategic reasons. Dutch Christian missionaries arrived in 1859, and in late 1871 there was the first Japanese invasion.

Later on in the century when China and France were fighting over Vietnam, French soldiers arrived in Keelung and the Penghu islands and occupied them. Because of this, the Beijing imperial court was forced to commission forts and a railway. It was during this time that Taiwan earned its status as a province.

This is a very important event in Taiwan history since before 1885, Taiwan had been acknowledged as a part of Fujian.

1895 to 1945 – Japan Colony

The Japanese invasion of Taiwan would change Taiwan’s history forever. Travelling around Taiwan you can still see aspects of the Japanese reign in both the culture and the architecture.

China’s defeat in the Japan-China war in 1894 meant that China gave up Taiwan to the Japanese.

Many Taiwanese people were not happy with this and resisted. Consequently, many died resisting the Japanese. Despite this, the Japanese made a lot of improvements to life in Taiwan. They tackled widespread disease, expanded the railway network and built roads. They did however remain in control of all of the natural resources. Because of this, there was still widespread resentment of the Japanese forces in Taiwan.

During World War II, many Taiwanese people fought for the Japanese army.

Tokyo renounced its colonies at the end of World War II and during this historic moment in Taiwan history, Taiwan became part of the Republic of China (ROC).

1945 to 1975 – After WWII

China took back control of Taiwan. The president at the time was Chiang Kai-Shek. However, he made some decisions that would impact badly on Taiwan history. The economy went down as it was poorly managed, and widespread corruption became a big problem.

The new regime then came into place and were conscious of the problems Taiwan was facing. Taiwan history took a turn for the better. China began to implement new policies that sought to improve the lives of many, especially those in the rural population.

The island soon began to prosper and between 1950 and 1970, the population saw a huge baby boom. Taiwan doubled in population in just 20 years to 14.6 million.

1975 Onwards

Taipei city view

Taipei city view

Taiwan history saw an economic boom from the 1980s onwards. People were buying electric rice cookers, scooters, cars, and other things previously only seen as luxuries. This economic boom lasted until the Financial Crisis which affected Asia in 1997. Since this crisis, Taiwan’s economic growth has slowed but has been a continuous steady growth.

It is a progressive society, introducing the National Health Insurance system and impressive social welfare programmes.

Taiwan history has been turbulent, but in turn, this means that it has an incredibly unique culture. This is why you should definitely put a visit to Taiwan on your bucket list.

It is a place like no other. Plus, it’s a great place to study Mandarin Chinese!

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